Date: July 16, 2004

Mary Sue takes a lot of bashing on different lists at different times. She recently came up on one, and it made me want to drag out my "Mary Sue Defense" essay. I had tried for years to figure out why Mary Sue bashing bothered me so, and I finally did what works best for me -- I sat down and tried to write it out. It ended up being a nostalgic look back at television of the last thirty or forty years, and a mild -- in my opinion -- feminist rant. Anyway, Mary Sue is an old friend of mine, and I just felt it was time someone stood up for her.

Please remember these are my opinions only, and I'm not trying to force anyone to conform to them. If you disagree, close your browser. It'll be okay, really.

PS - This was not beta-ed. Be gentle.

How Mary Sue Grew Up

Mary Sue rears her head periodically on just about any fandom list and there are always interesting comments about who she is, who she isn’t, and how she came to be.

I have to say, while I have only been involved in fandoms in an online way, not even getting started until 1996, when I got my first computer and not being brave enough to post anything until 1998, I have always been Mary Sue.

I love my characters and if you read any of my stories in any of my fandoms, you will generally find that what I write, while it may include a case file of some kind, will generally have a heavy dose of character development. And, of course, some of my stories are all about the characters and their development.

So, I invite you take a trip with me back in time and see how Mary Sue grew up.

For me, Mary Sue-dom started in the sixties when I watch Bonanza or Man from Uncle or Wild, Wild West, or Hawaii Five-O, or Star Trek, and then spent long hours building elaborate stories that included – ta da! – me!! Usually in some role as the injured daughter, niece, or friend’s child (before puberty) and, uh, daringly enough, as the girlfriend (post-puberty.) Of course, being the proper young lady that I was, I never would have been Adam or Kirk’s girlfriend – they were too old for me. I stuck to Little Joe (only because he was the youngest – really!) and Chekov, and the lovely Dano. And Star Trek, God bless Gene Roddenberry and Nichelle Nichols, actually let me wander into a few adventures where I was the protagonist, and not just the hanger-on. I mean, if women could serve in Star Fleet, couldn’t I?

By the time we moved into the seventies, I was in Korea with 4077th, as everything from a nurse who saved the day to an abused Korean orphan child taken in by the kindly doctors. I was excited because we began to see women in strong roles, too. I didn’t realize at that time, why it was so exciting to watch Charlie’s Angels, or the Bionic Woman, or Wonder Woman, but it was! And I could then sub myself in for any of the leads and be totally involved in the plot of the week. (I preferred Kate Jackson’s character in Charlie’s Angels – she was more of a tomboy and not so obviously into the whole makeup and beauty thing.) I walked the Streets of San Francisco, rode with McCloud, and wondered how Columbo did it. And, of course, I was there, in some way, every time Starsky and Hutch (or Ponch and Jon -- I was still young!) hit the streets. I worked with Mary at the newsroom, and was finally getting old enough and mature enough to follow some of the discussion about what made Mary so different. A single career woman, who was happy, and didn’t need a man to make her that way. It opened new opportunities for me – gave me new ways of looking at the world.

I married in the seventies and had kids, and more kids in the eighties. The eighties television shows that I remember most tend to be Sesame Street (Super Grover was my son’s favorite and it used to tickle me to see him make up his own adventures using the character – just like Mom had always done!), Mister Rogers Neighborhood, and the rest of the fare on PBS. I was faithful to Star Trek, warming up to Picard fairly quickly but not so sure about the rest of those folks. It was nice to see more women, in more important roles – I loved Tasha Yar and was so sorry they killed her off. She would have benefited from talking to Nichelle about why it was important to stay on the show.

(Side note to anyone who hasn’t heard that story: Nichelle Nichols was unhappy with her very limited role on Star Trek – “Hailing frequencies open, Captain.” – and she met and was talking to Dr. Martin Luther King about that one day. He praised her for her role, as both woman and a black actor. She said she was thinking of leaving the show and he told her she must not. He told her that regardless how limited the role was, it was critical she remain in it – so that young girls could see a better, more positive vision of the future. Whoopi Goldberg got involved in ST:TNG because she had been so influenced by seeing Nichols' Uhura on Star Trek.)

I traveled the world with McGyver – that was wonderful because there wasn’t any “sidekick” I had to kill off in some weird, forgettable accident. But then, I didn’t have a good reason to “comfort” him in the beginning, either. Airwolf was another great show with no competition for the lead. And man, if anyone needed “comfort,” it was Stringfellow Hawk! And Mickey Kostmeyer – he could have used someone to keep him warm on all those field missions, as well as watching his back. Kwai Chang Caine? Perfect. Loner, do-gooder, mystic martial skills. What else did a girl need? It was fun – I could combine my more traditional female roles of nurturer and comforter, with new and dangerous skills such as adventurer, pilot, mercenary, priest(ess).

I liked Designing Women, even if I couldn’t relate to them. I just thought it was cool to see four women supporting each other, and not being catty about it. Same for Golden Girls, but by then, even though I was still much younger than the women in the show, I was able to appreciate seeing mature women with active, er, “social” lives. Go, Blanche!

Twenty-one Jump Street was great. There was a team that I could just fit right into. Lots of cop action, lots of interpersonal, er, potential. I rode with the guys from Hill Street, always sure to “Be careful out there.” I tagged along with Tubbs and Crockett, fell in love with the Scarecrow (sorry, Kate – it was your character that got done away with again!), adored Remington Steele (and grieved at the crap the network put Pierce Brosnan through over his Bond role), and alternated between the Simon brothers. I even liked the guys on Rip Tide – remember them?

China Beach let me revisit a war zone and I was surprised at how my imagination had grown. From Korea in the seventies, where I was at best, the nurse girlfriend, and at worse the downtrodden Korean cleaning girl, at China Beach I was able to be a contributing member of the team and make a difference. As a doctor or maybe a reporter, observing and being drawn into the conflict. Possibly even in the role of ex-pat with a heart. It was different – I was assertive, aggressive, no longer passive. I made things happen – I no longer watched from the sidelines while the guys did things and then cleaned up and comforted at the end. I wasn't always the heroine in distress who had to be rescued -- sometimes I did the rescuing!

The nineties brought me the first (and so far, only) show in my life that I absolutely had to watch -- The X-Files. I planned my schedule around when it was on whether it was Friday at 9:00 or Sunday. It didn’t matter—that time was sacrosanct. It opened my imagination in ways I really hadn’t, uhm, imagined. I mean, here were the two great loves of my fantasy life – sci-fi and police drama – combined into one smart, clever, fascinating show with intriguing characters and fantastic actors. What more could a girl want?

We also had Due South and The Sentinel, two wonderful buddy cop shows that provided more fodder for my ever-increasing fantasy Mary Sue-ism. I chased bad guys in Chicago and was even willing to follow Fraser to the frozen north, despite my complete detestation of cold weather. Ah – what we do for love! And the Sentinel again introduced a show with elements of my two loves – the police drama, with an edge of sci-fi through the enhanced senses. To say nothing of relationship potential.

The nineties tried to bring back the westerns I had so loved as a young girl. Young Riders was good – interesting characters, sharp plot lines, and offered the added benefit to this postal worker of being about the Pony Express. It was still a blow to my ego, however, as for the first time in my imaginary life, I was too old for the leads. (I know – it’s imagination, but my imagination has very clear-cut rules about things like that. Fantasy is one thing, but in my detailed and intricate plot lines, I had to basically be myself, or it didn’t work for me.) Dr Quinn, Medicine Woman, really brought home to me how much women’s roles had changed from the Westerns of the sixties to the nineties. Not only was the lead a woman, she was a doctor, as well. It was something that could never have been seen on TV thirty years earlier, and it certainly provided me with some fascinating concepts to play with.

Star Trek:Voyager gave us our first female Captain of a Federation ship. At least the first one in a starring role. The development of Star Trek seemed to prove a point for me. I’ve long held that despite the fact that racism is still a very prevalent problem in America, sexism is a greater problem. I’ve said we would have a black male President before we’d see a woman President. Star Trek followed that as well, with Avery Brooks as Captain Sisco on DS9 before we were given Katherine Janeway on Voyager. There’s more emphasis in America on eradicating racism, and its effects are so much more obvious than the subtle and insidious ways of sexism.

We had the Pretender and Quantum Leap, both fascinating because they gave us an open field for whatever type of plot we wanted – with the characters changing from week to week, there was really nothing that you couldn’t do, no where you couldn’t go with Jarod and Sam Beckett. And Samantha Waters, the Profiler – WOW! I’d already developed my little thing for Profiler!Mulder by then, and to see a woman doing the same thing, with the same intensity – it was incredible!

The late nineties, early 2000s brought many more sci-fi shows as well, with the advent of the Sci-Fi channel on cable. Fantasy made its first regular appearance as a weekly show with Hercules and Xena, and we found Farscape, Andromeda, Buffy, Angel, and Stargate. Hercules kept up the buddy format, as did Xena, but the buddies were girls. And they could fight and right wrongs and defend people and everything! And Buffy’s whole entourage was basically female. The boys – other than Xander – were characters who pretty much passed in and out. Oz, Riley, Angel, Spike. None were there the whole way through like the girls. And the girls were all powerful. Buffy was the Slayer, Willow, this incredible witch. Anya the demon, ex-demon, again-demon, Tara, also a witch, and later -- all the potentials. What an incredible concept for young women to tap into -- that every one of you has the potential to be a force to be reckoned with. It was something that would never have flown thirty years prior.

When I first got my computer in 1996, I punched in "Star Trek" to a search engine and was astonished to find what was to me, a gold mine. Stories!!! Stories and stories and stories and more stories! Well, I read voraciously for over a year before it occurred to me that if there were Star Trek stories, maybe there would be X-Files stories as well? And voila! A quick search later and I found Gossamer – an X-Philes wet dream. I haven’t really found the equivalent to it in any other fandom – one central archive that archives basically everything. Most other fandoms are split into many archives, with special emphasis on keeping “gen” away from “slash.” And the older fandoms, in my opinion, sadly haven’t really made a good transition from ‘zines to internet. There’s so much more out there that hasn’t made it onto the ‘net yet – and maybe never will.

After reading Star Trek for a year, and then six or seven months of reading X-Files, I knew that I had to start putting my stories down on paper -- at least on cyber paper, anyway. And so I started writing what I'd been imagining for all those years. Initially, because I focused on Mulder and Scully -- there wasn't a lot of Mary Sue. I kept her tucked away in my head for those tales I just had to be involved in somehow. I wrote a number of stories, focusing on Mulder and Scully, often including Skinner, and even did a few that explored Mulder's mom and CSM. The first time I was accused of letting Mary Sue out was with my story "Mara." The accusations were cold and cruel and painful, and I took the stories down for a while. But the reality is, that yes, there was some Mary Sue in them. I've always been taught to write what you know, so I incorporated some of my own life experiences into Mara. Was she completely me? Of course not. Was there some of me? Absolutely. But then, there's some of me in Mulder when I write him as well. How can there not be?

I Mary Sued again in my Starsky and Hutch "Alice" series. I used elements of my own life to flesh out who Alice was, how she came to be at that place in her own life. And I suppose I did it again in "Alone" -- giving Betsy Ferguson what I hope are some of my own good points, and letting Deborah Starsky have free reign with her mothering instincts. But again, I didn't really see it as Mary Sue -- more as writing what I knew to make the characters come alive. Starsky's visit to "The Wall" and his experiences in 'Nam come from my cousin, who lived through the war but didn't survive quite as intact as Starsky. But his reality, his life was what gave the verisimilitude to Starsky's story. And Hutch's story? Again, a combination of my own feelings about the war and conversations with others I know who "Did Not Go."

Some of Blair's experiences in the "Leaving" series are from personal situations or from the lives of people I know and care about. Does that make Blair a Mary Sue? I don't think so and I would hope others wouldn't think so either.

I agree that there are some dreadful Mary Sue stories out there. I've closed the browser on more than my fair share of just those kinds of things. But, at the same time, I have to defend poor Mary Sue. I don't think I'm alone in having included myself in the lives of all my television heroes through the years. I don't think I'm alone in wanting more for myself than to just be relegated to the role of wife and mother. And don't misunderstand me -- there's absolutely nothing wrong with being a wife and mother. It's a time-honored profession that deserves way more credit than it gets and should be getting a hefty paycheck to enforce that point. But, since I grew up on the cusp of the great Women's Revolution, I can more easily see how Mary Sue was the only way for many of my generation and the generations before me, to feel that they could ever do anything but be a wife and mother. My rich and detailed imagination let me live in places I will never see, do things I will never really do, and be with people who fascinate me and -- at least in my world of Mary Sue -- are fascinated by me. Younger generations of women have had more opportunities, been encouraged to be all that they can be, have not been so restricted in their thinking of what is "appropriate" for a woman to do. Those young women may not fully be able to grasp the magic that Mary Sue has brought us old fogies. I don't think people really want to read about how I managed to snare Skinner and get him back out into the field, working VCS crimes with me as the world-famous profiler. I don't think there's a huge audience for me as Jim's Guide in my own private version of Susan Foster's GDP universe. And I don't imagine people would appreciate hearing about how I play Etta Place to Starsky and Hutch's Butch and Sundance. But that's okay. Those are the stories that keep me company in my head, when I'm feeling lonely or discouraged or frustrated. I can always retreat to a place where I am invincible, I am gorgeous, I'm in charge, and yes, the world does revolve around me.

I love you, Mary Sue. Long may you live!