Terminology often gets thrown around by armchair commentators looking to prove their intellectual prowess. It’s one thing to be exact in the meaning of one’s message. It’s another to throw around big, technical words to increase the purported viability of one’s own malfeasant overture of an argument.
A progressive jackpot of word vomit, if you will.
This goes both for politicians and the hundreds of YouTubers that write video essays overthinking childhood favorites. Well, I am neither a politician nor a YouTuber, but I certainly have a verbose vocabulary with which to articulate completely unnecessary arguments!
So what I’m trying to say is Harry Potter—childhood hero or overrated Gary Stu?
Mary Sue and Gary Stu
If you’ve been following the arguments circling the popular sci-fi franchises on TV, you’ve probably heard the term “Mary Sue” being thrown around. The term originates from a 1973 parody story, “A Trekkie’s Tale”, by Paula Smith.
The story follows the fifteen-and-a-half-year-old Lieutenant Mary Sue on board the Starship Enterprise. Mary Sue is so unimaginably perfect and beautiful, Captain Kirk immediately wants to bed her and puts her in command of the ship. She makes the rounds impressing all the other main characters, and when the main characters all get struck by a disease, she heroically takes charge and earns herself a Nobel peace prize. Her tragic death afterward becomes a national holiday.
Since then, the name “Mary Sue” has become a writing term for a character that is too good at what they do. The universe bends to their needs and conveniences because the character is just that awesome. The term used to apply mostly to fan-fiction characters, but has definitely expanded out of that niche in recent years. Mary Sues are sometimes, but not always, self-inserts of the author with everything negative about themselves shaved away.
The male counterpart to Mary Sue is Gary/Marty Stu. A lot of the classic action-heroes probably fall into this category, depending on the tone the film is trying to go for. Nobody cares if Jackie Chan wins every fight because it’s just such a fun spectacle. James Bond, on the other hand, probably should stop walking into random women’s showers.
Harry Potter & The Boy Who’s Given Everything
Young Adult is a gray area when it comes to Mary Sues. By its very nature, Young Adult novels are about empowerment and escapist fantasies, created to inspire and wow. Katniss Everdeen is young and capable, but not exceptionally beautiful; yet, she still draws the eye of two hot guys to fight over. In other words, wish fulfillment for young girls. I’m not here to break down Katniss, though.
Harry Potter is probably my favorite series of Young Adult novels. I’ve certainly read them dozens of times over at this point. I’ve got five out of seven on the shelf next to me as I write this, and the rest are scattered around my house somewhere. Needless to say, I’m a huge fan of JK Rowling’s magnum opus.
By far, her strong suit is characterization. Everything in the novels just has so much personality and life to them. The characters and the world are iconic and spawned a million copy-cats who tried to pull the same rabbit out of the hat. Some did it well (Percy Jackson), but many didn’t.
That’s beside the point, though.
So in spite of JK Rowling’s strong attention to her characters, rereading Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone as an adult reveals the weaker aspects that childhood-me ignored. Why did the smartest wizards in the world put the stone inside of a D&D adventure, instead of, say, Dumbledore’s pocket?
Again, I’m getting sidetracked.
So let’s break down Harry. The book expressly covers the fact that Harry Potter becomes a legend as a baby, which explains the reverence many characters treat him with. That’s fine. In spite of that, there are lots of things Harry gets without really earning them. A broomstick. A place on the school quidditch team. The House Cup. The first two were expressly forbidden to first-year students, but Harry is allowed because he’s that good.
The House Cup is arbitrarily awarded to Harry and the other Gryffindors, despite breaking dozens of rules and recklessly endangering his own life to take matters into his own hands. I’m on the fence about mentioning his vault of gold, his mother’s love-magic-shield, and his Invisibility Cloak because the later books do explain satisfactorily why he has them. Still, though.
No Weaknesses Allowed!
One of the defining aspects of Mary Sues and Gary Stus, however, is their lack of apparent weaknesses. Rey from Star Wars, for instance, is amazing at everything but lacks any significant character flaws to balance her out. Oh, the movie will say how tempted she is by evil, but she never actually does anything to support that assessment.
Does Harry Potter have any weaknesses? He’s courageous to the point of recklessness. He tends to get tunnel-vision for unverified hunches and theories (which often prove to be correct). He’s not particularly outgoing but has a lot of natural leadership qualities. He lives with abusers but isn’t particularly affected by it (although Harry Potter and his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder would have been a very depressing book indeed).
So I guess you’ll have to decide for yourself. Harry gets given a lot for not doing much. The plot revolves around him, but that’s the nature of “Chosen One” stories. He’s remarkably average, yet exceptional in many ways. Do his flaws balance out his strengths? Perhaps over the course of the franchise, but in the first book?
Well, I solemnly swear that I’ve got the answer.