I still haven’t seen the new Star Wars movie, and while the Internet (in flagrant violation of FREEZE PEACH) is preventing anyone from telling anyone about the film I have gathered that there is something of a meltdown in fanboy circles because the lead character has Girl Cooties. Angry tweets are flying back and fore on the question of whether Rey is a “Mary Sue” or not.
Much of this depends on what one means by “Mary Sue”. Conveniently for a Twitter argument, there seems to be no actual agreement on this (see TV Tropes). This allows everyone concerned to say that they are factually right and anyone who disagrees with them is factually wrong. This is the very essence of a Twitter argument.
Historically, of course, Rey cannot be a Mary Sue because the term originated in fanfic and meant a supporting character who represented the author. Authors can’t insert themselves as the main character in fanfic because the main characters have to be the canon characters of the series the fanfic is based on.
However, as the TV Tropes article makes clear, the term has since migrated out of the fanfic community, and much confusion has resulted. TV Tropes attempts to define a Mary Sue thus:
In other words, the term “Mary Sue” is generally slapped on a character who is important in the story, possesses unusual physical traits, and has an irrelevantly over-skilled or over-idealized nature.
Once we are out of the fanfic realm, however, the word “irrelevantly” no longer has meaning. And that leaves us with, not only Rey, but also Luke Skywalker and pretty much every hero out of the Joseph Campbell school.
So why the fuss? Well, let’s go back to that definition again and focus in on another word: “unusual”. What I suspect is happening here is that for the straight cis white male community it is entirely reasonable for one of them, no matter how humble his background, to turn out to have amazing magical powers, have a royal background, and become the savior of the galaxy. For a girl to do the same (or a queer person, or a PoC) is, to them, utterly preposterous. Hence accusations of Mary-Suedom.
This is effectively another side of the coin that results in charges of fantasy fiction being “unrealistic” if it has PoC or women as heroes, or queer people existing, even though those same books might include dragons, wizards, immortal elves and trees that walk.
There is, of course, another side to this, and that’s the aspect of the Mary Sue being a representative of the author. I suppose it is entirely possible that JJ Abrams sees himself as a kick-ass teenage girl, but somehow I doubt it. I’m happy to believe that Abrams put a character in the film that young women might want to identify with, but providing characters for the audience to identify with is a thing writers do. What exactly was George Lucas’s intention when he created Luke?
In any case, such things have a fine literary tradition. If you want a classic example of an author-insertion Mary Sue (or Gary Stu if you must, but I don’t see why we can’t continue to use a female term to act as a default for all humanity) you need look no further than the literary novel about a middle-aged professor of English in an unhappy marriage who has an affair with a beautiful young student.