On the first day of Black History Month, a random writer on Archive of Our Own gave to me… two separate stories that framed Shuri – T’challa’s brilliant baby sister in Black Panther – as a character that couldn’t possibly be as smart as the MCU claims and as a victim of child abuse by the Wakandan elite who are “taking advantage” of her brilliance.
These stories were written in response to Black people calling out the author’s racism in deeming Shuri a Mary Sue in Black Panther in a tumblr post (that used the Black Panther tag) and subsequently writing off the film.
I’ve been in fandom for most of my life and I don’t think that I’ve ever heard anyone use the term “Mary Sue” as anything other than a pejorative to negatively describe a female character that they’re currently insulting. Despite attempts to reclaim the word in some fandom spaces, chances are that if someone calls a character a “Mary Sue”, they really don’t like the character they’re talking about.
A Mary Sue is a female character, usually an original one created by a fan-creator, that is deemed unbearable by other members of fandom because they’re “too perfect”. At one point in their entry on Mary Sues, Fandom wiki Fanlore goes on to talk about the things that make a “Mary Sue” Sue-ish:
The term is more broadly associated with characters who are exceptionally and improbably lucky. The good luck may involve romance (“Mary Sue” always gets her man); adventure (“Mary Sue” always wins a fight or knows how to solve the puzzle); and popularity (the “right people” seem to gravitate towards the character). These characters confront very few significant problems while attempting to achieve their goals. “Everything goes her way” is a common criticism regarding “Mary Sues”, the implication being that the character is not sufficiently humanized or challenged to be genuinely interesting and sympathetic.
Mary Sues are, at first glance, female characters that get everything. That great luck – in romance, in fighting, in family – is what makes fans loathe the Mary Sue. They purportedly read as the author inserting themselves into canon by way of fanworks and that is a big problem for folks that hate the Sue.
Straight up, I think that the go-to urge for predominantly female fans to use the term is one born out of at least a little bit of internalized misogyny. It’s a term specifically used to insult female characters who appear to have it all – especially the attention of a popular male character. What else could it be?
Which brings us to the “fandom racism” element:
Most Mary Sues are white original female characters who are often literally self-inserts in stories where they find love with a canon male character or are biologically related to/adopted by a family in canon. It’s rare to see someone describe a canon female character as a “Mary Sue” in reviews or commentary of a work unless it’s something chock full of internalized misogyny…
Or if the character in question is not white.
What exactly makes Shuri a Mary Sue to that aforementioned AO3 user and the people that commented positively on their two stories and/or left it kudos?
“Princess Shuri. Apparently a 16 year old genius, smarter than anyone else on the planet, the leading force behind the scientific development of her country, ‘her brother’s keeper’, badass, beautiful…
To me she sounds more and more like Mary Sue squared. I think I’ll skip that movie.”
First of all, the movie is called Black Panther, not Black Panther’s Baby Sister.
To write the entire film off because you think you might not like characterization of the main character’s little sister – a character who, while important, might not even have a ton of screen time – is actually a problem indicative of racism.
After all, all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s offerings have made changes to the comic canon that include changing the ages of characters, racebending or whitewashing other characters, and straight up changing the way that their relationships with other characters play out.
But that probably didn’t stop that blogger and their ilk (the couple dozen people supporting their stories and their original tumblr post in particular) from consuming those films.
Second, Shuri being the smartest person in the MCU at sixteen isn’t anything close to a problem. It’s not like she’s the first Black teenager in the genre to be brilliant and a badass.
Superhero comics actually have a history of having brilliant Black characters dating back to Black Panther himself back in 1966 and many of them were introduced as teenagers.
Hell, in the current 616 universe, not only is tweenager Lunella Lafayette literally the smartest person in the world in Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, but another brilliant Black teenager is Iron Man’s successor Riri Williams. One of the few things that Marvel does awesomely is have these Black girls with big brains running things.
In her article on how Shuri is the genius movies need right now, Hannah Collins writes that:
“Two young black women holding intellectual dominion over Marvel’s comics and cinematic universe is a golden moment of positive synergy in pop culture. So, yes, it’s disappointing that some fans feel the status quo of endless smart white male characters shouldn’t be disrupted by the inclusion of even one black woman. In fact, the “should” comes across as more of a “can’t.” The big problem with that kind of negative reaction is that it speaks to a horribly offensive stereotype about the intelligence of black women. Tell people that a white male character is the smartest person in the world, and the chances are they’ll accept your word for it — because we’ve been culturally and socially trained to recognize that’s what genius looks like, from Sherlock Holmes to Sheldon Cooper. In contrast, black female characters are expected to prove their intelligence. And even then, God forbid they be more intelligent than a white male counterpart like Tony Stark.”
Fandom doesn’t question it when the smartest character in the room is a white guy.
In fact, they embrace it.
Sherlock Holmes and Sheldon Cooper are two examples that Collins gives, but then there’s Batman/Bruce Wayne, Iron Man/Tony Stark, and I mean literally dozens of other white male characters whose genius is assumed to be both natural and relatable despite the fact that well… no one else’s ever is.
What makes Shuri more unrealistic than Tony Stark or Peter Parker? Both characters have been/are child geniuses in the MCU and Peter is in fact the same age that Shuri currently is.
And yet, I have yet to see any complaints about Peter in the MCU. I have yet to see MCU fans write stories putting him in his place for his brilliance or claiming that the adults in his life are abusing him by “allowing” him to use his genius. I have yet to see anyone claiming that it’s weird for Tony to attend MIT as a teenager or to create his own new element as an adult.
No, all the ire fandom has for brilliant characters in the MCU is saved up for Shuri.
And don’t get it twisted now, this is entirely because Shuri is a Black character described as being smarter than Tony Stark. This all ties into the fact that Black excellence on the scale of Wakanda frightens and angers non-Black MCU fans despite the fact that it’s a fictional country.
I’ve got screencaps from various “Tony Stark Defense Squad” bloggers and Tony Stark stans where they talk about wanting to put Wakanda in its place, calling the country primitive, and wishing that Tony Stark would just drop a nuke on it.
Calling Shuri a Mary Sue because of her brilliance and writing an entire ass story about how Tony is “wrongfully labeled” as a racist by a bunch of angry reverse racist Black people after casting doubts on whether or not Shuri is smart enough to do all the things is an example of the same mentality that leads to that sort of commentary where Wakanda and its citizens are maligned by non-Black members of fandom.
So is the aforementioned user’s second story where they write Sam Wilson (formerly Steve Rogers, but changed because that was too racist for their racist behind) getting so heated up about Shuri’s work in helping erase the trigger words in Bucky’s brain – effectively rebooting him – that at the end of the story he’s prepared to go accuse T’challa of child abuse for somehow… forcing his sister to fix Bucky.
In this image from the Infinity War prequel comic, does Shuri look traumatized to y’all?
I automatically don’t trust anyone that uses “Mary Sue” as a pejorative. Full stop. You’re probably dealing with at least a little bit of internalized misogyny and that’s a problem.
On top of that, calling a Black teenager a Mary Sue for being beautiful, brilliant, and a badass and then using that reasoning to excuse writing two truly hateful stories that misrepresent her, her brother, and her country and you not supporting the film is racist bullshit.
At last check, the first story that this author wrote has been deleted. Not so much, the second. Their original post, the one calling Shuri a Mary Sue for no actual reason besides misogynoir and using that as their reason for not watching Black Panther, is still up.
Black people in fandom aren’t strangers to antiblack racism in fandom. We’re not strangers to the lengths that non-Black people in fandom will go to remind us that they think Black people ain’t shit. People calling Shuri a “Mary Sue” as a pejorative and using her existence to excuse not seeing Black Panther as some seriously performative allyship (because they’re totally doing it for the Black people, yo) isn’t anything that we hadn’t been expecting.
Color me disappointed but far from surprised.
 Though there are nerds of other genders who use the term pejoratively.
2 thoughts on “What Fandom Racism Looks Like: The Smartest Girl in the World Has To Be A Mary Sue”
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Great Post! I had heard the Mary Sue label a time or two before (mostly in reference to Rey from the New Star Wars Run) but you really put the phrase into perspective in this article. Thanks! Wakanda Forever!
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