[Super-hero sized spoilers ahead.]
In high school, I avidly read the Legion of Super-Heroes reboot that began in 1994. Eventually, I cooled out on the series, although my love of graphic novels began when I wrote a paper on Maus by Art Spiegel in college for an English course. Recently, I found an unexpected treasure when I sat down to read my spouse’s copy of Ms. Marvel: No Normal, the first compilation of the new Marvel comic series. The series is an exploration of identity: Kamala Khan is a Pakistani-American teenager who struggles with being a second generation immigrant, especially in terms of identity. The volume also focuses on the challenges she faces with differing gender roles between the broader U.S. culture she and her friends are embedded in with those of her parents’ country of origin. In a Los Angeles Review of Books article, The Subversive and Liberating World of G. Willow Wilson, Hannon points out that Wilson:
wants us to resist the presumptions that Muslim women need saving simply because they are Muslim and female. Wilson’s work and her characters, in pulpy form, embody this refusal since they are not waiting to be saved, but are doing the saving. They may strike at oppression—but they never strike at their Muslim culture.” In a society that views women, especially Muslim women, as powerless or victims, how does one show empowerment?
Ms. Marvel: No Normal shows empowerment through the transformation of Kamala into the role of a hero while navigating all the other aspects of her identity. I’ve written many times about Goffman’s dramaturgical analysis on this blog because I’m fascinated by how people construct, play, and modify their roles in different social settings. This link will take you to a brief overview of dramaturgical analysis, as well as a clip of Kanye West going “off script” to discuss his feelings about race and class during Hurricane Katrina. Dramaturgy views how we play roles, use scripts, and wear costumes in the different settings we navigate throughout our days.
In terms of “Ms. Marvel: No Normal,” Kamala is dealing with her identity in terms of being a young woman, a teenager, a Pakistani-American, a Muslim, and finally, she is trying to figure out how her desire to be a hero fits in with all these other roles. The volume explores how many gender roles, particularly those associated with Muslim women, make it challenging to take on the mantle of hero. Kamala is also a teen. One of the major aspects a teenager must figure out about her (or his) identity, is what costume to wear. Obviously, this is important for a superhero in terms of identity, too. All of these roles are impacting Kamala simultaneously.
The story does an excellent job of exploring intersectionality. Intersection theory is an analysis that allows connection between the different systems of oppression to one another as they impact individual’s lives. For a better understanding of the origins of intersection theory, this article explores the emergence of intersection theory to help African American women in court cases where they were being ignored due to the intersection of race and gender. Intersection theory can be applied to social class and other categories, as well. Returning to Ms. Marvel, Kamala must deal with being a minority in a culture that privileges being white and expects young women to take on certain roles. This volume explores the intersection of gender, ethnicity, and age.
While there is a villain in the series, the conflict in this volume mainly arises from Kamala becoming an independent young women in a world that expects women (especially younger women) to make themselves small, to be beautiful (in a extremely narrow sense), and to be protected. To be a “beautiful” woman in the U.S., unfortunately, women must deal with a beauty standard that assumes that women are sex objects. Kamala gets overtaken by a strange fog and she “sees” Captain Marvel, Iron Man, and Captain America, who are real people in her world. Captain Marvel asks Kamala: “’Who do you want to be?’” Kamala replies, “Right now, I want to be beautiful and awesome and butt-kicking and less complicated. I want to be you. Except I would wear the classic, politically incorrect costume and kick butt in giant wedge heels.” Captain Marvel replies with a raised eyebrow, “You must have some kind of weird boot fetish.”
I adored this scene. For years, the comic book industry had been critiqued for its depictions of women in art. In this volume, the characters address this concern. When Kamala loses control and “transforms” into Captain Marvel, she is wearing one of the revealing outfits that many critics have complained about in the comic industry, in video games, on book covers, etc. The comic actually confronts head on the impracticality of these images of women. Kamala herself has absorbed the rules of American culture: beautiful women are Caucasian, wear high heels, and short skirts. In fact, Kamala soon realizes that she needs a very practical costume so she turns next to her Muslim identity. She takes the burkini, which is a swimsuit that covers the whole body for modesty, for her costume. She notes that she would have never actually worn it for swimming. For her shoe wear, she appears to be wearing high top sneakers. She doesn’t succeed on this mission. When she returns home, her father tells her, “You don’t have to be someone else to impress anybody. You are perfect just the way you are.” She realizes that it takes too much energy to change sizes in the previous costumes. Finally, she gets Bruno, her friend, to help make her a stretchy costume that looks more like a superhero costume. She adds the symbol to her costume herself. This relates a great deal to the intersectional struggles that arise for young minority women, particularly a second generation immigrant, to belong. As she tries on her identities, she realizes that she doesn’t fit into the typical American view of who she is, but she also finds aspects of the Muslim-American view to be restricting. Instead, she uses ingenuity to forge a new path. (This reminds me of the discussion of code-switching in my previous post on M.L. Brennan’s Millennial character, Fortitude.) Her friend and classmate, who happens to be an inventor, helps develop a material that is flexible enough to flow with her. This portrayal for a second generation immigrant really resonated with me.
In terms of dramaturgical analysis, having a proper costume helped Kamala to have the confidence to play her new role her own way—letting go of aspects of both cultures while taking on others. Returning to a different dramaturgical concept, other people in the settings that Kamala is participating seem to want her to fit into certain gender roles. They want her to play certain parts. For example, other characters want to protect her due to her the intersection of her age, gender, and religion, often working at cross purposes with Kamala’s own desire to be brave and heroic. Many scenes with her parents fit the bill, but the one I wish to discuss is one with her friend Bruno.
It’s revealed early on that Bruno has romantic feelings for Kamala and has been protecting her since they were children. Obviously, this plays into traditional gender roles in the U.S. When Kamala calls him out about it, he admits that he is unnerved by this role reversal as she develops superpowers. And why Bruno is a good ally is that he accepts Kamala the way she is and contributes to her wellbeing in other ways (like using the polymer he invented to help her with a stretchy costume that means she can spend more of her energy focused on the fight.) He accepts her strength, and after a brief adjustment period, seems to accept the new role she is playing.
At the end of the volume, an effigy of Kamala is left at one of the settings she frequents with her friends, the Circle Q convenience store. She says to the gathered crowd: “This guy thinks he can threaten us where we live? Ms. Marvel has a message for him…This is Jersey City. We talk loud, we walk fast, and we don’t take any disrespect. Word.” In the end, Kamala saved the day, at least temporarily. She comes into her own. Kamala Khan has fully embodied her role as a superhero, and I look forward to seeing how her identity continues to unfold. For more information about the writer, G. Willow Wilson, you can look at her website or this interview with her. I can’t wait for the second volume of Ms. Marvel coming out next week!