Friday, March 27, 2009

Anita Blake and Mary Sue

There was apparently a bit of a mix-up when I went to order Laurell K. Hamilton's Guilty Pleasures, the first book of her wildly popular Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter series. I ended up with the first volume of Marvel's graphic novel adaptation instead. Illustrated lavishly by Brett Booth, it is certainly a visual feast but I was more interested in the story itself. I enjoy vampires (except Twilight) and have heard a lot of good and interesting things about Anita Blake. There has also been quite a bit of chatter on the speculative fiction blogosphere about a current publishing phenomenon called "urban fantasy," of which Anita Blake is said to have been a major forerunner and influence (Guilty Pleasures was published in 1993). Urban fantasy author Lilith Saintcrow has sarcastically referred to the genre as "angry chicks in leather," a label others have objected to, but from what I've seen, powerful, ass-kicking female protagonists do seem to play a huge role in these types of books.

Now I'm not sure whether I'd classify urban fantasy as explicitly feminist or not. One thing I noticed immediately about most of the book covers was that every single one of these tough, hard-hitting ladies (with the exception of both Patricia Brigg's Mercy Thompson and Anita Blake herself) seems to be a size 4 white girl, a beauty paradigm that's been widely proven to be harmful. Of course, you can make the same criticism of sci-fi/fantasy in general. And I'm not sure why every female character has to analyzed in terms of how "feminist" she is. In fact (to be fair), this has been a common counterargument among Twilight fans when confronted with accusations that Bella is terrible heroine (and personally, I think she is, but I've already beaten that topic to death). Why, they ask, can't Bella simply be Bella? By reducing her to a statement on feminism/anti-feminism, aren't you dehumanizing her as a character? (And why are you spending so much time on a series that you hate? Um. . . *cough cough*)

All that being said, however, I was forced to reexamine my own perceptions of women in genre fiction. I realized that I had been ready to dismiss Anita as a mere "Mary Sue," a dreaded term that originated in Star Trek fan fiction to describe an impossibly beautiful and impossibly talented female character who acts as a vehicle for her author's fantasy wish fulfillment (since most fan fiction writers are female). A Mary Sue in, say, a Star Wars fanfic would be a gorgeous young lady, maybe from Alderaan nobility, with the strongest Force powers seen in generations. Anakin or Obi-Wan will inevitably fall in love with her. She will end up either triumphantly saving the day or suffering a romanticized martyr's death. While there is a male counterpart known as "Gary Stu," a closer examination reveals that the Mary Sue burden seems to fall almost entirely on women. Editor Joanna Cantor has even blamed the specter of Mary Sue for the lack of "believable, competent, and identifiable-with female characters." A panel of female authors at a 1987 Star Trek convention has actually stated that they do not write female characters at all just to avoid the Mary Sue label.

Now I'm not denying that Mary Sue exists. But all serious authors want their characters to be real and identifiable. Having a protagonist who is just a freaking paragon is the sure sign of an amateur. I don't know about you, but I can think of quite a few fictional men who fit the Gary Stu model. James T. Kirk, for instance, is the proverbial sci-fi Alpha Male who commands his own starship, is renowned as a hero throughout the fleet, beds a whole lotta sexy aliens, and beats up a whole lotta bad guys. Of course, any Trekkie will also tell you that Wesley Crusher from The Next Generation actually has been widely reviled as a Gary Stu (to begin with, Wesley is Gene Roddenberry's middle name) but I think he was just hated from the beginning. Geeky ├╝ber-kid saves the Enterprise - again! The "Gary Stu" criticism towards Wesley simply justified a loathing that already existed and finally gave fans a concrete reason to despise a character who had long rubbed them the wrong way.

And now the Big Question. Why does Mary Sue largely haunt female authors writing female characters? As Carrie Vaughn, author of the Kitty Norville series asks in her blog, "What is [the popularity of urban fantasy] symptomatic of? What anxiety in our culture is being expressed so eloquently in these works that they’re striking such a powerful chord in the readership, leading to phenomenal popularity?" It's women and power, she answers, women and violence. It's our willingness to accept female warriors but not without "apologizing" for them because Western culture is ultimately ambivalent about them. An ass-kicking femme will nevertheless submit to the smokin' hot Alpha Male or exhibit some psychological flaw such as low self-esteem. It's the paradox of the author who feels comfortable writing a strong, beautiful, confident female protagonist but who is still aware that her character may be dismissed as a "Mary Sue." Women have come so far, Vaughn argues, and yet we are still ostracized and undercut for appearing powerful and in control.

So yes, Anita Blake is a bold and sexy female fighter who gets her man. Yet she also values friendship and loyalty, shows sympathy for a recovering "vampire junky," and wears an oversized t-shirt with a cartoon penguin on it to hide her gun holster. I personally found the Guilty Pleasures to be a bit over-the-top in terms of the supernatural ("wererats"? "freak parties"?) and containing way too many sleazy Fabio types (what Smart Bitches, Trashy Books snarkily calls "quivering man-titty") but I ended up enjoying it. No, it wasn't Anne Rice, but it was great fun. I really need to read the actual book!


Joanne said...

This is a great post. I've read both the novel and comic series featuring Anita. I will fully admit that the first books are very high on my favorites list, the comics not so much and the last few books Hamilton released ... well imo they're trash.

I've never, ever heard the term Mary Sue before, I can see how it makes so much sense in this type of genre. But one thing that made me love the Anita character was that she wasn't the perfect, beautiful woman in the beginning of the series. Yes she could kick ass with the best of the best, but she had many image issues which made her a much more realistic character to me. She worried about her height, weight, bra size and bad hair - and in that I could relate. Over the series progression she has morphed into an alpha female of perfection and I don't know quite how I feel about it.
Anyway enough of my blabbering, if you thought the comic was a fun read I would highly recommend the series. Even though the supernatural aspects are a bit over the top, they are good reads. But be prepared for the series to seriously go downhill in substance further in.

E. L. Fay said...

Anne Rice also went seriously downhill towards the end of The Vampire Chronicles. The Vampire Armand was all gay pedophile vampire porn, while the final book, Blood Canticle, was just a horrible mess. If you haven't read any of Rice's books yet, I strongly recommend the first five of the series. The rest . . . meh.

The term "Mary Sue" used to be confined to geeky fan fiction circles but the popularity of Twilight has brought it more into the mainstream, as a lot of critics have accused Bella Swann of being one. Personally I agree . . . but that's another post.

Christine said...

There are definitely Gary Stus out there, though. I submit David Copperfield to you for judgement. Also, John Perry, from John Scalzi's Old Man's War.

E. L. Fay said...

I was actually just thinking of some more Gary Stu examples to point out. A lot mythological heroes such as Hercules definitely fit the bill. King Arthur is another one. And how 'bout that Superman?

It also just occurred to me that Mary Sue can haunt real-life women as well. I saw an interview with Geraldine Ferraro awhile ago. She said that post-election polling revealed that a surprising number of women had objected to her Vice Presidential candidacy on the grounds that she seemed "too perfect" and that made them feel inadequate. Since most fanfic writers are female (and the term "Mary Sue" originated in the fanfic community), that makes me wonder how much of the "Mary Sue" accusations are actually coming from . . . other women! I mean, I don't see too many male reviewers using the phrase.

Jaime said...

I'm actually reading the Anita Blake series now. I'm only on book 3, but I definitely see where Anita could be seen as a Mary Sue. She's way too perfect, way too BADASS, never wrong, blah blah blah. Her physical features match that of Laurell, minus the six pack abs.

Have I quit reading the books? No. Because at the end of the day, I want to see what happens next! So while the Mary Sue presence is very annoying to me, it's not quite as annoying as not knowing what is to come.

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