The original Mary Sue was created in 1973 by Paula Smith as a parody of Star Trek fan fiction. A Mary Sue character is usually presented as inexplicably competent, possessing special talents or powers, enjoying the admiration of others, lacking in weaknesses and flaws, attractive, and virtuous. A Mary Sue is usually a young woman, but there are male versions called “Gary Stu” or “Marty Stu.” While a Mary Sue is often a self-insertion by an author, in the “woke wars”, she is often claimed to be inserted into a work because of “wokeness.”

While a Mary Sue character will not always harm the aesthetic value of a work (after all, Superman seems to be a paradigm Gary Stu), they can cause problems. Such a character can seem implausible to the audience, they can overshadow other characters in a harmful way, and their capabilities can make their inevitable success seem unsatisfactory. As such, a Mary Sue (or Gary Stu) character could harm a work. But how does this connect to the claim that “wokeness” is killing art?

Given that the Mary Sue character is usually a woman, the usual anti-woke criticism is that the female Mary Sue was created as part of “the message” and “woke ideology.” That is, those who decide to include the Mary Sue character are making the work worse in service to their wokeness—thus, it is claimed, “wokeness” hurt the work. But, of course, a work could include a Mary Sue or Gary Stu for non-ideological reasons and be bad—so even if a character is a badly written Mary Sue, evidence would be needed that the inclusion is the result of ideology and that this ideology is “woke.” Even in such a case, the work would be bad because of the badly written character—unless it is simply assumed or shown that wokeness necessitates writing bad characters or, at least, meaningfully increases the likelihood.

Not surprisingly, the Mary Sue label is often applied by anti-woke critics to characters who do not seem to fit the definition. For example, Naru in the Predator movie Prey does not seem to be a Mary Sue. While she is competent, she earns this competence and while there are implausible elements, they are all well within those that should be expected in an action movie in the science fiction genre. Despite this, the movie was attacked based on the claim that Naru is a Mary Sue. While such critics might be using the term for its rhetorical value, it is worth considering why they would consider a competent female character to be a Mary Sue when such a character, as noted above, operates well within the usual parameters of a science fiction action films. The most relevant comparison is, of course, to the original Predator. Given her background as a hunter, Naru’s capabilities and actions are as plausible as those of Dutch (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) given his background as an elite soldier. While both characters effectively use their intelligence, Dutch relies more on his physical strength—although he is outclassed by the predator in this area. It can be argued that the films do have unrealistic elements (aside from the Predator), such as how Dutch is able to beat the Predator when that same Predator effortlessly slaughtered its way through the movie up until that point. But that is the “reality” of this sort of science-fiction action movie and hence attacking Naru for being an action hero in an action film would say more about the ideology of the critic than the “wokeness” of the film. But someone is likely to say, it is realistic for Dutch to be the action hero because he is a man and not for Naru, since she is a woman.

Films, games, and shows with strong female characters are often attacked for being “woke” even when those characters are clearly not Mary Sue characters. The usual criticism is that a strong female character is written as an action hero capable of doing things like defeat men in hand-to-hand combat. This is seen by the critic as making the work worse and as resulting from the “woke ideology” of those responsible for the character. The criticism is based on a view of “biological realism”, since the usual criticism is that women are, on average, physically weaker than men. Thus, the critic reasons, a female action hero of this type is unrealistic, is included as part of “the message”, and harms the work through being unrealistic.

The easy and obvious reply to this criticism is that it is just an expression of sexism. After all, action movies are usually power-fantasies and these same critics generally do not apply this “biological realism” critique to action films with a male action hero doing things that are “biologically” unrealistic even for the most capable men in the real world. For example, they do not attack the John Wick movies on the grounds that John Wick’s abilities are unrealistic and blame some sort of nefarious ideology for ruining the film. Their “criticism” seems to be that they are mad when women can have a power fantasy about a female character of the sort that men enjoy about male characters. This just shows that “wokeness” is “ruining” the work for them because of their ideology, not because of an aesthetic flaw in the work.

 To consistently apply the “realism” criticism would not be a criticism of “wokeness” but a criticism of how realism is bent or broken in many genres—which would be, it seems, to say that action, fantasy, and science fiction would often be “bad” because of how their heroes deviate from the limits of mundane biology.

Interestingly, the anti-woke critics who make use of the Mary Sue criticism and the “biological realism” criticism do not apply this criticism to Ripley in Alien and Aliens or Sarah Conners in the Terminator movies (and other works). I certainly agree that Ripley and Sarah are not Mary Sue characters—their competence is both earned in the film worlds and plausible. But they are certainly both strong female leads acting in ways that anti-woke critics of today should be attacking, yet they generally do not. A plausible explanation is that these films are so well-established as being good, attacking them as “woke” would do nothing but undermine the claim that wokeness ruins works of art. This does seem to be a general theme: a bad work is attacked as woke and used to “prove” that wokeness made it bad, but good works that seem to have “woke” qualities (diverse casts, strong female leads, liberal values, etc.) have their “wokeness” explained away or simply ignored.  It might also be that these films are older, and past works might be protected by the haze of nostalgia.

2 thoughts on “Is Wokeness Killing Art? Part Three: Mary Sue and “Biological Realism”

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