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Saturday, March 22, 2008


Macho Sue

A disagreeable variant of Mary Sue, often found in action films, cop shows and the more battly kind of science fiction. While Mary Sue is a fictional character who bends the universe around herself with her amazing specialness, Macho Sue bends the universe around his manhood. He has a particular ability to get away with behaviour that would be considered bad in a woman - to the point of behaviour that would be considered typically female by a misogynist if displayed by a woman.

These traits usually involve poor self-control, such as outbursts, tantrums, sulks, and a refusal to take responsibility for his own behaviour towards others when he's upset. It's not uncommon for Macho Sue to be prejudiced, or at least suspicious of the unfamiliar, and he's almost always unusually disrespectful to others; he has a particular propensity for taking an unreasonable dislike to somebody on sight (only to have it validated later). When thwarted, he tends to be affronted as well as frustrated, in a way that suggests neither he nor the narrative think it right that anyone but him should ever get their way. The story tends to throw straw men at him by way of obstacles, but they're never shown as equally masculine, and thus are without any heroism of their own. Macho Sue is emotional, but with such an assumption of gendered authority that nobody questions the manliness - in the rightful sense of 'adulthood' - of his behaviour.

The concept of Gary Stu/Marty Stu/Larry Stu does exist, most sources I've read describe him as fundamentally similar to Mary Sue - a traumatised past, unusual appearance, a tendency to rebel against authority thrown in for good measure, but a basically feminine conception of specialness, predicated on the ability to suffer beautifully and a tendency to have people fall in love with you.

The Macho Sue is something different. While basically a Mary Sue, in that the story attributes to his feelings far greater importance than they would merit in a realistic narrative, Macho Sue appeals to a primordial impulse: the impulse to truckle to the alpha male.

Certain cognitive traits come into play here. One is the 'halo effect', as it's colloquially understood: that is, the tendency to attribute greater virtues to more attractive people. Macho Sue tends to be attractive, insofar as he embodies certain characteristics that are traditionally seen as masculine; as author Rosalind Wiseman would put it, he 'fits in the "Act Like A Man" box'.* Representing a certain archetype of manhood, Macho Sue has to be thought well of by people who want to think well of manhood (assuming they buy his act).

Hence, if you're a man, Macho Sue's manhood is your manhood writ large, and approving him is approving yourself, or an idealised image of yourself; you can, as it were, partake of his hyper-masculinity purely by endorsing it. John Wayne famously said, 'I'm the stuff men are made of', and, taken seriously, that remark can have an almost literal truth: men can build their sense of manhood out of the image of John Wayne. Being John Wayne works, but being a John Wayne fan, who compares his hero favourably to the sappier men of today, is a statement of manhood in and of itself. As such, Macho Sue is something of a totem to men who believe in capital-M Manhood: the implication is that it takes a certain kind of manliness even to appreciate the virtues of Macho Sue, especially since all those hairy-legged feminists swarmed all over society trying to sissify our heroes. If you're a woman, Macho Sue the avatar of manhood that will supposedly protect you, and disliking him risks making yourself into a man-hater. Liking him, on the other hand, makes you feminine. Being a highly polarized portrait of gender, Macho Sue manages to bestow both manhood and womanhood, depending on the sex of his fan: accepting him is accepting that polarization, and putting yourself in the appropriate box. Hence, there's a scramble to attribute all sorts of good qualities to Macho Sue, in the name of proper gender behaviour.

Another trait is the double standards that accompany authoritarianism. Alpha-male privilege is one of the foundation stones of almost any authoritarian mindset, and along with authoritarianism comes double standards. Prominent among them is to judge the powerful more leniently than the powerless. To quote Bob Altemeyer's The Authoritarians yet again (chapter 3):

I have found many other instances in which authoritarian followers show a double standard in their judgements of people's behaviour ... For example they will punish a panhandler who starts a fight with an accountant more than an accountant who (in the same situation) starts a fight with a panhandler. They will punish a prisoner in jail who beats up another prisoner more than they will punish a police officer who beats up that second prisoner. (Remember when I said in Chapter 1 that high RWAs will go easy on authorities...?)

Macho Sue is nothing if not powerful. He may not always be granted full powers by circumstance (he may, for instance, have a commanding officer, at least at first) - but it's clear that the force of his personality grants to him an authority in the eyes of the audience. He is the hero, he is the one whose decisions will most influence this narrative, and consequently is intended to exercise the greatest power over the reader/viewer's imagination. Hence, to an audience member who has a tendency to value power, it's easy to fall into the trap of judging Macho Sue over-charitably, when the same behaviour, displayed by another, lesser man, or even worse, a woman, would draw condemnation.

The essential story structure of a Macho Sue tends to revolve around untouchable pride. If love means never having to say you're sorry, being Macho Sue means the whole of reality loves you. Typically, Macho Sue's storyline follows a certain trajectory: he begins by acting egregiously, picking or provoking fights and causing problems. However much the ensuing difficulties can be laid at his door, Macho Sue is not about to apologise, in any way. So the problems continue - only to be salvaged by some immense reversals that give the impression that he was right all along. The man he insulted turns out, suddenly, to be a bad guy. The woman who dislikes him falls into his strong arms when he solves a problem that is not the same problem he caused for her. People change their personalities, storylines shift and flip like a mechanical maze popping up new paths and lowering old gates in order to keep Macho Sue from ever, ever having to backtrack. As John Wayne says, 'Never say sorry - it's a sign of weakness.'

Simlarly, Macho Sue's suspicion of the unfamiliar is inherently right, because he already embodies all that is good and right: if something were good, he would already be doing it. Hence, anything new to him is some sort of corruption of the proper way of doing things. Usually it's assumed that Macho Sue has a code of honour that is at heart the right one, that if people disapprove of his behaviour it's only because they don't understand him and his righteousness, that his code of honour is never found inadequate to a situation, and that he never falls below it. It's not only apologising that's considered too emasculating for him to endure, it's learning. For his character to be improved and matured be encountering new circumstances would be a humiliating admission that he wasn't just as he should be from the beginning. Macho Sue exists to be constant: ploughing through the world like a tank, he eventually gets himself to the right destination by remaining impervious and waiting for obstacles to either be crushed or move out of his way.

As a result, from an objective viewpoint, Macho Sue doesn't have to make any effort to do the right thing; he can act on his impulses, and the right thing follows him around like a loyal little dog, herding the rest of the story into place.

This is fairly typical of most Mary Sues, but the dominant feature of Macho Sue is that his arrogance and unwillingness to listen to others often create at least half the problems of the early part of the story, and the rest of the story involves, somehow, proving that the problems he created weren't really problems at all. Which is something of a non-story: things happened! Oh, but not really. An alternative narrative is that Macho Sue behaves like a complete wanker for most of the story, then pulls off some feat that's considered so impressive that everyone conveniently forgets what an ass he is. Some Macho Sues garner sympathy by stunts rather than by actual good behaviour, and generally are given more admiration for those same stunts than other characters would be allowed. Others are surrounded by characters so wantonly foolish and frustrating in their refusal to recognise Macho Sue's importance that, the narrative implies, we can hardly blame him for not being impeccable in his behaviour. Other people are unsalvageable; that's not his fault.

Macho Sue is common in pulp heroes, though he's not confined to them. John Wayne in The Searchers and Jimmy Porter in Look Back In Anger are two examples I particularly hate, and they're very different in style. The former is the ultimate pulp hero who is entirely loathesome for the whole story, except for the last three minutes (thus earning narrative forgiveness for the past decade), whereas the latter is a canonical drama, where the vindication of the hero involves other people's improbable praise and a magically-engineered miscarriage followed by the emotional collapse of his wife, who comes crawling back to him, poor thing. But whether it's Wayne's swagger or Jimmy's 'burning virility', the essential quality in common is that their aggressive masculinity are considered so impressive that all other considerations fall before it.

Hence, rather than exuding a Mary Sueish Aura of Smooth, Macho Sue, in effect, exudes an Aura of Rugged. Frequently volatile, self-centred, demanding, emotionally unstable, blind to the rights of others and irresponsible, all of these traits unbecoming an adult man, Macho Sue nevertheless dominates the gender landscape to the point where these qualities, inexcusable in a lesser being, are attributed to his strength, stoicism or passion. The basic assumption is that Macho Sue's feelings are deeper, more authentic, than anyone else's; as Mrs Gummidge says in David Copperfield, 'I feel it more.' The tendency to 'feel it more' gets considered depth of character, where in a Mrs Gummidge, it is merely considered a petulant lack of self-control.

Macho Sue is a dangerous fellow. Do not fall for him.

*Queen Bees and Wannabes, published by Piatkus.

This make sense. I can see Macho Sue in a lot of the "manly" movies out there.
Thank you. You have explained my Bruce Willis problem to me. It's much appreciated, and I'm much more comfortable hating these characters I'm so obviously supposed to like. Seriously, thank you.

Jake (from slacktivist)
Hi, Jake, welcome! Nice to have you here.

And indeed, hi Margaret. :-)
I loved this analysis. Although I have to confess, the whole time I read it, I kept thinking, "Grignr?"

(If you don't get the reference, do Google "mst3K eye of argon" -- I swear, it's an entire writing worshop's worth of bad examples)
I am linking this all over, because I think it explains a lot about American foreign policy.
Thank you Doctor Science! :-)
Excuse me while I re-write the 2nd and 4th chapters of my novel.
(I knew things were going too well lately.)
Excellent points, and I'm going to try to avoid the "Macho Sue".
Thank you for articulating this so wonderfully! Now I have a reference to fall back on every time I have to explain to someone why King Leonidas is a poor excuse for a hero.
My God ... all so clear now...

(Jake, I was also thinking Bruce Willis while reading this. Of course, I actually like BW, but I like cartoons in general.)
This absolutely wants to become an article on TvTropes, probably linked from Mary Sue. Please. :)
This rings amazingly true. I think that my definition of Gary Stu/Marty Sam has mostly included Macho Sue, but this fleshes it out a lot more. And, yeah, explains why I can't stand most action movies--it's not that girls don't like action, it's that the characters freaking suck! :D Seriously, who'd want to be around them in real life? And I don't even mean that in the "Great People are hard to live with sometimes" way...although, hmm, that could be related, too.
You might like these related definitions borrowed from Jabootu (http://www.jabootu.com/glossary.htm)
a bad movie site:

The Designated Hero: "A character who we know the film regards as its ‘hero,’ even though he or she is not, in any objective sense, all that heroic. Designated Heroes usually get a ‘free from responsibility’ pass from the filmmakers, even when their actions result in mass deaths."

Informed Attribute: "When a character displays a mediocre or even inept level of skill in some discipline (anything from dancing to writing to fighting), yet we are shown other characters lauding their talents. This is to signal the audience that, at least in the universe presented in the film, these people are to be considered as highly proficient at their craft, however much this belies the evidence of our eyes and/or ears."
So, here's a question then: John Galt: The ultimate Macho Sue, or not? Discuss.

(Also, might be nice if dates on comments were turned on; I rather suspect these comments were not all left today, yet all they list is times.)
Came back to re-read this post, and found myself thinking that Samson, in the Bible, strikes me as an early example of the archetype. He has all the markers: arrogant; obnoxious; largely responsible for his own troubles; 'redeemed' by a single, dramatic (and slightly stupid) act.
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