So I followed a link to this post on tumblr and it got me thinking (again) about Mary Sues. And then I was putzing around over on the ffn forums and saw this topic and its discussion and it got me thinking even more. So here's what I said:
First of all, I'm gonna say that I don't like the term Mary Sue for two reasons.
(A) It's been used so much to slander characters for so many different reasons (too many strengths, too few flaws or flaws that do not seem proportionate to the character's strengths, too unique [how is this even … ugh, that phrase is an offense to Standard English!] too easily successful, unlikely connections with significant canon characters - the list goes on) that it currently feels like a catchall slur for "I don't like this character and I'm too lazy to go into specifics."
(B) It's sexist. Let's say there's an idea for a new dude character with a tragic background that recalls the protagonist's own, world-class athletic ability, a rare hair color / eye color / complexion combination that matches the protagonist's, starts as an adorable, witty sidekick who softens the protagonist's hard heart, and grows into a freaking sex god who leads a team of superheroes despite being a vanilla mortal, because he's just THAT good… If this idea is pitched by a dude to a dude, not only is it not immediately scrapped, it might actually be accepted for publication and given its own series!
Dick Grayson, I love you, but you're a Mary Sue by anyone's reckoning.
And this was decades before the actual "Mary Sue" was ever written. I don't think it's remotely coincidental that the name we use to denote a type of character who is near-universally despised and mocked comes from a female character in a story with a female author.
The key to a character being labeled a Mary Sue is that the character's traits -- abilities, good looks, popularity and success -- seem unbelievable. It's kind of sad that despite having made significant progress in gender equity (women are allowed to own property! YEAH!) it's still much easier to believe in a man being competent, handsome, popular and successful than in a woman having those same qualities. But I guess that's only reasonable, as it's a sad but honest reflection of our current cultural reality. Overall, women have to work much harder than men and accomplish more than their male peers to achieve a commensurate level of respect or even acknowledgement.
Further, traits that are typically coded female -- a focus on beauty, popularity, and romance -- are the ones that get the most heavy vilification from the anti-Sue critics. I doubt that this is a coincidence, either.
Finally, there are plenty of over-the-top characters that I enjoy despite (and perhaps even because of?) their Sue-ness. Dick Grayson is one, definitely, but also Jacky Faber and Kvothe, to name a couple others off the top of my head. Interestingly enough, the latter two are both redheads, and I can't remember but it wouldn't surprise me a bit if Kvothe had violet eyes.
So love your Sues! Give 'em hell, sure, but love them through it all.
Image credit: Mary Sue Academy on deviantArt