A "Mary Sue" is a female protagonist of a story who is perfect, naturally able to accomplish great things, and can do no wrong. You may have heard the term referring to Rey in the new Star Wars trilogy, but the name goes back to the '70s, when Paula Smith and Sharon Ferraro analyzed fan fiction submitted to the Star Trek fanzine they founded. The concept behind the name goes back much further.
The “Mary Sue” character, introduced in 1973 by Smith in the second issue of Menagerie (named after a two-parter from the show's first season), articulated a particular trope that exists far beyond the “Star Trek” universe. Mary Sues can be found throughout the history of literature, standing on the shoulders of earlier fill-in characters, like Pollyanna, the unfailingly optimistic protagonist from Eleanor H. Porter’s children’s books from the 1910s. More recently, cousins to the term can be found in the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, as coined by Nathan Rabin in his review of the Cameron Crowe film Elizabethtown, and the Jennifer Lawrence-personified “Cool Girl.”
It’s no accident that all of these examples are women. Smith and Ferraro also threw around terms like Murray Sue or Marty Sue when they corresponded with editors of other zines, but male fill-in characters, it seemed, could be brave and handsome and smart without reproach. “Characters like Superman were placeholders for the writers, too,” Smith points out. “But those were boys. It was OK for [men] to have placeholder characters that were incredibly able.”
Placeholder characters are those that the reader can imagine embodying, and have existed in fiction since the beginning of fiction. However, a female protagonist is more likely to draw criticism, whether they are too perfect, like Ray, or not perfect enough, like Daenerys Targaryen. Read about the fiction trope and its history at Smithsonian.
(Image credit: Menagerie)