WARNING: Massive spoilers for Ms. Marvel ahead!
I cannot praise the new Ms. Marvel TV series enough! As a fan of the comics and also of the animated version of Kamala in the gone-too-soon Marvel Rising, I looked forward to this edition with great interest. I became a bit skeptical when I heard that Marvel Studios was making changes to her origin story. But those doubts have faded, because there are so many aspects of the show that are truly delightful! Here’s a partial list:
- The Khan family dynamics. Kamala’s dad, willing to dress up like The Hulk, complete with green face paint? Mr. Khan, c’est moi! I would most definitely make a fool of myself for my daughters, too!
- Kamala’s longtime partner-in-crime Bruno. From my own vantage point as a person of color, it has been marvelous to see a white character enter so deeply and enthusiastically into an Asian culture. Yes, he probably does it in part because he likes Kamala a ton, but still! How he does it – e.g., speaking a bit of Urdu when showing Mr. Khan how to work Zuzu, or helping with the wedding dance – feels like a natural outgrowth of a lifelong close relationship with the Khan family, and not something cringey and forced. But we don’t talk about Bruno, or at least not just about Bruno, because there’s also:
- Kamala’s bestie Nakia. As in the comics, she wears a hijab, a Muslim head covering. And like the Nakia of the comics, she’s also very much a feminist. This is super-cool because Nakia confronts many American viewers with something they haven’t seen before in media – a badass hijabi feminist. Often, we’re told that Muslim women who wear a hijab are forced to do so by the patriarchal authorities within the Muslim community. As a result, the hijab for many Americans has come to symbolize the oppression of women. Now, no doubt religious clothing like a hijab or a burqa (like the full-body covering that the Afghanistan Taliban imposes on women out in public) can truly be turned into an instrument of oppression when forced onto someone. But many Muslim women choose to wear a hijab as a symbol of their faith, and they do it without internalized misogyny. One Muslim friend of mine shared with me that she actually started wearing a hijab in her teens, before even her mom did, and that to her it doesn’t mean oppression, but freedom. Nakia similarly blows away the stereotype of a hijabi woman, and in fact, there are tons of real-life Nakias out there!
- All of the Desi cultural details. Some of these, like the day-to-day cultural references, I’ve seen among my friends’ families that hail from India or Pakistan. (I’m thinking especially of the Khan family’s hospitality or the strong influence of the Illumin-Aunties, a name that is so on point, especially after Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Mathness. I mean, Madness!) But I confess that I’ve never been to a wedding or a wedding banquet like Aamir’s and Tyesha’s! (Someone please invite me!) I’ve only seen them depicted in media, whether in this series or in films like Bend It like Beckham and Monsoon Wedding. So it’s a lot of fun for me to see and learn more about how it’s done!
- The “behind-the-scenes” look at mosque life and, more broadly, Islamic faith. I use quotes for behind-the-scenes because it only seems that way for those of us who aren’t familiar with it! But if you’ve ever been to a mosque, you might recognize several authentic details. For example, there are the many water taps or faucets for ceremonial purification washings, the numerous stacked cubbies in which worshipers place their shoes, and the locating of male worshipers closer to the front near the imam, while women worship in the back half of the room. (Muslim friends have explained to me that this is not meant to signify that women are less important than men, but it’s done to preserve women’s honor by keeping them from being eyed by men from behind. After all, kneeling and bowing with forehead to the ground is a fundamental part of congregational practice. That being said, Kamala and Nakia note that the condition of the women’s half of the room isn’t as nice as the men’s half.) I was also struck by the wedding scene where all the guests give a repeated verbal response of Allahu Akbar, or “God is great.” Maddeningly, this phrase has mostly appeared to American audiences in movies where faux-Islamic terrorists shout it before doing something horrific. But Allahu Akbar is used a lot in Islamic worship and should be understood in that context of peace and community. It’s another reason this series is a big win for representation!
- The New Jersey references. Brown Jovi? “Livin’ on a Prayer” playing during the fight scene? LOL for sure! Plus, the Jersey City setting is true to the comics.
- Family-friendly fare. My whole family can watch this show together! Unlike the more recent Doctor Strange movie, which I really, really enjoyed yet couldn’t recommend for my younger kid.
I could go on and on. But all of this brings to mind the late Dr. Jack Shaheen, an Arab American professor at NYU who dedicated much of his life to breaking down Arab and Muslim stereotypes in Western media. He was such an important academic activist that his passing in 2017 was noted by long, headlined obituaries in publications like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Shaheen a few years prior at columnist and author Jeff Yang’s amazing Beyond the Bad and the Ugly conference in L.A. I’ve been wondering what Dr. Shaheen would think of Ms. Marvel.
And then I realize that I’ve got it allllllll backwards. Dr. Shaheen’s passionate work of a lifetime helped to make Ms. Marvel possible! And we in turn, by telling and supporting stories that give authentic representation to overlooked and marginalized communities, help to pave the way for the next generation. Every generation builds on the work of those that have come before; we all stand on the shoulders of those who went through harder times so we wouldn’t have to.
Ms. Marvel is a truly remarkable series in its detailed representation of racial, cultural, and religious distinctives; in many ways, it reminds me of The CW’s outstanding reboot of Kung Fu, which I’ve written about previously. I hope that you’ll tune in and enjoy these shows, and that as you do, you’ll join me in recommitting ourselves to the real-life work of breaking down stereotypes and helping people to see themselves in stories. As activist Will Yu tweets every day, “Representation matters”!