Saving Science Fiction From Strong Female Characters – Part 3

Let us start with a few questions:


Why cannot both men and women be free, and leaders, and strong?

Women cannot be kings for the same reason men cannot be queens. Women in leadership roles do not lead in the same fashion as men do. They still lead (as we have seen in leaders from Queen Boadicea to Queen Elizabeth or Margaret Thatcher) but the tone and approach is different.


Why cannot both sexes, or (to be more specific) as many members of either sex as wish and can, perform tasks requiring boldness of action and clarity of thought and physical courage?

Physical courage is something boys are good at and proud of and naturally included to do. Even those effete intellectual men such as myself who do not cook outdoors and bowhunt grizzly bears or know how to fix a car engine still nonetheless approach life through a metaphor of conflict, war, duels, and tournaments. The reason why I behave honorably in a philosophical discussion is that I think of it as a duel to the death.

The question perhaps assumes social units do not exist, and that the decision is individual rather than communal. Women who are bold rather than wise are playing to something they are generally not good at, don’t really enjoy it when they win using those tactics: maybe some women like being domineering, but all too often they are called bitchy rather than called strongwilled. For better or worse, it is simply more feminine to talk someone into volunteering to do something than to browbeat and overawe and scare them into doing it, which is the male technique.

Last time my boss yelled at me it scared the bejezus out of me, and I straightened up and flew right after that, but I did not take it personally, and would not take it personally, because there was honor involved but no emotion involved. Contrariwise, females bosses I have had took everything personally and dished out everything personally, and there was no honor involved. One of them fired me once without ever telling me what, if anything, I had done wrong. She did not want the confrontation, I assume, because the confrontation would have been (in her mind) personal. The other time a female boss fired me, she felt sorry for me, which make it worse. I would have greatly preferred the matter be handled in an impersonal and professional fashion. I did not want her to have concern for my feelings. Had we been in a social or domestic situation where feminine nature is queen, her sympathy would have been useful and welcome. My conclusion from those and other examples is that women, by and large, do not have a neutral emotional setting like men do. Perhaps societies less friendly and more hierarchical, like the British or the Japanese, can produce women who can be cool and neutral while retaining both her dignity and the dignity of her underlings. I don’t know.

As for clarity of thought, women are as clear thinking as men, but they are generally better at multitasking and juggling priorities rather than being obsessively single-minded.


Even if we stipulate that the sexes have a different statistical distribution of aptitudes for approaches, at what point should a general difference in emphasis be taken as justification for absolute prohibition in function, or (to get back to the subject of science fiction) for absolute disbelief of particular depictions?

An absolute prohibition? No one has even mentioned that as a possibility. Even in the most male dominated periods of history, we still had women saints like Joan of Arc or the Virgin Mary, queens like Semiramis, and military maidens like Camilla and Britomart and so on. The tradition of warrior women is as old as legends of Amazons. No one here is suggesting an absolute prohibition.

As to where the line between suspension of disbelief and absolute disbelief should fall, that question is a matter of personal judgement. I cannot speak for other men.

For myself, the line falls at physical combat. When Hawkeye is punching and kicking the Black Widow in the otherwise excellent AVENGERS movie, my suspenders of disbelief (as I call them) both snapped, and suddenly it looked like muscular 5’10” Jeremy Renner kicking the snot out of wispy 5’3″ Scarlett Johansson. It is like a fight between a thirteen year old boy and a thirty year old man (I am sure fights between adults and children can take place, but they are not even-steven fights and should not be portrayed as such).

If Supergirl is from Planet Krypton, fine, she can punch goons through solid brick walls, no problem. Ditto for Starfire of the Teen Titans. If Buffy the Vampire Slayer is possessed by all the strength of the ghosts of all the Slayers back to the First Slayer, fine, she has superduper strength and it is magic. Fine. That is all fine with me.

But when the heroine is Hit Girl or Batgirl or some leggy blonde selected for her cup size rather than fighting ability, all the portrayals of wispy little she-adventuresses able to tackle boatloads of thugs built like linebackers do is make it socially acceptable for boys to hit girls.

Such portrayals do not make the women good role models. If anything, they are misleading role models, because all those leather-clad vampire huntresses are built like Barbie dolls. Remember how feminists complain that such dolls give little girls an unrealistic body image? Well, the pursuit of strong female characters has captured the worst of both worlds. Now all the comic book images of superspies and superbabes and superheroines are both built like Barbie and have the fighting skill of Chuck Norris and Jackie Chan.

Read the first chapter of my book ORPHANS OF CHAOS. The scene where Amelia Windrose, who is tall for a girl, and athletic, and, who, before puberty, was able to outrun and outperform her brothers in track and field events, encounters a day when she find out that the boys now have muscles powered by testosterone, which she simply does not have and simply cannot match. Her younger brother can now out race and outwrestle her, and as she is pinned down under the strength of his hands, she realizes with a shock that she will not be able to train hard enough to beat him again, not now, not next year, not EVER. Her muscles will stay at the same level as that a thirteen year old boy from now until forever.

This scene was based on real life. Not one, but two girls of my close acquaintance both had this happen to them. They had been convinced, and everyone had told them, and all the movies and television shows had shown them, that girls could fight boys and be victorious. One girl was shocked when a male friend of hers, just horsing around, pinned her down with one hand. She had always thought she’d be able to fend off a male attacker. That day she found out she would not be fending off any male aggressor, or not without an equalizer. The other friend was equally shocked when the boy she was with was walking down the beach with her, and he picked her up (I do not know whether bride style or Tarzan style) and ran full speed down the beach with her as his captive. She realized with a shock that she could not have picked him up no matter what, not even in an emergency, not even if he was helping. These were not even linebackers built like Conan or men on the leading edge of physical strength for men: they were ordinary boys of ordinary strength.

I have once or twice seen a fight scene where a boy punches a girl and knocks her out immediately, but have never seen a scene where the boy beats the girl slowly into unconsciousness after a ten or twelve round match. It is never, ever portrayed that way. After a male and female exchange a series of blows, the woman is always sure to win because she is the underdog, and to have the man win at that point is not dramatic. I have never seen a scene where a woman fighting a man gets scared and starts crying and gives up, even though, without the madness of male hormones, that emotion of fear and surrender is much, much more common in women than in men. Look at the police statistics if you do not believe me (I used to cover the crime beat in my county. There was not a single murderess during the three years I had that job, although I met more the one murderer.)

So my point is that our disbelief should be suspended just so long and exactly so long as it it clear this is make-believe.

But the agenda of Political Correctness is trying to make this make-believe seem real.

Women will go insane and go into despair if asked to compete at a male task on male terms with male rules. Do not get me wrong, there are topflight female athletes who can outperform men who are below average. But topflight female athletes in nearly all fields perform about as well as topflight highschool boys, not as well as topflight college boys, who are at their statistical peak of physical performance.

Putting women in a situation where they are sure to fail but are not allowed to admit that they are overmatched and not allowed to quit is the best possible way to induce despair. How can the woman be sure, even if she does win over some male athlete at some male sport, that the standards were not lowered to accommodate her?

The other thing that was the turning point in my personal opinion on this matter (believe it or not, back in the days of darkness, I was an ardent egalitarian and fan of women’s lib just like everyone else) was another thing shocking to me, but which apparently fairly common. The most physically attractive woman I have ever met I met in college, during the premier of a film she was in: this was the starlette Virginia Madsen, and we were both 24 year old when we met. I waltzed a dance or two with her, and taking her out on the balcony, asked her what she admired in a man? What kind of man did she want in life? She answered that she wanted Tarzan, a man who would sweep her off her feet, picked her up, and (she nodded toward a tall tree in the distance) carry her off to that tree. In other words, she wanted physical strength, confidence, courage, directness, leadership. Manliness.

I had since heard the same thing from many other women, but usually in whispers, as if someone told them it was a shameful and weak thing to be feminine.

Someone told them that little boys should want to grow up and be Tarzan, who wrestles lions, but little girls should not grow up to want to be Jane, the one who civilizes the ape-man who wrestles lions. Instead little girls should want to grow up to wrestle lions. But I know of no little girl who picks up Barbie dolls and bend the feet to make a shape she can hold like a gun to shoot attacking the pirates and ninjas and dinosaurs.  So the standard of trying to warp little girls to be jealous of little boys, and telling them that they can be better than little boys at the very things nature and upbringing conspire to make little boys better at. It is unnatural and unnecessary and its drives the women who grow up trying to live up to this warped standard bat-guano crazy.

It drives them to hate being wives and mothers.  It makes even such unthinkable atrocities as killing your own child in the womb seem normal, even seem like a right that no one can deny.

And then the crowning irony is that when a woman writer (for the feminists care about the sex of the writer rather than the sex of the muses — who are female, for those of you keeping track, and can visit writers of either sex) manages to portray a female character who is strong and well rounded and the heroine of the plot, one of the main drivers on whose decisions and reactions the plot hangs — then the world calls that character a ‘Mary Sue’ and the character and her author are mocked.

This is something I neither understand or condone. As far as I can tell, all characters, male and female, with the possible exception of the stars of tragedies ending in a pool of blood, are Mary Sues, that is, wish fulfillment characters. And even the tragic heroes would fulfill my wishes, if they die in the noble fashion, poetry on lip and firmness in eye, as a stoic should die.

So what is behind this mockery? Is it just a cruel backlash from the Patriarchy (by which I mean the government of cat-people 61 Ursae Majoris) trying to stifle the self-esteem of the feminists who want to read about feminine heroines?

I am sure there are readers with discriminating patrician tastes who want to read stories with well-rounded and realistic characters, drawn with warts and all, granting some memorable insight into the melancholy grandeur of the human condition. I also read such stories, but only when when I have run out of GALACTIC PATROL novels, or Barsoom books or JUSTICE LEAGUE comics. I have no problem with wish fulfillment characters like the Gray Lensman, who is good at everything; or John Carter, who can outfence and outfight everyone on two worlds and who comes back to life when killed; or Superman, who can outfight and outfly everyone in every world and comes back to life when killed.

What people find annoying is not wish fulfillment characters. What they find annoying is wish fulfillment characters who fulfill unseemly wishes.

What is the wish in this picture, drawn, I assure you, in all serious and earnest good faith by a feminist who was being serious?


The wish is to do without Prince Charming. The wish is to be as good as a man at men’s work. This is from a Disney movie where all the main characters are female and everything that happens, happens because some female makes it happen. (The female are fairies, but so what? Women are magical in real life anyway, as far as I am concerned).

The Prince does little more than dance one waltz with the maiden fair and get his butt kicked by orcs and end up in chains while the evil fairy queen mocks him. Not only is he rescued by women, they are women no bigger than my pinky finger.

But his is the task to face the poisonous thorns and slay the dragon, who is filled with all the powers of Hell.

That anyone would see this, this small role occupying only a few minutes of screen time, as an insult to women, or as a threat, or as an imposition, is madness. So what is the wish being fulfilled in that picture above, where the Sleeping Beauty needs no rescue and needs a man only about as much as a fish needs a bicycle?

It is not a wish for female equality. This is one fairy tale where every female character is either royalty or is supernatural.

It is a wish for sexlessness. It is a wish to do away with everything feminine, and to be better at Prince Charming’s task than the Prince. Ultimately, it is a wish to do away with human nature itself.

But human nature cannot be done away with. Consider that epitome of liberated strong femalehood, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who has spawned as many homages and imitations in her day as John Carter did in his. He created a genre of his own, called the Planetary Romance. She created a genre of her own, sometimes called Urban Fantasy, but which should really be called Monster Romance.

It should be called Monster Romance because the main story arc for Buffy was about her love life. First she was sweet on Angel, but that did not work out, then Riley, and then Spike. Despite that she was a kick-ass wire-fu superheroine with a smile full of quips and a hand full of stakes, the main point of the drama was, as in most stories of this kind, her love life.

And Anita Blake? And countless others? Where is the main conflict? Where is the reader’s interest? Where is the drama? It is all about Jean-Claude or Spike or whomever the semihuman male lead is. It is all about the romance.

Most if not all of these urban leather-clad ninja-babes and modern swordswomen fill a need in the audience. The males, by and large, just like seeing cute girls dressed as catwoman. The females, by and large, like the romantic drama. There is no drama if the boy and the girl kiss on the first page and get married on the second. The drama exists if something prevents the marriage. These days, there are no real taboos to marrying whomever you would like, and the guy can even start out married to someone else, because divorce is no fault. Modernity allows no dramatic and realistic obstacle to romance.

The solution is to employ dramatic, unrealistic obstacles, such as by having your male lead be a nonhuman from the Night World. In urban fantasy, the vampire or the werewolf can fulfill this role neatly. Also, the half monster can be masculine in a fashion no soft modern man is likely to be: werewolves can be as badass as Conan, and vampires as seductive and dangerous as Lord Byron. (Who no doubt was a vampire, anyway). And since the heroine is the Chosen One, and destined to kill monsters like him, she is placed in a situation where she must overcome both his fallen nature, and the powers of hell, and her own best judgment, and defy the Council of the Illuminati, to win his heart and restore his soul.

Which is a perfectly satisfying book because this is exactly what finding and domesticating a man feels like or should feel like to a woman.

And, of course, in the modern age, where the despair of women is at a historical all time high, and the divorce rate is high and the suicide rate is high, romance feels like a back alley brawl with a supernatural monster. These books are a picture of the despair of women in the sexual free-for-all that exists in a post-christian, post-chivalry, feminist world, a world where a woman is defended by no one but herself.

A leather-clad street fighter with a sword and a chainsaw, covered in blood, is what life feels like to the female readership, who need an image of strength and security to admire. No wonder such books are popular.

On to Part Four. More to Come.


  1. Comment by Sean Michael:

    Dear Mr. Wright:

    I absolutely agree with you in finding Xena the Warrior Maiden types of stories unconvincing and unsatisfactory. Precisely because 5’4” tall women simply CAN’T fight, absent an equalizer, even ordinary males of ordinary strength (never mind hulking goons 6.5 feet tall).

    The ONLY SF writer who managed to make me suspend my disbelief in women being able to successfully fight males was S.M. Stirling, in his Draka books. And ONLY because he had Draka women studying, training, practicing, eating a specialized diet, the arts of war and combat from age seven onwards. And, in THE STONE DOGS, we then see the Draka using genetic modification to make their women as tough as male Draka (who were also genetically modified to enable them to learn and practice the arts of combat more easily). Frankly, the Draka, male and female, were monsters. Which of course was one of the things Stirling was telling us.

    Needless to say, PC feminists wouldn’t like what Stirling says, that it takes an enormous and DEHUMANIZING effort for women to be like male soldiers and fighters.

    Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

    • Comment by Mary:

      One also notes the inequity of expecting women to die in battle like men when the men aren’t going to start dying in childbirth like women.

      • Comment by Sean Michael:

        Hi, Mary!

        I have seen the idea of pregnant men used or dicussed by SF writers. One example being Cordwainer Smith’s Attakops in “The Crime and the Glory of Commander Suzdal.” The planet they settled had, at first, the usual half and half ratio of men and women. But soon the planet was found to be lethal to female life forms from Earth. By cloning men babies and having them brought to term by implantation into men, the colony survived. Needless to say, the resulting society was grotesque!

        Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

  2. Comment by Stephen J.:

    Intriguing. I hope I will not further press your patience by posing one more question, in the best Devil’s Advocate manner:

    What we are ultimately discussing, as you recognize, is the thesis of whether human nature includes general essential differences between the sexes and what those essential differences mean to artists attempting to create realistic and entertaining depictions of human beings, summing up the point being developed in the final statement: “Because human nature cannot be done away with.”

    But fellow SF writer David Brin has contended, and many SF fans have agreed, that the job of science fiction in particular is to challenge such verities as these and ask, what if they are not eternal? What if what we know as “human” nature could be “done away with” — transcended, superseded, improved upon, and each sex given access to the strengths of the other as well as its own?

    Mr. Brooks cites one example of such a change proving to be a horrific thing, when done by a horrific culture; but it may be a reasonable question to ask if it needs must ever be so.

    • Comment by Crude:

      What if what we know as “human” nature could be “done away with” — transcended, superseded, improved upon, and each sex given access to the strengths of the other as well as its own?

      I think Wright may have already answered that: “If Supergirl is from Planet Kripton, fine, she can punch goons through solid brick walls, no problem. Ditto for Starfire of the Teen Titans. If Buffy the Vampire Slayer is possessed by all the strength of the ghosts of the First Slayer, fine, she has superduper strength and its magic. Fine. That is all fine with me.”

      So if you’re altering a woman extremely via sci-fi magic, well hey, it may well make sense. But at that point you’re also dealing not with women and men as we know them, but some kind of strange concoction that won’t really be advancing the ’cause’ that drives some of these depictions to begin with.

    • Comment by Robert Mitchell Jr:

      It might be, but certain questions have been poisoned by history (Amazingly, by Leftists every time, just like this discussion! Surely they aren’t wrong this time……). Note that we don’t talk much about Poll taxes, or Literacy tests (Both actually provable good (At the very least neutral) ideas). We have seen the attempts to “do away with human nature”, and given the amount of blood spilled, the correct response is to pick up a big stick and beat the people asking such questions until they stop moving.

    • Comment by The OFloinn:

      What if what we know as “human” nature could be “done away with”

      Then you would no longer have humans.

    • Comment by Mary:

      By definition, you can not change human nature. You can change humans. If you change humans enough that they cease to conform to human nature, they are no longer human.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      I have had some private communication with Mr Brin, and he revealed to me unwittingly what he true motivation is for such comments. It is not that he wishes mankind improved, it is that he wishes mankind to be the improver. By that I mean the elevation of man to a higher state, let us say by divine grace, would be intolerable to him. It is power and control in and of itself his philosophy regards as admirable. Even if we made a hash of the matter, and used our transhumanist technology to make ourselves by mischance or malice into hobgoblins, I strongly suspect he would still salute our courage for relying on our own pinions to fly us up to heaven and usurp the thrones of angels rather than admit the need for grace.

      He wants human nature done away with, but does not accept the tradition method of transfiguration, which is to eat and drink the body and blood of Christ, and accept a new nature to replace our old. What he is discussing is a shabby and sad substitute for that.

      That said, I do admire any man who is mentally alert enough to recognize that man is sinful and needs salvation from our innate depravity.

      And, with all due respect, it is not a reasonable question, but a remarkably naive one. Have you learned nothing from the last hundred years of human history? Go reread NINETEEN EIGHTY FOUR and BRAVE NEW WORLD and then tell me how reasonable it will be to give the technology of altering human nature into the hands of the World State.

      Suppose the alien benefactors of Alpha Draconis landed in your back yard and handed you the Evolutionary Engine, a device which allowed the operator to change babies in the womb to alter their genetics, biology and psychology to achieve a desired result. The aliens will not give it to you, but they select you as the person who will award the Engine to some famous person of present or the past (because they can travel faster than the speed of light, bringing forward someone out from yesterday is possible).

      Whom would you personally trust with that power? George Bush? Barry Obama? Margaret Thatcher? Oppenheimer? Carlos Castanada? Joseph Stalin? No? What about Ghandi? What about Mother Theresa? What about Pope Francis?

      It cannot be anyone from before 1850 or so, because men of older days did not believe in evolution, and did not believe human nature could change. So you cannot pick George Washington or King Arthur or Constantine or Socrates. Who? The people who are most famous for their belief in human evolution are Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche. One of them, perhaps?

      • Comment by Stephen J.:

        As a big fan of Lewis’s The Abolition of Man I certainly need no convincing of the folly of attempted technological solutions to human improvement, nor of the danger of giving such a solution (should one ever manifest) to any specific group of real people. (For one thing, unless the Evolutionary Engine can change all babies worldwide consistently and enforce the change on all births from that temporal point forward, its use would only in practice break down into another division between haves and have-nots — also a point Lewis makes in Abolition.)

        But perhaps my question becomes clearer if I point out that “human nature” is here being used to cover several interrelated but distinguishable aspects of sexual differentiation: physical capacities, mental aptitudes, emotional interests and reactions, and socialized behaviours. That all of these connect and influence one another cannot be doubted, but the thesis being here developed seems to imply that these aspects and their connexions are all sufficiently innate and inflexible — both for each sex as a group and for the vast majority of individuals within that sex — that attempts to create more flexibility and variety, for the sake of maximizing individual freedom of choice, are counterproductive at best and foredoomed at worst. (I say “seems” to highlight that this is a deliberately challenging inference for argument’s sake, not an accusation.)

        For example, let us move away from the stereotypical dramatic example of giving women the physical strength and speed to match men in hand-to-hand combat. (I personally always explained Black Widow’s badassery as a product of the Russian equivalent of Steve Rogers’ supersoldier serum, but this may just be my fanon.) Consider instead what has been talked about as a primarily mental/emotional difference between the sexes: the typically masculine emphasis on problem-solving and winning a conflict, vs. the typically feminine emphasis on problem-management and resolving a conflict.

        Is it being contended here that the “natural” variation between how the sexes incline to these approaches is so acute or essential that: 1) a general attempt to train individuals of both sexes to be equally capable in either method, and to be able to use whichever was appropriate as needed, would be necessarily pointless or counterproductive, and 2) that a theoretical augmentation of the brain to make all people equally apt at either method would produce people unrecognizeable as humans, and a society intolerable for baselines like us to live in? Would the augmentation still produce an unrecognizeable culture if the variation was simply changed to be wholly random by individual, rather than strongly correlated by sex? Would a story that explored these questions by imagining such a scenario be literarily pointless, for having nothing to say to or about “real people”?

        Part of the reason I ask is because I have always observed a much stronger tendency to the typical “feminine” reactions in my own emotional makeup; I tend to the hypersensitive, incline to nurturing children rather than challenging them, enjoy my leisure time much more for who I spend it with than for what I do with it, and find solutions to problems much less satisfying if finding and applying them causes significant strain within a group (I have enough masculine logic in my thought processes that I still prefer a discord-causing solution to a peaceful but ineffectual concord; I just much prefer to have both concord and solution). So the notion that physical sexual dimorphism has the level of personality influence being (apparently) here proposed is always something I have some instinctive skepticism for, because it has never matched my own experiences.

  3. Comment by Sean Michael:

    Hi, Stephen!

    Thanks for your comments, even tho I’m not sure I can say anything new that either Mr. Wright or I have not already said. I disagree with what you’ve said writers like David Brin believes. I agree with Wright in believing there are innate differences between man and woman deeper than the merely physical. That is, women tend to be more conciliatory and better at multi tasking while men tend to be more single minded and better at achieving goals. This is far too brief, of course!

    So, I’ll stick with Stirling’s view that if women want to be like men, then achieving that goal is more likely than not to come at far too high a price.

    Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

  4. Comment by Mary:

    The problem with “Mary Sue” is that since everyone agrees that a Mary Sue is bad, it is used to insult rather than to describe, and loses meaning. Like “villain,” which just means bad guy nowadays.

    Nonetheless, the term originally pointed to something recognizable even without it:

    The heroine is usually an heiress, probably a peeress in her own right, with perhaps a vicious baronet, an amiable duke, and an irresistible younger son of a marquis as lovers in the foreground, a clergyman and a poet sighing for her in the middle distance, and a crowd of undefined adorers dimly indicated beyond. Her eyes and her wit are both dazzling; her nose and her morals are alike free from any tendency to irregularity; she has a superb contralto and a superb intellect; she is perfectly well dressed and perfectly religious; she dances like a sylph, and reads the Bible in the original tongues. Or it may be that the heroine is not an heiress—that rank and wealth are the only things in which she is deficient; but she infallibly gets into high society, she has the triumph of refusing many matches and securing the best, and she wears some family jewels or other as a sort of crown of righteousness at the end. Rakish men either bite their lips in impotent confusion at her repartees, or are touched to penitence by her reproofs, which, on appropriate occasions, rise to a lofty strain of rhetoric; indeed, there is a general propensity in her to make speeches, and to rhapsodize at some length when she retires to her bedroom. In her recorded conversations she is amazingly eloquent, and in her unrecorded conversations amazingly witty. She is understood to have a depth of insight that looks through and through the shallow theories of philosophers, and her superior instincts are a sort of dial by which men have only to set their clocks and watches, and all will go well. The men play a very subordinate part by her side. You are consoled now and then by a hint that they have affairs, which keeps you in mind that the working-day business of the world is somehow being carried on, but ostensibly the final cause of their existence is that they may accompany the heroine on her “starring” expedition through life. They see her at a ball, and they are dazzled; at a flower-show, and they are fascinated; on a riding excursion, and they are witched by her noble horsemanship; at church, and they are awed by the sweet solemnity of her demeanor. She is the ideal woman in feelings, faculties, and flounces. For all this she as often as not marries the wrong person to begin with, and she suffers terribly from the plots and intrigues of the vicious baronet; but even death has a soft place in his heart for such a paragon, and remedies all mistakes for her just at the right moment. The vicious baronet is sure to be killed in a duel, and the tedious husband dies in his bed requesting his wife, as a particular favor to him, to marry the man she loves best, and having already dispatched a note to the lover informing him of the comfortable arrangement. Before matters arrive at this desirable issue our feelings are tried by seeing the noble, lovely, and gifted heroine pass through many mauvais moments, but we have the satisfaction of knowing that her sorrows are wept into embroidered pocket-handkerchiefs, that her fainting form reclines on the very best upholstery, and that whatever vicissitudes she may undergo, from being dashed out of her carriage to having her head shaved in a fever, she comes out of them all with a complexion more blooming and locks more redundant than ever.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      Sorry, call me a Plebian, but I still do not see how this is any worse than Kimball Kinnison or Bruce Wayne in reference to boys. Do you notice the pattern? The Mary Sue is superhumanly all-powerful in one special sphere: her wit and her learning and her equestrienne skills allow her never to be ashamed in any social situation, and she can outwit rakes with her cunning tongue. She is in other words in the social and domestic sphere what Superman is in the sphere of physical prowess, that is, invincible. Yje social and domestic sphere is where women act feminine.

      The Mary Sue character, it seems to me, is mocked for two reasons. One reason is just, the other is unjust. She is the allpowerful feminine being. The just criticism mocks her for being all-powerful. This makes her a childish figure of the imagination, like Superman, a figure too good to be true. Those who prefer realism to romanticism are right to mock this idea.

      The second group of people mock her for being feminine. This is the unjust mockery. These are people, usually feminist, or those with a sexual neurosis, or both, who simply hate anything feminine, anything pink, anything floral. They are orcs.

      • Comment by Robert Mitchell Jr:

        I think the reason “Mary Sue” is mocked, as opposed to Superman, is because of the many, many fan fiction examples of author insertion. If those authors had the verve to write their own universes, they wouldn’t be objects of comedic contempt.

      • Comment by Brian Niemeier:

        I should clarify my terms, here. “Mary Sue”, as I’ve heard it defined, is gender-neutral. I’m sure some critics with ulterior motives misapply the trope to denigrate feminine characters. However, I’ve seen it applied to male characters just as often.

        Imagine writing a book with a protagonist named Jack D. Right who embodies an exaggerated version of your own self-image. This character doesn’t just overcome every obstacle in his way; he always does it on the first try, marching from victory to victory. That character could properly be called a Gary Stu.

        The problems with Mary Sue characters have nothing to do with their sex. The problem is an author’s self-aggrandizing motives leading to lack of conflict.

        Superman, the Gray Lensman, and John Carter are not Mary Sues. They’re not avatars of Joe Shuster, Doc Smith, or Edgar Rice Burroughs, even if the creations share some of their creators’ features. It’s still possible to write a story featuring any of them in which a credible threat arises. Our better judgment knows that they’ll win, but we can be tricked into fearing they may lose.

        The feminist critics who deride strongly feminine characters as Mary Sues are most likely assuming that the author is a closet regressive vicariously living out her secret dreams of being whisked away by Tarzan. It’s the only motive they can imagine for someone wanting to write a female character who displays feminine strength. As such, calling a strong feminine character a Mary Sue is akin to calling a conservative who beat them in debate a racist.

        I’m also green with envy that you got to meet Virginia Madsen. She sounds amazing.

        • Comment by Mary:

          The thing is, that while self-insert was definitely the first meaning of Mary Sue, there quickly arose debate about whether therefore Richard Roe writing about Marie Suzette was immediately exempt, as would be Jane Doe about Marion Sam — even though if the authors were Marie Suzette and Marion Sam, the Mary Sueness would be evident at first glance.

    • Comment by DGDDavidson:

      Never have I seen Mary Sue dressed in such beautiful prose. I would readily read a story about this character. Where can I find one?

  5. Comment by Velvete:

    I agree with some of your points: It’s sad that traditionally feminine virtues tend to be seen as weak and uninteresting. And, yes, most women will be feminine just as most men will be masculine. Keyword: most.

    I’m one of those women that does like being domineering, enjoys competition, is on the ‘neutral emotional setting’ most of the time (to the point where I have severe difficulty relating to others and facial expressions more complicated than ‘happy/sad/mad’ baffle me) and I like to think that I’m good at doing things the way I do them. I always preferred to play with boys as a kid, found the generally cooperative and domestic-oriented ‘House’ style games most little girls were playing to be a drag, and owned far more dinosaurs, knights, and play-guns than dolls. And you are right: I am often called bitchy rather than strongwilled, and it sucks!

    But, something I’ve noticed, is that writing as a craft often calls to outsiders and outliers. Throughout my university career I was always the only disabled person in my class, except in my writing class, where I was one of four! Four, in a class of twelve, with major, visible disabilities! I don’t think that’s a coincidence; I think writing is a great way for those who may not be accepted as they are in the real world to express themselves through fantasy. So, while I think the general attitude towards characters who are strong in a feminine way needs a fix, I think it would be quite unfair to exclude women who happen to be strong in the masculine way as well, even acknowledging that they are outliers.

    I also have an issue with a comment you made on the first post: “Are women these days supposed to be proud of facial scars?” to which my response is: why not? While I don’t have scars on my face, I DO have major scarring elsewhere (related to my aforementioned disability) and throughout my teenage years the message I got was that I should be ashamed of my diminished beauty rather than proud of the adversity I overcame. It’s not my fault I have these scars, I didn’t go looking for trouble, yet in my youth I wore heavy clothes in summer and collapsed due to heat exhaustion several times rather than expose my “ugly” scars. Now I’m proud of my scars, I’m proud of the adversity I overcame, and I see them as marks of courage and strength instead of ugliness and shame. Safe to say, I’m a lot happier for it! And I wish I would’ve had more books to read about proud, scarred heroines.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      You make two good points: most drama is about the outliers, and the only thing I talk about in my essay is the norm. Second, the essay talks about female characters being put in traditionally masculine situations and outperforming the males. I hope I was clear on the point that the vast overlap of cases are cases where the virtues and personality characteristic are the same for both sexes. A female detective in a detective story, it seems to me at least, should be domineering and emotionally neutral, because that is the setting for detective stories; my point being that detective work is brainwork, which women can do as well as men or better.

      Even when you describe your scars and your pride in them, you are still approaching it in a feminine way, or so it seems to me. You did not go to Heidelberg to get a dueling scar to make yourself look more ferocious to your enemies or more attractive to the opposite sex, who will see that you are fearless in combat. That is why foolish boys think scars are romantic. That is not what you described. You described exactly what I called the most impressive version of feminine strength, which is the fortitude to overcome, to have hope when hope is dead, to survive when others fall into despair.

      You want to hear my true thought? I think most writers do not have the balls to write strong female characters who are strong in a feminine way, because it is a spiritual form of strength that most writers are too self centered to understand, too unwise to like, too lazy to investigate. But since I have never written any characters like that, I am reluctant to say what I really think.

  6. Comment by Arakawa:


    “Never have I seen Mary Sue dressed in such beautiful prose. I would readily read a story about this character. Where can I find one?”

    Oddly, the first character that came to mind was Rarity in Flight of the Alicorn. Her existence is not… quite so glamorous, but it seems to draw on the same ideal. And sadly, Flight of the Alicorn is in the action-adventure genre, so there is far too much getting thrown out of zeppelins and slogging through muddy jungles to be entirely ladylike.

    Perhaps it was just ‘her fainting form reclines only on the finest upholstery’ that brought it to mind :-P

  7. Comment by DGDDavidson:


    Well, as long as the conversation has turned to ponies, I must say that I think this series of posts has explained to me why I was dissatisfied with the latest arc of the My Little Pony comic book series. It was supposed to be a parody of ’80s teen romance movies about a geek winning a girl out of his league, but they left out the part in which the geek finally mans up and punches out his rival the jock or does something equivalent. It just turns out that she already liked him anyway in the first place, so he doesn’t have to win her.

    Making it worse, they did this with Shining Armor and Princess Cadance, who are supposed to be the personification of chivalry and the princess of love, respectively. I think the characters must not have been PC enough for the writers, so they made her cheap and retconned him into a wimp.

  8. Comment by The Deuce:

    But I know of no little girl who picks up Barbie dolls and bend the feet to make a shape they can hold like a gun to shoot attacking the pirates and ninjas and dinosaurs.

    Funny that you point this out at this moment. Just this week, my 2-year-old son has started using a toothbrush that was sitting on the coffee table as a sword to slay me with when I play daddy-monster, without it being in any way prompted or suggested.

  9. Comment by catheader:

    ‘Women who are bold rather than wise are playing to something they are generally not good at…’

    We have always been bolder than you, John. We’ve had to be.

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