Looks like this essay was needed, so I went ahead and did it. Not sure I said everything I wanted to say, but I tried.
So, there’s this girl. She’s tragically orphaned and richer than anyone on the planet. Every guy she meets falls in love with her, but in between torrid romances she rejects…
I guess I’ve got a little prescriptivist streak in me after all. Whenever I see someone say something like this… which boils down to “well, Mary Sues are just empowerment fantasies”… I just want to shake someone.
“Mary Sue” had an original, specific definition that I thought was a very useful concept, and gender was almost beside the point. Under this specific definition, yes, “Marty Stus” were absolutely possible. It wasn’t just about empowerment fantasy— it was about laziness in service to empowerment fantasy. It was about a writer’s refusal to treat his/her world as real, because he/she’d rather live out power fantasies on the page at that world’s expense. Batman, when written well, is a character who either needs help sometimes, even often, or a character who pays a price for his awesomeness that most of us, in real life, wouldn’t be willing to pay. Mary Sues, by the original definition, are sometimes allowed to doubt themselves because of their incredible, perfect modesty, but their writers never doubt them for an instant. They always win, they are always right, and they are islands, who are nevertheless rewarded by the admiration and/or romantic love of every worthy person around them.
If you don’t acknowledge that everyone on Earth, from the most put-upon drudge to the most admired hero, has at least genuinely arguable flaws, then you’re not writing a story that other people can relate to, except in a pat, idealized “gosh I wish I were perfect” way. The fact that “Mary Sues” usually showed up in fanfiction, where their presence usually forced established characters to act out of character, only made this more obvious.
But I don’t know whether to call out the blog poster for this or to call out TV Tropes, because years of lazy critical-thinking skills have broadened this original definition to something like “annoyingly overpowered woman.” That’s really not any one person’s fault, I guess, but it’s a case where lexical drift has left us with something I think is less useful than what we had before. And that’s sad.