Thursday, September 29, 2011

Mary Sues and Mean Girls

The preschoolers were far easier last night. My co-teacher was back and we had a teen helper. We also had no tearful meltdowns among either teachers or kids (well, one kid was crying upon arrival, but his dad then took him away because it was an immediate post-nap meltdown and he didn't want to inflict that on us). One kid who usually bursts into tears upon arrival was better, probably because it was his dad who dropped him off, and he did so with a fist bump and a high five rather than with the "oh, you're not going to miss me, are you?" routine his mother goes through. He still hid in the corner, but hiding in the corner with no tears is an improvement. And there was no throwing up. Yay! While I may complain and occasionally twitch, I must say that this gig is a good way to feel loved. Having kids light up when they see me and run to hug me or fight to sit next to me or snuggle against me makes me realize just how much these little people seem to have accepted me. It's kind of like that saying about wanting to be the kind of person your dog thinks you are, though in my case it's trying to be the kind of person the small children seem to think I am.

I am afraid that with some of these kids, that means I have to be a superhero fairy Disney princess/mom, and I'm not sure I can pull that off. The "mom" is the hard part.

But looking at these little girls who are still thoroughly convinced that they can be beautiful superhero fairy Disney princesses has reminded me of a discussion that was going on a while ago among a number of authors about the misuse of the Mary Sue label and what it says about the way women/girls view themselves and each other.

I'm not defending the use of a true Mary Sue in writing -- when the author uses a character as her surrogate in a story and loses all objectivity so that the person is too perfect to believed and is universally loved for no good reason. But from a reader/reviewer perspective, I think the term is way overused and misused, and in a way I find very disturbing. You'll see just about any female character with the tiniest shred of awesomeness or competence described as a Mary Sue. If she can do anything at all and do it well, if anyone likes her, if anyone falls in love with her, if she's even moderately attractive and if she succeeds in anything, she'll be dismissed as a Mary Sue. This goes double if there's any similarity whatsoever between the author and the character because then readers will assume that the character is meant to be the author. But then if the character is very different from the author, then the "wish fulfillment" claim will come up, with readers suggesting that the character is what the author wishes she was.

The really sad thing is that it's almost universally female readers who make this claim, and it's very seldom made against male characters, no matter how perfect they may be (you want to see Mary Sue style wish-fulfillment characters, read men's action-adventure novels). It's like women have some kind of issue with the idea of a woman being amazing. That doesn't mean you have to like all female characters or accept everything you read. But if you're going to criticize a character, be more specific than just "Mary Sue." If you thought there was nothing in the character's personality or behavior that you felt justified the universal adoration she received, then say that. If you couldn't believe that this character could possibly have developed the knowledge and skills to accomplish what she did, then say that. If you think the character was thinly developed instead of being three-dimensional, then say that. But at least think about why the character doesn't work for you instead of using "Mary Sue" to mean "a female character I don't like."

I'm right there with you on being annoyed with awesome that doesn't make sense. I roll my eyes at the Magical Specialness. But if a character does have a talent, puts some work into learning how the talent works and some thought into using the talent, and is therefore good at using that talent, then it's a competent character with a talent, not a Mary Sue. Hermione Granger was an admitted author insert in the Harry Potter books, but I don't think she was a Mary Sue. Yes, she often had the right answers, but she worked really hard, read every book she could get her hands on, studied and did research to get those answers. I have no problem with someone who puts in that much time in the library getting the right answers.

The other thing that bothers me is this idea that self-esteem seems to equal "bitch." You see this more in young adult fiction, but it seems like the heroine has to think she's nothing special or she'll get called a bitch or conceited by readers. Only the mean girl antagonist is allowed to like herself at all, and then it's seen as a negative character trait. This does reflect real life, to some extent. I read the non-fiction book that the movie Mean Girls was based on, and there's a section about how it's practically a social ritual for girls to denigrate themselves, and if you don't, then you're labeled "conceited." That section of the book was dramatized in the film in the scene in which the mean girl tells the heroine she has pretty hair, to which the heroine replies, "Thank you." The mean girl is aghast at her just accepting the compliment instead of denying it. That means she really thinks her hair is pretty, and that makes her conceited. I remember from my own childhood that the word "conceited" was tossed around a lot as an insult. Demonstrating that you felt good about yourself or about something you could do would earn that label. I don't know why girls and women do this to each other. It would be nice if we could maybe change some of these attitudes by portraying reasonable self-confidence as a positive trait in fiction, but then there's a good chance that readers will decide that makes the character a bitch. I sometimes wonder if even editors see it that way.

I guess I'm just saying to think about what you're saying and why you're saying it when you label a book (or a person). There's room for valid criticism, but be specific and accurate instead of tossing out generalizations. And really, really think about the message you're sending about yourself and the way you see others in the way you talk about characters.

Now I'm down to the wire on getting a project done, and I've reached the hard part, so I'll be in cave mode today. Ack.

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