Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Mary Sues and Sexism in Literature

This is an adapted version of something that I wrote for a class called Gender and Fandom.

A Mary Sue is a stock character found in fan fiction that is an over-idealized version of the author. The stories she is featured in are usually poorly written and overly simplistic. The term is a derogatory one, as Mary Sues are universally denigrated in fan fiction. 

In her book Enterprising Women, Camille Bacon-Smith explains that Mary Sue adheres to standard societal beauty standards by being “tall and slim, with clear skin and straight teeth;” is highly intelligent and educated, with “degrees from universities throughout the known universe;” and is resourceful, able to  “save the lives of the crew through wit." Joan Marie Verba in Boldly Writing boils down the Mary Sue character to five points: she is young, adored by everyone around her, has abilities beyond the norm, is awarded extraordinary honors, and dies a widely mourned tragic or heroic death.

TV Tropes elaborates that although Mary Sue is universally loved, she has little to no personality. Despite this lack, every other character goes out of his or her way to serve Mary Sue’s interests; main canon characters often fall in love with her, regardless of their pre-established relationships, sexualities, and personalities. Mary Sue is always the main character of the story. She usually has a dramatic back story, and is consequently either constantly cheery or depressed. She is set apart from other characters because of her inherent perfection, and often complains about how difficult it is to be so “awesome.” 

The original Mary Sue character appeared in Paula Smith’s 1973 Star Trek fan fiction story “A Trekkie’s Tale” in the fanzine Menagerie 2. In the story, Mary Sue is a 15-year-old lieutenant who singlehandedly saves the Enterprise; is awarded a Nobel Peace Prize; wins the hearts of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. McCoy, and Mr. Scott; and dies a tragic death.

Smith says that she did not create the infallible female stock main character when she wrote Mary Sue, but was parodying an existing trope. She popularized and demonized Mary Sue, criticizing fan fictions with main characters she deemed too Mary Sue-like. 

Although Smith only gave her a name in the 1970s, Mary Sue has been part of literature since people started writing. The eponymous character of Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson is a Mary Sue-like character, even though the book is from 1741. Several characters from literature written throughout the 1800s and 1900s could fit into the Mary Sue archetype, including beloved figures like the March sisters from Little Women and Nancy Drew.

Henry Jenkins in Textual poachers explaining that women write Mary Sues into their stories to personalize the canon and to become part of the media they consume and obsess over on a regular basis. Others believe that Mary Sue allows women to build alter egos for themselves and connect with the characters in a more tangible way, and yet others feel that women feel compelled to write Mary Sues to fill the void of characters like them.

Smith feels that Mary Sue “represents the teenage girl suddenly finding power.” As evidence, she cites the fact that the Mary Sue stock character became popular in fan fiction written by women in the 1970s, during the peak of Second Wave Feminism.

Bacon-Smith also points that Mary Sue rose to infamy in the 1970s. These women who wrote the original Mary Sue fan fiction had grown up in an era when strict gender roles prevailed; consequently, many people dismissed their interest in science fiction as masculine, and accused them of being tomboys. Developing Mary Sue gave these “intelligent women struggling with their culturally anomalous identities” a chance to create a character who is “an active agent with the culturally approved traits of beauty, sacrifice, and self-effacement, which magic recipe wins her the love of the hero.” Although some of these women produced Mary Sue stories in order to emulate the character, other writers wrote about Mary Sue to resent and reject her and what she represents.

Typically, only authors who are women are accused of writing Mary Sues, and only female characters are decried as Mary Sues. Young adult author Zoe Marriott has even said that people use the term “Mary Sue” synonymously with “female character I don’t like.”

Accusing characters of being Mary Sues can be a form of gatekeeping from well-established authors. It’s the Queen Bee effect: authors who have made it to the top of the fan fiction world want to be the only successful ones in the field, so they discourage amateurs from attempting to write fan fiction.

The Mary Sue accusation is also used by fans to police women’s writing and denigrate aspiring women writers. There are even entire online communities dedicated to finding fan fiction with Mary Sues and ripping apart the plotline and character. Bacon-Smith reports that all of this gatekeeping and policing has been effective, as many women have avoided writing female characters out of fear that fans will call them Mary Sues. Although Mary Sue is mocked and dismissed for being infallible, Captain Kirk is adored despite his own possession of overly exaggerated positive attributes. This double standard leads Bacon-Smith to posit that the fan community’s dismissal of Mary Sue is “a self-imposed sexism – she can’t do that, she’s a girl."

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Leading Seder for the First Time

Check out the article I wrote for The Torch, the blog of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA), about leading a seder on campus! (That was featured in the JTA's Daily Briefing email, nbd.)

This was my first Pesach away from home. I am a first-year college student and although I love my college and my vibrant Hillel community there, I was looking forward to spending the seders with my own family. And yet, as much as I wanted an idyllic Pesach at home, I knew that it would be impractical, given the amount of class I would miss while traveling. Logistically, it just didn’t make sense, so I stayed on campus. It was clear to me that there was a reason I was supposed to be at college instead of at home. And so, rather than accepting an invitation to someone else’s first night seder, I decided to host and lead my own.

Continue reading here!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

On Subcultures

This was written for a class called Gender and Fandom.

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines a subculture as “an ethnic, regional, economic, or social group exhibiting characteristic patterns of behavior sufficient to distinguish it from others within an embracing culture or society.” The term was first used in an academic sense by David Riesman in his 1950 book The Lonely Crowd, where he distinguishes a subculture from the larger culture that it is part of because of its active rejection of the majority’s values and the commercial media’s messages.

In his 1979 book Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Dick Hebdige posits that subcultures undermine and challenge hegemony in an indirect manner through their usage of style. Subcultures appropriate common, everyday items and give them double meanings that only members of the subculture understand; he gives the example of a tube of Vaseline’s significance to the gay community. This appropriation of style is a form of resistance to the mainstream culture, thereby maintaining the vitality of the subculture.

Hall and Jefferson believe that subcultures are squarely in opposition to the media, and that the media is only an outsider and reporter on subcultures. Thornton disagrees, stating that subcultures rely on the media in order to effectively become a subculture. She says that they do not begin on an independent level and just become movements on their own accord; instead, the media is part of the process of the formation of subcultures.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Wizard Rock and Women

Lauren Fairweather, a famous wrock artist.
This was written for a class called Gender and Fandom.

Wizard rock (often shortened to wrock) is a genre of music produced by Harry Potter fans dealing with themes, characters, and events from the bestselling series.

Wrock was first performed in Boston, Massachusetts in 2002. When the backyard rock show that Joe DeGeorge was organizing fell apart, Joe and his brother Paul dubbed themselves Harry and the Potters and performed a few quickly-penned songs about the popular book series. The brothers received so much positive feedback that they continued to perform as Harry and the Potters, releasing a self-titled album in April 2003. By 2005, many other wrock bands had been formed, making wizard rock a veritable movement of Harry Potter fans dedicated to preserving the books’ message in song.

The term wizard rock was first used in the liner notes of Harry and the Potter’s fourth EP, Enchanted Ceiling, which was released shortly before the seventh and final installment of the series came out in July 2007. It is a neutral term that is used by hardcore wrock addicts and non-fans alike.

People behind the scenes of wrock – organizers of wrock performances, volunteers staffing Harry Potter conferences, and so on – tend to be women and girls. Matt Maggiacomo, the lead singer of prominent wrock band the Whomping Willows, estimated that 85-90% of concertgoers are women and girls. Despite (or perhaps because of) the female-driven fan base, males tend to dominate the most popular wrock bands; a solely female-fronted wrock headline tour did not occur until 2008, six years after wizard rock’s inception. Male-led wrock bands tend to book more convention performances and are more well-known. Although there is a gender imbalance in wrock performers, it is a significantly narrower gender gap than in the mainstream music industry. Considering there is so much equal rights activism that gets its inspiration from the Harry Potter series, it's not surprising that  the wrock community is more women-friendly.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Photography Exhibit: Juvenile in Justice by Richard Ross

This article was originally published at Manifesta Magazine.

On March 25, Harvard Law School hosted Juvenile in Justice, an exhibit which documents how youth are treated by the US justice system. I was unable to attend the entire event, but what I heard was extremely powerful. I have never really thought about how the justice system treats young people, so this event taught me how desperately it needs to be transformed into an effective, fair system that helps rather than hurts the youth that go through it.

I found UCSB Professor of Photography Richard Ross’ discussion of his work documenting how youth are treated by prisons and their authority members extremely powerful. He talked about the ways he’s seen children and teens treated in prisons, and showed photographs or videos to back up his most surprising points. For example, he projected two photos of nearly identical jail cells on the screen; the only major difference was that one had a window and one did not. The one with the window was a cell in Guantanamo Bay. The one without was a solitary confinement cell at a youth prison in Texas. I was absolutely shocked. How can the American justice system give accused terrorists better accommodations than its own youth?

Honestly, it was a little terrifying to hear how young people are treated in jails, and how the so-called “justice” system is not very good at living up to its name. “[The system is] not great on rehabilitation but good at retribution, we get our pound of flesh from kids…[who] don’t have the voice to fight back,” Ross said. After hearing some of the stories he shared about the young people he’s photographed, I can only agree with Ross’ conclusions. The example of the fifth grader who got into a fistfight at school and was sent to prison for the day because his mother, an undocumented immigrant who could not leave work for fear of losing her job to pick him up, really resonated with me. It just shows how systemic this issue really is.

Ross discussed how girls in the prison system have all experienced abuse and drugs before they enter the prison system – “no exceptions” – but nobody gives them additional attention to help them rehabilitate themselves. I thought it was interesting when he said that a change in language is helping how the system treats these girls; for example, he mentioned how girls who used to be called “teen prostitutes” are now being referred to as “child victims of sex trafficking.” It made me happy to hear that the system is slowly changing to be more sensitive to the issues at hand.

I really respect Ross for spending his time doing this work, a necessary but thankless task. “[It] is such a calling to me,” he said. He does not do it for personal gain – he does not charge money for his photos – but because “I want the next generation to understand what’s at stake by giving images to people.” He wants to use his “art as a weapon” by providing images to activists who can reform the youth prison system based off of the photographs he takes. People like Ross, who check their privilege and use it to help those without power or a voice, truly inspire me to take further action. To show your support for his cause and help spread the word, you can like his Facebook page and share the work on his website. With activists like him in the world, I am confident that it will soon become a better place.

To see more photos Richard Ross has taken, visit his website.