This definition has been expanded to include "any authorial self-insertion" even in original fiction, (and in the worst instances distorted to substantively cover "any female who is valorised at all, in any circumstance"), but lately I've been thinking back on the occurrence of Mary Sue as a fanfic insertion and wondering at the purpose she served.
In particular, I've been thinking about Mary Sue in relation to this web comic by Interrobang Studios. It's a very funny comic! In the first episode, "Mary Sue Must Die", the Enterprise suffers a Sue, and the crew takes drastic action. But it's the second episode, and specifically this page, which has been bubbling over in the back of my mind. This episode, "The Wrath of Sue", involves a veritable plague of Sues, which have spread from the Trek universe and gone to take over other stories.
The page features a bunch of different
But, of course, these were
Then it hit me. The Smurfette Principle. The stories where Mary Sue was born, and where we hear the most about her obnoxiousness, are the stories where the main characters are almost all men - and all different types of men - and perhaps one main female character (who usually doesn't get to do as much cool stuff as the guys). A male fan of Trek has a range of male characters in which to identify, who are all cool and valorised in their own different ways. A female character either gets to identify with the male characters, or with Uhura (who is cool and valorised but is frequently not given much to do in the plot). The same with female Lord of the Rings fans. There are a broad range of male characters, one of whom is likely to suit a male reader's personality. There are no female characters in the Fellowship, and the female characters (particularly in the novels) are either brief appearances, or kept out of the main action.
We don't hear about the plague of Mary Sue inserts in Cardcaptor Sakura fanfic. Or the Powerpuff Girls. Sure, there might be a little, but where a story offers a range of female characters, who are not sidelined from the action, a female fan is in the situation which the male fan enjoys in Star Trek or Lord of the Rings. A range of characters of the gender she identifies with, actively participating in the story as a main player.
And so I ask myself: Is Mary Sue - obnoxious and world-distorting as she can be - simply making up for a lack in the world she has entered? When we see Mary Sue, should we be deriding the fanfic writer? Or questioning the gender breakdown of the original universe?
Is Mary Sue in fact Absence Sue, working hard to make up for the 50% of the population missing out on the fun?