This is the second in a two part series on Mary Sues. You can read the first here.
I think there is no greater example of the democratisation of genre fiction than the original Star Wars. Luke and Han think they are saving a poor, helpless princess when they answer Leia’s call for help. When they find her, she is not at all what they expected. Leia jumps up and picks up a blaster. She insults the men who are rescuing her, then she starts giving everyone orders. She is the one who is saving Luke and Han just as much as they are saving her. At the end of the film, Leia stays back at the rebel base to help lead the attack on the Death Star. She does this despite the obvious danger. Leia is not just a princess but a leader.
The film struck a chord with audiences everywhere. Suddenly, greater representation in narrative fiction coincided with a shift in the pop-culture paradigm. As film became a more widely distributed and accessible medium what once were obscure stories made for a niche audience suddenly had an audience of millions. They were mainstream. Science-fiction and fantasy belonged to everyone. No one could have predicted that a film franchise based on superhero comic books would become one of the most renowned pop-cultural forces of all time. Thirty years ago, you would have been bullied for liking Spider-Man.
The realisation that these films had wide reaching and diverse audiences meant that the stories themselves started to be more diverse too. We started to see a greater number of women occupy spaces in genre fiction that had previously belonged to men only. The businesses in charge of producing these stories thankfully have continued to honour the trend of greater representation. They have continued to recognise that the stories they make appeal to everyone and that they can at the very least return the favour by representing everyone in them. Capitalism is woke now.
Corporate interests aside, I think most of us are okay with this trend, what is often angrily referred to as diversity casting. Seeing a wider range of people assume greater roles in the narratives that shape mainstream culture is a good thing. Still, there is a small yet outspoken group of people on the internet who seem to disagree. It is these people who have waged a campaign of vitriolic online discourse against what they perceive to be forced diversity and political correctness. They argue that the forced nature of the inclusion of minority groups in mainstream film supposedly harms the quality of the body of work that they are included in.
This pushback against diversity is something that has become intrinsically tied to the idea of a Mary Sue. Using the term in film criticism has almost become a weapon in these people’s arsenals. The two biggest stories in contemporary narrative fiction are Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is these two stories to which much of the forced diversity casting dialogue is attributed to. Coincidentally, it is also these films that have been responsible for driving the discussion on Mary Sueism.
Google searches for Mary Sue spiked dramatically with each new release in Disney’s Sequel Trilogy as well as with Avengers Endgame which featured this scene along with this one (hilariously trivialising the first). I do not think I am wrong in saying that people who take issue with overpowered female characterisation and those who do with forced diversity are actually one and the same. While there are legitimate criticisms that can be raised about these films it is all too easy to identify an overlap between people who think Rian Johnson ruined Star Wars and proponents of conservative and alt right ideology. There is a reason why people like Ben Shapiro are such outspoken critics of that movie.
People feel threatened by the inclusion of “others” in media that has traditionally belonged to them. The issue isn’t forced diversity itself — it is what the diversity is being forced onto. Not that many people take issue with an action film with a female lead. Put that female lead into a film franchise that was previously male oriented and suddenly we have a problem. It is ok for a film like Annihilation to have an all-female cast because it is a new property. There is no predetermined audience to feel threaten. Give an already established property an all-female cast and suddenly it is forced and problematic (a la the Ghostbusters reboot).
I would never try to defend projects like 2016’s Ghostbusters. Still, when it and other projects like it fail it is not because of forced diversity, it is just because it is a bad film. People who think forced diversity is somehow a component of a bad film are simply uncomfortable with the fact that the stories that catered to them are now catering towards someone else without realising that that audience was always there to begin with.
For some reasons people perceive the diversification of pre-established narratives as an act of war. Professor Jordan B. Peterson is an acclaimed Canadian psychologist, self-help author and internet personality who likes to frame progressivism and its accompanying ideas — like gender quotas, pronouns, racial biases and gender identities — as a kind of Trojan horse. A way that Marxists reinvented their ideology to appeal to the Western societies that had rejected them following the collapse of the Soviet Union. According to Peterson, progressivism is just the pretence through which cultural Marxists aim to undermine the foundations of Western values and reengineer them into something far more sinister.
The way Peterson perceives progressivism’s attack on society is much like how people will often interpret the effect of diversity casting in media. This is not just a benevolent casting decision from some well-meaning producer. It is an attack on tradition, on a preestablish way of being. Minorities are fine if they keep to themselves and do their own thing and try not to get in the way of the good thing we already have going on over here. People rush to point out how these kinds of progressive films are forcing feminism and veganism onto unsuspecting audiences, people who could not care less about politics, people who just want to have a good time. These films do not simply want to promote their ideas but also want to deconstruct those of their opponents. They outright mock the legacy of characters who used to mean something and ruin stories that were once universally loved.
A word of advice for those following along at home. If some ever tells you a thing should not be politicised, that it should not be used as a tool to further some kind of agenda, it is precisely because they have an agenda of their own they would like to hide. We can see exactly how these kinds of fans construct their agenda when we consider the lens of selective amnesia through which they view their own favourite properties.
Star Wars fans who complain that the new films are getting too political like to forget that these films have always been that way. Their beloved prequel trilogy is literally about the fall of democracy and the rise of a fascist state. On the other hand, the original trilogy heavily borrows its imagery from the Viet Cong and British and American Empires. George Lucas has always been very open about this fact.
When Ahsoka Tano was introduced in The Clone Wars it turned many fans away from the series. The character was despised as a stuck-up teenage girl who did not belong in the franchise. Despite being a fourteen-year-old, Ahsoka is an incredibly competent Jedi. In the first season of the show she goes toe to toe with General Grievous and lives to tell the tale. Fans were furious. She was, they suspected, only getting a free pass with her magic powers because she was a woman and Lucasfilm wanted to open up the franchise to that audience. Ashley Ecktsein, the voice of the character, was subject to an ugly barrage of cyberbullying for her role (of course, these fans will always be the first to point out that their anger is targeted at the character, not the actress).
With the conclusion of the Disney Trilogy there is a new girl on the block. Rey has of course been the target of much the same criticism that Ahsoka was (thankfully, Daisy Ridley does not have a presence on social media). Many fans insist that they do not hate Rey because she is a woman, just a bad character. Some popular posts on forums such as r/saltierthancrait like to draw comparisons between Rey and Ahsoka. Ahsoka, they say, is an example of a female character done right. She is not a Mary Sue. Talk about amnesia.
Playing the Mary Sue card is just one of the ways that those who feel threatened by the democratisation of their fictional space fantasies can fight back against the threat they perceive in ‘diversity’. Attacks against Mary Suism and forced politics go hand in hand. In its most contemporary sense, a Mary Sue is not a wishful self-insert of a fanfic writer but a wish-fulfilment of female creators — or their soyboy male counterparts — who just want to do their part by towing the line of the SJW agenda. By inserting overpowered female characters into traditionally male dominated media these writers are proving to the men of their audience that women are just as if not more capable than they are. This is a problem, apparently, because forcing anything into a story makes for bad writing.
Why exactly forcing an agenda makes an otherwise competent story bad is never made clear. People like to say it is not female characters they have an issue with but female characters who are used as part of propaganda. But what is the difference between female characters and feminist propaganda? It is clear that the casting of an Asian-American to play Spider-Man’s sidekick in the MCU or a British-Indian to play Yennefer in Netflix’s The Witcher were careful and deliberate decisions by producers who wanted their story to appeal to a larger audience. Does that make it an act of propaganda? And if so, how does that make their character or the story they are a part of bad?
One point that is often raised is that of naturality. That’s what Joe Rogan talks about in this clip on forced diversity in Star Wars. He does not want to notice that character belongs to a certain identity group. He wants their inclusion to be natural, unnoticed. His example of this is Sigourney Weaver in Alien. Or take Red Letter Media’s review of Alex Garland’s Annihilation. That is a movie with an all-female cast, but in the words of those reviewers, they do not notice that fact. It is not forced down the viewers throat so to speak. That is a good thing, particularly when compared to a film like the Ghostbusters reboot where the fact that the cast is all-female is an important part of the film’s thesis.
What these people fail to realise is that films like Alien and Annihilation cast female leads for a reason. The identity of those characters has a huge influence over the film’s story. In Alien, Ripley is thrust into a hyper-masculine environment. She is a team member on a crew of what essentially are space truckers. The imagery of the Xenomorphs is undeniably sexual: they are these wet, slimy, phallic creatures that attack with penetration and are obsessed with spreading their goddamn DNA everywhere. The combination of that sexual imagery with the over-exaggerated predatory nature of these creatures is what makes the film so disturbing. It is no surprise that Alien has been described as a “rape film”.
Whatever way you spin it, Alien is a film about gender and sexuality. It would not be the same without that and especially without Ripley as its lead. Horror films traditionally depict a world where femininity is a weakness. In Alien it is a strength. Ripley is the only one with sense throughout the entire movie and her suggestions are only shut down by the men in charge. The film champions her resourcefulness and maternal instincts, particularly in the sequel Aliens.
You cannot separate Ripley or indeed her gender identity from Alien. It is an essential component of the story just as it is in a film like Oceans 8 or Ghostbusters, as much as it pains me to make that comparison. Yet when people look back on the Alien franchise, they conveniently forget what that movie was about just because it fits the point they are trying to make. Amnesia strikes again.
If these critics engaged with Alien in a way that demonstrated they understood what that film was about they would, by their own reasoning, conclude that it is propaganda. Alien is undeniably feminist; it is doing all the things films with supposed forced diversity are doing. It is even easier to say that Alien is a far more extensively feminist film and a greater comprehensive exploration of gender than the likes of The Last Jedi or Avengers Endgame. Yet it is the latter films and not Alien that are accused of forcing progressive ideas.
Since this is internet discourse, we of course have groups of people arguing the same thing in two very different and contradictory ways. The second take on this issue of forced diversity is the complete opposite to the first. These are the people who argue that a character’s identity should have something to do with the story, that a person’s identity in a film is only justified if they have that identity for a reason. A classic example of this is when studios include gay characters in their story, seemingly for no reason. The argument is that said studios are forcing characters of a certain sexual orientation onto that story when there is no narrative reason for it.
Here is an example for the sake of argument. Suppose that Spider-Man, after saving the day and proving himself to everyone who doubted him, seals the deal in the climax of his movie by planting a kiss on the lips of his love interest. Only this time, the love interest is not a girl, it is a man. Now these people would respond to the scene by arguing that the gay kiss was unnecessary — there was no reason for Peter Parker to be gay. The story is obviously not about Parker’s homosexuality. His love life is sidelined when compared to the broader struggle at play in the movie — of what it means to be a hero and a good person. They would argue, Peter’s homosexuality is forced and therefore bad writing.
In the actual film Peter is of course heterosexual and his love interest is a girl — but the story is not about Peter’s heterosexuality either. The audience payoff with that kiss and romance subplot would function exactly the same way if Peter was gay or bisexual. Does that make Peter’s heterosexuality forced and unnecessary?
What does necessary sexuality even look like? Does every story with a gay character have to be a Moonlight or Beach Rats? Does every story with an African-American have to be Get Out or Blindspotting? What is wrong with letting characters do the things real people do without having to fight for the right to do it? White heterosexual idiots have been able to do it for so long why cannot anyone else? Why is it impossible to have a romance film just be about the romance and also have the characters be gay? Why can you not have a thriller about a father looking for his lost daughter and also have the lead be Asian-American? What is wrong with an overpowered fantasy-adventure film protagonist that also happens to be a woman?
The issue was never with poor writing. It never had anything to do with film criticism. It was not about characters having inexplicably convenient powers and it was never about studios forcing a liberal agenda. It was about questioning the right for certain people to exist in a space that should belong to everyone.
All these people are saying is that someone only has a right to exist in a story if they meet certain criteria. In other words, you are only welcome in our media under very specific circumstances. And they have made that criteria pretty clear. You can be a part of these films as long as you go unnoticed. Or, you can spend your time in the movie doing your very best to prove your right to exist in that space (narratively of course, not literally).
There are many ways I could argue for the benefits of diverse representation in mainstream media. I do not feel like I need to, though. Anyone who has ever seen even the smallest bit of themselves in a fictional character will understand how enriching that experience can be. What I will say is this. These stories already have incredibly diverse and wide-reaching followings. It is only right that the diversity of the media honour the diversity of those who consume it. There is nothing innately wrong about criticising a story for its writing or its characters, but for the love of god do it without talking about Mary Sues and forced diversity. Every time you do you are questioning the right for a person to exist in a fictional world. And that should never, ever happen when we are talking about narratives that belong to everyone in the first place.