Monday, May 19, 2014

Ms. Marvel and Kamala Khan: On Race, Passing, and Representation

When I was in college I majored in philosophy. Because I am a giant nerdface, I happened to complete almost all of my major requirements before the end of my second year, as well as all of my core requirements (which were minimal because my college is super rad). This left me with two whole years where I could take whatever classes I wanted. I mean, I had to take one philosophy class per semester to stay in the program, but that's still twelve classes that were totally up for grabs.

Needless to say, I took anything and everything that sounded remotely interesting. It's why I am now weirdly well educated about the Bollywood film industry, Chinese propaganda films of the 1960s, vampire lore, Afrocentrist Egyptology, and a lot of other stuff that is incredibly interesting but not super relevant in my day to day life.

One of the classes I took though has turned out to be useful and meaningful in my daily life. That class was Introduction to Islam.

Yup. It's gonna be one of those articles. Couldn't you tell from the title?

Having grown up in a town where religious differences meant being Protestant instead of Catholic, I didn't really know anything about Islam going into the class. And I wouldn't say I'm an expert now. I definitely know enough that news reports about the Muslim world are no longer impenetrable to me, and I get the larger theological differences between sects, the basic tenets of faith and all that, but honestly the biggest and most important reason this class has been helpful to me is because it introduced me to a single book: How Does It Feel To Be A Problem? by Moustafa Bayoumi.

This book pretty much changed my life. We read it as part of our section on modern Muslim culture, and that's what the book covers. But it's more than that. The book itself is a series of profiles and interviews of seven (I think it's seven) young Arab-Americans living in Brooklyn. They're all in their teens or twenties, each of them representing a wildly different subset of the Arab-American experience. Not all of them are Muslim, even. So why did we read this book in a class on Islam?

Because the interviews in the book center around a very specific topic. What is it like to be a young person of Arab descent in modern day America? By which we mean post 9-11 America. What's it like to grow up in a world that views you as not just Other, but so dangerously Other? What is it like to be a problem?

These are questions which, by virtue of my birth, I've never had to ask. I'm white. I glare in the sun and I've never faced religious persecuttion or racial discrimination or anything like that. The only times I get screened by security at an airport are when I forget to take the bobby pins out of my hair (which is more often than it should be at this point). Reading this book made me realize that there is a whole world of experience out there that I don't understand. More importantly, it helped me see that the fact that I couldn't see how privileged I am was another part of my privilege itself. 

This has had a huge impact on my life. Finally seeing and being able to react to my own privileged status in the world has changed who I am. It's changed how I go through my daily life. And it's deeply affected how I view media. Now, this wasn't the only book in college that did this for me. A lot of credit has to go to my advisor, who taught me about race and passing and Franz Fanon and Frederick Douglass. I took classes that taught me to value the importance of African history, and I took other classes about modern African politics that made me question America's choices in international relations. But this book is really what I'd point to as the thing that made it all stick.

So. Let's talk about Ms. Marvel.

That may seem like a topic shift, but it's really not. While Ms. Marvel as a title goes back to the 1970s, the current incarnation of the character isn't Carol Danvers (she's Captain Marvel now, and also in space, which is cool). No, the current Ms. Marvel is a nerdy teenager named Kamala Khan. She's the daughter of Pakistani immigrants to the US, a writer of fanfiction and a total Avengers groupie, and a Muslim.

Kamala is a pretty normal teenager, but she's really not one we see very often in comics or television shows or movies or anywhere in pop culture. She loves her family, but she's annoyed by them too. She feels a connection to her cultural heritage, but she still likes standing in a deli smelling the bacon until she's told to leave. She's never had bacon, because she's a good Muslim, but she can tell it's delicious.

In short, she's pretty much like every other teenager I've ever met. Her parents drive her nuts, because they won't let her go out to parties and they never let her wear anything even remotely revealing and they are obsessed with her getting good grades and doing something useful with her life. Her older brother is very devout, but also still lives at home, which causes tension in the family because seriously when is he going to get a job already?

Her best friend, Nakia, is a Turkish Muslim who has recently become more invested in their culture and decided to wear a headscarf. It's her personal choice. Kamala doesn't wear a headscarf. She's not sure how she feels about Islam - not that it's a terrible bad thing or anything, but because it's her parents' religion, and she doesn't know yet what she herself believes.

So, basically, Kamala is me as a teenager. Complete with writing really embarrassing fanfiction. I get this girl. I relate to her super hard. The only difference is that I don't have superpowers.

And neither does Kamala at the start of the story. When the story begins, Kamala really is just a normal teenager. Her experience is pretty typical of a second generation kid or a "third culture" kid. But then she sneaks out to go to a party one night, because Kamala desperately wants to be cool and "normal", and while she's out the city gets taken out by a weird gas. The gas makes her hallucinate and then it gives her superpowers.

Specifically, Kamala hallucinates the Avengers, with whom she is obsessed, and Captain Marvel specifically, with whom she is super obsessed, talking to her. They ask her what she wants, and she tells them:

When "Ms. Marvel" asks Kamala what she wants, her response is both unsurprising and heartbreaking. Kamala wants to be "normal". She wants to be blonde and pretty and strong and popular and cool. She wants to fit in. She wants to be someone else.

Her superpower turns out to be shapeshifting, and it first presents when Kamala wakes up and looks exactly like Ms. Marvel. Old school Ms. Marvel, with the thigh-high boots and the wedgie-giving unitard, actually. She's skinny and blonde and gorgeous for once. And all of a sudden, none of that matters. Because her friend is in trouble and needs help.

The story doesn't gloss over this plot point. It would be easy to look at the book and be like, "Oh, so she's just this nerdy girl who turns into a hot blonde when she rescues people. Whatever, I guess you're trying to sell books." But that's not what this is about. This is about Kamala, and who she wants to be. Like any teenager, that's a shifting target. And like any teenage girl, it's a target that has a lot to do with how she looks and how she feels about how she looks.

When Kamala first gets her power, she's thrilled by the idea of for once looking the way she wants. And when Kamala transforms into what she considers her ideal self, there's one very simple thing we should not be ignoring: her ideal self is white. When Kamala imagines a her that is cool and powerful, she pictures a skinny white girl.

More than that, she transforms herself into a walking pinup. Here's this sheltered teenager who's now walking around in a pair of thigh-high heeled boots and a leotard. At first she likes it because she gets tons of attention this way. People stop and stare at her, and not like they're afraid of her because of the color of her skin, like they want to have sex with her. She likes it. At first.

And then she doesn't. Because it's not useful and it's kind of scary and the heels hurt her feet and it's so hard to run in an outfit like that. But more importantly, Kamala doesn't feel like herself.

It's that old saying, "Be careful or you just might get what you want." Kamala wants to fit in, and she gets shapeshifting powers. Tell me that's not a pointed comment.

This story, for all that it's about a teenage girl stopping crime and saving the city, is more about self-image and race and "passing" than it is about superheroes and powers. Kamala's story is about her trying to figure out who she is, and it's a lot harder when you can suddenly change everything about yourself and be whoever you want. Without those external signifiers of race and class and religion, who are you? How much of who you are is determined by how other people see you?

Now, I should point out that we're still only in Issue Three of the comic (three of eight for this first run), so I can't say with assurance where the story is going, but I think I can give it a guess based on where we've been. And even in these three issues there's been a very strong topic that keeps coming up: how Kamala herself feels about her race.

Like I said above, when she pictures her ideal self, she imagines a white girl who really looks nothing like her. To Kamala, that is desirable. The white skin, the blonde hair, the bikini body. That's what she wants to look like. She doesn't want to look like she does (in the beginning). She wants to erase herself.

Oh hey, there's a quote from Moustafa Bayoumi about that: "But the loudest silence in the book concerns those young Arabs, a minority, who have abandoned their ethnic roots or religion out of either shame or fear or both. They have changed their names and try to pass as other-than-Arab - Latinos most often. Perhaps it is fitting that "The Biography of the Ex-Arab Man or Woman" is present here only by its absence."

Before anyone screams to the comments to tell me so, yes, I am aware that Kamala is Pakistani and therefore not "Arab". But the point stands. Kamala represents a story that doesn't often get told by virtue of how impossible it is to tell: that of the person who abandons their past in order to preserve their future. 

One of my professors in college - not one previously mentioned, another one, because I had lots of professors - told us a story about how growing up she lived on the border of two different gangs. There was a Latino-American gang on one side and an African-American gang on the other. And since my professor is a woman of ambiguous racial background, she would get harassed by both sides when she walked to school. Her solution was to simply identify herself with whichever side was harassing her at that moment. If the Latino gang was bother her, well then she was Latino. If the black gang was bothering her, then she was black. She could pass, and so she did.

Kamala feels disconnected from her ethnic and religious heritage because of the treatment she faces both at home and at school. At home her family doesn't understand her because she's too American. She spends hours online and wants to go to parties and would love to someday try bacon. At school her classmates don't understand her because she's too foreign. She's Muslim and she doesn't drink alcohol and her parents are strict and she's never had bacon

She feels like an outsider wherever she goes, so is it any wonder that she would want a quick and easy solution to that? The thing is, it's not actually a solution. Her superpowers only raise more questions.

What on earth is the point I'm trying to make with all of this? That's the question I assume you're all asking by now. Well, I'll tell you. Kamala Khan is a funny and relatable teenage girl. She is also vastly important. Why? Because this comic, Ms. Marvel, has the opportunity to do for hundreds of thousands of readers what How Does It Feel To Be A Problem? did for me. It has the opportunity to actually bring the issues of race and passing and self-image to the forefront of people's minds. Don't tell me that's not important.

It's important in two ways. First, for all of the many, many people who see themselves in Kamala it's amazing to actually see a character like her taking center stage. To see a brown, Muslim girl with a religious family struggling with questions of self-expression and identity, all while fighting crime and being super kickass - that means a lot. I've mentioned before that I nanny for a couple of not-white kids, and when I showed the girl (she's eight) this comic, her first reaction was, "She looks like me!" It matters, okay?

Second, this comic matters for all of the people who don't see themselves in Kamala, and who have never seen themselves in a character like her. It matters because for the first time possibly, they get to see a story about a minority character dealing with the majority. We never hear stories like this, about Muslim girls who long to taste bacon (not letting that one go - I love bacon) and who wish they were white. Reading this book and sympathizing with Kamala is the first step towards being able to understand the world better. To being able to understand other people more fully. And to being able to respect their experiences.

Ms. Marvel happens to be a really good comic, and for that I am incredibly grateful. Can you imagine if I had to read something like this, that touched on all of these super important topics, but that sucked? That would be terrible. It doesn't even bear thinking of. But this isn't terrible. It's great. And it's important.

I couldn't not post the bacon scene. It was memorable.


  1. Huh. You might've just talked me into reading a super-hero comic. So there's your miracle of the day, if you needed one ;)

  2. That part with Zoe when she's "concerned" and then Kamala says something similar to, "but she's so nice." and Nakia says, "she's not nice." Zoe's fake concern and ethnocentric views are shown as what it is: her being completely ignorant. Between this series and Captain Marvel #3... seriously, people should be reading these in school.

    1. Oh man. Captain Marvel #3 schooled me and I totally wasn't expecting it. So good. And I really do love that Zoe's character is that horrible girl who is so hard to refute, because she "so concerned." Good, good writing.

      If I thought I could get away with it, I would totally make my students read these. Instead I'll just keep on passive-aggressively recommending them.

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