Summary: Our myths powerfully shape society. In them, male and female heroes tend to be different, especially the most popular ones. Let’s look at the differences in today’s stories. How will they affect the next generation? I’ll bet on unexpectedly. To see this at work, on Friday read my review about the latest product of Hollywood’s myth machine: Rise of Skywalker.
A “Mary Sue” character is over-overpowered and idealized. She is omnicompetent, defeats foes easily, is respected or loved by all (often even by foes), and attains greatness effortlessly. She has no serious flaws. As Hollywood has provided more women as heroes, the gap between the most wonderful male heroes and the Mary Sues become more obvious – and illustrating much about 21st century gender roles.
Contrast Rey and Luke in the Star Wars sagas.
The heroine in the new Star Wars trilogy, Rey, is an extreme Mary Sue. She attains her powers without effort or training, in the first film doing feats that Luke required Yoda’s training to achieve. In her first fight in the first film, she easily defeats two thugs. In her first lightsaber, she defeats a highly trained Sith Lord. People meet her and like her. She becomes an instant starship pilot and instant expert starship mechanic. She accepts challenges immediately and unhesitatingly.
Contrast Rey with Luke. When we first see him, Luke was a duffus. Obi-Wan Kenobi asked him to join the Rebellion; Luke preferred to stay on the farm. In the second film, an alien animal defeated Luke – almost having him for dinner. Darth Vader easily defeated Luke in their first fight. Luke failed his first key test when trained by Yoda. But Luke slowly grows into greatness. Until the new trilogy, in which we learned he screwed up big-time yet again.
Almost Mary Sue-like heroes.
Superman is one of the most Mary Sue of male heroes. But while Wonder Woman’s secret identity is the glamorous Diana Prince, Superman lives as the duffus Clark Kent. It is like wearing a hair shirt.
Iron Man is also pretty much a Mary Sue. Except for the alcoholism and the arrogance, character flaws that make him interesting. In Lord of the Rings, Aragorn is also a Mary Sue. Awesome in every way, he becomes King of World and marries a hottie elf princess. He has vast skills, understandable for a man after ~70 years of action (he is ~88 as LoR begins). On the other hand, he lived those years as a Ranger (“Travellers scowl at us, and countrymen give us scornful names.”).
No, these are not remotely like Mary Sues.
Feminists describe many other male heroes as Mary Sues, usually demonstrating a comical misunderstanding of the concept. For example, Ender Wiggins in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game is often said to be a Mary Sue. He is not just overpowered (always easily winning) but always has the emotional and philosophical high ground over those around him (he is a Jesus-like figure). But his mother is disinterested in him, his father is abusive, his brother hates and abuses him, his fellow students hate or dislike him (Ender has to kill two of them), and his teachers treat him like an animal. This is the opposite of the canonical Mary Sue’s life.
Batman is often described as a Mary Sue. Except that he often gets beaten up, is widely considered a criminal vigilante (which, of course, he is), and universally considered to be insane (which even he knows is true). While he is a handsome billionaire, he essentially lives alone in a cave.
Bond was a pure Mary Sue in the Roger Moore-era films. In Ian Fleming’s books, Bond is unlikable (his girlfriends often dump him), and an alcoholic. Excessive drinking means 23+ oz/week of booze. In Thunderball Bond’s doctor says that Bond drinks “half a bottle per day” – about 84 oz/week (in the books he is mostly on duty and so drinks only about 67 oz/week). He is suffers a lot. Casino Royale – extensive torture. Live and Let Die – dragged over a reef. Moonraker – burned by rocket exhaust, resulting in extensive second-degree burns. Very unlike a Mary Sue.
Peter Parker is another hero with elements of being a Jesus-figure. He gets his powers as a gift, but exercises them at great cost – both in suffering and personal cost.
Men vs. women
“Myth supplies models for human behavior, and gives meaning and value to life.”
— Mircea Eliade in Myth and Reality (1963).
Male heroes tend to have combinations of brutal effort to become great, suffering to produce great accomplishments, and becoming disliked or even outcasts. Men embrace this as their role, which is why these are such a common traits in male heroes. These are larger-than-life characteristics of life for men. We get brutal criticism (with no pleas that this makes a hostile work environment). We experience brutal competition (no special programs or for men). Often, especially in blue collar jobs, men experience levels of work and stress that make them old at 50. Then there is life as an infantryman in combat.
Women tend to live in a different kind of world, with its own challenges and trials. Different but no less difficult. So their heroines take different forms than do men’s heroes.
Mixing them in a story calls for skill and creativity. Usually, the men’s flaws provide much of the fodder for the narrative. Some men are butt-monkeys, providing the humorous moments. But perhaps most significant, the women are just much better in most ways. If they do not lead, it seems like a plot hole. Why does Harry Potter lead the gang in the books when Hermione is so much wiser and better?
The superhero comics led the way to resolving this, as many leadership positions went to women. The leadership of SHIELD passes from Nick Fury to Daisy Johnson and then Maria Hill. The Wasp leads the Avengers. The films will probably follow this pattern.
We are crafting a new society with every generation. Now we conducting radical experiments on the next generation, with our myths molding children’s imaginations. How will boys grow up in a world of stories in which women are better and are the leaders, while men do most of the suffering – and get most of the mockery? As with most experiments, unexpected consequences will rule.
At midnight on Friday my review goes up for Rise of Skywalker.