If you’re net-enabled and into comics, there’s literally no way you could’ve missed the news.
Marvel has introduced a new Ms. Marvel. Her name is Kamala Khan, and she’s a Pakistani-American Muslim shapeshifter from New Jersey. She’s going through the typical rebellious phase any American teen might go through, tempered by the fact that she is Muslim, with a traditional brother and parents. She’s intelligent, with eclectic interests, and a fan of Carol Danvers–the first Ms. Marvel, who now goes by Captain Marvel and has given her blessing to the young shapeshifter’s taking the code name.
I of course approve of the code name being a choice, and a tribute to an earlier hero, and something that was done organically to the story.
The news is getting it a little confused, though. Some sources are lauding Kamala as the first Muslim teen heroine. Not. Even. Close. Nice try, mainstream media, but there are already Muslim heroines in the Marvel universe.
Monet St. Croix, M from Generation X, X-Factor, and about to join the lineup of the all-woman X-Men team, was the first. Followed by Sooraya Qadir, Dust of Young X-Men. These women, and Excalibur–Dr. Faiza Hussein, all predate Kamala Khan. So while it’s inaccurate to call her the first Muslim teen heroine, she joins an illustrious sisterhood, however small.
Disney, the owner of Marvel, is a self-styled champion of diversity, and that’s nice to see. But they still have a long way to go with regard to getting it right in portrayals. G. Willow Wilson, the writer of the new Ms. Marvel title is Muslim herself, but she is white, and she is a convert to Islam. She is neither brown herself, nor someone who has grown up in the faith. This is, to my eyes, potentially problematic and possibly even a little appropriative. I’m happy, really, to see a brown, female, non-Christian character getting her own title and love in the Marvel universe. I’m just a little nervous about her being written by someone who hasn’t actually lived her experience. There seems to still be that invisible wall to hiring diverse creators to portray diverse characters. And as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, it seems like creative teams that lack diversity don’t seem inclined to put in the effort to research, so they can make an accurate, sensitive, and respectful portrayal. So it remains to be seen if G. Willow Wilson will be able to buck the trend.
Getting back to code names, I can’t help but note the strange, circular irony at work here. The first female Captain Marvel was a black woman, Monica Rambeau. She gave up the name to the male Captain Marvel, but then the next time we see it in use, it’s on white Carol Danvers, who didn’t even have the courtesy to check with Monica. Monica found out by Google Alert, then confronted Carol about it. Kamala apparently is acting on inspiration from Carol to use the codename. So brown girl uses a codename. It gets taken without asking by the white girl. Whose old codename in turn is used by another brown girl, who also doesn’t–as of this writing–appear to have asked.
On the subject of Disney having a way to go on diversity–their cinematic track record hopefully does not trickle over onto the comic page. Their portrayals of characters of color have been problematic. Yes, we’ve had them, but look at what we got:
The Little Mermaid (1989): “The blackfish, she sings”–need I say more? Disney used a blackface joke in a children’s movie less than 25 years ago, even if they tempered it by giving said blackfish an Aretha Franklin soul sister singing voice.
Aladdin (1994): The main character only barely looks Middle Eastern–he looks more like a European white boy. Jafar, on the other hand, has super-exaggerated Middle Eastern features and accessories, reminding us what “bad guy Middle Easterners really look like”. Disney subtly contributed to Islamophobia with that visual methodology.
Pocahantas (1995): We had the title character, her father, her best friend, the guy who was intended to be her husband–and her grandmother, the wisecracking tree.
Brother Bear (2003): While the story of Kenai is a touching one, he not only spends most of the movie as a bear rather than a human, but he chooses to remain a bear at the end of the film. Yes, he did it for a good reason–to give the cub someone to look after him–but the implication, unspoken, is that it’s almost better to be a bear than a person of color. The sequel to Brother Bear does the same thing by turning Kenai’s love interest into a bear.
The Princess and the Frog (2009): Disney’s first African American heroine is turned into a frog early in the film and remains one throughout most of the movie. We get something like twenty minutes of her as a little girl from literally “the wrong side of the tracks,” learning from her dear daddy that dreams don’t come true by wishing–you have to work hard to make them happen (another subtle message supporting the stereotype of lazy black people). Then we get a brief few minutes of her as a grown woman before the magic turns her into a frog. There are perhaps another six minutes at the end of the film once she has been restored to her rightful form. For audiences of color looking to see representation, a real princess who their little girls could see looks like them, it was a big disappointment.
The Disney Princess lineup tends to put Mulan, Pocahontas and Tiana in the back of the lineup. To say nothing of the most recent artwork whitewashing the darker-skinned princesses. The aforementioned tendency to change their characters of color into other things or tweak the portrayal in support of stereotypes is worriesome to say the least.
Will Kamala be on the page as herself, or will her shapeshifting powers be used to, well, erase her as a person?
There’s also the fact that unless they are specifically focusing a movie on people of color, as in Aladdin or Mulan, diverse ethnicities are entirely absent from all of Disney’s other movies, even though a quick Google search will tell anyone with five seconds to type in the query that people of color were in Europe during the ages in which Tangled, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast took place.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe also bears examination. As much as I dislike the Oscar-winning actress who phoned in the role of Storm in X-Men, (currently outside the Marvel/Disney ownership), Ororo deserves a movie of her own as much as Wolverine does. Marvel has gone on record saying that it would be too difficult to portray Wakanda accurately enough to give us a Black Panther movie. Avengers put Maria Hill and Black Widow in the lineup, leaving out charter member Wasp. So instead of more diverse heroes, and female heroes, we’re getting Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy, which features a CGI raccoon-like alien. Easier to animate a tree and an alien who looks like he escaped from a Disney princess film than to put a woman or person of color in the forefront.
Then there’s Agents of SHIELD. It has aired six episodes so far. Out of those six, five episodes have put people of color in situations where they are the villain, the victim, or both. Out of the main cast, there are two women of color: Chloe Bennett, who is part Chinese and plays Skye, and Ming-Na Wen, who plays May. Skye’s ethnicity hasn’t come up so far, but there’s a search for her parents in her backstory. We’ll see. But Ming-Na is portrayed as a melange of the Chop Socky Badass and Inscrutable Asian tropes. But fair being fair, that’s an improvement over Joss Whedon’s previous effort, Firefly–which had a heavily Chinese-influenced universe, but no visible Asian people.
Coming back to the comics, that same issue of Captain Marvel in which we get our first glimpse of Kamala? The villain of the issue was a black woman who was angry that her shot at getting her app publicity was wiped out by New York’s love for Captain Marvel. In a world where people of color are generally still disenfranchised and disadvantaged, we have a wealthy black woman who is jealous of Captain Marvel and the love she gets from the people, and who uses drone strikes to kill Carol for stealing her thunder. Sigh.
Like Disney, Marvel also suffers from a whitewashing problem. M, Sunspot, Storm, and Bishop have all had fluctuating skin color since they first appeared, and more often than not, the fluctuations tend to become progressively lighter. I recently had someone ask me if the image of M crushing the X-Men logo was really her, because the skin color was so much lighter than what they remembered (above).
However, along with Kamala Khan, we get her family as supporting cast, which means with her mother, father, and brother, we have a guaranteed four people of color in the series as regulars.
I know from this article it seems like I’m coming down hard on Marvel and Disney, and that I’m not happy about the new Ms. Marvel.
The truth is, I’m really very pleased to see them continuing to work toward doing better with diversity. Marvel editorial could’ve looked back to the pernicious racist reaction to their introduction of Miles Morales and quit. But despite the backlash, and all the missteps and the errors they’ve made so far, they’re still trying, and that is vitally important in this age where people are still asking, “why isn’t there a White History Month?” freaking out over a Mexican-American singing the National Anthem, and spewing hate when an Indian-American woman wins a beauty pageant. DC editorial tried. They introduced a number of ethnic characters, only to kill the majority of them, and give the legacy title right back to the white guy who was starring in it before, in response to fanboy outcry.
Marvel editorial have taken the bold and laudable step of giving a Woman of Color her own title, and while I intend to buy it and support it, I’m being realistic about what has come before. I’m going in with genuine “Make Mine Marvel!” enthusiasm, but with my eyes wide open.
There’s nothing wrong with enjoying and consuming media that has problems, as long as one does not dismiss the problematic elements in favor of “cool factor.” In order to make media better, the best and really only useful method is to hold the creators’ feet to the fire to continue improving, and call them out when they misstep.
I know, “it’s just comics, why must it be so political?” Because if we don’t work for change, it won’t happen organically. Inertia has made stereotypes the only visible representations of people of color for decades. So Kamala Khan, strange irony, and unsteady parent company history and all–is still a very positive thing.
So I’m looking forward to seeing what G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona come up with. I’m hoping the sales are high enough that Marvel doesn’t axe the title.
Special thanks to Claire Napier who contributed notes to this post.