In this article:
- Gary Stu is a name we don’t hear as often as that of his more infamous sister, Mary Sue. Though both trace their roots to fanfiction communities, the meanings of the two names have shifted over time.
- From being a descriptor for self-insert characters in fanfiction, Mary Sue and Gary Stu (or Larry or Marty Stu, as he is sometimes called) are now used to describe and criticize any fictional character that seems to have no weaknesses.
- But it’s hard to ignore the fact that there are far more women characters being called Mary Sues than men characters being called Gary Stus.
- Though part of that can be explained by the terms’ shared history in women’s and queer spaces, much of it can also be attributed to how we view what’s realistic and not among women and men.
If you’ve seen the name Gary Stu floating around but have no idea who he is, then chances are you’re more familiar with his infamous sister, Mary Sue.
In recent years, the term Mary Sue has been thrown around a lot, and never in a good way. Often used as an insult toward women characters, Mary Sue has come to be a descriptor for characters that people think are a little too perfect to be true.
Often, Mary Sue-sayers claim that it’s all a matter of bad writing.
Though the meanings have shifted over time, most people use Mary Sue and Gary Stu today to describe a fictional character that is unrealistically flawless.
But where and how did Mary Sue come to be, and where does Gary — or, as he’s sometimes called, Marty or Larry — come in?
Gary Stu and Mary Sue: A Brief History
The term Mary Sue has been around since the ’70s, and it was meant to mean something a bit more specific than just badly written characters.
It Started With the Trekkers
The very first Mary Sue was literally named Mary Sue, with her full title being Lieutenant Mary Sue of the USS Enterprise. She was the wide-eyed and very competent main character of 1973’s A Trekkie’s Tale, a scathing parody of what fanfic author Paula Smith saw as extremely unrealistic characters in the Star Trek fanfiction of her time.
According to the story, which physically pained me to read, Mary Sue was just 15 and a half years old, and the youngest lieutenant in the Fleet.
She is “flawlessly logical,” running her ship so well that she received several awards, including the Vulcan Order of Gallantry and the Tralfamadorian Order of Good Guyhood, as well as the Nobel Peace Prize.
Everybody was amazed by her. Even Captain Kirk loved her, and had asked — and I’m cringing as I type this — if she would come to his bed. (She politely turned him down, of course.)
When she died from a fatal disease, everyone wept “at the loss of her beautiful youth and youthful beauty, intelligence, capability and all around niceness.” Her birthday then became a national holiday.
More Than Just Bad Grammar
But the moral of A Trekkie’s Tale is more than just avoiding unholy mixtures of clichés.
In writing this story, Paula Smith was critiquing a very specific issue within fanfic communities: The creation of original (read: non-canon) self-insert characters that fans were writing to participate — and be beloved — in their favorite fictional universe.
What made them so bad wasn’t just the poorly written dialogue or the missing and misplaced punctuations.
Instead, it was the way that characters like Lieutenant Mary Sue warped the world they were inserted in. Suddenly, everybody is out-of-character and obsessed with the little miss Lieutenant, with the logic of Star Trek inexplicably changing to make her the center of the universe.
And to a certain point, I get it. Loving a fictional world is normal, and so is wanting to be part of it. Moreover, wanting to be loved and admired for our appearance and skills is something more than a few of us can relate to.
But when combined with bad writing that ultimately disregards the source material, the result is not something I’d willingly choose to read.
So, unsurprisingly, Smith’s parody struck a chord among fanfic writers and readers of the time. And before long, members of the Star Trek fandom started using Lieutenant Mary Sue’s too-good name as a way to describe similar characters and the fanfic stories they starred in.
In those stories, she’s often in a romantic relationship with Spock or Kirk (or both), is a secret relative of one of the crew members, and is a half-human masquerading as a full human. She has a dramatic backstory and a long list of skills and abilities that leave people awestruck.
A Mary Sue also often dies in a beautiful way just to reinforce how she was too good for the universe.
And because most fanfic authors are women, most self-insert characters were also women, and the name stuck. Gary Stu became the male version of the Mary Sue label, though he is also sometimes referred to as Larry or Marty Stu.
Soon, the derogatory Mary Sue and Gary Stu labels spread across other fandoms with their own badly written, world-warping self-insert characters.
And Then Came the Canon Sues
The Mary Sue label started to shift and transform to something a bit closer to how it’s used today when the term started spreading outside of fanfiction and into canon — or the material that’s officially part of the fictional universe.
More specifically, the meanings of Mary Sue and Gary Stu began changing when fans began using them to describe characters that were already part of existing stories.
Suddenly, the term wasn’t just for an original character who was the secret half-sister of a central character in Harry Potter or Star Wars whom everybody and their mom fell in love with. A character who was already part of that universe could now be called a Mary Sue or Gary Stu.
To be fair, the line between fanfiction and canon fiction has always been contested. Aside from the oft-cited (and rightfully oft-scorned) example of 50 Shades of Gray, certain classic pieces of fiction like Dante’s Inferno and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet can be understood as fanfiction, too.
But the expansion of the derogatory terms of Mary Sue and Gary Stu to the world of canon meant that it began moving away from the very specific context in which they were born and the very specific kind of character they critiqued.
Today, Mary Sue and Gary Stu no longer describe just the warping of an entire universe to center a perfect, fan-made character. Now, the derogatory labels can be thrown at characters that were already part of — and perhaps, already central to — the original text.
This is where things become a little fuzzy, and where the online arguments become extra heated.
As the terms shifted in meaning to become almost synonymous with a “bad character,” it has become a matter of the reader’s analysis of a canon text and canon characters, and how well they think those specific characters were written.
Mary Sue and Gary Stu Today
With the passage of time and the shifts in meaning, it’s hard to find a definitive checklist of traits that would make a character a Mary Sue or Gary Stu. But there are some general red flags that most people can agree upon.
A Mary Sue or a Gary Stu is:
- physically beautiful (or handsome), usually in a conventional way
- exceptionally skilled, often without training or a solid background in a skill area
- universally admired and beloved by characters, sometimes even by their enemies
- somehow humble and blind to their own apparent beauty and skill
- with flaws that function more like quirks that only make them somehow more perfect
But even with these five criteria, there is a lot of debate about which characters really do embody a modern Mary Sue or Gary Stu.
Some of the most common names that come up are Bella Swan from Twilight, Rey from Star Wars, Jean Grey from The X-Men, and Captain Marvel. Among male characters, superheroes like Batman are often mentioned.
Why We Don’t Hear About Gary Stu All That Much
In the early days, back when the concept of a Mary Sue was confined to the world of fanfiction and idealized self-inserts, hearing about Mary more than Gary made sense. Fanfiction authors — especially early Trekker fanfic communities — were mostly women and queer people, so their self-inserts tended to be women characters, too.
But now that the term has a looser meaning and made all characters potential targets, the disparity is a little more suspect.
For example, a simple search for Mary Sue (excluding the feminist site named after her) will give you 4.5 million results. Gary Stu, in contrast, has 167,000, while his alter-egos Marty Stu and Larry Stu have a meager 32,100 and 6,400, respectively.
Lists of Mary Sues and Gary Stus that annoy people on the internet also point to a heavy focus on Mary. This one, for instance, has just one male character in the top 10 — and it’s none other than Barney the purple dinosaur.
Of course, some of the inclusions are to be expected. Barbie, who places fifth, is a character whose entire point is that she’s perfect, beautiful, and capable of doing anything she sets her mind to. And that makes her fit the very vague criteria that people now use to identify a Mary Sue.
But is she necessarily a bad character, an accusation that many who wield the Mary Sue insult throw at women characters? It really depends on who you ask, though I personally think Barbie movies are a lot of fun.
What I think is more interesting — and a better use for our time — than arguing over which characters are bad and can be labeled a Mary Sue or Gary Stu is to look at the arguments people are making. And here, things can get a little disturbing.
Under the comments for Dora the Explorer, who somehow ranks fourth above Barbie in that same list, there are:
- “All she needs to say is for him to not touch it and bam he can’t. Very mary sue like.”
- “She looks like a prostitute.”
- “I want to murder Dora so badly!”
Obviously, these don’t encompass the thought process of every person who’s called a character a Mary Sue in their lifetimes, but they do point to a bigger issue that may explain why we’re more eager to label women characters Mary Sues than we are to label male characters Gary Stus.
And it’s that for many, the first impulse at the face of a competent, attractive woman — or, I guess in Dora’s case, a capable cartoon little explorer — is to boo and discredit them. For some, the impulse can go violent.
We can argue all day about whether or not Rey is no more a Mary Sue than Anakin or Luke before her. But outside of the specifics, the overall pattern shows how we had no problem with attractive, skilled, and powerful characters until those characters were written as women.
So, we took a very specific fanfiction term and used it as an insult for women characters, and then created a male alternative (or three, counting the oft-forgotten Marty and Larry) to pretend that it’s not a sexist thing.
But really, it kind of is.
Paula Smith, the creator of the Mary Sue label, has pointed this out, too. Speaking to The Smithsonian Magazine about the term, she says that male characters by male authors are allowed to be brave and handsome — but don’t get anywhere near the same level of hate for it.
“Characters like Superman were placeholders for the writers, too. But those were boys,” she says. “It was OK for [men] to have placeholder characters that were incredibly able.”
Today, the term “Mary Sue” has caught on as a weapon, usually by male fans, to critique capable women on print or on screen.
Apparently, women who can do things and be the hero of the story while looking attractive are simply too unrealistic, and therefore a product of bad writing. (Of course, we have other unsavory words for women who are not capable of doing things.)
It’s just that we don’t have the same types of words for men characters. And when we do, as in the case of Gary Stu, we have no real reason to use them because strong, attractive, and capable men who are beloved by all are very realistic… apparently.
The term “Mary Sue” has evolved over the last 50 years — from a joke that named a very specific issue Paula Smith found among fanfiction writers in the ‘70s, to a put-down that seeks to discredit women characters who may just be given the same skills, training, and stories as men characters.
Some have found that the term Mary Sue has been a barrier for women writers writing women characters, and has kept many from writing any kind of woman character at all. With so few of our stories being written and produced by women, the transformed term has an effect on the stories we are able to tell.
At the end of the day, “Gary Stu” doesn’t hold much meaning at all. And, outside of insulting women under the guise of literary criticism, neither does “Mary Sue.”