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The Mary Sue Syndrome--A bad TV cliché

Updated on April 9, 2012

Ain't I just a little angel?

Beware of Mary Sue

Ever since the invention of the Internet, when TV fans became able to vent their frustrations about a TV show to the world, the term "Mary Sue" became well-known. A "Mary Sue" is a derrogetory term which is applied to a certain type of cliched character.

What is a Mary Sue, you might ask? Well, first of all, a 'Mary Sue' does not necessarily apply to a female character. It can be a male, as well. (Sometimes called a 'Gary Stu', in that case.) The name 'Mary Sue' originally comes from a 1973 parody short-story by Paula Smith, called "A Trekkie's Tale", published in the Sci-Fi Fanzine 'Menagerie'. The story gained new life when the internet came along. "A Trekkie's Tale" is about the adventures of Lieutenant Mary Sue, "The youngest, smartest cadet ever to graduate from Star Fleet Academy, at the tender age of 15". Lt. Mary Sue was an all-too-perfect character, skilled in everything and sought after romantically by Kirk, Spock and McCoy. She saves the day in the end, of course.

When the internet made this little-known story popular, fans latched onto it as a nickname for an annoying type of cliched character often seen on TV, especially in sci-fi shows.

A 'Mary Sue' character will either have an unrealistic, compendious skill set that outshines everyone else, or otherwise, she/he will simply be praised by the other characters for a small contribution. All her/his ideas are praised as brilliant, all her/his jokes are laughed at, (even if they aren't funny) and any insight she/he offers will be seen as amazing deductions, no matter if they are glaringly obvious or moronically simplistic.

A Mary Sue is able to persuade anyone to see her/his way of thinking, regardless of how weak her/his argument is. People will trust her/him right away and people who just met her/him will immediately be taken with 'Mary Sue' and start talking about how amazing she/he is. Other characters will spend much of the episode talking about how special the Mary Sue is, even if she/he hasn't done anything to give that impression.

A Mary Sue is pure goodness. She/he doesn't actually have to do anything to prove it...Mary Sue is just good! Mary Sue is better than the rest of us; not by anything she/he does...She/he is just better because she is! Anyone who doesn't like the Mary Sue is either portrayed as an unsympathetic character, or will change their opinion by the end of the story and admit that the Mary Sue is indeed wonderful. Mary Sue will often redeem the villain through the power of her/his goodness.

A Mary Sue will generally have no flaws. However, if she/he does, those flaws are either overlooked by everyone or considered endearing. She/he is never blamed for any problems she/he causes, and is always easily forgiven for doing things that other characters would be lambasted or punished for.

Mary Sue is always in the spot light, sometimes even more-so than the hero. Even though the Mary Sue is usually a supporting character, she/he will either save the day at the end of the episode, or otherwise be the object that everyone is fighting over. A hero will often see the Mary Sue as the inspiration that keeps him fighting, even if the audience can't see the appeal. (Well, except for the appeal of the invariably good looks of the female Mary Sues, who are always very attractive.)

A Mary Sue will usually have a tormented background to make her/him more appealing and sympathetic to the audience (Since we can't sympathize with this perfect character otherwise.) Usually they will have had a bad childhood, or have overcome something like poverty or the death of a loved one.

A Mary Sue will often have some special destiny. At first they are just a downtrodden regular (albeit perfect) person, but later will be revealed to have an important place in the universal scheme of things.

The point of a Mary Sue is not in what she/he does but in how others react to her/him. A Mary Sue exists to be praised; an object to be idolized by others. She/he inspires others with contagious goodness, even if the Mary Sue never actually does anything of note.

A Mary Sue is generally a wish-fulfillment character. The writer often sees her/himself in this character and puts herself/himself by proxy in the story through this character, which is why the Mary Sue character usually gets the biggest happy ending of all the characters in the show.

Examples of Mary Sues:

The most famous example of a Mary Sue is Wesley Crusher from Star Trek: the Next Generation. Wesley has most of the characteristics of a Mary Sue. He has unrealistic skills (He is a genius in science and engineering at 15); he is constantly praised by all the other characters for being so special and wonderful; he frequently saves the ship; Although he is only 15, he keeps coming up with solutions that the senior crew members have overlooked; He sees good in characters that others don't see and is proven right at the end; Even when his experiments almost destroy the ship (As in the episode "Evolution" when his nanites almost doom everyone, or the episode "Remember Me" where he almost gets his mother killed) no blame is ever assigned him. His few errors are overlooked; he has a tragic background (he lost his father when he was a young boy);and he is later revealed to be a special "spirit traveller" who can cross dimensions at will and leaves the 'Trek' universe behind to explore the multi-verse.

Another example is Lana Lang from Smallville: Lana also has most of the Mary Sue qualities. She is the object of affection for the hero (Clark Kent) and villain (Lex Luthor), as well as the local football star; Many of the baddies who show up become obsessed with her; she is beautiful, smart, an 'A' student, a cheerleader and runs her cafe 'the Talon' in her spare time; She has no flaws; Everyone loves her and praises her; She has a tormented background (she lost her parents when she was young); No matter what she does wrong, at the end, Clark Kent will end up overlooking it or, often, apologizing to her; And ultimately, she becomes super hero herself with powers the same as Superman and we're told by people from the future that she has a destiney as great as Superman himself.

Rose Tyler from Dr. Who is another example; Rose has no discernible skills but her pure goodness either reforms the villains, inspires the heroes or teaches a much-needed lesson to the guest star; All the male characters fall in love with her at some point and compete for her attention, even the 900 year old alien hero who never even looked at a women before he met the irresistible Rose; Any female character who criticizes her is seen as jealous of Rose's perfection and beauty; Even when she screws up (Such as almost destroying the universe in "Father's Day") she is immediately forgiven; The hero constantly declares her as the thing that keeps him fighting (Even though he was fighting evil for 800 years before he ever met her); Even after Rose left the series, the Doctor spent the next year telling her replacement how wonderful Rose was; In the end, she becomes wealthy, gets her own cloned Doctor boy-toy as a boyfriend and becomes a government agent.

These are just a few of the major examples of the classic TV 'Mary Sues', but you get the idea. There are many more.

So, are there any 'Mary Sues' on the shows you watch?

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    • Robwrite profile imageAUTHOR

      Rob 

      5 years ago from Oviedo, FL

      Hi Rose; There were so many things about 'Mary Sue' Rose Tyler that irritated me and ruined many episodes. And I think that "Father's Day" definitely had to be the worst companion screw-up ever. And I've seen every existing episode. But of course, Rose was instantly forgiven, Just like when she stupidly unleashed the Dalek in "Dalek". She's always fogiven. That's what made her so annoying. Adam got kicked to the curb in "the Long Game" for a less serious thing. But he isn't a Mary Sue, so he can be blamed.

      Lana Lang was just as bad. I thought her becoming a super women at the end was a ridiculous resolution for the character. I preferred Lois anyway. she was a much better character.

      Thanks for stopping by,

      Rob

    • profile image

      Rose 

      5 years ago

      Oh wow, I never even realized that Rose really WAS a Mary Sue and that's why I grew annoyed with her as the series went on. At first I thought she was innocent and cute and it was fun to see her run around behind the Doctor as I could relate to that part. Then she said "thank you" to Mickey instead of "goodbye baby, we'll always have ___" and ran off into the TARDIS in what may be the worst on-screen dumping ever, I let it pass. The writers decided that the doctor should start crushing on her when Jack showed up, I let it pass. We've covered the Dad thing, but as I'm only on the 3rd Doctor and Joe Grant in my classic Who research, I still don't know if that's the worst companion screw up to-date, so I'll let it pass. As long as poor, horribly written Mickey wasn't around, I tolerated the show to get to the next season and new companions (I didn't know Eccleston, the guy that kept me watching, was leaving), but when I got to season 2 and all hell broke loose with the weird moments and the increasingly constant "are you two a couple?" messages from the writers. I was really waiting for her exit. Now it all makes sense, she's a friggin' Mary SUe!!!Damn you Davies, damn you! ditto for Lana Lang, except at least she was supposed to become a hero in the original canon.

    • Robwrite profile imageAUTHOR

      Rob 

      6 years ago from Oviedo, FL

      Hi ThatGrrrl. The Mary Sues have ruined many books for me, too, as well as films and TV shows.

      Thanks for reading,

      Rob

    • That Grrl profile image

      Laura Brown 

      6 years ago from Barrie, Ontario, Canada

      For some reason I never thought of Doctor Who's Rose Tyler as a Mary Sue. They kind of write the whole show that way. But somehow it works.

      Usually a Mary Sue character spoils the whole book for me. I've bought a couple of books and been so annoyed by such awful writing that I considered asking for a refund on the book.

    • SidKemp profile image

      Sid Kemp 

      6 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      Oops! I think I just crossed that line today. I hope I can screw up big time and get back into balance soon!

    • Robwrite profile imageAUTHOR

      Rob 

      6 years ago from Oviedo, FL

      Hi Sid; That's okay until everyone starts to hate you for it...then you're Mary Sue/Gary Stu.

      thanks for reading,

      Rob

    • SidKemp profile image

      Sid Kemp 

      6 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      Hmmm. This has me thinking. I may have a Mary Sue neurosis - trying to be a good person and great at everything. Thanks! Voted up and useful.

    • Robwrite profile imageAUTHOR

      Rob 

      6 years ago from Oviedo, FL

      I would have thought so, too, but it seems to be a fantasy of the modern man/child to have a woman who can protect them. It's also less threatening to such guys to have a woman who thinks and acts like a man, but who is still a 'trophy chick' in terms of her good looks.

      Rob

    • Pamela N Red profile image

      Pamela N Red 

      6 years ago from Oklahoma

      I would have thought it would turn guys off but I have read a few comments by younger men who seem to get off on that. It must appeal to someone because they keep writing them.

    • Robwrite profile imageAUTHOR

      Rob 

      6 years ago from Oviedo, FL

      Hi Pamela; I agree with you. I discussed that whole 'cute tiny girl beating up groups of huge men' phenomenon in another hub called "Fighting Females: empowerment or Fetishism". I think the whole cliché appeals to young males as a kind of fantasy woman.

      As for the smart sitcom wife with the dopey, chubby husband, that goes all the way back to the "Honeymooners".

      Thanks for reading,

      Rob

    • Pamela N Red profile image

      Pamela N Red 

      6 years ago from Oklahoma

      I'm tired of the petite cute women who kick everyone's ass. It's why I have no desire to see Hunger Games. Do they really expect us to believe these story lines?

      Or the overused casting of the overweight idiot married to the skinny smart wife in sitcoms. Do we ever see this in real life? No.

    • Robwrite profile imageAUTHOR

      Rob 

      6 years ago from Oviedo, FL

      Hi Paradise; So true. I did a hub last year about 50 movie cliches, and I should have included the Mary Sues/ Gary Stus because they are just a lazy, cliched gimmick.

      Always good to hear from you,

      Rob

    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 

      6 years ago from Upstate New York

      It always gets me how predictably the stories with the Mary Sues and Gary Stus get to be. You don't have to watch it to know how it's going to turn out. It's like there's a little bag of TV plots and characters; they shake the bag, pull a plot and a couple of characters out, and hey-presto! A new TV series is born.

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