The first Mary Sue was a character in a parody of Star Trek fan fiction, published in the fanzine Menagerie in 1973. (Fanzines were magazines, often distributed by photocopying them and handing out the results but always made cheaply and without advertiser sponsorship, typically given away for free or a nominal charge to cover the cost of printing.) The parody was called A Trekkie’s Tale. It’s only a few paragraphs long, so I’ll quote it in full:
“Gee, golly, gosh, gloriosky,” thought Mary Sue as she stepped on the bridge of the Enterprise. “Here I am, the youngest lieutenant in the fleet – only fifteen and a half years old.” Captain Kirk came up to her.
“Oh, Lieutenant, I love you madly. Will you come to bed with me?” “Captain! I am not that kind of girl!” “You’re right, and I respect you for it. Here, take over the ship for a minute while I go get some coffee for us.” Mr. Spock came onto the bridge. “What are you doing in the command seat, Lieutenant?” “The Captain told me to.” “Flawlessly logical. I admire your mind.”
Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy and Mr. Scott beamed down with Lt. Mary Sue to Rigel XXXVII. They were attacked by green androids and thrown into prison. In a moment of weakness Lt. Mary Sue revealed to Mr. Spock that she too was half Vulcan. Recovering quickly, she sprung the lock with her hairpin and they all got away back to the ship.
But back on board, Dr. McCoy and Lt. Mary Sue found out that the men who had beamed down were seriously stricken by the jumping cold robbies, Mary Sue less so. While the four officers languished in Sick Bay, Lt. Mary Sue ran the ship, and ran it so well she received the Nobel Peace Prize, the Vulcan Order of Gallantry and the Tralfamadorian Order of Good Guyhood.
However the disease finally got to her and she fell fatally ill. In the Sick Bay as she breathed her last, she was surrounded by Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, and Mr. Scott, all weeping unashamedly at the loss of her beautiful youth and youthful beauty, intelligence, capability and all around niceness. Even to this day her birthday is a national holiday of the Enterprise.
The story was originally attributed to “Anonymous” but is known to be the word of the editor, Paula Smith. The basic story was a common submission; as such it’s a collection of common features, exaggerated. It’s very interesting to look at those features.
- Main character is a teenage girl.
- She’s beautiful and wonderful.
- Everyone loves her.
- She dies and everyone laments her death.
The standard meaning of “Mary Sue,” used as a criticism of a character in a work of fiction, is to impute that a character is an authorial stand-in for the purpose of wish fulfillment. And while the original Mary Sue is an author stand-in, the story is actually more of a Greek tragedy. Mary Sue is initially blessed by the gods, but when she tries to climb Mount Olympus she is cast down and destroyed.
Among the criticisms heaped on the Mary Sue character is that her excellence is always unearned. She appears out of nowhere in fully formed perfection and everyone loves her just for being her. This is generally derided as being horribly unrealistic.
And it is.
It should not be glossed over that Mary Sue stories are written by teenage girls about themselves. If Mary Sue is realistic to teenage girls, it would be utterly unsurprising that she would be unrealistic to adult men. So, is she realistic to teenage girls?
And here I think that the answer is: yes, actually.
The onset of puberty in a girl does come from nowhere, and transforms her into something beautiful and wonderful, that is, an adult woman capable of bearing children. And everyone loves her, at least if by “everyone”, you mean males, and by “love,” you mean “is interested in”.
A newly adult female is bursting with potential and, as such, everyone is (suddenly) very interested in her and what she does with this potential. It’s not always as benign and comfortable as in the Mary Sue story, of course, but life rarely is as comfortable as fiction.
And if we look further at the inspiration for Mary Sue, we also see why she had to die. Potential cannot last forever in this world. If Mary Sue does not choose a mate, she will eventually hit menopause and cease to have any potential (in the relevant sense; she might still have potential in a thousand other ways, of course, but an allegory only ever describes one aspect of life). If she does choose a mate, she will have children and her potential will be reduced by turning into actuality. But actuality is, in a fallen world, never as interesting as potential; Mary Sue with children does not excite the universal interest which Mary Sue without children did. (In a healthy society she excites respect, instead, but that’s a topic for another day.)
And so it must be that, not long after Mary Sue is blessed by the gods, she is cast down by them, too; Mary Sue cannot remain universally loved for long.
The story of Mary Sue leaves off at the most important part, since after all it was a parody, but it is worth mentioning the fact. That the first flower of youth cannot last is something all people must come to terms with. For some, they will foreswear actuality for some other actuality, as in the case of nuns, who cover themselves to hide their potential so people may forget it. For others, they will give up their potential by trading it for actuality; an actuality which is flawed because we live in a flawed world, but still a real actuality that’s better than the nothingness of pure potentiality.
They both require faith, but all good things require faith. Trying to remain in potentiality is trying to eat one’s cake and still have it afterwards. It promises happiness that it will never deliver.
I think it’s well to remember that the story of Mary Sue is only a bad story if it’s the story of a man, or an adult woman. Though that remains true even if a young woman is cast in the part.