DISCLAIMER: This article contains academic discussions and literary theories, as well as cynicism, spoilers for certain fandoms, and personal opinions. It is also quite long. Read with caution, comment with consideration.
This is the internet, so most of us are familiar with the term “Mary Sue,” defined by urbandictionary.com as “a female fanfiction character who is so perfect as to be annoying.” Sues are supposed to be “self inserts” or “reader proxies,” and can be broken down into a variety of archetypes—Victims, Warriors, Misfits, etc. In short, they are designed to give a reader—or an inexperienced author—an easy way in to the story. The plots they are involved in are typically bland or predictable, with a predestined outcome based on their specific archetypal designation.
In a previous post I mentioned that I often fail to connect with female characters. I think that part of this is due to the fact that so many of them read like Sues. In the old days, 9 out of 10 female characters were empty-headed or weak; nowadays they all seem to be attractively strong, brilliant, or snarky. Nothing wrong with that, until it becomes such a trend that you sacrifice all traces of real characterization. Far better to have a leading lady who’s maybe not completely brilliant, or really all that strong, who is a well-developed character with many layers and can hold her own in a novel without becoming an archetypal fixture.
Hermione, for example, from the Harry Potter series, seems at first to be the typical “smart girl” in a group of leading characters, but she has characteristics that prevent her from becoming just another name in the list of women-power characters. She gets jealous, she cries, she fears, she loves, she does stupid things…she is a person, not a proxy.
Of course male characters have this problem as well, but for the sake of keeping focused I’ll just stick with the ladies. Especially since lately there has been a shift in the Sue trend…towards the dark side. It is just as guilty of spawning reader proxies as the good. I like to term them “Scary Sues.” They represent evil in all its glory while still managing to be everything a normal Sue is.
Just as much as I appreciate people trying to give women strong roles, I enjoy getting to read books and see movies that feature a strong female who’s allowed to be bad. Some are sexy-bad, some are just bad, some are crazy bad, crazy-sexy-bad, etc., etc. It’s all very empowering, except for the fact that they’re becoming predictable.
A Scary Sue is Elsa from Frozen. Elphaba from Wicked. Maleficent from, well, Maleficent. There are many others floating around out there, but they all seem to follow a pattern. They’re good at heart, but get set down a path that gradually hardens them into something fierce, wild, and full of beautiful wickedness. Bad is the new good when it comes in a package like that. I, too, fell in love with Angelina Jolie’s delicious half-smirks. I felt my heart race watching Elphaba sing “No Good Deed.”
But the path which a Scary Sue treads has a final stop. They may be allowed to be ruthless, to devastate and torment, even to kill…but they are not allowed an unhappy ending. Elsa learns to control her powers. She has her sister, her kingdom, new friends and a promising future as queen. Elphaba fakes her own death and is reunited with her lover. Maleficent saves the day, both from herself and the other villains, and ends up in a fairy paradise with her newfound daughter.
In my opinion some of the best villains were the ones who were evil until the end. Who never compromised or gave up, even when their goal was dark. There was real tragedy in them, because they ultimately failed. Just as much as I am tired of stories in which everything works out just fine for the heroes, I’m beginning to weary of stories in which the same happens for the villain. If they DO get their way, if they DO succeed….at least let them succeed at being evil and revel in their victory.
Anyone seen Joss Whedon’s Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog? He gets what he wants, acceptance into the Evil League of Evil, and a prime super-villain position, but at a terrible personal cost. It’s depressing, and you are left with the sense that he is now going to be evil forever. Yet that was so much more satisfying than if he had escaped becoming a proper villain and gotten the happy ending that was stolen away from him. His actions had consequences, something these Scary Sues seem to lack. Despite everything they do, despite how far down the dark road they’ve traveled, they get their happily ever after.
I want to see a phenomenal female villain who gives the heroes hell and—whether she wins or loses—is not redeemed at the end. I want her dialogue to match her personality, not necessarily be charming and witty all of the time, unless that’s who she is. She doesn’t need to be coldly beautiful. She doesn’t even need to be beautiful at all (just look at what Disney did to Ursula from The Little Mermaid; she was perfectly fine as a fat octopus, no need to make her a size 2 stunner). I want her to have character flaws, severe or otherwise, that make her human, just as I would demand from my heroines. I don’t have to relate to her; I just want her to be real.