Once we’ve gone beyond reflex responses – such as “he just snapped” – we must begin to deal with the characters in true crime as just that: characters. Is there more to them than meets the eye?
What’s fascinating about the Watts case is how the characters of Shan’ann and Chris Watts seem to be perfect cardboard cutouts. It’s also why this case is so disturbing.
They’re too good to be true, which is why this case is such an indictment of the real world and how fake it is.
To be clear about what we’re talking about, let’s define it. These definitions are from various sources available online:
A Mary Sue is a fictional character, usually female, who is seen as too perfect and almost boring for lack of flaws, originally written as an idealized version of an author in fanfiction.
In Shan’ann’s case she’s the Facebook author of her online alter ego:
- Too perfect [and everything and everyone around her is too perfect AKA “Thrivin'”]
- She’s an idealized version of herself, by herself [in order to sell products]
A Mary Sue is an original character in fan fiction, usually but not always female, who for one reason or another is deemed undesirable by fan critics. A character may be judged Mary Sue if she is competent in too many areas wrg, is physically attractive, and/or is viewed as admirable by other sympathetic characters.
Science Fiction, interestingly enough, is an area where the Mary Sue moniker and criticism comes up repeatedly. I’ve written sci fi fantasy myself, and because the scenario is to create a world from scratch, and to populate it with fantastic characters blessed with unbelievable abilities, author’s tend to lose touch with reality. They also tend to write themselves into the story.
In Star Wars George Lucas did exactly that with Luke Skywalker as a glorified beginner car driver shooting around Modesto with a big hairy dog sitting beside him on the passenger seat – but translated onto the biggest possible canvas: he’s driving that car and hanging out with his hair animal because he’s saving the galaxy.
Facebook allows mere mortals on Earth to translate ourselves onto a much larger canvas too. Like actors and actresses, we also have our captive audiences, and if we say the right words and perform appropriately, fame and fortune [and Thrivin’] follow.
There was a time when the world needed a Gary Stu. The early 70’s was that time when the world sobered up. Simon & Garfunckle broke up, as did the Beatles. We’d gone to the moon and back, Vietnam had happened. It was time to pick up the pieces and start again. It was time to go back to our old farmboy values and from there, set out to rule the galaxy.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos [the world’s wealthiest man by a country mile] was a small child in the early 70’s. The Star Wars seed fell on fertile soil, but over the course of a generation, the world has changed. It’s gone from having Skywalker’s self-belief and determination, to self-belief and little else.
A “Mary Sue” (or “Gary Stu” for males) is a character who is overly perfect. … Often,Mary Sue represents the author’s idealized version of him- or herself projected into the world of the original fiction, also known as canon.
We may find ourselves becoming uncomfortable with these notions, and how they reflect on us, which is why it’s easier to look at it from a narrative and totemic perspective, via George Lucas’ dog.
If we’re not sure how cute, funny and ridiculous it is to artificially oneself, well, just look at what Lucas did to his hairy Alaskan malamute Indiana.
Now it’s fine if we make up fairy tales and we’re allowed to believe in them too. It’s not fine when we begin to imagine that we’re actually fairy tale characters living in an actual fairy tale [an apt description for many Facebook profiles out there], or worse, try to convince others we are.
True crime is in itself a reality check on our limited perceptions. True crime tests our perceptions not just in how the crime manifests in reality, but to see through the perpetrator’s insistence on perpetuating a particular fairy tale version of his or herself. If we’re brave enough, we should also take this a step further: we should challenge our ability to recognize these deceptions in others in our world, and our circumstances [and hopefully ourselves too].
Society has grown up since the 70’s, but in some ways we’ve regressed. We see this in the schizophrenic acceptance and devotion to Star Wars‘ latest Mary Sue, as well as the rejection of her as too one-dimensional.
How have we regressed? Social media has made many of us into one-dimensional blow hards, with an emotional repertoire no more sophisticated than that of a reptile. We are nourished on daily doses of reinforcement – it’s either a plus or a minus. The reptilian parts of our brain respond to this like its crack cocaine, and some unfortunate souls become fatally addicted to the endless kick of LIKES and LOLS.
We’ve regressed because we’ve gone from being people, to one-dimensional zombies.
A similar battle is raging on social media for the rights to Shan’ann’s soul. There are those who see her exactly as she pretended to be, perhaps because Shan’ann’s most ardent fans want to be seen in the same way [as they pretend to be].
And then there are others that think part of why this terrible happened had to do with faking it day in day out. Maybe there’s something about social media that’s not healthy, not only for the person projecting continuously, but the people around them. Their partners. Their children.
Maybe social media isn’t good for families?
Many engaged in this battle neglect to apply the same logic to the other spouse in this story, the guy who presented himself as Gary Stu. If there’s some debate about Shan’ann, there’s no doubt in our minds that Chris Watts pretended to be perfect but isn’t perfect. He’s a murderer, isn’t he? We miss such a vital insight by glossing over this area, because just as it was so fundamentally important to Shan’ann to push her fairy tale, it was also important to Chris Watts to keep his going.
That’s actually why this crime happened – for reasons I won’t go into right now – Chris Watts felt his fairy tale had been ruined. What was his fairy tale? Well, that’s the question isn’t it, and we’re not going to get it if we’re stuck on a bidding war for who’s better: Mary Sue or Gary Stu?
Can we apply the same logic of caring about fairy tales to the victim, to her killer and to ourselves?
Our double standard in this department is exposed by the ease inwhich we can see how Lucas’s dog in Star Wars is excessively fantastic. We can see how Chewy is a silly but catchy projection.
We need to apply the same good-humored cool appraisal to characters in true crime – the criminal and the victim. Because true crime is invariably, inevitably, a story about us.