• Ms. Marvel and Muslim American Youth

    [Retrospective: I wrote this paper back in Spring 2019 for FSU’s Graduate Student Symposium. At the time, it was an easy line for my CV, but it also reflected years of my thinking about ethnic and religious identity formation. Although my work has since expanded into broader concerns about the limits of the human and human identity, I don’t think I’d have made it this far without working through these very public conceptions of belonging.]

    The new Ms. Marvel, a Pakistani American teenager named Kamala Khan, first appeared in her own series in February 2014. The nineteen-issue run almost immediately received critical acclaim for its representation of Muslim American families, a response likely facilitated by the fact that two of the character’s co-creators (Sana Amanat and G. Willow Wilson) know firsthand the experience of life in the United States as Muslim women. While many of their predecessors in the field typically conflated “Muslim” with “Arab,” Amanat and Wilson subvert standard one-dimensional stereotypes in an attempt to create a character that’s familiar — an “every girl” despite her ethnicity, religion, and super-normal powers.

    In this paper, I argue that they’re ultimately successful: Ms. Marvel not only remains accessible to the average non-Muslim or Pakistani American reader, but also mirrors and embodies the problems faced by young adults in these populations, as well. In the wake of a literal earth-shattering incident, Kamala finds herself torn between various social forces and forced to reevaluate her self over against those around her. My analysis explores the three primary elements of her hyphenated identity: Kamala Khan, the average American teenage girl; Kamala-beta, the only daughter in a Pakistani American family; and Ms. Marvel, the newly-minted Avenger. I conclude by noting that this seemingly “fractured” self reflects the actual experience of Muslim American youth, and thereby serves as a corrective against the danger of recycled stereotypes and “token” characters in contemporary media. Put more simply, Ms. Marvel seeks not to denigrate those it represents, but to empower (or “embiggen”) them, providing a voice and representation where they’ve rarely existed before.

    Ms. Marvel #1-3 (November 2015 – January 2016)

    The second run of Ms. Marvel picks up after the events of the world-shattering miniseries known as Secret Wars — and, at this point, Kamala Khan is relatively new to the superhero business. She gained the ability to enlarge (or, as she says, “embiggen”) and shrink in size after exposure to the gene-altering Terrigen Mist only a short time before the collision of the normal-616 and Ultimate-1610 universes; as a result, she was forced to learn her powers “on the fly.” By the time the mini-series concluded with the restoration of the original Earth-616, she’d become a battle-hardened hero, capable of fighting alongside the likes of Iron Man and Sam Wilson’s Captain America. They’d even made it official: Kamala was now an Avenger.

    Back in the everyday world of non-powered humans and high school, though, Kamala is forced to juggle her secret life with a relatively normal one. Or, more accurately, two relatively normal ones. As we see in the first post-Secret Wars arc, “Super Famous,” she’s living three lives, perched between her roles as a teenage American girl, the only daughter in a Pakistani American family, and a superhero with far greater responsibility than ever before. When a billboard with a picture of Ms. Marvel appears above a new up-scale commercial development, Kamala is incensed and begins to investigate its owners. She soon learns that the Hope Yards Development and Relocation Association (i.e., HYDRA) has set its sights on something more than real estate investment: the “revitalization” of Jersey City through the use of mind-controlling nanotechnology. The ensuing conflict serves to highlight the nature of Kamala’s tripartite identity, while simultaneously illustrating the significant overlap that exists between her seemingly fictitious experiences and the lives of Muslim American youth today.

    Kamala Khan, American Teenager

    The first third of the titular superheroine’s identity is that of Kamala Khan, the average American teenage girl. Although long-time fans are undoubtedly familiar with Kamala’s life as a student, the “Super Famous” arc wastes little time in establishing the division between her private and public personas for new readers. The first issue begins with a three-page montage of Ms. Marvel fighting alongside the new Avengers, complete with an inner monologue detailing the ways in which her life has changed since “the world almost came to an end.” But almost immediately, the scene shifts to images of Kamala doing homework and walking through the hallway of her school. Another ten pages pass before Kamala returns to the role of Ms. Marvel.

    By the middle of the arc, Kamala is sleeping only four hours a night, and has already failed to pay attention in one physics lesson and skipped another entirely. More importantly, she’s learned that Bruno, her best friend and technological assistant, is dating a girl named Michaela (i.e., Mike) despite having loved Kamala. She insists that it doesn’t matter to her, but it soon becomes clear that the heroine harbors some resentment toward the couple. Kamala twice makes comments to Bruno while in the midst of superhero-related activities, calling Mike his “non-tiny girlfriend” and implying that he fills his time with homework, real work, and Mike. When he responds to her by suggesting she actually talk to Mike, Kamala brushes it off: “Some other time, Bruno! I have bad guys to fight.” But it’s a deflection. In the end, Kamala admits that their relationship had come as a surprise and that “she hasn’t really wrapped her mind around it yet.”

    These experiences and exchanges are significant because they’re all extraordinarily “normal,” at least in terms of their accessibility to American audiences. That’s to say, the character of Kamala may speak, in particular, to high school-age women of Pakistani descent, but the broader experience of high school in the United States is a phenomenon that cuts across categories of sex and ethnic or racial identity. Sleepless nights, awkward romances, and jealousy aren’t limited to individuals with superpowers; rather, they’re par for the course among young adults. The depiction of Kamala as a student thus relies on familiar feelings or memories of academic and social pressure in an attempt to humanize the character, both literally (considering her superhuman status) and figuratively (as a way of breaking the aforementioned stereotypes of Muslims in the American context).

    At the same time, Kamala’s struggle to balance her public/human and private/superhuman personas is meant to reflect the ways in which second-generation Muslim American youths struggle to situate themselves over against their peers. According to Lori Peek, it’s not uncommon for the latter to downplay their religious identities to “‘pass’ as part of mainstream society.” One of her subjects, for example, said that she “identified much less with being Muslim” in high school because she didn’t want to “stick out too much.” She just wanted to “be in the in crowd and do things that [were] considered cool.” This phrasing implies that the student viewed Islam as being incompatible with the “normal” American experience, despite actually being raised in the tradition. For her, it was a matter of picking one over the other; a hyphenated identity wasn’t an option.

    The same holds true for Kamala, albeit in a slightly different form. Although the character doesn’t necessarily feel forced to choose one identity over another, she’s yet to fully “synthesize” her three roles. Kamala-beta and Ms. Marvel undergo very different experiences from Kamala Khan because Kamala differentiates between each role in her own mind. A recent study by Saba Ozyurt provides some useful conclusions about the implications of this process. For Ozyurt, the separation or fragmentation of disparate identities by female Muslim immigrants isn’t the result of perceived cultural incompatibility (as in the case of the aforementioned student), but rather the accessibility of a “coherent self-narrative of belonging to both worlds.” It’s therefore possible for individuals to construct such narratives in both compatible and incompatible sociopolitical contexts. To do so, however, “an individual has to be competent in both cultures and behavioral repertoires.” In other words, synthesizing seemingly disparate identities takes knowledge and confidence that may not be available or fully-developed at certain points in life — adolescence, for example. The teenaged Kamala lacks these qualities because she doesn’t possess the same depth of experience as a second-generation immigrant five or ten years her senior. Only with time can she become fully capable of crafting a stronger, more cohesive self-narrative.

    Kamala-Beta, Devoted Daughter

    In addition to her life as a normal American teenager, Kamala also plays the role of beta, the devoted child of first-generation immigrants from Pakistan. This carries with it an entirely different set of cultural and religious expectations. One night, for example, Kamala returns home after curfew and is immediately confronted by her mother, Muneeba. Rather than scolding her daughter for disobeying her rules, she instead draws her attention to the negative publicity surrounding Ms. Marvel and the Hope Yards billboard. She then insists Kamala take a break from fighting crime and reminds her that a hero without the support of the people is simply a lafungah, “a useless idiot who has failed at life.”

    [Note: In Urdu, betā ( بیٹا ) and betī ( بیٹی ) technically refer to “son” and “daughter,” respectively. However, betā can also be used by adults to address both men and women of a younger age. Kamala’s mother uses the term in this arc, but her father has said it in previous issues, as well.]

    On another occasion, Kamala informs her friends that she’s late to a meeting with her older brother, Aamir, at the local mosque. She ultimately fails to arrive (thanks to trouble with some criminals), but Aamir catches her leaving home the next morning and asks her to chaperone a meeting with a young woman named Tyesha. As he admits, he cannot talk to Tyesha “for the purposes of discussing marriage” without “correct supervision.” Kamala reluctantly agrees to “be a good mahram” and accompany Aamir on “[his] non-date with [his] non-girlfriend.”

    The use of non-English terms is important here. Lafungah and mahram both reflect ideas or practices that exist apart from the American norm, and thereby highlight the extent to which Kamala-beta is defined by elements of Pakistani and Islamic culture. Put differently, their meanings are more accessible to members of their respective populations and serve to create a link between those capable of understanding them. The use of lafungah, for example, received praise from Wajahat Ali, a notable Pakistani American playwright and journalist. In a tweet from 24 December 2015, Ali wrote, “@GWillowWilson’s MS. MARVEL #2 uses the word ‘lafungah.’ Tear of pride.” Kamala-beta’s mahram duty of chaperoning Aamir and Tyesha is similarly accessible, albeit to a broader Muslim audience, because it’s actually rooted in Islamic marital laws and the ways in which they’ve been enacted in various countries throughout the world. Of course, the scene does also appear to specifically reflect the practice of “semi-arranged” marriages in Pakistan, and could therefore comprise multiple levels of belonging (e.g., Pakistani / Pakistani American and Muslim) at the same time.

    The problem is that the inclusion of one group demands the exclusion of another. In this case, the aforementioned markers of Pakistani and Muslim identity preclude Kamala-beta from fully assimilating to the life of an average American teenager. While she might be able to relate to the more common experiences and pressures of high school, the same can’t be said with regard to her classmates and her own ethnic and religious background. They’re largely incapable of relating to the latter because they lack the same forms of socio-cultural capital that Kamala-beta’s accrued throughout her life. As a result, she herself is “excluded from the informal feeling of collective membership and group solidarity” that binds the (non-Pakistani and/or non-Muslim) majority in the United States.

    Nor are such experiences merely limited to the pages of comic books. Building on the scholarship of Leti Volpp, Yaser Ali argues that Muslim Americans “were stripped of their citizenship as identity” in the wake of the events of 11 September 2001. They were, of course, still legally defined as citizens, but their status as such meant little in light of their interpellation as the “other” in the public and private spheres. Ali also points toward a sizable body of statistical and anecdotal evidence to support his claim, ranging from an “immediate” spike in anti-Muslim violence in Winter 2001 to allegations that President Obama was a Muslim in 2008. This is significant for our purposes as Kamala is not persecuted for her ethnic background or religious beliefs; instead, it’s Ms. Marvel who becomes the target of the public’s ire. However, the difference between the fictional and non-fictional accounts serves to throw the problems that Muslim Americans face into starker relief. Thus, Kamala-beta’s experiences as a racial and religious minority may not directly reflect the real world in the same way as her normal teenage life, but they nevertheless hold meaning for readers as a source of hope for change.

    Ms. Marvel, Avenger

    Lastly, and most obviously, Kamala maintains the pseudo-secret identity of Ms. Marvel, the young Avenger. Two points are worth noting here. First, the role of Avenger brings with it a new measure of responsibility, one that stems from a formal acceptance by (and sense of belonging to) a broader group. We’ve already seen that this involves assisting other members of the team on missions, but the commitment appears to extend much further. According to Kamala, she’s had to undergo “all [of] the fancy Avengers combat training” in her spare time; it’s partly for this reason that her sleep schedule has suffered. Even Doctor Faustus, the antagonist of the arc, seems to be aware of the additional workload. He reminds Kamala that “running with the Avengers entails a great deal of […] pressure,” and suggests it may have caused her to rise “too far, too fast.”

    At the same time, the existence of Ms. Marvel necessarily implies a deliberate choice to be Ms. Marvel. There’s nothing stopping Kamala from just “hanging up the costume” and living like a normal teenage girl. She’d still possess shape-shifting powers, but we’ve already seen that they’re significantly less visible than, say, the green-tinged skin of an enraged Hulk. She could easily blend into society, just as she does at school on a daily basis, and thereby remain relatively free of the pressure that comes with ensuring its wellbeing. But Kamala instead insists upon using her gifts to protect others, regardless of the physical or mental harm she might incur in the process. In fact, she likens it to being “on-duty,” not unlike any human law enforcement official. This phrasing suggests that Kamala chooses to maintain the persona of Ms. Marvel because she feels a moral obligation to act; she believes it’s the right thing for someone with her abilities to do.

    And while there’s obviously not a direct parallel to a secret, super-heroic identity amongst Muslim American youth, I would argue that this deliberate commitment to a larger group mirrors the intentional nature of religious identity amongst second-generation immigrants. According to Lori Peek, the transition to adulthood typically brings with it a heightened sense of religiosity; the majority of participants in her study “agreed that beginning college marked the most critical period of reflection and identity transition.” Two individuals, Zoya and Ali, even noted that their decisions to re-emphasize their Muslim identities were facilitated by the freedom of college, as well as their interactions with other Muslim individuals on campus. The ability to choose to share experiences with like-minded individuals, which occasionally took place in the structured context of Muslim Student Associations (MSAs), inevitably served to reify their “emerging religious [identities].”

    Ms. Marvel and the Avengers provide Kamala with a similar measure of freedom. As a normal teenage girl or second-generation immigrant, she’s bound by the expectations of others, and forced to act in ways that meet these expectations. As a superhero, though, she literally has the power to operate outside of the law. Freedom is part and parcel of the experience. And with it, she chooses not to abandon her duties or operate alone, but to join an organization capable of providing structure and guiding her through a life devoted to serving others. An organization that is comprised of individuals like her in terms of not only their physical power, but also their dedication to a greater good. In this way, Kamala embodies those young adults who willingly identify as Muslim, despite possessing the ability to “walk away” and assimilate into mainstream society. She chooses to make Ms. Marvel a significant part of her self-identity, even if it means she’ll face additional difficulties in other aspects of her life.

    Concluding Thoughts

    The character known as Ms. Marvel marks a departure from previous depictions of Arabs and Muslims in popular culture. As I’ve argued here, the young heroine actually plays three separate roles, namely those of Kamala Khan, a normal American teenager; Kamala-beta, the daughter of Pakistani Muslim immigrants; and Ms. Marvel, the superhero-slash-Avenger. Each of these embodies a unique aspect of the lived experiences of Muslim American youth today; together, they reflect the tension that can exist between the desires to “be American” and remain true to a minority culture. Ms. Marvel thus refuses to minimize the complex nature of identity formation amongst its target audience, and thereby provides much-needed representation to a much-maligned segment of the American population.

    Additional Reading

    Ajrouch, Kristine J., and Amaney Jamal. “Assimilating to a White Identity: The Case of Arab Americans.” The International Migration Review, Vol. 41, No. 4 (Winter 2007): 860-879.

    Ali, Yaser. “Shariah and Citizenship — How Islamophobia is Creating a Second-Class Citizenry in America.” California Law Review, Vol. 100, No. 4 (August 2012): 1027-1068.

    Berlatsky, Noah. “What Makes the Muslim Ms. Marvel Awesome: She’s Just Like Everyone.The Atlantic. Published March 20, 2014.

    Comic Heroine Ms. Marvel Saves San Francisco From Anti-Islam Ads.NBC News. Published January 27, 2015.

    Council on American-Islamic Relations. “New CAIR Report: Trump’s Muslim Bans Increased Anti-Muslim Discrimination, Violence.CAIR. Published April 23, 2018.

    Fleckenstein, Kristie S. Embodied Literacies: Imageword and a Poetics of Teaching. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2003.

    Groensteen, Thierry. The System of Comics. Translated by Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2007.

    McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York, NY: HarperPerennial, 1994.

    Ozyurt, Saba. “Negotiating Multiple Identities: Constructing Western-Muslim Selves in the Netherlands and the United States.” Political Psychology, Vol. 34, No. 2 (April 2013): 239-263.

    Peek, Lori. “Becoming Muslim: The Development of a Religious Identity.” Sociology of Religion, Vol. 66, No. 3 (Autumn 2005): 215-242.

    Pumphrey, Nicholaus. “Niqab not Burqa: Reading the Veil in Marvel’s Dust.” In Muslim Superheroes, edited by A. David Lewis and Martin Lund, 20-39. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017.

    Shaheen, Jack G. Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. New York, NY: Olive Branch Press, 2001.

    Valderrama, Pepi. “Geek Anthropology of Ms. Marvel.dePepi.com. Published May 11, 2015.

    Wilson, G. Willow. Ms. Marvel, #1-3. New York, NY: Marvel Comics, 2015.

    Wright, Bradford W. Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.