I find stereotypes fascinating, especially those in literary characterization.
Readers like stereotypes because they are familiar; they hate them because they are predicable. How weird is that? For example, when a book makes it clear that the male lead doesn’t really like the female lead, or the female lead doesn’t like the male lead, and said characters are thrown together by circumstance that allows them to overcome their dislike and distrust of each other to fall into intense passion for one another, I know I am going to like it. Some internal reaction inside me just loves this storyline. Yet love triangles drive me bonkers because they always, always end the same way. I know what’s coming and I have no interest in the journey they will follow to get there.
This applies to character types too. Some of these weird character types have even earned themselves their own cute title for use in literary criticism. Like Mary Sue, her weird little cousin the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and the Red Shirts.
Mary Sue is a term applied to either gender (or some similar male-ish version) but it is almost universally applied to women. She embodies idealized characteristics and stands in as a wish-fulfillment for the author (or drawn by the author for readers’ wish-fulfillment.) She is Physically, Mentally, and Willfully Strong. She is usually beautiful, possesses not only physical strength or skill that makes her untouchable, but she is smart, wise, talented, and usually, though not always, in possession of some supernatural Macguffin that puts her above and beyond her human, average counterparts.
She is a character universally despised.
The biggest criticism of Mary Sue is that she has no profound, believable flaws and is the product of the author’s narcissistic fantasies starring a weird idealized author-self that irritates all readers alike.
Here is what I find interesting about Mary Sue- aside from her beauty all of her traits are predominantly male. Strength and kick-butt know how? Check. Confidence? Check. Lousy with intuition and clever problem solving? Check and Check. Which is why there are far more female Mary Sues than male Mary Sues, I think, because it is often hard to distinguish regular Hero-typing from Over-the-top Hero-typing of the Mary Sue variety with male characters.
Take for example one of my favorite television switcheroos: Battlestar Galactica’s Starbuck. In the original Battlestar Galactica, Starbuck was a guy. He was a hotshot pilot who kicked butt, was courageous to a fault, smoked cigars, slept around, gambled, drank, and carried on and everyone loved him. He was the hero.
In the new Battlestar Galactica, Starbuck was re-gendered, but kept all the old Starbuck personality. She smoked cigars, drank, gambled, started fist fights, kicked cylon butt, and slept around. In that first season, she was reviled by many, but by some (like me) she was exactly what our pop culture nation needed to stir things up and we loved her for it.
So why so much criticism? What makes StarbuckGirl unbelievable but StarbuckBoy awesome? It comes down to culturally created female normative behavior, and this could be a post (or 30 page college paper of which I have several) all on its own and I don’t want to go too much into it except to say this: Smoking cigars is not a biological male activity.
We learn it through media, literature, our parents, teachers, friends, family, and strangers. We know that being the best girl you can be requires dressing nice and crossing your legs (always at the knee). It means being grateful and charming. It means you don’t drink too much or smoke cigars. You smell nice and have nice teeth and you shave everything. Girls are not the hero, they inspire the hero. (That’s how we like our girls-pretty much the opposite of all the traits embodied in a Mary Sue since Mary Sue traits are the embodiment of male heroes.)
It’s not romantic to see a love triangle where two girls cat fight over a boy. Is there a gene in our female bodies that turn us on when we see two boys fighting over a girl who cannot, under any circumstance, make up her mind about them until something catastrophic forces (usually) one of them to make the choice for her? And why, why do girls have to shave every bit of hair from their body? Why are we so much more ladylike without it? It is not inherently, genetically built into us that if we do not shave our legs once a week we will, in fact, DIE. It is a culturally encoded pre-determined behavior.
There’s a famous interview with Dirk Benedict (who played StarbuckBoy) about the new female Starbuck (who he hated) and Benedict says in the interview: “Men hand out cigars. Women `hand out’ babies. And thus the world, for thousands of years, has gone round.”
Our culture says girls do not fight. It is a trope that goes both ways: Girls don’t (generally) get into hardcore fist fights and boys (generally) don’t start them with girls. Grandmas everywhere have taught their grandsons to Never Hit Girls, but when he hits a boy she says: “Boys will be boys.” Right? So to see StarbuckGirl swinging her fists and taking care of business and being unafraid of everything goes against what has been encoded into our brains from the beginning. And that is why we balk and say “Unbelievable” and “What a Mary Sue” and “She didn’t feel real to me.”
Of course they don’t feel real. We’ve seen since childhood that girls just don’t do those things. The moment Miss Piggy taught us the most important thing in the world was to be beautiful and loved, it was all downhill from there.