The Mary Sue Myth

Is it too late to talk about Star Wars: The Force Awakens? Am I culturally irrelevant? Eh, whatever. Let’s do it. This isn’t really about Star Wars anyway.

One of the complaints aimed at the film is that Rey is “A Mary Sue”. As proof, it’s pointed out that she’s an incredibly competent character nearly from the get go, and she exhibits force powers beyond being believable.

So, first off, this is a movie about a science fantasy setting where spaceships and space wizards exist. That’s not a get out of jail card in terms of consistent or sensible storytelling, but it does render much of the criticism irrelevant. And for a series drawing on pulp traditions, the very idea of a “Mary Sue” is difficult to nail down.

Like most successful criticisms, “Mary Sue” gets thrown around a lot, often when it doesn’t even apply. No, a female character that is capable and smart and beloved is not automatically a Mary Sue. There are plenty of amazing characters in heroic and pulp fiction that are ridiculously amazing. Batman is a genius / detective / martial artist / scientist / gymnast / criminal psychologist / billionaire / handsome / ninja / everything else I could put on this list. Indiana Jones is an archeology professor who regularly beats up Nazis in fist fights where he’s outnumbered and outgunned. Doc Savage is like Batman, but without any of the baggage. Tarzan, one of my favorite characters, can literally fight gorillas and break the necks of lions with his bare hands while also somehow finding time to teach himself to read in the jungle. Luke Skywalker goes from farmboy to hero of the Rebellion in the space of one movie.

Granted, I think complaints about Rey’s sudden skill with the force are somewhat valid, but they’re not grounded in her being a Mary Sue. They’re a byproduct of fantasy setting Flanderization and over exposure. The more time we, the audience, we spend in a fantasy setting the more mundane many of its fantastic elements become. In order to balance that, those fantastic elements become both more commonplace and more spectacular.

Star Wars illustrates this perfectly with the prequels vs. the original trilogy. In the original trilogy, the force itself is a vague supernatural power with relatively simple uses. Rather than making a Jedi super, it gives them an edge. Obi-Wan can influence the mind of the weak-willed. Luke can pull a lightsaber stuck in the snow. Darth Vader can block blaster bolts with his hand (which is impressive, but also, could be argued a byproduct of The Dark Side, which is dangerous for a jedi to use).

Twenty-Two years after the original film, The Phantom Menace marked the transition of the force from a vague power to move objects with the mind and fight effectively with a lightsaber to full on wizard ninjas. Suddenly, moving massive objects with your will alone or leaping across gaping chasms is par for the course. The Jedi evolved in popular culture to these super martial artists who can also predict the future and participate in titanic battle scenes.

This isn’t solely because of how Star Wars evolved in our culture, but our perception of fantasy and action-adventure in general. In the intervening years, set pieces became more elaborate, sci fi became more mainstream, and what it took to trigger a reaction in the audience had changed. It continues to change. It’s tempting to villainize creators like Michael Bay for his aesthetic choices, but Bay isn’t the cause of modern action cinema’s biggest sins. He’s the inevitable result of years of one-ups-manship in the genre and medium.

Sixteen years later, The Force Awakens brings Star Wars back to cinemas and the Flanderization continues. The obvious parallels between the original film and this one aren’t worth noting, other than noting that Rey is Luke Skywalker for a modern world. She does everything Luke does, only more so, but it’s not because she’s a Mary Sue. It’s because if she only did what Luke did in Star Wars, we’d be bored by it. It wouldn’t seem special or unique or exciting.

So in the first film, Luke demonstrates some small force potential by “using the force” to blow up the death star. In The Empire Strikes Back, he levitates a lightsaber and undergoes a training montage with Yoda. Then he gets his ass handed to him by Darth Vader, who, it should be pointed out, doesn’t actually to many Jedi tricks either. It’s mostly just a lightsaber fight with some minor telekinesis. In Return of the Jedi, Luke jumps a few times, levitates C3PO, and gets his ass kicked by the Emperor, who uses lightning to demonstrate the raw power he’s gained from the dark side.

Rey can’t just do any of that. We’ve grown used to it. So instead, she jumps ahead of Luke, using the force in a way that is memorable and unique. She demonstrates more power because her ability is supposed to be impressive. It might have been impressive for Luke to use all his power to pull a lightsaber out of the snow to kill a wampa, but nobody’s that keen to watch that again.

To borrow from another medium, Dragon Ball Z spent a whole season justifying one of its characters being able to go Supersaiyan, which is a legendary level of power that appears once in a generation. Then, once everyone got used to that, all the saiyan characters could do it. It became so commonplace that a new, undiscovered level of power was found so that our main character could continue to be impressive.

Will Rey go beyond Luke Skywalker’s abilities? Of course she will. I’m willing to bet by the third film, she’ll come close to eclipsing Yoda. It’s not because she’s a Mary Sue. It’s because she’s a product of her era. It’s not a weird pro-feminist agenda at work here. It’s jut how fantasy always works. Show me any ongoing fantasy universe where superpowers don’t become cheap and plentiful, and I’ll show you the exception, not the rule.

It’s fair to criticize The Force Awakens for a lot of reasons. I’m not a fan, but I also think many complaints about it are downright silly. Rey as Mary Sue might be at the top of that list. There are plenty of flaws in the film. This just isn’t one of them.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,

LEE

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2 Comments

  1. Charles Harrington
    Posted December 19, 2016 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

    An angle I had not thought of. I really enjoyed Rey and generally find accusations of being a Mary Sue to be tedious but I did have a moment of “She figured out how to use Jedi mind tricks in about 40 seconds?!?” But, to your point, I already knew about Jedi mind tricks, I would rather not spend half an hour watching her learn to use the Force when we can just get to it.

  2. Sean
    Posted January 13, 2017 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    I disagree, While I like Rey, she is a bit of a Mary Sue. Consider the character, abandoned as a child on a desert backwater who survives by scavenging technology from crashed ships. But then she is also an ace pilot with a ship she has never flown, a top notch mechanic, a good melee fighter and SO awesome with the force that she can pickup and learn techniques that it took more experienced Jedi longer to learn with tutelage, not to mention she finds both the Millenium Falcon and luke’s lightsaber that we last saw plummeting into a gas giant. Plus she goes toe to toe with a (wounded) sith master within days of finding out she is force sensitive and has a super powerful force vision. I like the movie, but it is not without its flaws. They didn’t need to make her that overpowered to make her an interesting character, and they will now need to go even more over the top to develop her character.

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