I wanted my first-year film students to understand what happens to a story when actual human beings inhabit your characters, and the way they can inspire storytelling. And I wanted to teach them how to look at headshots and what you might be able to tell from a headshot. So for the past few years I’ve done a small experiment with them.Some troubling shit always occurs.
It works like this: I bring in my giant file of head shots, which include actors of all races, sizes, shapes, ages, and experience levels. Each student picks a head shot from the stack and gets a few minutes to sit with the person’s face and then make up a little story about them.
Namely, for white men, they have no trouble coming up with an entire history, job, role, genre, time, place, and costume. They will often identify him without prompting as “the main character.” The only exception? “He would play the gay guy.” For white women, they mostly do not come up with a job (even though it was specifically asked for), and they will identify her by her relationships. “She would play the mom/wife/love interest/best friend.” I’ve heard “She would play the slut” or “She would play the hot girl.” A lot more than once.
For nonwhite men, it can be equally depressing. “He’s in a buddy cop movie, but he’s not the main guy, he’s the partner.” “He’d play a terrorist.” “He’d play a drug dealer.” “A thug.” “A hustler.” “Homeless guy.” One Asian actor was promoted to “villain.”
For nonwhite women (grab onto something sturdy, like a big glass of strong liquor), sometimes they are “lucky” enough to be classified as the girlfriend/love interest/mom, but I have also heard things like “Well, she’d be in a romantic comedy, but as the friend, you know?” “Maid.” “Prostitute.” “Drug addict.”
I should point out that the responses are similar whether the group is all or mostly-white or extremely racially mixed, and all the groups I’ve tried this with have been about equally balanced between men and women, though individual responses vary. Women do a little better with women, and people of color do a little better with people of color, but female students sometimes forget to come up with a job for female actors and black male students sometimes tell the class that their black male actor wouldn’t be the main guy.
Once the students have made their pitches, we interrogate their opinions. “You seem really sure that he’s not the main character – why? What made you automatically say that?” “You said she was a mom. Was she born a mom, or did she maybe do something else with her life before her magic womb opened up and gave her an identity? Who is she as a person?” In the case of the “thug“, it turns out that the student was just reading off his film resume. This brilliant African American actor who regularly brings houses down doing Shakespeare on the stage and more than once made me weep at the beauty and subtlety of his performances, had a list of film credits that just said “Thug #4.” “Gang member.” “Muscle.” Because that’s the film work he can get. Because it puts food on his table.
So, the first time I did this exercise, I didn’t know that it would turn into a lesson on racism, sexism, and every other kind of -ism. I thought it was just about casting. But now I know that casting is never just about casting, and this day is a real teachable opportunity. Because if we do this right, we get to the really awkward silence, where the (now mortified) students try to sink into their chairs. Because, hey, most of them are proud Obama voters! They have been raised by feminist moms! They don’t want to be or see themselves as being racist or sexist. But their own racism and sexism is running amok in the room, and it’s awkward.
This for every time someone criticizes how characters of color and female characters of color especially are treated in text and by subsequent fandoms. It’s never “just a television/movie/book”. It’s never been ”just”.
*for the purpose of this question, a Mary Sue is a character who undergoes little to no character development and faces no significant challenges over the course of a story
Right. Why do you care?
I mean. Mary Sues exist. Mary Sues have existed in the past, and Mary Sues…
People care about Mary Sues because they are often done without any consideration to plot or character development and exist only to fulfill the author’s masturbatory fantasies.
Scroll on by, click the backbutton, whatever. There are so many good fics out there that do have lovely plot and character development. I just don’t get the sheer amount of hatred and bashing that goes on around the Mary Sue concept.
I’d be more okay with the Sue-bashing if the rhetoric around it weren’t so heavily woman-centric. I mean, even in published fiction, Twilight gets bashed while, say, the Left Behind series, which from what I understand stars two male leads who are just as devoid of character and the ability to make mistakes as Bella is, and those characters are not criticized on that level at all [I chose two books with other problematic elements for a reason].
I mean, if they’re honestly trying to “provide constructive criticism” to fan authors, targeting fan authors who ask for it would be ideal, as opposed to complaining about ones who aren’t interested in becoming better author’s just now, they’re interested in telling a story. One that, admittedly, you may actively dislike, or one that could be told much better, but no one’s making you read it. You don’t have to.
And look. I’ve had my share of vicarious characters. I think everyone has. I may not have published mine in any form, but I guarantee you that if I had I would have come under less fire … because my vicarious characters were guys, like I am [even the ones I wrote before I realized I was a guy were male characters]. And men are allowed to have power fantasies in a way women are not. People may claim they’re equal opportunity, but the very construction of the word biases Mary Sue towards being applied to female characters and usually women writers.
Nine times out of ten, the concept of “Mary Sue” punishes teenage girls for wanting to write a powerful character like them. No one should be punishing them for that, even if their stories are not good from a literary perspective. Some of those authors will want to improve. Some of them will not be interested. Both are okay. You can still hit the backspace/scroll bar. It’s not that hard.
Meanwhile the worse-defined comic book superheroes and whoever the main character of the Wheel of Time series is will go uncriticized for the same flaws, because the faceless, everyman hero is allowed to be a cis guy. They’re not allowed to be a woman [or trans, but that’s got nothing to do with this argument].
So in a way, I think part of the Mary Sue hatred is because women aren’t allowed to be Generic Heroes. They have to have earned their exceptionality, usually by the very qualities that will make someone else cry Mary Sue.
Women characters cannot win. And with the occasional exception, the concept of “Mary Sue” serves to make it clear to young girls writing a story that they are not good enough to be characters.
You want to criticize the literary merits? Find someone who’s interested in improving and talk about specifics with them.
I’m not a sucker for love stories.
When I say I ship something, I don’t care about the happily ever after. I don’t care about romantic comedies or princess movies with a seamless love arc and a fairytale ending. That isn’t what I’m in it for.
I’m not a sucker for love stories. I’m a sucker for character stories.
I want to read a story in which the characters don’t fit perfectly. Where they complement each other when they’re happy but tear themselves apart in desperate situations. Where their relationship is healthy but not always, equal but not always, happy but not always.
I want to see characters suffer because that’s how I know they’re real.
I don’t ship to be happy. I ship to feel real. I ship because I love relationship dynamics, not relationships themselves. That’s why I don’t just have otps. I have brotps and dream teams and favorite family dynamics and favorite characters alone.
I ship because I like to see how a given character will respond to another given character in any given situation. I like to see how they mesh together, how their personalities match and mismatch, how they push and pull at each other and then come together or fall apart.
I don’t ship for the what of the situation. I ship for the how and the why. Don’t give me characters waywardly thrown together for the perfect puzzle-piece ending. Give me the two people who would seemingly never fit. Make it work. I don’t want fireworks or fairytales. I want realism. Passion and lack thereof. Heat and coldness and love and hate.
Don’t give me love. Give me character. Don’t just tell me. Convince me.
"I want to read about women of all ages, in love. I want to read about black girls meeting their soul mates while they chase their degrees, Asian women falling in love with long lost friends, redheads lusting over Latinas. I want ethnically diverse vampires and sorority girls, and Western landscapes, and sea adventures. I wanted the heroine of the story to meet the girl of her dreams while battling an evil queen. I want to read about interracial relationships, BDSM scenarios, happy families, strippers, and of course, women of the plusser size :), so that’s what I choose to write."
Rebekah Weatherspoon (2012 Lesbian Fiction Appreciation Event: Rebekah Weatherspoon on Better Off Red)
It reminds me of how Toni Morrison said that if we want to read something that’s not here we need to write it. And how bell hooks said there will never be too many female writers.
So I’m trying to take that to heart as I begin to write fiction again.
lord i am just SO TIRED of ‘fighting makes you strong, anything else is giving up’ especially with regards to female characters
fighting isn’t always the powerful choice
fighting can be addiction, can be hubris, can be self-immolation. fighting can be kicking and screaming into the ether like a child.
sometimes it is stronger not to fight. sometimes letting go is mature, sometimes giving up is wise, sometimes putting down the gun is mercy.
reducing characters, especially women, to this idea that only when you attack something can you be powerful is incredibly basic and, on occasion, actively harmful.
Because I can’t. At least not whose celibacy is explicit/who do not overlap with the few arguably ace characters in mainstream fiction.
I know there are lots of reasons to be celibate beyond a religious vow/fear of loosing control and eating your sexual partner, but not ones that are portrayed in fiction.
Of course, it’s possible that I just read too much urban fantasy.
Which on one hand gives me Thoughts about how celibacy is portrayed in genre fiction that I may type up at a later date, but on the other hand I just would be genuinely interested in reading about a celibate, secular, sexual human in a fictional context.
Or heck, I’d even be interested in finding some more priests and vampires.