Ms. Marvel’s Representation Shines In The Most Subtle, Nuanced Ways

On Ms. Marvel, when Kamala Khan’s brother Aamir finds her hanging out with a boy named Kamran at a restaurant, he pokes fun by calling him “Haram-dot-Kamran”–“haram” being a word used to refer to so something as “forbidden” in Islam. I cackled because it gave me a new way to tease my husband, Kamran, but also because it was so pleasant hearing familiar names on screen and pronounced correctly. This level of relatability isn’t something I envisioned from a Disney+ superhero show set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe–not for someone of my background as a South Asian Muslim. In the lead-up to its release, I didn’t know how to feel about the culture and religion it aimed to represent, and my skepticism felt warranted given that it’s the same MCU that made Eternals’ Kingo, one of precious few South Asian characters in Marvel, a Bollywood star. He could have been anything, but they went with a stereotype.

However, a couple of episodes into the first season, Ms. Marvel has surpassed my expectations by depicting South Asian culture in ways that are both subtle and uncompromising. It goes beyond casting Pakistani-Canadian actor Iman Vellani as the bright-eyed main protagonist Kamala Khan. Ms. Marvel is a culture-focused narrative that features a range of Muslim characters that are purposeful and important parts of the story. As an artist who does primarily South Asian-centered art, I couldn’t get enough of the music and artwork that are showcased each episode. And it was common for me to go on social media and see South Asian artists ecstatic that their art was featured in the show. Moments like these make representation valuable because the good that comes from it is tangible; the show makes it easy to draw a line from a moment on screen, to the impact it is having on people in the real world, whether that’s South Asian artists seeing their work in a Disney and Marvel production, or young kids seeing people that look like them fighting for good. This, in turn, cements Ms. Marvel as a well-rounded show built by South Asians people and led by South Asian women, that will have a lasting impact on underrepresented communities, if not the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

What makes the representation in this show shine is that it’s happening everywhere, even where you least expect it. Ms. Marvel embraces the ordinary life of a brown teenager in America and her relationships with family and friends with nuance, particularly when it concerns the push-and-pull that comes from having one foot in the western culture of New Jersey, where Kamala is being raised, and the other foot in the culture of Pakistan and India, where her family came from. They also do an excellent job of exploring both culture and religion, which can easily be conflated by those who don’t have the personal life experiences to speak to the difference between them. In the early episodes of Ms. Marvel celebrations like Eid and weddings are key plot points alongside the examination of real-world issues of xenophobia and Islamophobia, most obviously perpetrated by the Department of Damage Control (DODC), a secretive government agency that, on paper, is attempting to apprehend the vigilante Ms. Marvel, but functionally ends up targetting any and all brown people, much like what happened in the real world post-9/11. This type of representation happens when the story is told through people who have lived through the South Asian American experience and can share an authentic perspective.

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Author: Saniya Ahmed