Is Daisy Ridley Right that Calling Rey a Mary Sue is Sexist?

You might remember that when ‘The Force Awakens’ came out, the screenwriter Max Landis faulted the character of Rey for being a Mary Sue. A Mary Sue is a trope that is commonly seen in bad screenwriting and fanfiction. It refers to a character who, with little to no explanation, is so awesome that he or she has unrealistic and overpowered abilities that are not supposed to the movie’s own backstory; that he or she is better than all of the established characters at the things that make them unique for no apparent reason, and so on.

When Landis said Rey was a Mary Sue, many women accused him of sexism. Recently, these women have been joined by Daily Ridley herself who said that “The Mary Sue thing in itself is sexist because it’s the name of a woman. … Everyone was saying that Luke had the exact same [capabilities.] … So for me, it was just confused.”

Is Ridley right about this?

The Mary Sue trope does indeed carry the name of a woman. But there is nothing in the definition of a Mary Sue that necessitates that such a character would have to be female. If you switched Rey’s gender in ‘The Force Awakens,’ but kept everything else the same, the male Rey would also be a Mary Sue. The name itself is nothing to get hung up on. In fact, male Mary Sues are often referred to as Larry Stus and Gary Stus by screenwriters – and of course, that wouldn’t happen if Mary Sues were always women.

Ridley has a point that there is no reason that a gender-neutral screenwriting trope should be named after a woman. But if you think about it, many terms and tropes in common parlance have somewhat misleading names. Feminism, for example, is quite the misleading name for a movement that seeks to do away with gender differences. But it carries this name for historical reasons. Similarly, the Mary Sue trope carries this name because the original piece of writing that criticized the trope happened to revolve around a female character. It’s called a Mary Sue for historical reasons, not because only women can be Mary Sues – and it was actually a woman who came up with the original criticism of the Mary Sue trope.

Just like you could switch Rey’s gender to male and she’d still be a Mary Sue, so you could switch the name of the Mary Sue trope, and Rey would still be a Mary Sue. None of this has anything to do with gender. She seems to be confusing the surface phenomenon of the name with the motif that the name refers to.

Then there is Ridley’s claim that Luke Skywalker had the same capabilities as Rey, the implication being that supposedly, in a world devoid of sexism, if Rey were a Mary Sue Luke would then also be one. Ridley is right that Luke had many of the same capabilities as Rey. But she neglects to mention that Luke only had these capabilities by the third movie and after having been trained by both Obi-Wan and Yoda. Rey demonstrates abilities on par with, or better than Luke’s by the first movie and without any training. So Ridley is leaving out some preeeeeetty important details when she says Rey is no more overpowered than Luke.

Furthermore, recall that one of the features of a Mary Sue is that the character is better than all of the established characters at the things that make them unique for no apparent reason. For example, we never actually see Luke being better than Han at fixing or flying the Millennium Falcon, but that (and many other things) is just what we see with Rey, with no explanation given for her prowess.

Some people have said that maybe Anakin was a Mary Sue then, because Anakin also had many overpowered abilities that he hardly had to train to acquire. It would certainly be tempting to grant this point so that we could have a clear example of a male Mary Sue in the franchise and lay the accusations of sexism to rest. But recall another point about Mary Sues – they have overpowered abilities that are not supposed to the movie’s own backstory. Anakin had overpowered abilities, yes, but the prequels actually take care to explain that he is a virgin birth and a child of the force with a midi-chlorian count higher than Yoda’s. Now, this is also really bad screenwriting. But it isn’t the Mary Sue kind of bad – the movie does explain why Anakin has such extraordinary abilities. Nor is Anakin better than all of the established characters at everything. He is a whiny brat who needs Obi-Wan to discipline him. He needs Padme to help him understand grand scale politics. And he needs Yoda to bail him out after he gets chopped by Count Dooku.

So no – neither Luke nor Anakin are Mary Sues. But Rey invariably is. And Daisy Ridley’s arguments don’t hold up.