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For Kamala Khan

Kamala Khan, the superhero known as Ms. Marvel, has gone from being a curious announcement to one of the most beloved characters in the superhero pantheon. For more than a year now, I’ve been reading and reviewing the third (now forth) volume of the Ms. Marvel comic series, in which Kamala Khan[1] is the title character.

There are myriad reasons why I love Kamala, many of which I’ve detailed in my reviews. But one of the most important is this: Kamala’s story is her own story; she is the main character in her own life. This may not seem particularly revolutionary or different, but it is for a character from multiple marginalized demographics. It’s good representation precisely because she gets to have an individual story that treats her as a person. An important part of this is that her story gives her (and by extension, many of us) a voice. The story isn’t being used to do apologetics for those who want Muslim teenage girls to act in a certain way (whether non-Muslims who want Muslims to assimilate or conservative Muslims who want Muslims to follow their interpretation without challenging problems within the religion). Kamala’s story calls out everyone. Her family, religious leader, classmates, and fellow Inhumans all have certain expectations of her and have opinions on what decisions she should make. In this story, when someone’s actions affect Kamala, we see the situation from her point of view and are meant to empathize with her, showing the experience of a groups that is often talked about but rarely get to have their say in conversations that are about them.

For this reason, I think this is a good book for challenging the status quo among both Muslims and non-Muslims with regards to Muslim girls and women. Much of the media coverage about the series has focused (understandably) on the fact that Kamala is Muslim, and the potential for this book to give representation to Muslims and hopefully help non-Muslims understand Muslims better. For me, my feeling of relating to Kamala is even more specific than that: Part of the reason why she’s so important to me is specifically because she’s a female South-Asian American Muslim teenage child of immigrant parents who has experiences similar to my own experiences growing up – including being a fangirl, among many other things. There are the many different challenges teenagers face. Stories that only address one aspect of this complicated experience only address a small fraction of my life. Ms. Marvel has storylines and themes that address anti-Muslim bigotry and racism, sexism within outside of the Muslim community, the challenges of being part of the Millennial generation, disagreements with parents on culture, finding inspiration in popular culture, and so many other things. There are expectations that we face from both the larger society of never-Muslims in the United States and also from our own parents and religious communities. This is a good book to read to get an idea of what it’s like to be in this situation that so many of us are in: different groups of people have certain expectations of us, because they want us to agree with their culture entirely and reject others’ culture entirely. We’re trying to find our own way and make our own decisions when our choices are seen as a battlefield in a competition between the people who are trying to influence us in their fight with each other. Somehow, in all this, we have to try to figure out who we want to be.

I’m a nerd who processes things in my own life by reading stories. Kamala has given me a story that has helped me think about and deal with some of my own experiences, including things that happened in my life more than a decade ago. There are parts of my life that I’m seeing portrayed for the first time in Ms. Marvel. This series has literally made me tear up, because Kamala thinks and feels things that I’ve thought and felt. She is braver than I ever was, standing up for herself in ways that I wish I had the courage to do when I was her age; she is more than a decade younger than me, and yet she is my hero. Kamala has given me the words to express things I’d never said. My reviews of this series contain thoughts I’ve long had but often struggled to explain; Kamala’s story gave me a way to say, This is what it’s like. This is what I mean.

Kamala, like all of us, is simultaneously similar to and different from her peers. She gets to have fun and participate in fun retellings of common superhero tropes. She gets to participate in the traditions of the genre and the medium and reinvent them at the same time. There are so many superhero tropes that we fans have seen many times over the years, but to see characters from marginalized demographics have those experiences sends a message of inclusion. There are parts of her story that people of any demographic will be able to relate to and also parts which are specifically related to her own background – often in the same passage of the story. She is simultaneously an individual and a character who so many can see themselves in. The creative team treated Kamala and her story with respect, with excellent writing and artwork that convey so much in each and every issue.

Falling in love with this book series has been such a wonderful experience. Growing up, I desperately wanted to love characters who were from the same demographics as me, but they rarely ended up being my favorite characters; this was often because they were (at best) side characters who didn’t get much of a story. How could I count them among my favorites when I knew almost nothing about them? There were rare exceptions to this (several female characters or nerds or fangirls among them) – but until Kamala, no female South Asian-American Muslim fangirl (or even Muslim or South-Asian American) characters were on that list. Growing up part of a demographic that is often underrepresented and poorly represented in media, one learns to accept steps in the right direction while hoping for better books at a later date. There are often stories of which one can say that it’s great they were created, since they’re an improvement compared to previous efforts. One can appreciate the creators who worked on them and took a chance by portraying a character of a marginalized demographic, even if the stories weren’t great. One starts to get the feeling that the truly great stories are reserved for the white, straight, male characters and that the best the rest of us can hope for is a somewhat decent portrayal. Recommendations often come with the caveat of: It’s not great, but it’s a step forward; it’s better than previous portrayals. Being able to say, of the Ms. Marvel series, This is totally frakking awesome – that’s so great. I can say, for the first time, that a character who is like me in so many ways is one of my favorite characters ever.

For Kamala, who is the embodiment and symbol of so many of our hopes and dreams, I’ll say: “We will be the stars we were always meant to be”[2] – and you are one of the stars who lights the way.

[Originally written: 6 December 2015]

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References

[1] Essays in the “Kamala Khan” category at Homeworld Journal can be found at https://homeworldjournal.wordpress.com/category/kamala-khan/.

[2] DeConnick KS, Rios E, Lopez A, Bellaire J, Caramagna J, et al. Captain Marvel Vol. 7 #6. Marvel, 31 October 2012.

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