Mary Sue. To most people, that’s just the name of the nice lady down the street who makes great muffins, but in the world of literature and fanfiction and fandoms, the Mary Sues are not about muffins and aprons and nice ladies. They’re about characters, mostly found in fanfics written by twelve year olds, that are almost always perfect. They’re typically beautiful, smart, funny, and unusually gifted.
Take Bella Swan for example. She is the epitome of Mary Sues, the one in which all others aspire to be. She’s general enough that almost every girl in the world can find some type of connection to her, but she’s also got enough of a personality that it’s okay to find her relatable. If she didn’t have any spark whatsoever, no one would actually admit to it since no one wants to confess to being a plain Jane. But Bella isn’t a plain Jane. She’s a self-proclaimed bookworm (she likes Wuthering Heights!), she listens to both Muse and “Clair de Lune” (her taste in music is soooo diverse!), she doesn’t care what the kids at Forks High think about her (she’s so over it!), and, most importantly, she’s clumsy! A character that can’t walk more than ten feet without falling over….how unique and so totally relevant to life! Bella pretty much sums up the lifestyle and thought process of every fourteen year old girl.
Stephenie Meyer gets hell for this all the time. We all know that Twilight was created as a way to write about her weird, sexual fantasies, but at least most people going in to the saga understand that Bella is nothing more than a placeholder for our own personal lives. She’s a self-insert for our own desires and dreams, whether they revolve around vampire fetishes or not. By reading about her life from her own uninspiring perspective, we get the chance to fall into her world and pretend that we’re better than her. We can imagine that by stepping into the life of Bella Swan, we will make it grander; we’ll do things differently than she does. We won’t be so whiney and we’ll be more hilarious and Edward would love us more or we’d love Jake in the way he deserves, etc, etc, etc. It’s a technique that books and film and pretty much all things revolving around narration can’t live without: the power of relatability.
I’m a Mary Sue. You’re a Mary Sue, too. Pretty much everyone who reads or watches a film or sits in front of the TV is a Mary Sue because we’re all reaching for characters that we can identify with. We all want to look at a character and think, “hey, I’m like that person!” It gives our seemingly boring lives meaning, even if the character in question, such as Bella herself, is just as (if not more) boring than we are. It still makes us feel better, because for that hour that we watch a show, or the two hours that we watch a film, or the day we spend binge reading a teen romance series, we’re not ourselves. We’re able to escape into a world filled with more perfect versions of who we want to be.
Take manic pixie dream girls for example, like Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State or any female John Green has ever written. These are the Zooey Deschanels and the Penny Lanes of the film/literature/TV world. These are the girls who are too busy being independent and free-spirited to worry about dumb things like finding a husband and keeping the kitchen clean. They’re basically Mary Sues, only slightly crazier. Now, if there’s any characters I identify most with, it’s these women, mainly because they seemingly love themselves more than they love their male counterparts. In most cases–but not all–they pop in to help out the male lead, lending a spiritual and loving hand, all the while laying down the law that they ain’t got no room for relationships and being tied down. Even though a lot of them have the same characterization as each other–eccentric, weird hair, the ability to trek off the beaten path–it doesn’t matter, because finally, there are books and movies out there where a boy sits at home pondering over the what-ifs, not the other way around.
The first time I watched Breakfast At Tiffanys and heard Holly Golightly utter the words “people don’t belong to people”, everything about my life clicked into place. That was one of the first occasions in which I remember the female lead not being driven by real romance. Holly is selfish, quirky, and self-absorbed. She spent most of her time running away from her problems instead of solving them, and the only person who she cared for was herself. 12 -year-old me thought this was a much more accurate representation of my personality than any character Jennifer Aniston has ever played. So even though she’s not the best role model in the world, I felt connected to her on a level I’ve never reached with other people before.
So even though manic pixies have more spunk than Mary Sues, they’re still there for self-inserts. They’re just as perfect because they’re seemingly imperfect. Bella’s only major flaw is that she’s a grade-A klutz and is too obsessed with love, but these girls? They’ve got flaws out the wazoo. Holly alone has her own share, the least of which is that she only cares about herself.
Yet not all manic pixies care only about themselves. Take Claire from Elizabethtown, the “original” MPDG. She’s super nice and witty, a bit of a chatterbox who doesn’t mind pushing when someone needs to be pushed. She likes “good music”, covers her floors in magazines, and likes to spend time alone. She understands that she’s a “substitute” person and is seemingly ok with the whole fling of a relationship between her and sad, lost-puppy Orlando Bloom. She’s even road-tripped across the USA and knows where to find the world’s best bowl of chili. She’s the perfect woman, except for the fact that she basically lies about her whole life and clearly has her own emotional issues to sort out. But, still, there’s something about her that appeals to everyone, especially because it’s all hidden behind a cheeky smile, a sweet-southern accent, good intentions and a bright red beret.
Have I ever road tripped across the good ol’ USA? No, but I want to. Am I a perky American Airlines flight attendant? No, but wouldn’t that be a great job to have? Do I collect magazines? You bet I do! Do I listen to Tom Petty and make car playlists like Claire? I do! I do! Oh my god, I am Claire, Claire is me, and that means Orlando Bloom will meet me at the world’s second largest farmer’s market and fall in love with me.
No, this is false. I am not a manic pixie dream girl. I am not a concept of someone’s imagination in which I like things that “normal” girls don’t. I’m not one of these people who can walk right up to a ticket counter and fly off to Morocco by myself like Penny Lane, but with the power of make believe, I could be, even if they don’t actually exist in the real world. What’s stopping me from thinking that if given the opportunity, I could stage crazy pranks like Alaska Young or pick up and move across the country and hide out in an abandoned barn like Margo Roth Spiegelman? Nothing. At least Bella is stated up front as a self-insert for Stephenie Meyer’s sexual desires. These girls, though, are the “cool” ones, the ones who are supposed to be as far away from the Bella Swan’s and the Sympathetic Sue’s as possible. But the thing that’s dangerous about manic pixies is that they’re just as bad in trapping you. They make you fall for their charming smiles and inability to shut up and next thing you know, you think you’re them.
That’s not always a bad thing. Sometimes we need that assurance that we’re not the only ones. I found a bit of myself in Holly’s “wild thing” speech, just like I find bits and pieces of my personality lodged into John Green’s, and even though I hate to admit it, Stephenie Meyer’s words. Falling into characters is what makes books worth reading and films worth watching. Who cares if it’s unrealistic, or if in the end, the girls are too perfect or too imperfect to be real? By putting ourselves into their shoes and walking around in their world, we’re making them come alive. The audience is what brings that extra spark to the Mary Sues, and it’s the audiences that make the manic pixies a little less manic and little more real. We have the power to bend and transform whichever characters we want into the people we want to be. But we also have to realize that characters aren’t real, but instead are just perfectly crafted ideas. People are so much more than two-dimensional figures with penchants for falling in love and falling down, but that doesn’t mean we can’t find characters relatable. It just means that we can use their experiences and their traits to help us find ourselves.