Is ‘Ms. Marvel’ a Laudable Step towards Representation?
By Neha Sheikh
YOUNG Muslims have little to relate to as far as pop culture is concerned. Conventionally, Muslims found orientalised representations of them in Hollywood. They would either be “oppressed”, “backward” or as “terrorists”. Post 9/11, a new kind of cinema of US nationalism evolved, which owed much of its storyline to a villain which was mostly Muslim. Therefore, most representations of Muslims were primarily negative.
Only recently, with advocacy around intersectionality growing in the west, the “terrorist” Muslim characters are being discouraged. Muslims are being included in movies and media campaigns in a positive light. However, these have only been token representations. There’s no meaningful understanding of Muslims and they’re always only shown in a positive light so long as they pander to the western models of “progress”. Muslims are either seen as a part of the crowd or seen flouting their religious principles in the name of representation.
Now, Marvel has made an attempt to bring focus entirely to a lead Muslim character in its latest ‘Ms. Marvel’. It features Pakistani-Canadian actress, Iman Vellani in the lead role playing 16-year-old Kamala Khan. This enterprise is applaud-worthy as it seems like an honest intervention in the meaningful representation of Muslims which does not restrict itself to inclusion only but also extends to show Muslims in empowered roles. To have a woman superhero and a Muslim woman at that is indeed a step in the right direction. However, how successful an attempt it can be deemed is too premature to declare.
There have been successful shows that have portrayed Asian women of colour across a range of OTT platforms. The latest egg in this basket is Marvel’s ‘Ms. Marvel’. This series, as many fans state, has been ‘review bombed’, which is the influx of negative reviews before the release of a series. Hence, while the ratings of Ms. Marvel are high, the majority of its reviews are negative. The show owes the negative backlash to the representation of a brown Muslim female superhero. However, this has not stopped it from acquiring a huge fanbase.
Set in the neighbourhood of Jersey City, United States, the story of Miss Marvel houses the protagonist Kamala Khan, daughter to Pakistani Muslim immigrants Yusuf Khan and Muneeba Khan.
The series opens with Kamala uploading the narration of her favourite Marvel superhero characters via her production channel ‘Sloth Baby Productions’. Though a rather unknown channel with little to no traction, this is the show’s first intervention – an unconventional introduction to a young ‘desi-American’. It moves away from the stereotypical depiction of nerdy-science-inclined Asian teens obsessing over STEM.
The episode then ascends into its first portrayal of a Muslim household, via du’as (prayers). Kamala’s brother Amir is seen reciting a du’a before commencing his meal. It is details like these interspersed throughout the show that give it a positive proportion of authenticity and accuracy. Furthermore, a rather accurate trope of a typical South Asian household kicks in when Kamala asks her parents’ permission to go to Avangercon, an event where fans of the Avengers (a team of superheroes) can meet fellow fans, participate in various events and discuss their passion for comics all while cosplaying their favourite characters. Kamala’s mother whips out a series of very familiar arguments that a majority of Muslim children in South Asia have grown up hearing. From the presence of haram (religiously forbidden i.e. sinful) actions taking place to Kamala wearing ‘immodest’ clothing, ammi Muneeba Khan echoes the concerns of almost all Muslim parents worldwide. However, this does not stop Kamala from going to Avengercon. She succeeds in sneaking out and showing her costume on the stage at the event. A unique last-minute addition to it is what looks like a kada (bracelet or bangle) belonging to her grandmother. Due to a mishap at Avengercon Kamala’s instincts kick in and she is forced to use her recently discovered powers.
From the plot so far, it can be coherently inferred that Kamala’s powers originate from her grandmother, in particular her grandmother’s kada.
Ms. Marvel is indeed a refreshing take in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It radically redefines the dominant delineation of a Superhero. Not only does it subvert the existing models of the category of Superheroes, it goes miles ahead by doing so through the introduction of not only a Woman Superhero but a Muslim Woman at that.
It represents Muslims in a light that is not laced with prejudice and islamophobia. The portrayal of day-to-day Islamic practices through the reading of du’as helps in normalizing the daily routines practiced by Muslims around the world that have otherwise been demonised.
In Hollywood, the portrayal of Muslims typically takes two forms: one in need of saving and the other from which the world needs to be saved. Muslim women in particular are often shown lacking any agency and in need of salvation from men from their communities who are either radicalised and violent. The concept of a Muslim family is always shown as dysfunctional.
Ms. Marvel attempts to change this to some extent. Through Kamala Khan, viewers witness a young Muslim girl who, while battling the day-to-day obstacles of being a teenager, also receives a chance to reclaim her ethnic and religious identity.
The representation of Muslims globally is dominantly compromised. Hindi cinema has also increasingly resorted to creating villains out of Muslims and only showing Muslim women as oppressed. In this context, to have a Muslim woman superhero is a much-needed representation for young Muslim women here.
Even as the show is a step in the right direction, there’s still some caution to be shown in the optimism. The tone of the series in a few instances may come off as overtly ‘immature’. This is not the first instance of casting a young adult superhero. Spiderman is one of the most famous Marvel superheroes. Yet, in comparison, the tone of films such as Spiderman Far From Home holds a much more critical and urgent tone. Even other marvel movies that delve into the genre of action comedy such as Shang Chi have a more profound and earnest timbre than what Ms. Marvel presents. The series, while portraying teenage characters, lacks in producing this profound tone which to a larger extent makes it come off as ‘not-so-serious’. For the first Marvel Muslim hero of its kind this can come off as disappointing.
However, the show is still unfolding. Only a few episodes have been released but with each episode the viewer’s trust in the show is increasing. While the first episode started on a note of caution, the second one has encouraged viewers, especially Muslims to put some more faith in the show.
As viewers we hope that the show presents a more diverse portrayal of Muslims especially Muslim women. It has on its shoulders, the dreams of a myriad of brown Muslim girls, who have not had anything on the screen to relate to. However, in a world of ‘Anyone can be anything’ Ms. Marvel could potentially be a promising endeavour.
Ms Marvel is available on Disney+ and new episodes release every Wednesday. While it is premature to pass a final verdict on the show, we’re all rooting for the much-needed representation to prove more and more authentic as well as productive.
Best thing about Ms. Marvel was when the dad said “we trust you we just don’t trust others around you”. This is the representation we truly deserve
— M’Baku🐺 (@svdpvkihvxrs) June 10, 2022
Ms Marvel (which is great) is being review bombed in part because some people see her as a Muslim girl “replacing” the white Carol Danvers. Not only is this racist white replacement nonsense, it’s hypocritical given all the harassment Larson got. It’s perpetual racism and sexism.
— Jessie Earl (@jessiegender) June 9, 2022
People that think the low viewership numbers for Ms.Marvel are because of her power set change and not the Islamophobic undercurrents of American/Western society are delusional.
Ms. Marvel is a GREAT show and as a minority I love seeing stories like this finally being made. pic.twitter.com/JgdfPkTO9w
— John Cena please follow me back (@senpaisenseii) June 18, 2022
- The author is an intern at Kashmir Observer
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