By Shree Baphna, AsAmNews Staff Writer
The opening episode of Ms. Marvel is replete with symbolic representation of Pakistani culture and Islamic traditions. Visually, it is a packed 45 minutes, full of colorful animation, fast-paced cinematography and humorous teenage experiences.
In the first scene, we are introduced to 16-year-old Kamala Khan and her intense admiration for the superhero Captain Marvel. She is young, passionate, a bit of a day-dreamer, and constantly at odds with her rigid Pakistani immigrant parents. She shares a supportive relationship with her older brother, Aamir- a young man on the brink of marriage who is always wearing a traditional pathani kurta.
There are a myriad of positive cultural references throughout the episode which warmed my heart. To see these experiences portrayed so wholly and unashamedly in a major television production gave me a deep sense of relatability that before, would only come from my interactions with other Indian Americans like myself.
The first sign of relatability is the use of English sprinkled in with Urdu words here and there. This is something that to me, is a quintessential characteristic of immigrant upbringing. I was especially tickled when I heard the use of the word “gora” in a particular scene. This term is used by many South Asians colloquially to refer to those who identify as White. As an Indian American myself, I have consistently used this pattern of speaking with my family members. It is clearly apparent that the script-writers themselves are from a strong South Asian background, mixed in with a Westernized upbringing or influence.
Second, is the strong ties Kamala and her family have with their Pakistani origin. When Kamala and her mother make a trip to a part of Jersey City that is essentially a Pakistani ‘oasis’, it reminds me of areas such as Devon Street in Chicago or Jackson Heights in New York City. These areas were historically immigrant-heavy, and over time, they had evolved into cultural business centers where one could buy anything from traditional clothing to retail products that were only sold back in the ‘Motherland’.
Against a soundtrack of old, Urdu music (very similar to the old Hindi music my grandparents and parents listen to) we see Kamala stuff her face with Pakistani sweets, try on a salwar kameez for her brother’s upcoming wedding, and gaze with a watering mouth at rotating kebab meat in a local food truck. All this is extremely reminiscent and nostalgic of the kind of experience my family had as immigrants in the US. The monthly trip to these parts of town brings a sense of comfort and belonging, lessening the distance between them and their families back home.
Third, I appreciate Marvel’s attempt to address not just culture, but the religious aspect of being a Pakistani Muslim. We live in a world where a singular religion has been polarized and demonized time and again by the media and certain people. To me, Ms. Marvel is a powerful beacon of light in the way it portrays Islam in an ordinary manner- the only way in which it ever should be. It is a religion like any other that offers a diverse range of practice. A couple examples of this are, 1) the choice to wear a hijab or a head covering or not- as shown by Kamala and her friend from school; or 2) the choice to be more orthodox and regimented in prayer, as shown by Kamala’s brother Aamir.
As someone who is not a Muslim themselves, there is of course only so much I can comment on. However, these are a few surface-level symbols and details that brought much more depth and understanding to Kamala’s character and background.
However, while there is plenty to appreciate about Ms. Marvel’s debut episode, there is certainly room for improvement.
First, there is a definite attempt by the writers to pack in every single existing stereotype about South Asian families. We see this in Kamala’s parents and their behavior- they are stereotypically overprotective of her, strict about her doing anything that is not related to school work, do not give enough value to Kamala’s interests in fantasy and art, and even guilt-trip Kamala into being obedient.
While not overwhelming, the episode seems to portray these stereotypes as a checklist. It was as if the writers were afraid it would not portray “Brown culture” as authentically as possible otherwise. When one mentally compares it to Marvel’s other culturally centric creations such as Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, or Black Panther, Ms. Marvel’s cultural portrayals come off as clumsy and rather forced.
Second, is the over-use of the “friendless Brown-girl” trope- the lead is characterized as someone who is misunderstood and a bit of a social outcast, save for her one or two equally outcast friends. This is quite reminiscent of Mindy Kaling’s hit show Never Have I Ever, which also portrays a young, female, South Asian lead and her eventual climb to social visibility. Although Ms. Marvel has only released one episode so far, it has shown every sign that this is the formulated plot it will follow.
I watched the first episode with a few of my friends- who also identify as South Asian- and they quickly pointed out this trope, along with the fact the writing makes it seem as if Kamala’s ‘brown-ness’ is responsible for her being a social outcast. This is similar to the opinion my friends harbored of Never Have I Ever. In both series, we see the young protagonists at war with their own identity because it sets them apart from their peers. While Ms. Marvel has not outrightly addressed this just yet, there are clear signs of frustration between Kamala and her Pakistani identity (as manifested through her traditional-thinking parents).
However, these two main drawbacks must be taken with a grain of salt. First of all, only one episode of Ms. Marvel has been released to date, leaving much up to debate and imagination. Second, this series is geared towards a younger audience and portrays a teenage experience. As a result, the over-dramatization of Kamala’s Pakistani background, her parent’s actions, and Kamala’s conflicted relationship with them is all indicative of a young person’s perspective. It is not meant to be as subtle or serious as Shang Chi or Black Panther.
Overall, Ms. Marvel holds great potential for wonderful South Asian and Muslim representation and is sure to delight audiences who identify as both. While some use of subtlety would not go amiss, it is a wonderful message for younger Marvel fans who want to be able to claim a superhero of their own.
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What a great review! I’m so glad for it. I appreciate that you view being an “outcast” as a trope – that speaks to a greater sense of belonging, perhaps, that you and your friends have felt. My sense is that this experience of belonging is not universal, though, and as you also note, being a Pakistani or Muslim brings a lot of negative reaction from a segment of the majority culture. Viewers who liked Ms. Marvel might like the film Americanish, which I write about here – MOSF 16.2: AMERICANISH, a Rom-Com Window into Identity Formation for Asian American Women https://eastwindezine.com/mosf-16-2-americanish-a-rom-com-window-into-identity-formation-for-asian-american-women/