Twilight’s Mary-Sue: Inspired or Insipid?

Among the many notable things that my favorite show Star Trek brought into the world comes from a 1973 fanfiction in which the young lieutenant Mary-Sue appears on the enterprise and saves the day with a hairpin, then dies surrounded by all the weeping main characters. From these ignoble beginning we have the literary term Mary-Sue, a somewhat derogatory term for a character meant to favorably project the author (or audience) into the story.

Mary-Sues are characterized by one or more characteristics that set them apart from every one else. In practice, these are things such as a superior mental abilities, an intoxicating smell, irresistible beauty, unparalleled genius, notable grace or klutziness, or a resistance to a fatal disease. However, the most defining characteristic is Mary-Sue’s importance within the fictional world; without her, chaos would surely reign and life would have no meaning. For a checklist of many typical features of a Mary-Sue, click here!

It’s only natural to put a character that represents a better version of you at the center of your fictional world; I’m most certainly the centre of my own world. Stephanie Meyer, the creator of the Twilight saga, finds parallels with Bella in her own life:

Bella’s positive reception at her new school in Forks, particularly her popularity with male characters, was modelled after Meyer’s real life move from high school to college. Comparing her transitional experience to Bella’s, Meyer noted that after her own move to college her “stock went through the roof,” commenting that “beauty is a lot more subjective than you might think.” -Source: Wikipedia

Write what you know- it’s practically the writers first rule. The second rule would be writing characters your audience will relate to, and once again, Meyer has succeeded. What I find interesting, and a bit troubling, is the method in which Meyer achieved her success in writing. In general, especially in the type of multi-tomed epics like Twilight, I’d expect to have well-developed characters with believable motives acting in a consistent way. At the very least a physical description that allows us to create a picture of them in our minds eye. But what I get, notably when it comes to Bella is this:

Bella is very fair-skinned, with long, straight, dark brown hair and chocolate brown eyes. Her face is heart-shaped—a wide forehead with a widow’s peak, large, wide-spaced eyes, prominent cheekbones, and then a thin nose and a narrow jaw with a pointed chin. Her lips are a little out of proportion, a bit too full for her jaw line. Her eyebrows are darker than her hair and more straight than they are arched. She’s five foot four inches tall, slender but not at all muscular, and weighs about 115 pounds. She has stubby fingernails because she has a nervous habit of biting them. And there’s your very detailed description.

Sound Familiar?

This description, skeletal as it may be, doesn’t even appear in the novels. That’s from Stephanie Meyer’s website . Her explanation as to why even that was too much to include in some of the bestselling books of recent memory? “So that the reader could more easily step into her shoes”. Stephanie Meyer herself perfectly fits the physical description of Bella, (I’d be willing to bet that she chews her nails, too)! Even the author accepts the premise that Bella was created to serve as an unobjectionable stand in for the audience, but it is obvious that Stephanie Meyer’s Bella simply represents Stephanie Meyer in the series.

In other words, Bella is a Mary-Sue.

This is troubling when you consider the content of the series. The big premise of the whole thing is two indescribably gorgeous and studly hunks of men fighting endlessly over Stephanie Meyer  Bella. The series looks less and less like a love story, and more like wish fulfillment. I’ve written before about how Twilight is anti-feminist, but is wish fulfillment necessarily a bad thing?

More like... Coming All Over The PlaceNot at all! However, we must accept that wish fulfillment hasn’t exactly created the best literature, especially not when it comes to romance. Make no mistake, we have whole genres of books that fill this exact niche in society: You find them next to the tubs of ice creme and tissues at the grocery store, and they sell for about 3 bucks. I wouldn’t dare compare Twilight to a Harlequin romance novel though; that would be insulting to the genre of standalone works of fiction that at least have believable (if really trashy) characters.

The Pizza GuyIn fact, Twilight has lots in common with another genre: Porn. Let’s take your quintessential porn plot. An average guy (probably a pizza guy) finds himself at a house filled with improbably attractive women, who, despite all the reasons against, must shtup the pizza guy, who turns out to have a huge dick! They might even fight about it, although I’d imagine that the fighting about it would take up less then four movies of terrible dialogue and eventually end with (spoilers) one of the buxom women falling in love with the infant child of the pizza guy. In both, there is an obsession with penetration, except porn usually gets that over within five minutes. Most tellingly, the pizza guy (the Mary-Sue) is who the audience is meant to relate to, and the cameras usually concentrate on the beautiful women while the pizza guy, face offscreen if at all possible, gets all his needs taken care of.

Thing about porn is, it sells. Boy, oh boy does it sell. Billions of dollars worldwide, and a full third (to be conservative) of the internet is devoted to it. It is cheap to make, and it requires very little creativity, with an explicit focus on superficial features at the expense of any characterization whatsoever. I’m not at all surprised that Stephanie Meyer and the Twilight saga have done so well: She’s combined the worst parts of fan fiction with the lazy writing and unrealistic superficiality of porn, and marketed it to average people (read: middle aged cat ladies) who want to get off on hunky supernatural teens with nice abs.

Advertisements

~ by Andrew on June 30, 2010.

10 Responses to “Twilight’s Mary-Sue: Inspired or Insipid?”

  1. Best line ever? “must shtup the pizza guy”. HAHAHA! Another brilliant blog, Andrew. Well done, indeed.

  2. Andrew, I think you’re being unnecessarily hard on this series, which, by the way, most certainly appeals to a much broader audience than middle-aged cat ladies. I’m surprised that you’ve zeroed in on the pornographic aspect of the plot when pornography is to some extent an element of most popular art which develops a cult following (think Andy Warhol, Rocky Horror, Paris Hilton), and does not necessarily detract from artistic value. And since when do we criticize a writer for (arguably) writing themselves into the shoes of an interesting character? Breakfast of Champions is a huge parade of Vonnegut’s author-God vanity, but because it’s explicit experimentation we regard it as a triumph. More interesting in Twilight, I think, than the sexy triangle, is the blend of human lust for immortality with human lust for the immortal–not a new thought, granted, but I think the way it’s been modernized has done much for revitalizing popular interest in the gothic. And lastly, who isn’t for the agony beautiful youth in hormone-driven passion? Isn’t that what drove Young People Fucking’s sales, one of the best Canadian films to come out in the last few years? If you want to get picky about “lazy writing”–there’s good writing and bad writing, and writing that’s so bad it’s good. When Edward says “Do I dazzle you?” you can’t help but cream a little, even as you cringe.

    • I know it’s more than middle-aged cat ladies that are fans, it’s also practically the next generation of young women that are reading and obsessing. It’s for that reason that my porn analogy comes to mind- Meyer, through her wish-fulfillment writing style, has created male characters (even fantastical, supernatural sparkly ones) that embody the same patriarchal male dominance found in lots of porn. Though the story is ostensibly about the girl, she exhibits little control over her own life, getting ‘swept away’ by the two dominant male figures who seem to make all her choices for her.

      Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been in love and been a teenager, and the hormone-driven lust that is dripping out of the books can be very appealing. It’s what the characters DO with those feelings that I have so much trouble. In one case, the male character instigates an unhealthy, if not abusive relationship with the girl, and in the other, the male literally stalks the girl (because he’s in love) until he falls for her infant daughter.

      Fine, it’s a fantasy piece of literature, but these “ideal men” are in fact Big, Dangerous Assholes, and they are being literally worshipped by millions of women (and some, probably gay men) all across the world. I worry about how these ideal characters will empower future Big, Dangerous Assholes the world over.

      • I’ve actually seen that Twilight has had negative effect on the young readers that love it. And those that hate it… they wonder about the sanity of their peers.

    • Really? Last time I checked, a good deal of my classmates from my art classes in college would likely argue that “most popular art which develops a cult following” is in fact pornographic.

      The fact that Andy Warhol out as an example itself is troubling. While some of his art work was on that side of things, he was better known for bringing popart into style, and most of his work consists of non-pornographic art work. The pornographic ones were I believe commisioned peices, not publically released.

      I don’t know enough about Rocky Horror to comment, but Paris Hilton is not popular art, she’s popular culture. Beleive me, there is a difference between the two. I think the fact that people look down upon her for her behavior should also say something.

      I tried doing research into “Breakfast of Chamions”. What rang out for me was that the book was written by a “is a widely published, but unknown writer” and that the movie recieved negative reviews. So, while you may see this as a triumph, I have to shake my head and say it isn’t.

  3. I’m sorry, but I just don’t buy it. Condemning a fantasy literary series for depicting a relationship in which the female is tossed between two male characters as dangerously unempowering for women is the same as condemning a violent video game for its potential to incite aggressive behavior in its players–you’re simply not giving the audience enough credit to be able to distinguish fact from fiction. Now, I’m all for being sensitive to the language which perpetuates unjust power structures and promotes bad behavior, but part of what gives the Twilight series its powerful sexual energy is its dynamic of domination and submission–ultimately, I think, it could be argued that the female lead, though confused and objectified, is easy to identify with as she makes real her emotional torment by NOT being strong. With regards to feminism, despite the fact that men and women are by no means professionally equal in Canada, young women–and especially young girls–have internalized the project of feminism to the extent that they do not recognize anti-feminist art as threatening because that mentality no longer factors into their consciousness in general. I mean, 25 years ago, perhaps we could have explored the Twilight novels as anti-feminist. But in 2010, when media is so diverse that you’d be hardpressed to find a stereotype that isn’t represented widely in some genre and then overturned in another, I think we need to take the Twilight novels for what they are–trashy, fantasy romances–and trust that when girls go gaga over the ripped werewolves, they’re not subconsciously reaching for the apron.

    • Violent video games probably won’t cause people to go out and shoot people, but we already have thousands, if not millions of young women explicitly saying ‘they will never love anybody other than Edward/Jacob’. I know it’s a fad, and it will eventually fade , but the damage it can do in the meantime is what concerns me.

      I think our main point of disagreement is that I think that some fans will not draw the distinction between trashy fantasy romance vampire and their abusive boyfriends that act exactly like the main characters. Like you said, these girls are growing up in a ‘post-feminist’ world. They are exposed to the whole, disgusting entirety of the internet without context or filters. Media in all its forms shapes our opinions, and frankly, the scale of Twilight Mania freaks me out. At least with my blog I can present a different, if unwelcome opinion, because I don’t want to find these girls unwittingly wearing the apron.

    • One difference between violent video games and the message Twilight gives off is this. With video games, you don’t see gamers talking about how they want to go kill someone. With Twilight, you SEE Twihards drooling over Edward, not to mention other bad behavior. You also have some argue it isn’t abusive, which begs one to ask… will they end not realzing an abusive relationship if they are in one?

      The second difference is this. While some preteens are allowed by their parents to play violent videos, a lot aren’t. With Twiligt, we see a lot of people giving these books to kids who are preteens. Why? Because they think that the books are innocent, yet if they knew this, would they likely give the books to their kids? Probabbly not.

  4. For all fanfictioners….

    In my opinion there’s no way of defining a ‘Mary Sue’. If you automatically want to place yourself in the character’s shoes then, you have fallen into the trap of a mary sue….because you are fantasicing.

    What I believe is a Mary Sue is when a character’s appearance is over described. Giving her a cool, appearance, green eyes, red hair with purple streaks….and all that jazz. Kind of the opposite to what most people think; I believe a character that is too strong and cool for her own good, can come across as a mary sue.

    But I can agree with you that the whole klutz thing, and the character not knowing they’re beautiful screams Mary Sue.

    Teen angst for me gets annoying, a back story’s which has to be special by having a character a victim of domestic violence. Or worse an angry teenager who has no reason to be angry, because they have a breezy life.

    To me there’s nothing wrong with a damsel distress, if you up against creatures and you’re a mortal you have an excuse, but as long as they have a personality you can still love them.
    As long as they don’t state themselves they are quirky, it’s up to the people around them to decide that.
    Me for example, I’m as quirky as they come…and I have no tragic backstory!…Though I have a social disorder.
    P.S What’s wrong with no sex…Are we trapped in a society where we have to prove our capabilities, have all relationships based on bumping uglies…..No. Which brings me to another tiresome point, there’s ‘Nothing’ wrong with virgins, why is there a stigma, sure nowadays they’re rare in real life, but why should we banish them from fiction.

    • “In my opinion there’s no way of defining a ‘Mary Sue’. If you automatically want to place yourself in the character’s shoes then, you have fallen into the trap of a mary sye… because you are fantasicing.”

      I think you miss the fact that any peice of literature in truth has some amount of wish fullfillment involved. The difference between the good wish fullfillment and the bad, is the good is able to blend itself in, while the bad is blunt and obvious it is a wish fullfillment. In other words, fantasicing is not an indicator of a Mary Sue. That itself is way too vage.

      “What I believe is a Mary Sue is when a character’s appearance is over described. Giving her a cool, appearance, green eyes, red hair with purple streaks….and all that jazz. Kind of the opposite to what most people think; I believe a character that is too strong and cool for her own good, can come across as a mary sue.”

      This is the sterotyped idea of what a Mary Sue is, not what a Mary Sue is. What it really is, is where the character is simply not believable. So, it isn’t just about the pysical apperance, or pysical abilities. It runs into one having a believable personality or not too.

      “To me there’s nothing wrong with a damsel distress, if you up against creatures and you’re a mortal you have an excuse, but as long as they have a personality you can still love them.
      As long as they don’t state themselves they are quirky, it’s up to the people around them to decide that.”

      The problem with Bella being a damsel in distress isn’t that she is one. It deals with the fact that she shouldn’t be one. I say that because she does have some control over what happens to her, yet she keeps thinking illogically about things.

      “What’s wrong with no sex…Are we trapped in a society where we have to prove our capabilities, have all relationships based on bumping uglies…..No. Which brings me to another tiresome point, there’s ‘Nothing’ wrong with virgins, why is there a stigma, sure nowadays they’re rare in real life, but why should we banish them from fiction.”

      I think it isn’t that Bella is a virgian that is the problem, it is how upfront about her being a virgian that is a problem and how it is approached.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

 
%d bloggers like this: