All this Mary Sue talk surrounding The Force Awakens makes me sad

Geeks are a passionate group.  So passionate that their dark sides emerge as soon as they are challenged.

Spoilers.

If you’ve been living under a rock, there was kind of a big deal that happened in Nerddom™ the last few weeks. That would be, of course, the release of Force Awakens.  I’ve made it no secret that I loved the film.  It is a Star Wars film in every sense of the word.

There were pretty high expectations riding on this film for a lot of people, and this is where the discussion gets sad and dark.  Nerds have this tendency to be so passionate about things that they love that they either 1) can’t think straight about something or 2) overthink every single aspect of it.

In the lead up to Force Awakens, speculation was constant and crazy.  Probably the biggest “hypothesis” that was proposed about the film was about why Luke didn’t appear in any of the promotional materials.  Fans did what they always did:  they imagined some complex, convoluted conspiracy that lead to Luke having turned to the dark side and being the villain of the film.  It is a very plot-focused approach to story-telling.  It was dumb because it invalidates what Luke’s story stood for and, sure enough, it turned out to be wrong.

Many of the most impassioned fans wanted this film to be something specific that meant something to them.  Heck, it wasn’t what I expected.  It was way better than what I expected.  But when people set their expectations high and don’t get what they want, they often construct elaborate rationalizations as to how and why exactly they’ve been wronged.  The product is bad simply because it doesn’t meet their expectations.

With regards to The Force Awakens, butt hurt fans have been targeting the science (well of course it isn’t accurate), the superweapon (I wrote about that here) and perhaps most vigorously, the characterizations.

“Mary Sue” is a concept that sprung from criticism of fan fiction.  Mary Sue is supposedly a character that a fan fiction writer creates that is a “wish fulfillment” fantasy for them.  They plug them into an existing nerd universe, next to the original characters, and have them basically carry the original heroes with very little weaknesses or flaws.  I think that the argument against this is that this writing technique doesn’t make for much conflict in the story, so people don’t like it.  It also happens to be sexist as all hell, because the majority of people who level or subscribe to this criticism don’t seem willing to apply the same criteria to male characters, and they seem to be particularly hard on female fan fiction writers.  I don’t read fan fiction.  I hate it.  I find it generally to not be worth my time.  But I will defend to my dying day the right of anyone to creatively express in ways that make them happy.  So, right off the bat, I find the Mary Sue criticism to be asshole-ish and to exhibit a general lack of empathy for people.

Read this excerpt from this post by the ladyloveandjustice tumblr:

“So, there’s this girl. She’s tragically orphaned and richer than anyone on the planet. Every guy she meets falls in love with her, but in between torrid romances she rejects them all because she dedicated to what is Pure and Good. She has genius level intellect, Olympic-athelete level athletic ability and incredible good looks. She is consumed by terrible angst, but this only makes guys want her more. She has no superhuman abilities, yet she is more competent than her superhuman friends and defeats superhumans with ease. She has unshakably loyal friends and allies, despite the fact she treats them pretty badly. They fear and respect her, and defer to her orders. Everyone is obsessed with her, even her enemies are attracted to her. She can plan ahead for anything and she’s generally right with any conclusion she makes. People who defy her are inevitably wrong.

God, what a Mary Sue.

I just described Batman.”

This is an analogy that most nerds in the audience will relate to.  Most nerds worship Batman as their god, yet they seem unwilling to acknowledge these inconvenient facts about their literary arguments.  Heroes are more awesome than the general population.  That is what makes them, and their stories, heroic.

This brings us to Rey.  The first thing that the oh-so-wounded Star Wars “fans” did who didn’t like The Force Awakens was to claim that Rey is a Mary Sue.  I just want to point out that it is ok to criticize media.  It doesn’t bother me that people criticize The Force Awakens.  It bothers me that they criticize it stupidly and hypocritically.

There are three problems with the argument that Rey is a Mary Sue:

  1. Rey fails at everything she does in the film at least once. In this regard she violates what a Mary Sue is supposed to be.   The exception is when she is rappelling down the middle of the Star Destroyer at the beginning.  After that, it is all a rapid fail, learn, succeed model.   She gets hit by the scavengers trying to capture BB-8 before she fights them off.  She scrapes the Falcon along the ground, hits buildings, and makes some inelegant maneuvers before she gets the hang of it.  She releases the rathtars when trying to cut off the invading pirates in Han’s freighter.  She rejects the lightsaber whole-heartedly the first time (yes, this is a failure).  She tries to fire the blaster with it’s safety on.  She gets frozen and mind read by Kylo Ren before finally resisting him.  She fails with the Mind Trick twice before being successful.  She gets hurled into a tree in the final fight.  She doesn’t summon the strength to defeat Ren until she calls on the Force.  I mean, where is the “Mary Sue” here?  For some people, her successes following these failures comes “too quick”.  Talk about grasping at straws.  This is cinema.  If you want fast-paced cinema, you don’t bog it down with montages of people failing and training and failing.  Well, you can.  But that isn’t the style of film J.J.Abrams did here.  If you have a beef with this style of film, fine.  But then say that.  Don’t say that Rey is some sort of “can’t fail” god, because all of the evidence (that you’ve ignored in your weak ass argument) says otherwise.  Rey is a hero.  She is surely exceptional.  The bigger question is: why can’t you accept that as a possibility?

  2. It doesn’t matter if Rey is a Mary Sue in the first place.  Heroic stories are heroic precisely because they involve characters doing exceptional things.  Honestly, if you think Rey is a Mary Sue, I’m not sure that you understand what Star Wars is or what this type of story is intended to do.  The sad, sad, sad truth about this film is that it seems to be revealing all of the Star Wars “fans” who seem to consider themselves to be fans, yet their reaction to this film seems to run contrary to what they claim they like about the original trilogy.  The things that they are complaining about here are the exact same things they’ve embraced in fantasy and science fiction before.  Or, suddenly this Star Wars film needs to be elevated to classic literature status in order to be considered good.  I’m going to post my meme again, at the risk of brow-beating you with my opinion on this, because it summarizes my frustration at the hypocrisy.chan star wars

  3. People seem to be wanting to level the argument that  “characters and stories have to be complex to be good”.  There is nothing complex about the original trilogy.  It is ridiculously simplistic.  But we love it.  We love it because it is a thematic series of movies, not a character growth focused series of movies.  Sure, Luke grows and changes over the course of the movies.  Han changes over the course of the original trilogy.  Vader experiences the ultimate growth.  Most of the other characters don’t.  And the growth of Han and Luke and Vader is actually pretty darn quick compared to what exists in literature.  People are basically saying that what the OT can “get away with” from a characterization perspective should be forced to have a higher standard for a Star Wars film in 2015.  To illustrate this, let’s take Anita Sarkeesian.  I like Feminist Frequency.  She’s controversial amongst the brutish, idiotic, sexist gamer crowd for good reason. She has successfully called them out on the rampant sexism that exists in the larger community.  Here is her Force Awakens review.  While I naturally agree with her on her interpretation of Rey as a Bechdel Test crushing hero, I also think that she exhibits this “a story and it’s characters have to be complex to be any good” oversimplification of the narration.  She’s not a fan, which is fine, and her criticisms could be leveled at any modern superhero blockbuster movie.  Some people just don’t like these and that’s ok.  For those of us that do, we suspend our disbelief and can enjoy ourselves with the story-telling and characterization style that exists.  The one thing I don’t do is crap all over other people who don’t like superhero blockbusters.  I’m excited to see how Rey will grow over the next two films.

If people want their characters to be more complex in modern cinema, I don’t blame them for wanting that.  But there are styles of films that do that.  That has never been what Star Wars is.  Star Wars is pulp space opera.  It is fast-paced storytelling that gives us characters who we can love and can relate to.  And we don’t need them to have tremendously complex backstories or narrative-slowing trials and trainings to be compelling.  Nerd sexism and hypocrisy is alive and well in the reactions to The Force Awakens.  People are entitled to their opinions.  I would encourage fans to consider why their opinions seem to contradict their feelings about the OT.  What are you really upset about?  Because your criticism of Rey as a heroic character is stupid, insipid, and hypocritical.  Is it really that you’re too proud to admit that your “Luke is evil” hypothesis didn’t happen?  Is it really that you wanted something else and just didn’t get it?  Is it really that you may be more prejudiced against women than you might think?

So I’ll end in trying to be clear.  People can dislike The Force Awakens.  I’m not the childish fan that wants people to like what I like to validate the fact that I like it.  What bothers me about these reactions is the hypocrisy.  My sisterhood and brotherhood has shrunk, in my mind.  I find that sad.  It bothers me how narrow-minded, cherry-picked and narrative-ignorant the “arguments” are.  It seems to me that there are a lot more people out there that don’t understand Star Wars than I thought.  If you don’t like TFA, then you probably shouldn’t claim to like the OT too.  In fact, I’d respect that if you said that.  If someone came up to me and said: “TFA is dumb like all of Star Wars is dumb”, that would be a stronger argument than what I’ve heard.

The good news is that I enjoyed it and my enjoyment is not contingent upon others.  🙂

Update: Not one hour after posting this and a friend independently shared this opinion piece on her Facebook page.  Titled Girls Explain Star Wars To You, it shows that Sarah Maria Griffin understands what so many Star Wars “fans” have clearly never understood about Campbell’s Hero’s Journey in the first place.

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