Everyone's a Superhero: A Cultural Theory of 'Mary Sue' Fan Fiction as Fair Use
31 Pages Posted: 10 May 2007
Lieutenant Mary Sue took the helm of the Starship Enterprise, saving the ship while parrying Kirk's advances. At least she did so in the unofficial short story by Trekkie Paula Smith. Mary Sue has since come to stand for the insertion of an idealized authorial representative in a popular work. Derided as an exercise in narcissism, Mary Sue is in fact a figure of subaltern critique, challenging the stereotypes of the original. The stereotypes of popular culture insinuate themselves deeply into our lives, coloring our views on occupations and roles. From Hermione Granger-led stories, to Harry Potter in Kolkata, to Star Trek same-sex romances, Mary Sues re-imagine our cultural landscape, granting agency to those denied it in the popular mythology. Lacking the global distribution channels of traditional media, Mary Sue authors now find an alternative in the World Wide Web, which brings their work to the world.
Despite copyright law's grant of rights in derivative works to the original's owners, we argue that Mary Sues that challenge the orthodoxy of the original likely constitute fair use. The Mary Sue serves as a metonym for all derivative uses that challenge the hegemony of the original. Scholars raise three principal critiques to such unlicensed use: (1) why not write your own story rather than borrowing another's? (2) even if you must borrow, why not license it? and (3) won't recoding popular icons destabilize culture? Relying on a cultural theory that prizes voice, not just exit, as a response to hegemony, we reply to these objections here.
Keywords: fair use, copyright, Mary Sue, fan fiction, cultural theory
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