Back in the early 2000s, I, like many of you, spent many hours on role play or “RP” websites. The RP site served as a platform for people to write stories together. More often than not, these were (and are!) different kinds of fanfiction. Sometimes you wrote from the perspective of a canon character, but I’d spend more time crafting my own characters to populate some author’s universe. For example, I’d create my own unique character and send them to Hogwarts, to get into all kinds of shenanigans with unique characters created by other people. Most websites had written (or at least, unwritten) rules about how these co-authoring relationships work. You couldn’t control another author’s original character without their permission, you couldn’t break the rules of the universe, you were encouraged to match your post’s length to your writing partners’, etc. One of the more popular (and nefarious) rules was “No Mary Sues”.
A “Mary Sue” character is more or less a fictional version of the author. She was a way for the author to insert themselves into the story, usually to steal all the attention. It’s hard to have fun writing when your writing partner’s character has the ultimate tragic backstory, special powers, is the constant center of attention, and usually has some out of the ordinary physical features. Mary Sues are the ultimate idealized versions of the author, inserted into the story. There’s a lot of argument of what really counts as a Mary Sue, and whether or not Mary Sue characters are even all that bad. I don’t think Mary Sues are all that bad. In fact, Mary Sues have been encouraged for centuries. I’m talking about a spiritual practice called Ignatian contemplation or, Mary Sue Spirituality.
Ignatian contemplation is a method of prayer common to Ignatian spirituality. There are many, many ways to be a spiritual person. Even within the boundaries of religious doctrines, there still exist a wide plurality of spiritualities. In Catholicism, often these spiritualities are named after saints, or holy people, who had particularly insightful methods for guiding a person towards a more fruitful life of prayer. Dominican spirituality, named for St. Dominic, is very intellectual and concerned with truth. Franciscan spirituality, named for St. Francis of Assisi, is interested in seeing God in all of creation. Ignatian spirituality, named for St. Ignatius of Loyola, is a very practical and contemplative spirituality.
One practice common to Ignatian spirituality is the practice of Ignatian contemplation. This is a method of praying with the Bible. A person picks out a section, usually a complete story, and reads it to themselves. Next, they sit quietly, close their eyes, and imagine themselves into the story. They imagine who they might be in the story, what they see, smell, touch, hear, and taste. Sometimes people imagine themselves as main characters, other times as nameless bystanders. Thinking about the Bible in this way often illuminates new meanings for the believer, and helps them feel closer to Christ. It doesn’t just tell them more about the Bible story, the kinds of ways that they imagine themselves has something to say about how they view themselves, too.
In a lot of ways, this is exactly like what many young fanfiction authors do when they create Mary Sue characters. They take the established universe (the text of the story) and imagine themselves right into the action. In many ways, it lets them tell the story on their terms, and encounter the themes of the story in new ways. There’s nothing stopping me, as a woman in the 21st century, from imagining myself as the Apostle Peter or Paul. There’s nothing stopping a man from imagining himself in the shoes of the ostracized Samaritan woman at the well. This kind of perspective allows people to really get down and dirty in a story, develop empathy for other characters, and draw new insights into thematic meanings.
Content creators always do this in some capacity every time they retell a story. How many rebooted Spider-man movies are we up to now? I’ve criticized Skye from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. for being too much like a Mary Sue before, because I thought it made her character less interesting. But Ace made a good point: none of her traits, when considered individually, are really all that damning. In fact, most make sense within the context of the universe. While the stereotype may have been that there are no girls on the internet, now that internet media is becoming more mainstream, we’re quickly re-discovering that woman have always made up a huge portion, if not the majority, of fans. You look around at conventions and shows and see a ton of women! So if women make up a large part of internet denizens, we have to wonder if most of the hate Mary Sues get is more of a product of girls hating other girls, in order to not be “like other girls.” Mary Sues may not be as bad as I had originally thought.
People want to be able to see themselves in the stories we tell; this is exactly why diversity and inclusion is so important. It’s easy for me to imagine myself into the mind of one of Jesus’ Twelve Disciples, because as a woman in the 21st century I’ve grown up having to relate to a (white, upper-middle class, cis) man’s experience. But for people who haven’t had to practice imagining themselves into another person’s perspective, it can get difficult to even realize that their perspective could be different from yours. It’s not just important that we have Black or trans or female or religious characters, we need Black and trans and female and religious writers creating those characters. Furthermore, even when we do have authentic portrayals of diverse perspectives, people have a hard time relating to them if they haven’t been forced to since childhood. I grew up watching shows and reading stories about male heroes, so it’s easy for me to understand that white cishet male perspective. But when high school rolled around, I realized that I had a hard time relating to protagonists who weren’t white and whose race mattered to the story. In my incredibly monotone town, I had never been forced to encounter authentic, meaningful portrayals of what it meant to be anything other than white.
When we encounter more diversity in our media, it makes it easier for us to understand different perspectives, even within the same story. It’s not enough to just have the token Black, female, or gay character in your show. In an important way, self-inserts are how we can be sure that we’re including authentic characters with a diversity of perspectives. Suddenly, stereotypes would fall by the wayside. We’d stop seeing the “sassy Black woman” or “flaming homosexual” as just a source of comic relief, but as characters with nuance and meaning who really bring depth to a story. A Mary Sue Spirituality might just be what we need to help bolster diversity in our media.