A warning: This column is dark and full of spoilers.
The Long Night was ended. The Night King and his wights were iced. And the cries of indignation spread across the internet.
Why? Because Arya Stark dispatched “Game of Thrones’” most terrifying foe and she therefore must be a Mary Sue.
In recent days, certain *cough* male fans have even twisted themselves in Meereenese knots to give Jon Snow credit for the kill, claiming he was actually distracting undead dragon Viserion so Arya could make her move.
Whether the idea of Jon as dragon-bait is true or not, decrying Arya — First Badass of Her Name, Inker of Lists and Slayer of Freys and Littlefingers — as a Mary Sue speaks to a larger issue at the heart of geekdom.
A term originally coined from fan fiction and used to mock characters that serve as stand-ins for their authors, the phrase Mary Sue now refers to a character that is too perfect, and therefore boring and unrealistic.
Certain traits that often appear in the characterization of a Mary Sue include undeniable beauty, extreme likeability (no one dislikes her, ever) and a talent for literally everything.
She will also almost always have overcome a tragic back story — one that is mentioned but never explored and makes her predestined for greatness — and basically has no substantial character flaws.
The term Mary Sue saw a resurgence in 2015 when it was used to describe “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” protagonist Rey — a rather ironic twist given the glaring similarities between her arc in the film and Luke Skywalker’s in “A New Hope.”
Those same fans who used the term on Rey will adamantly tell you Skywalker is not a Gary Stu (the male version of a Mary Sue) despite the fact that he pulled off that one-in-a-million, perfect shot to blow up the Death Star — using amazing pilot skills we’d never seen before.
Herein lies the problem with the May Sue concept. The term itself carries an inherent gender bias, and, although the equivalent exists, male characters are rarely accused of being Gary Stus.
Just like in real life, women are held to a much higher, often unachievable standard.
Overlooking the blatant sexism that comes with using the label, is Arya Stark a Mary Sue?
Nope. Not even a little bit.
Emotionally damaged and far from nice, Arya didn’t simply pick up a sword for the first time and wield it with incredible skill.
She has trained for this moment for seven seasons, first with Syrio Forel and then for almost two whole seasons as she attended and dropped out of assassin school. We’ve even seen the knife flip she used to kill the Night King before, when she sparred with Brienne of Tarth last season.
She also went on a killing spree at the end of last season, slitting throats and checking names off her kill list, something a perpetually kind Mary Sue would never do.
If we really want to beat that Mary Sue drum — or rather blow that Horn of Joramun (that’s a deep cut for all you “A Song of Ice and Fire” fans out there) — we have two potentials.
Our first is the hero formerly known as Jon Snow.
Unlike other bastards in the show, we’re led to believe there is something special about Jon from early in the series. He’s not even at The Wall for a single season before he’s gifted an incredibly rare and valuable sword from Jeor Mormont, Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch.
A sword that has been in the Mormont family for centuries and one he seemingly never bequeathed to another solider despite, I’m sure, the many dangerous situations other Brothers have faced after taking the black.
Jon sulks about being made Mormont’s steward (meanwhile, his younger sisters are facing actual psychopaths), but even then he’s allowed to join the Night’s Watch ranger team when they go beyond The Wall.
Once out there, he becomes the only one to survive a wildling attack. He has no training in the art of deception and yet he manages to infiltrate the wildlings’ ranks.
Upon his return, he’s accused of being a traitor, exonerated and then quickly made Lord Commander over other, more senior members of the Night’s Watch.
In his new leadership role, he leads his men into poorly organized battles and still comes out on top.
Warning: The following column includes spoilers about this season of “Game of Thrones,” including the most recent episode, “Battle of the Bastards.”
Also, he learned to ride a dragon in like two minutes.
The running joke has literally been how he knows nothing, and yet somehow that hasn’t stopped him.
Meanwhile, his brother (sort of) Robb died because he couldn’t keep it in his pants and his father (uncle) Ned died because he clung too closely to honor and virtue.
Granted, Jon was stabbed, but he was too important to stay dead, so he got a reprieve.
And why is he so important? He’s the long-lost heir to the throne — one he oh-so-nobly claims he doesn’t want but is being pushed toward by devoted friends who simply adore him.
One of those pals urging him toward his uncomfortable-looking destiny (seriously, why has no one put a cushion on the Iron Throne?) is our other Stu contender, Samwell Tarley.
From the moment we meet him, Sam is described as the black sheep of his family.
He isn’t a fighter, but he sure is smart. Which is why it’s somewhat surprising that he manages to save Gilly and her infant son from the unsavory Craster in season 2, and even more shocking that he’s the first person in living memory to kill a White Walker in season 3.
Even with his brain, he’s had very little training in the art of healing. And yet, he and he alone is able to cure Jorah Mormont of his Greyscale when the warrior arrived at the Citadel last season.
How is he able to do it? He found it in a book. Med school would be so much easier if all a person had to do was read.
He also discovered that the maesters, the order of esteemed scholars he longed to join, were actually doddering old fools. He didn’t need them. He’d already surpassed them, so he left last season to bring his great wisdom to Jon.
Fans have no problem giving Jon and Sam these moments — and, as we’ve seen this week, will even try to shoehorn them into other characters’ victories.
What we should be examining isn’t Arya at all but rather why it apparently would have been more palatable for a certain group of fans if Jon had heroically escaped the ice dragon, gotten through the many White Walkers in the godswood and delivered the final blow himself.
Why is it perfectly acceptable to see a version of their idealized self, but female forms of wish fulfillment are, at best, disregarded, and at worst, deemed unworthy?
It’s because for decades, popular properties of geekdom — many of which have now made their way into mainstream culture — were almost always created by men for men.
As women have slowly moved from the sidelines to claim a space in intergalactic odysseys, fantasy realms and dystopian societies, those who have controlled the space are pushing back.
As sociologist and author CJ Pascoe explained to Vice’s Broadly in 2016, “in fandom cultures — where men who have been denied traditional routes to stereotypical masculinity congregate — increasing equality and visibility for women and queer people and characters threatens a sphere that these men see as being the one place where they can be dominant, where they can be recognized as masculine."
We saw it with the atrocious GamerGate in 2014. We’re still seeing it in the way women are made to prove their worthiness in fandom on social media.
What we need is to move past the girls versus guys mentality and remember that geekdom and the properties it birthed was originally a place where those who felt outside the accepted norms could be the ideal.
And in a world made for outcasts and others, there’s plenty of room in this cultural landscape for everyone to kill their own Night King.