The Grind

For the first time ever, I can relate to a superhero

July 12, 2022, 4:21 p.m.

I still remember how fun it was to watch the first Avengers film in theaters. Growing up immersed in the Marvel fandom, I found that the films never disappointed me — the characters, scripts and cinematography were all simply brilliant. However, in spite of my love for Marvel, the characters often felt out of reach. The monsters, superheroes and action scenes all centered white American men in the United States, specifically in New York. I’m not complaining about the amusement — I love NYC — but why only there?

As a six-year-old turning the pages of colorful comics, I couldn’t imagine scenarios in my head where I saved the Earth from evil without changing who I really was, because there was nobody like me on the Avengers team.

Marvel, like many Hollywood franchises, lacked representation of marginalized communities for a long time. Much of Western media’s depictions of Islam, especially after 9/11, portrayed Muslims as either Middle Eastern terrorists who attack innocent people, narrow-minded men who control their families or women facing oppression under their own religion. These kinds of depictions in movies and television shows have fuelled a dangerous rise of Islamophobia in the West.

Mistakenly, some people celebrate a scene as a groundbreaking example of representation when a non-white person comes on screen for not more than 5 minutes, says two or three lines and then never appears again. Representation needs to be more than that. We need to see characters that are played by actors who share their roots. We need films championing representation that have deeper storylines and showcase the characters’ cultures. 

Fortunately, Marvel has come a long way in “Phase 4,” or the films and shows covering the sequence of events after Avengers: Endgame. Its shows and movies now include depictions of diverse communities, mental illness, Black and Asian culture and LGBTQ+ individuals. And with Ms. Marvel, I finally saw myself reflected in a Marvel superhero.

“Ms. Marvel” is based on the 2014 solo comic book series by G. Willow Wilson and tells the story of Kamala Khan, also known as Ms. Marvel — a 16-year-old Pakistani-American teenager from New Jersey with superpowers. Kamala, a comic book and Avengers nerd who struggles to fit in at both school and home, is Marvel’s first-ever Muslim headliner.

19-year-old Canadian-Pakistani actress Iman Vellani is a perfect fit for the character. Hiring someone who actually shares the same roots as the character is very important for executing outstanding representation. Historically, in Hollywood, many Muslim and South-Asian characters have been played by white people, which limits representation and makes it hard to embrace the authenticity of the characters. However, Marvel’s casting of Vellani is one of the best portrayals so far.  She brings both the colorful Muslim-South Asian side of her character and all the charm, passion, brilliance and awkwardness of a teenager to Kamala’s character with ease. Considering that this is Vellani’s first role ever on-screen, she does an amazing job and is sure to be a rising force in Hollywood.

As a Muslim teenager, “Ms. Marvel” means so much to me. Her superpowers grant her an air of strength, yet she is still a cheery, curious and nerdy teenager. She tries to navigate through life while having arguments with her parents, struggling to pay attention in school and trying to balance her social and religious commitments with her superhero dreams. In one scene that I particularly loved, Kamala schemes her way into attending AvengersCon with her friend against her parents’ wishes by jumping into the tree outside her window (and failing). However, she does not give up, and after all the obstacles that get in her way, she ends up getting to AvengersCon.  Thereafter, she discovers her powers when she, without any hesitation, rescues one of her friends. She emanates a powerful image of a young superheroine who will be a great role model to many young girls from different communities.  

Marvel also succeeds in its depiction of Kamala’s cultural roots, from the comedy of her friend’s stolen shoes at the mosque to shopping for Pakistani clothes and reciting Muslim prayers. The show also touches on the implications of being a hijabi or a non-hijabi in the Muslim community in Episode 2, when Kamala talks to her close friend Nakia about her experience as a hijabi.

“My whole life I’ve either been too white for some people or too ethnic for others, and it’s been this very uncomfortable, sucky in-between,” said Nakia. “When I first put [my hijab] on, I was hoping to shut some people up, but I kind of realized I don’t need to prove anything to anybody. When I put this on, I feel like me — like I have a purpose.”

There are many schools of thought about the hijab in Islam, but Marvel showed both that the hijab can be a choice of a free-minded person and that a Muslim woman can still be a part of the religion even if she doesn’t wear it. 

Even the show’s soundtrack offers a platform for representation, featuring numerous Pakistani and Muslim songs and musicians such as “Rozi” by Eva B, “Pasoori” by Ali Sethi-Shae Gill and many more. Music might seem like a small detail in the series, but it makes the show even more relatable for the Muslim community.

Although I believe that “Ms. Marvel” is a major step forward for representation, there are still areas for improvement in the show. For example, Kamala’s parents are portrayed as being more conservative, sometimes discouraging her from pursuing what she is passionate about. Perhaps this is just the classic television trope of parents being too strict with their children, but this depiction still felt somewhat stereotypical, and emphasized Western preconceptions that Islam is a restrictive and narrow-minded religion. While many Muslim women experience such conservatism in their households, it is important that the depiction of Muslim people in one of the world’s biggest media franchises does not promote the misunderstanding that Islam is an inherently unequal religion. The fundamentals of Islam are equality, peace, respect and love. 

Only four episodes have been released thus far, but I hope the rest of the series will focus even more on the caring, supporting and accepting side of Islam, such as in the scene where Kamala’s parents promise that they will love Kamala no matter what and that she will never be alone. Seeing how far Marvel has come with its depictions of various communities, I remain optimistic.

“Ms. Marvel” is an iconic and game-changing series for Muslim representation in the MCU. Kamala Khan’s character offers an opportunity for Muslim girls to relate to a powerful Muslim superheroine and serves as a role model who finds the motive and strength to break through the real-world challenges facing Muslim women today, from patriarchy to Islamophobia. There still remains much work to be done to improve representation in Hollywood for so many communities, but Ms. Marvel has given me hope and optimism that we will continue to see even more meaningful representation on the big screen. 

Aslıhan Alp is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily’s Summer Journalism Workshop. Contact them at workshop 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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