Tag Archives: Feminism

Is Mary Sue a Sexist Concept?

Thank you to my friend Berthold Gambrel for coming up with the idea for today’s post.

For anyone who hasn’t already heard of this term, a Mary Sue is a (female) character who is so idealized that she’s honestly too good to be true. Picture someone who is good-looking, smart, athletic, talented, charming, and good at virtually everything she tries.

If she has any flaws at all, those weaknesses are trivial things that don’t make a real difference in her daily life or current quest at all. For example, she might have a terrible singing voice, but her storyline has nothing at all to do with whether or not she can sing.

You’ve probably noticed that I used feminine pronouns in those last two paragraphs. I did this on purpose. In all of the years I’ve been reading various fiction genres – including, and sometimes especially, the science fiction and fantasy genres – I’ve never seen a male character being accused of being a Mary Sue even when he meets all of the criteria for this label. The very thought of a Marty Stu existing is controversial in some circles.

Sometimes I’ve seen people use the term Mary Sue to describe an author’s possibly subconscious desire to be loved and admired by everyone they meet. There have been times when certain critics of various well-known series have insisted that a Mary Sue character was written as a projection of everything the author wished she could be.

Intention Isn’t Everything

While the original Mary Sue character was first written as a lighthearted parody of unrealistic characters in Star Trek fan fiction, she’s since evolved into something else entirely.

If we lived in a world where Marty Stu was thrown around as easily as Mary Sue, I’d say that both of them were intended to shed light on the dangers of writing flat characters. As someone who has written hundreds of reviews over the years, I have seen plenty of books whose characters never felt like real people. It’s not easy to create a character who appears to have all of the same hopes, dreams, fears, and realistic personality flaws that you’d find in any random person walking down the street.

When a term is created to criticize one group of people for doing something while ignoring other groups that do the same thing, the original intentions quickly become less relevant over time.

Double Standards

What bothers me the most about Mary Sue as a concept are the double standards it enforces and the disproportionate amount of hate Mary Sues receive when compared to their male counterparts.

Yes, stories that portray a female main character as someone who has few if any flaws and who is somehow good at everything she tries aren’t an example of good writing.

This applies to every single even vaguely humanoid protagonist who has ever been invented, though, as well as quite a few who were created to be as unlike humans as possible.

Which gender they identify as doesn’t matter at all. I’ve sat through far too many stories about Marty Stus who were just as unbelievable as any Mary Sue has ever been. Yet I can’t remember the last time I saw or heard someone use the phrase Marty Stu in real life or complain about how unrealistic his character development was.

If we lived in a world where this wasn’t the case, I’d be much more willing to use the phrase Mary Sue to describe characters who were poorly developed or seemed to be an idealized version of who the author wishes he or she could be.  These are issues that I occasionally see pop up in the books, movies, and other forms of entertainment I review, but they are in no way limited to one specific gender. They happen everywhere.

Yes, It’s Sexist

It is for all of the reasons listed above that I believe Mary Sue is a sexist concept even though I don’t think that most people who use that phrase are purposefully trying to be sexist.

Sexism – and many other forms of prejudice – are so deeply ingrained into western society that it’s easy to overlook the milder examples of them like this one. Honestly, I know that I’ve occasionally said things that rubbed other people the wrong way because I wasn’t aware of why a certain phrase or topic was a sore spot for a particular group.

I can’t and won’t speak for every woman here, but my reaction to someone using this phrase wouldn’t be an angry one. The first thing I’d assume would be that they’ve never thought about the different ways characters who behave in very similar ways are treated based on their gender or why it’s a problem to hold one gender to a much stricter standard than you’d expect from another gender. This would be a teaching moment, just like I’d hope that someone else would be willing to explain to me why they found something I said to be offensive if I accidentally crossed the line when talking to them.

Saturday Seven: What to Read Next If You Loved The Handmaid’s Tale

Saturday Seven is hosted by Long and Short Reviews.

As those of you who follow me on social media have no doubt already noticed, I’m a huge fan of The Handmaid’s Tale.   I first read this Margaret Atwood book when I was in high school, and I loved it from the opening sentence:

We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.

Offred’s descriptions of what it was like to live in an abandoned school and why a group of young, fertile women had been enslaved in the first place captured my imagination. There was grief, loneliness, and pain etched into every thought this protagonist had even before I had any idea what was going on with the characters or setting.

The writers for the TV show based on this novel have done a superb job of fleshing out the storyline so far. While I’m waiting to see the next episode of this show, I’ve been thinking about books that have similar social justice themes and writing styles to this one. If you enjoyedThe Handmaid’s Tale, you might like these titles as well.

1. The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence.

I’m tentatively planning to talk about Margaret Laurence’s work again this summer in a Canadian-themed Saturday Seven post, but I had to include her in this list as well. The main character of this book was someone whose choices in life were severely limited due to abuse, poverty, and being born into a society that had pretty limited empathy or help available for women who found themselves in difficult circumstances.

I should warn you that Hagar wasn’t an easy character to like at times. Her harsh life had shaped her into someone who could be abrasive under certain circumstances, but I still saw glimpses of the young, hopeful girl she’d once been no matter how difficult she was to love at the end of her life.

2. The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist.

Fertile women in The Handmaid’s Tale were forced to bear children for powerful infertile couples. Characters in The Unit were forced to donate their organs to strangers even if doing so lead to their immediate deaths. Both groups of people were simultaneously shunned for “sinning” against the impossibly-strict rules of their societies while also being told their suffering was worth it for the greater good of humanity.

3. The Gate to Women’s Country by Sheri S. Tepper.

If you can only read one book from this list, make it this one. Fertility was controlled in The Gate to Women’s Country just as strictly as it was in The Handmaid’s Tale. The difference between the two lies in how well women are treated otherwise, who raises the children they conceive, and how (un)aware they are of what is really happening to their bodies.

4. The Fire-Dwellers by Margaret Laurence.

I read this so long ago that I’ve forgotten a lot of it. I feel compelled to reread it again soon. What I remember the most about it was the fact that two people could remember the same event so differently. There’s no doubt in my mind that Offred’s account of what happened to her wouldn’t be the same as the men who drafted the laws that made all sorts of human rights violations legal or the wives of the high-ranking members of The Republic of Gilead who ignored the abuse of women like Offred because of how much they stood to gain from the arrangement.

This isn’t to say that any of the supporting characters in The Fire-Dwellers are violent like the ones in The Handmaid’s Tale, only that empathy isn’t a skill everyone develops in life. Such a lack of empathy can show up in both small and profoundly serious ways.

5. Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia E. Butler.

Honestly, I could have listed many of Ms. Butler’s books here. The things she had to say about prejudice, how power can be horribly misused, and what happens when one group of people oppresses another over a long period of time fit in beautifully with the themes in The Handmaid’s Tale.

6. He, She, It by Marge Piercy.

This book didn’t arrive from the library in time for me to read it before this post went live, but I’m looking forward to seeing how the main character handles a custody dispute that’s mentioned in the blurb. It reminded me of how Offred pined for her daughter after they were ripped away from each other.

7. The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields.

Once again, this book hasn’t arrived from the library yet. I like the idea of a female character telling stories about her life that are typically the sorts of things someone wouldn’t talk about. While this narrator had a much happier and safer life than Offred did, there were still parts of it she regretted at the end. I think there’s something to be said for talking about those things openly sometimes instead of hiding them.

How many of my readers are fans of The Handmaid’s Tale? Do you enjoy books about social justice in general?

The Handmaid’s Tale: A Woman’s Place


This post includes spoilers for “A Woman’s Place”
 (Season 1, Episode 6) of The Handmaid’s Tale. As usual, the link on the left has full summaries of all of the episodes that have aired so far. 

This post is going to be divided into two sections to discuss what went on with Serena Joy and Offred in episode 6. Both of these characters had a lot going on with them this week, so let’s dive in!

Serena Joy

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts about this series, Serena Joy has been an extremely difficult character for me to like. She has brief moments where she is bearable while she’s painting pictures or working in her garden, but the way she’s treated Offred so far has been unconscionable.

They are both women who are trapped in a violent, misogynistic world that values them only for the children they will either bear or be given to raise. No other part of them matters in any way. Up until this point, I’ve been assuming that Serena at least had a good reason to be so callous and cruel.

It was interesting, then, to have so many flashbacks of what Serena’s life was like before Gilead rose to power. We saw many glimpses of a happy, equal marriage between her and the Commander. Their home was filled with sunshine and joy. No one harmed them back then. If there were any skeletons in their closets, we saw no evidence of them at all.

This was a surprise to me because the current marriage between the Commander and Serena exists in name only. There haven’t been any moments of love, intimacy, or tenderness between these characters whatsoever in the present day. They fulfill their religious and social duties, but they might as well be colleagues or roommates when you look at how they speak to and interact with one another.

One of the other things we learned through this week’s flashbacks was that Serena was one of the people who helped to create Gilead. The stuff she wrote and said about gender roles, traditional marriage, and how society as a whole should operate were used as scaffolding for Gilead.

No sooner were her ideas accepted, though, than Serena Joy herself was rejected and sent back home. The men who listened so readily to her in the planning stages of the coup locked her out of the conversation as soon as they got things rolling.

The disappointed and stunned faces Serena made when all of this was playing out clearly showed that she’d been expecting to remain part of the inner circle. I found it hard to sympathize with her once I realized exactly how much work she’d put into creating the society that eventually trapped her.

This was the world she argued was the best possible one over and over again. Did she really expect to be given a pass to keep writing books and giving speeches once she’d helped to recreate such a harsh place? Why did she think she’d be treated any differently or any better than any of the other women in their society? How could she turn her head away from other people’s suffering for so long and then act shocked when her own suffering was quietly brushed under the rug as well?

All of the questions ran through my mind during the banquet that Serena Joy organized for the Mexican ambassador whose visit framed so many of the scenes this week. While the Commander was trying to figure out a way to set up trade with Mexico before Gilead’s economy collapsed, Serena figured out how to seal the deal given the small scraps of power she still possessed.

She did it with their most precious resource: the children the Handmaid’s had provided and created for them. A few dozen healthy, happy children caught everyone’s attention as soon as they were paraded in front of the attendees at a banquet that was thrown for the ambassador, the high-ranking members of Gilead, and any Handmaid who didn’t bear visible scars of the tortures they’ve endured so far.

If Handmaids could give Gilead children, Mexico might just be willing to buy them to bear children for their nation as well. This was one plot twist that I definitely didn’t see coming. It makes me shudder to think about how the Handmaid trade would work and how Gilead would make sure they had enough Handmaids for both personal use and to sell for a profit.

My best guess is that Gilead will begin either dramatically expanding the types of “crimes” that will turn a woman into a Handmaid or raiding nearby villages for freeborn women to capture and sell.

I hope we get more opportunities to explore Serena’s past in future episodes. While I don’t like her at all right now, these glimpses of her previous life have helped me to understand her coldness and lack of empathy a little bit.

Offred

One of the things I disliked about Offred’s character in the book was how passive she was. Yes, she was no doubt horribly traumatized by the things she experienced. In no way am I trying to downplay how that can affect a person’s behaviour, but I always wished that she’d at least occasionally push back against her tormentors.

This week was a rewarding experience for me because of this part of her history. Our Offred is beginning to fight back in bigger ways than she ever has before.

Her first introduction to the Mexican ambassador was as stilted as you might expect. She answered all of the ambassador’s questions about what life was like as a Handmaid with diplomacy and pretty falsehoods. I desperately wanted these characters to meet again so that Offred could tell the truth about the severe sexual, emotional, and physical abuse that she’d experienced repeatedly over the past three years.

This was another point where the plot surprised me: the Mexican ambassador didn’t care about Offred’s suffering at all. Like Serena Joy, she was completely indifferent to other people’s pain. If institutionalized rape and torture was what it took for Mexico to begin having live births again, she was more than willing to sign other people up for that.

I spent so much time feeling confused and horrified by the ambassador’s indifference that it took me a second to realize her assistant didn’t agree with her at all. The message he passed on to Offred in the final scene made my heart skip a beat: Luke was still alive. If Offred wanted to, she could send him a message through the assistant.

Scenes like this make me glad I avoid as many spoilers for this show as I can. I never would have guessed this would happen, so it was wonderful to learn that Luke was safely out of the country at the same moment Offred did.

How did he avoid getting shot to death in the first scene of this series? Was he ever even shot? Who helped him get out of the country? Will they be reunited? What happened to their daughter?

I have so many questions and so few answers at this point. I love the fact that this show is pulling away from the book and forging its own path, though. Next week’s episode can’t come soon enough.

Previous posts in this series:

5 Things I Want from The Handmaid’s Tale

Introducing Offred’s World

Gender Treachery

Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum

Faithful

5 Things I Want from The Handmaid’s Tale

There are only two days left until The Handmaid’s Tale premiers on Hulu.

The word excited doesn’t even begin to cover how I feel about this show.

I know that some of my readers are scrupulously avoiding  spoilers, so I’m going to honour that with today’s post. Everything I’ll be talking about is strictly from what happened the book, and it won’t include plot twists. I also won’t go into any detail about what the previews for this show have or have not shown.

Yes, I am tentatively planning to write about this series in depth once I’ve seen the first few episodes. Consider yourself warned when it comes to me sharing a few spoilers in the future.

With that being said, here are the top five things I’ll be looking for in this show when I finally get to see it.

1. A Clearer Understanding of Exactly How Gilead Was Formed

I am really hoping that Offred, the main character, will tell us more about how The United States was dismantled and why The Republic of Gilead took its place.

The book touched on this briefly, but it left out a lot of details about how everything went down. There were certain parts of the original timeline that never made sense to me. Other sections of it were easier to imagine really happening, so it will be fascinating to see how all of these scenes are woven together in a way that hopefully explains the political and social shifts that I found harder to believe.

2. Terrifying Normalcy

Most dystopian novels take place in dark, dreary settings where people fight over the last scraps of food or spend all of their time attempting to outrun zombies.

The Handmaid’s Tale, on the other hand, takes place in a house on a quiet, sunny street where even very minor crimes like littering are completely unthinkable. The lawns are all perfectly manicured there, and everyone still gets to eat three square meals a day.

This was one of the things that appealed to me the most the first time I read this book. I’m crossing my fingers that the cinematography will capture the strange and unforgettable juxtaposition of the tranquil place she currently lives in and Offred’s traumatic memories of her very recent past.

3. Feminism

The Handmaid’s Tale folded all kinds of commentary on feminism, gender, and sexism into a story that I couldn’t stop reading. I can’t wait to see how this is translated from the written word to a TV show. There were so many moments in the original story that could be expanded to make an even bigger impression on the audience.

As much as I want to talk about this section in great detail, I’d risk slipping into spoiler territory if I do.

If the miniseries explores this the way I hope it will, I will definitely return to this topic in a future post. It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about since I first heard that this series was being developed.

4. False News

“I’m ravenous for news, any kind of news; even if it’s false news, it must mean something.” – The Handmaid’s Tale

Offred lived in a world where any kind of news was hard to come by. It was impossible to tell whether or not it was true even if you’d managed to hear a scrap of information about something or someone you’ve been dying to know more about.

I didn’t think too much about this part of the plot the first time I read the book, but it’s something that really frightened me when I reread it last winter.

Information is a form of power. People are much easier to control if you prevent them from easily learning new things or hearing what’s going on in other parts of Gilead. This is especially true if they are constantly doubting whether or not anything they hear is real.

5.  A Roadmap for Staying Hopeful

Offred had no reason at all to feel hope in her tale.

Everything and everyone she’d ever loved had been ripped away from her. She didn’t know where her loved ones were or what they were doing, and yet she never stopped dreaming of being reunited with them someday.

No matter what happened to her, Offred refused to give up. She pushed through every dark mood and painful memory that came her way even when there was no conceivable way for her to make those days even slightly better.

I deeply admired that about this character, and I can’t wait to see how this part of her personality shines through on the small screen. So much of her personal development happened while she was thinking things she dare not say aloud to anyone. It’s going to be fascinating to watch all of that unfold at the end of this month.

How about you? What are you most looking forward to in this show?

Exercise Gear Shouldn’t Be Gendered

pinkToday I wanted to talk about something that annoys me a little bit every time I go shopping for new exercise equipment.

In every store I’ve browsed in so far, there’s been a pastel section for women and a black or grey section somewhere else for men.

I haven’t noticed a huge difference in quality between the two sections, although the equipment that’s being marketed to women is smaller and lighter than it is in the “regular” section.

The next time I need to move on to a bigger set of weights, I’m going to be paying closer attention to price. I think I remember it being about the same in both areas, but I’ll be curious to see if I’m right about that.

It bothers me, though, that something that everyone should be doing to improve their health is being broken down this way.

Gender Is Irrelevant 

While I understand the urge to develop unique marketing strategies for different slices of the population, this is such an inefficient and unhelpful way to do it.

Weight, mats, exercise bands, and other pieces of equipment have nothing at all to do with your gender. I’ve known all kinds of people who need something lightweight or smaller than average for many different reasons.

Like me, some of them might be petite. Others could be fitness beginners, recovering from an injury, or living with a disability that requires certain accommodations when they exercise.

All of these groups can be marketed to without assuming that everyone in them is a woman or that everyone who doesn’t need them is a man. It’s weird to me, then, to see people divided up this way for reasons that don’t mthursday-blogs-2ake any sense.

This is something I’ve been thinking about more and more as I’m starting to move into the sections of the fitness department that aren’t marketing themselves to women.

It’s incredibly strange to ignore half of your customer base that way.
No, I don’t care what colour my weights are or if a store offers matching accessories to go along with them.

The Bottom Line

All I want is solid, dependable equipment whose advertisements don’t divide people by gender. There are so many more interesting ways to design and market a product.

Maybe they could replace the pictures of men and women on their products with athletic dogs everywhere instead?

It would make just as much sense as dividing it up by gender. This kind of strategy would also be a hundred percent more cute than what we’re currently working with.

Haircuts vs. Human Rights

  Faith McGregor walked into the Terminal Barber Shop on Bay St. in June to get a haircut…Shop co-owner Omar Mahrouk told her his Muslim faith prohibits him from touching a woman who is not a member of his family. All the other barbers said the same thing. Local readers have no doubt already heard about… Read More

You Are Not a Guru

  I really don’t like wearing it but I have to do it… she said with a soft sigh. Somehow the conversation had tumbled into all of the stuff women do to look presentable – high heels, makeup, shaving. What I wanted to say: So stop wearing it! It’s your body, your decision. Why waste… Read More

Poverty Museum

I recently re-visited our local natural and world history museum and was struck by what narrow slices of history were up for public viewing. Imagine if our society was only shown through the homes and possessions of  movie stars and high-ranking government officials a thousand years from now. The picture it would paint of life… Read More

6 Reasons Why I Don’t Wear Makeup

Reason #1: It’s expensive. The average woman will spend about $13,000 on makeup in her lifetime or about $200 a year. If I instead invested that $200 a year, assuming a 6% compound interest rate,  I’d have $34,866.68 in 40 years (unless the economy implodes, of course. 😉 ) Reason #2: Everyone else is doing it is… Read More