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Ms Marvel: An Ordinary Superhero

July 15th, 2014     by Nadia Siu Van     Comments

Photos courtesy of Marvel

What makes Kamala Khan, the new shapeshifting Muslim Ms. Marvel, so widely appealing? The Marvel comic, which debuted in February this year, revolves around a teenage Pakistani-American girl from New Jersey…probably not the mainstream idea of a superhero. As Kamala puts it, everyone expects a Ms. Marvel with blonde hair, spandex and thigh-high boots,“Not a sixteen-year-old brown girl with a 9 PM curfew.”

But that’s exactly what makes Kamala such an intriguing character. Her narrative is one of assimilation and the struggles she encounters as she tries to negotiate these complex identities as a Pakistani-American girl from New Jersey and a nerd who writes Avengers fan fiction instead of hanging out with the cool kids, all while fitting in and “being normal.” Kamala’s classmate Zoe makes belittling, racist comments about her culture, referring to her friend as “Kiki” instead of her proper name “Nakia,” and pointing to Nakia’s headscarf as a sign that she may be honour-killed by her father – even though Nakia states that her father actually wants her to take it off. (Kamala, on the other hand, doesn’t choose to cover her hair).

As a first-generation American , Kamala wants to do the same things her peers are doing: go to parties and eat BLT sandwiches. She calls her father out for not letting her attend a party, pointing out that it wouldn’t be a problem if she were a boy. She adds, “Why am I the only one who gets signed out of health class? Why do I have to bring Pakoras to school for lunch? Why am I stuck with the weird holidays?” Kamala imagines how much better her life would be if she were “beautiful and awesome” like Captain Marvel. And when mysterious forces emerge from the mist to grant Kamala her shapeshifting powers, the first thing she turns into is the iconic Captain Marvel – with the bombastic blonde hair, thigh-baring outfit and leotard, which, Kamala admits, gives her an “epic wedgie.”

Having amazing hair and boots doesn’t make Kamala as happy as she thought it would. After sneaking out to a party against her parents’ wishes, she says that the intent was not to go against their culture to fit in, but that she grew up in Jersey City, not Karachi. Kamala feels protective of her family and her parents’ values, noting that she didn’t disobey them because she thought they were inferior: “Zoe thought that because I snuck out, it was okay for her to make fun of my family. Like, Kamala’s finally seen the light and kicked the dumb inferior brown people and their rules to the curb.” When Kamala later hears Zoe’s voice, she can’t control her shapeshifting powers and instantly transforms into the blonde Ms. Marvel, but she also recognizes that this isn’t the way to be “normal”: “It’s almost like a reflex. Like a fake smile. Like I have to be someone else. Someone cool. But instead I feel small.”

In some ways, people can see Kamala’s power as a kind of curse: that because she doesn’t know who she is, she can easily become anything and everything. But Kamala shows that there is strength in flexibility without losing who you are, and that identity itself is too complex for the rigid standards set by society and the people around her. (What does it mean, after all, to be a brown girl from Jersey City?) As Kamala struggles to control her new power, she is reminded of her parents’ teachings – to always think of the greater good, and to defend people who can’t defend themselves, even if it means putting yourself at risk. But as a young girl, it isn’t easy for Kamala – she is grounded for sneaking out to a party (quite literally, locking up a superhero from potentially saving the world), and her male counterparts underestimate her even though she has superhuman powers.

Kamala’s father explains that her name comes from the word “Kamal,” meaning perfection in Arabic. He says it signifies that she doesn’t have to be someone else to impress anybody, and that she is perfect just the way she is. In many ways, Kamala’s story resonates with readers because she is your average teenager – even though she has mega powers, the first thing she wants to do is help her friends. She fights with her parents, doesn’t fit in at school, wants her mom when she is hurt, and is just overall trying to find her place in the world. As the series continues, Kamala proves her hypothesis true – that “maybe putting on the costume doesn’t make you brave. Maybe it’s something else.”

Tags: teen

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