March 5th, 2003

rivka as ww

A Boy Named Mary Sue

With thanks to Z. for the title.

I reread an old favorite, David R. Palmer’s Emergence, last night and something occurred to me. (Not as good as I remembered, but we’ll get to the review in a bit.) When we talk about Mary Sues, we treat them as if they represented some aspect of female writers, a visible sign of feminine ecriture. But men write Mary Sues too, not just Marty Stus, and men also can identify with them.

Emergence’s Mary Sue is named Candidia (Candy) Smith-Foster. Unusual given name, hyphenated last name – though Smith and Foster are pretty nondescript; I wonder what the names were before Palmer’s editor got to them. Anyhow, Candy is a genius, and, at 11 years old, a competent paramedic and a Sixth Level black belt, among other things. She’s also deeply bonded to an animal, to whom she refers as her retarded baby brother. People tell her she’s pretty, and going to grow into beautiful, throughout. I don’t know what color her eyes are, but I wouldn’t be shocked if they were violet. She drives, she flies, she saves lives; she does everything short of pureeing. That simpering Lt. Piper is a tyro; Candy is Mary Sue. Written by a man, and enjoyed by enough SF fans to get Palmer Hugo, Nebula, and Campbell award nominations for two of the short stories that, with additional sections, make up the novel.

It’s still a decent read, though nowhere what I thought it was when I was a kid. (By contrast, Gateway still grabs me, whatever you want to say about the sequels.) The story is a variant on a post-holocaust narrative; Candy survives biowar that killed everybody else, or so she thinks. She finds out that she’s a Very Important Person. Though the plot depends on so much coincidence that not one deus ex machina but an entire pantheon and some backup demigods are required, the writing is engaging and Candy is, in fact, charming. This is why people can get to like Mary Sues, especially if they’re not interfering with what you thought the story was supposed to be about, i.e. other characters about whom you care more.

Consider also that Heinlein, the sf man’s sf man, created Podkayne of Mars, indubitably another Mary Sue with her precociousness, her odd name, and her beyond-her-years wisdom. Carol Clover’s excellent Men, Women and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film argues quite persuasively that male viewers identify with female victims in horror films, particularly the Final Girl – and in the modern horror film, it’s always a final girl who defeats the monster/madman, not a boy – in ways similar to what I’m arguing about male readers’ potential identification with Mary Sues.

What may be different is that, as Clover argues, the Final Girl is invested with masculine or at least gender-blurring characteristics. She often has a male-sounding name (Marti, Stretch, Ripley, Stevie, Will, Joey, Max, etc.). She is sexually chaste, as compared to the other young women around her, who all die horribly, often while seeking, having, or just having had sex. This may serve to mitigate a straight man’s anxiety at identifying with someone whose social status is, according to her sex, to get fucked. The young age of Candy and Podkayne serves a similar sexuality-diffusing function, though notably Candy does talk a lot about her duty, in the near future, to help repopulate the world.

By contrast, women’s Mary Sues often get laid, and how. Perhaps this is because identifying with a woman/girl who’s as competent in bed as she is at everything else is less disturbing for straight women than for straight men. On the other hand, Mary Sues in slash stories generally don’t get laid, though they are generally rewarded with the delicious imaginings of two hot men screwing one another. Where’s the female author’s identification there? The reader’s? Better theorists than I have tackled that one. The point, to the extent that I have one, is that men aren’t necessarily identifying with the men in fiction any more than women necessarily identify with the women, even if the men have a gender privilege that seems to make male-identification the most ego-boosting strategy for both sexes. There’s pleasure in transgression, even if you’re already on top.

While I’m here, let me tell you about Eric Garcia’s Matchstick Men (soon to be a major motion picture starring Nic Cage, according to the dust jacket). I picked this up because I mildly enjoyed Garcia’s two previous novels about a private eye who’s part of a modern dinosaur culture. All the dinos hide behind human suits. It’s a clever concept, and he does a good job with it. Anyhow, Matchstick Men is a basic con-man story, well-executed. For spoilery reasons, I ended up feeling queasy about it, because one decent character comes to a rather bad end, but if you like capers and don’t mind which Westlake or Block you get (the funny one or the grim one), this book may be for you.

I’m not competent enough to set up a poll, but I’ll answer questions like every other lemming if you send them to me. I’d certainly like to meet more of the people who, for whatever twisted reasons of their own, read this journal, and the questions might be a neat way to do that.