Tag Archives: Galbrush Paradox

Why Rey From “Star Wars” Is NOT A Mary Sue

There are a handful of character types that tend to evoke a collective groan from most audiences. Being an ardent comic book fan, as well as a general fan of sci-fi, romance, and fantasy, I’ve listened to those groans and even contributed to them. At a time when it’s easier than ever to share opinions and/or voice frustration, these frustrating characters tend to be more vulnerable than ever.

Chief among those groan-inducing characters is the dreaded Mary Sue. Chances are you’ve heard that cute little colloquialism after browsing gaming and sci-fi message boards for more than five minutes.

Usually, it applies to a female character, but can just as easily fit apply to a male character as well, often in the form of the equally groan-inducing label of Gary Stu. Sometimes it’s a criticism of a character. Sometimes it’s a flat-out insult. In most cases, it rarely has a positive connotation.

It’s for that reason that characters slapped with the Mary Sue label tend to be either controversial or destructive to an underlying narrative. Many writers, myself included, go out of their way to avoid crafting characters that might attract that label. I certainly made that effort when I wrote “Skin Deep” and “Passion Relapse.” I doubt I’m the only one who tries to avoid it.

These days, though, there’s one particular character getting slapped with that label and it has been generating discussions for a couple years now. It comes from “Star Wars,” one of the biggest franchises in the history of modern fiction and one of many productive cash cows for Disney. The character in question is Rey and I know that discussions about her tend to bring out the dark side in any “Star Wars” fan.

Now, I personally really like Rey. After seeing “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” she solidified herself as one of my favorite “Star Wars” characters of all time. I wasn’t entirely sold on her potential after seeing “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” but I’ve since been convinced. Rey is a great character and one of the best things to come out of this new generation of “Star Wars.”

That said, I’m aware of the criticisms levied against her. She is very much at the center of an ongoing debate about female characters, in general, and what constitutes a Mary Sue. I tried to avoid those debates after “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” but I feel comfortable entering the fray now after seeing Rey develop over the course of two movies.

Before I offer my assessment on whether or not Rey deserves the label of a Mary Sue, it’s helpful to highlight just what a Mary Sue is. There’s actually not any clearly-defined criteria, to date, and that criteria is constantly evolving. According to TVTropes.org, the simplest definition of a Mary Sue is a character that’s just too good to be true. More specifically, those traits include the following:

  • A bland, shallow personality that’s overly pure, overly good, and incorruptible
  • Flaws that are forced and only ever meant to glorify her purity and goodness
  • Beauty that is either flawless or idealized for any given world, fictional or otherwise
  • Physical skills that are exceedingly good to the point of never facing any real challenges
  • Mental acuity to the point where she’s never wrong, never foolish, and always on the moral high ground
  • Unlimited and contrived access to every tool or resource, be it something mundane or a Deus ex Machina
  • Always ending up with the perfect romantic partner and/or forging friendships with every meaningful character
  • Being at the center of every plot and sub-plot by default

Again, these are just a few traits associated with a Mary Sue and there are likely more. There are far more thorough insights into the traits of a Mary Sue, one of which was done by the YouTube channel, Overly Sarcastic Production. After their wonderful breakdown of strong female characters, I would put their assessment far above my own.

Whatever the criteria, the Mary Sue is such a fluid concept, which is part of why it’s such an empty criticism. However, it has become a more serious criticism and since it’s being applied to “Star Wars,” it’s definitely carries more weight than usual.

With all that said, does Rey fit that criteria? Is it a valid criticism to call Rey a Mary Sue whose portrayal is weighing down the overall narrative of “Star Wars?” It’s a debate I’m sure will continue for quite some time, but here’s my definitive response, for what it’s worth.

No. Rey is NOT a Mary Sue…for the most part.

Now, I’m aware I’m being somewhat vague by adding that little caveat at the end. However, there’s a reason for that and I’m fairly confident that they qualify as reasons and not excuses.

For one, Rey’s story is not complete. That much needs to be said from the beginning. It’s something that I find many debates involving Rey tend to overlook. Yes, her story is lagging a bit more than those of Luke, Leia, and Han Solo did in the original trilogy. There are other reasons for this, but they’re unrelated to the debate at hand.

Even with an incomplete story, I believe that Rey has done enough over the course of two movies to prove that she’s not a Mary Sue. I think she established that shortly after her appearance in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

In terms of appearance, she comes off as someone who could put on a set of clothes from Wal-Mart, walk into a typical high school, and not generate much reaction. She doesn’t radiate the kind of beauty or royalty that often defines a Mary Sue. Even if she later proves to have a special destiny, that basically puts her in the same category as Luke Skywalker and every other legendary hero.

In terms of personality, she’s not exactly gushing with love and likability, which is another key trait of the Mary Sue. In many respects, Rey is somewhat cold and detached when she first shows up. She doesn’t whine or lament about her less-than-extraordinary life, nor does she eagerly jump at the chance to join the resistance when she encounters Finn. Hers is a more complex journey.

In terms of skill, this is where I think most of the Mary Sue accusations come from. I admit that I thought her excessive skill with the Force, flying the Millennium Falcon, and defeating Kylo Ren pushed the bounds of her character a bit too much. Even I was tempted to throw that label on her after seeing her accomplish so much with so little training.

However, when I step back and look at the larger plot, as well as incorporate the events of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” I see that those traits aren’t enough to warrant calling her a Mary Sue. They are a flaw in her character. That much, I don’t deny. Just having that flaw, though, doesn’t make her a Mary Sue.

I think “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” did a lot to help distance her from that label. It did so by having her make a few bad judgment calls while also not winning her battles quite as easily. When you look at the sequence of events in that movie, she didn’t actually succeed in most of what she sought out to do. Most of the success in that movie came from others, namely Kylo Ren, Finn, and Poe Dameron.

While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Rey failed miserably in her efforts, I think “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” established that her skills have limits. She has all sorts of natural talent, but she doesn’t always apply it effectively. That’s not unusual for real and fictional characters. You could even make the argument that her missteps help really help to improve her likability.

A Mary Sue is supposed to be sickeningly perfect and hopelessly ideal, so much so that there’s no need for a plot since they just fix everything with their charm. Rey isn’t like that in either movie. In fact, the final battle in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” didn’t really involve her. More than anything else, her role really complemented all the others by the end of the movie.

Now, I’m certain there are more than a few ardent “Star Wars” fans with X-wings tattooed on their chests who will claim I’m dead wrong. Those arguing that Rey is a Mary Sue have more than a few points to make and I don’t deny that some of those points are valid. I just don’t think they’re sufficient.

Rey is a great character, but one with some obvious flaws. I would call her overpowered and over-skilled, but you could levy that criticism against other iconic characters like Superman, Wonder Woman, and even Batman. Unlike those iconic characters, though, Rey is very new to the cultural landscape and her story still has room to unfold, as director Rian Johnson has pointed out.

I don’t doubt that debate over whether or not Rey is a Mary Sue will continue for quite some time. While I don’t think the next “Star Wars” movie will definitely resolve that, I’m of the opinion that it doesn’t have to be at this point. I think Rey has done enough to subvert this dreaded label.

She’s still a great character with a number of conceptual flaws. I think she has a bright future in our culture. She’ll always have her critics, but all great characters do. It’s just a matter of how they navigate that criticism. Given the cultural weight “Star Wars” carries, I’d say she’s handled it much better than most non-Jar Jar characters could ever hope.

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The Galbrush Paradox And The Challenge Of Female Characters


Anyone who’s written anything longer than a haiku will tell you that one of the biggest challenges is coming up with great characters. Stan Lee may make it look easy, but it’s most definitely not. Without great characters, your story might as well be a sandwich without bread. It just can’t function.

I can certainly attest to the challenge of creating great characters. In the eight novels I’ve written, I’ve tried to put as much energy and nuance as possible. Whether it’s Ben Prescott in “Skin Deep” or Mary Ann Scott in “Passion Relapse,” I make a concerted effort to help them stand out for all the right reasons.

In doing so, I have noticed something that’s both distinct and frustrating. It’s something I think every writer, including the Stan Lees and J.K. Rowlings of the world, have noticed at some point. When it comes to creating great characters, there’s a lot of flexibility when it comes to male characters. With female characters, though, there are too many unwritten rules to keep track of.

It’s only gotten more frustrating in recent years because the demand for strong female characters has never been greater. The success of movies like “Wonder Woman” and “Mad Max: Fury Road,” as well as novels like “Harry Potter” and “Twilight,” have raised the bar. Make no mistake. There are a lot of incentives to create these characters.

I’ve talked about why characters like Wonder Woman matter now more than ever. However, there’s one caveat that I didn’t mention and for good reason. I think it’s an issue that the William Marstons and Stephanie Meyers of the world understood, albeit indirectly. When it comes to creating female characters, the margin for error is painfully small.

By that, I mean there are a lot of things you can do with a male character that you just can’t do with a female character. Even male minority characters have a lot more flexibility, in terms of what you can put them through. Every character that Samuel L. Jackson has ever played is proof of that.

With female characters, it’s a lot trickier. If you don’t believe me, think back to that disturbing thought experiment I pitched a while back that reversed the genders of certain famous scenes, thereby creating a much more disturbing result. With that in mind, try to craft a story about a flawed, vulnerable character that has the potential to be interesting.

Maybe the character is a former cop who suffered a terrible injury at the hands of a deranged criminal.

Maybe the character is someone who made a huge mistake with a former lover and is haunted by it.

Maybe the character is someone who found themselves in a vulnerable state, had a few too many drinks, and had a messy one-night stand with a total stranger.

These are all fairly standard setups for typical characters. Think about those characters for a second. Chances are the character that comes to mind is a man. That’s not too surprising. That doesn’t make you a terrible sexist who deserves to lick the mud off the shoes of every radical feminist form now until the end of time. By and large, most of the iconic characters in popular culture are male.

Now, try to imagine that same character as a female. Chances are your reaction will be different. Even if it isn’t, there’s a good chance you’ll be more reluctant to develop this character because you know the kind of responses you’ll get from certain people.

Remember that cop who suffered a terrible injury? Well, if that cop is a female, then you’re a horrible misogynistic monster because you subjected that woman to violence and we can’t tolerate that.

Remember that character who made a huge mistake with a former lover? Well, if that character is a female, you’re also a horrible, misogynistic monster because you utterly failed the Bechdal Test by defining her through a relationship with a man.

Remember that character who was vulnerable and had a one-night stand? Well, guess what? You’re also a horrible, misogynistic monster because you overtly sexualized the female character in a way that propagates the idea that women are sexual objects to be used by men.

Are you seeing the pattern here? Are you getting that twinge of pain in your palms while you grind your teeth? Don’t worry. You’re not having a stroke. That’s normal. It also gives you a taste of just how hard/frustrating it is to create good female characters without making it an agenda.

That agenda didn’t used to be that big a deal. Then, in recent years, with the rise of third-wave feminism and social media scandals that have made people hyper-sensitive to sexism, the challenge got that much harder.

That’s not to say there isn’t some merit behind the sentiment. There are only so many Disney Princesses and horny vixens in “James Bond” movies before the narrative gets old, predictable, and outright insulting. Even I think Super Mario has had to rescue Princess Peach way too many times.

The problem is that when people try to create characters that aren’t princesses or Joss Whedon characters, they run into a wall, of sorts. They quickly find that creating those characters is a minefield, one where a single misstep can get you labeled a racist, misogynist, homophobe at a time when a single misworded tweet can ruin your life.

It’s such a frustrating challenge that someone gave it a name. It’s called the Galbrush Paradox and it emerged during the infamous GamerGate scandal in 2014. I won’t get into the particulars of that shit storm, if only because every discussion about that topic tends to lower people’s IQ by at least a dozen points. I’ll just focus on what the Galbrush Paradox is, as defined by its creators.

Do you know why there’s so many white male characters in video games? Especially leads? Because no one cares about them. A white male can be a lecherous drunk. A woman can’t or it’s sexist. Sexualizing women and what all. A white male can be a mentally disturbed soldier who’s mind is unraveling as he walks through the hell of the modern battlefield. A woman can’t or you’re victimizing women and saying they’re all crazy.

Consider Guybrush Threepwood, start of the Monkey Island series. He’s weak, socially awkward, cowardly, kind of a nerd and generally the last person you’d think of to even cabin boy on a pirate ship, let alone captain one. He is abused, verbally and physically, mistreated, shunned, hated and generally made to feel unwanted.

Now let’s say Guybrush was a girl. We’ll call her Galbrush. Galbrush is weak, socially awkward, cowardly, kind of a nerd and generally the last person you’d think of to even cabin boy on a pirate ship, let alone captain one. She is abused, verbally and physically, mistreated, shunned, hated and generally made to feel unwanted.

Now, you might notice that I’ve given the exact same description to both of these characters. But here’s where things deviate. While no one cares if Guybrush takes a pounding for being, for lack of a better term, less than ideal pirate, Galbrush will be presumed to be discriminated against because of her gender. In fact, every hardship she will endure, though exactly the same as the hardships Guybrush endured, will be considered misogyny, rather than someone being ill suited to their desired calling.

And that ending. She goes through ALL that trouble to help, let’s call him Eli Marley, escape the evil clutches of the ghost piratess Le Chuck, it turns out he didn’t even need her help and she even screwed up his plan to thwart Le Chuck. Why, it’d be a slap in the face to every woman who’s ever picked up a controller. Not only is the protagonist inept, but apparently women make lousy villains too!

And that’s why Guybrush exists and Galbrush doesn’t. Men can be comically inept halfwits. Women can’t. Men can be flawed, tragic human beings. Women can’t. And why? Because every single female character reflects all women everywhere.

It’s a fairly new concept, but a relevant one. We’ve already seen it play out in a number of ways in recent years. The best example is probably Rey from “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

If you’ve done any digging whatsoever into “Star Wars” beyond seeing the movie and listening to arguments about whether Han shot first, then you’ve probably seen some of the criticisms about her. She’s what some call a “Mary Sue.”

A Mary Sue is a byproduct of the Galbrush Paradox in that she’s a character who’s too perfect. While this character can be a man, it most often takes the shape of a female character who’s so skilled, so beautiful, so perfect that it’s hard to make her interesting.

Rey faced this issue, and for good reason. Throughout “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” she was perfect at everything she did. She flew the Millennium Falcon, wielded a light sabre, and used the Force as though she’d been doing it all her life. Everything that happened to her just happened so easily. She was never allowed to struggle, suffer, or slip up too much like Finn or Poe Dameron.

I can even understand why. If she had been tortured like Poe or lied like Finn, there would be mass protests and hashtags. A very vocal contingent of fans and professional whiners with nothing better to do would’ve condemned Rey as an affront to women everywhere. Her flaws would’ve been taken as huge insults against an entire gender. If she were a man, though, nobody would’ve batted an eye.

It’s tragic, in a sense, because it shackles characters and stories. It creates self-imposed limits that don’t need to be there. It’s true that there is real sexism in the world. There’s even plenty in movies, especially slasher movies. However, nitpicking every little detail of a female character to ensure sufficient purity, so to speak, is counterproductive. All it does is discourage people from even trying to create these characters in the first place.

That’s not good for either gender because it is possible to create great female characters. From Furiosa in “Mad Max: Fury Road” to Sarah Conner in “Terminator” to Ripley in “Alien,” there are plenty of great female characters that go onto become iconic in their own right. That’s why it’s so important to avoid the pitfalls of the Galbrush Paradox, otherwise we’ll be doomed to a future of Mary Sues.


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