Tag Archives: Ms. Marvel

Normalizing The Different

It’s easy to dislike folks you don’t know. They’re different. They look weird. You have no horse in their race. They’re those people. The Unknowable Other.

But it’s hard to keep up this mindset, that of the Them, the Other, after you’ve met said other. When you take the time to recognize them as a person, put a face to that Other, it’s much harder to not like them. Suddenly, they become an Us, rather than Them.

Meeting people, however, is hard. Especially people outside our relatively well-defined social spheres. Small towns are small, countries have borders, there’s a limit to the people you see every day.

Enter literature. Books. Movies. Video games. Comics. Anything that tells a story.

Stories are about people of some sort. And there’s no reason they have to be about someone like you.

Take Ms. Marvel. It’s a superhero comic about Kamala Khan, a first generation Pakistani-American immigrant who fights bad guys. Amidst all the crime stopping, we get a peek into Kamala’s home life. She’s balancing high school, friends, family, and faith. She struggled with heartbreak, talks to her imam for advice, and breaks curfew. Her story is new, but at the same time familiar.

But then, when we see stories about her move to the US; and in her first day at school and get a snapshot of her first day of school; I see my own experiences as someone who moved to the US is given weight, acknowledged, and affirmed. It’s normal to be different, the book says. I’m not the only oddball, my weirdness is shared. It’s the story of someone moving to the US, maybe it’s your grandparents, maybe it’s you, maybe you were just the weird kid in high school. It may not have been your experience directly, but it’s translatable.

We live in a world of narratives, we interpret the world as a story. Normal is a narrative. Weird is a narrative. Us and Them is a narrative. When we have one narrative dominating – the ‘all-American hero’, who is coincidentally typically white, male, and straight is the default and the most normal – anything that deviates is by default outside of the norm. Kamala is Other. I, a biracial Asian-American immigrant am Other.

That is a narrative of import to me, of course. Which is not to discount stories about other people. Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing makes the African Diaspora immediately personal. It’s easy to learn about it from a textbook and think about it in dictionary terms, but when given a face, it becomes more than that. The concept, one that I have the privilege to not have to think about, becomes unavoidable as I read about people – persons with names – who went through this. I hear stories about the people who went through it, who have made their lives in the aftermath.

And so the narrative can change; now Those People who I only knew about in the abstract become individuals with their own stories; recognizably human

Stories are important. Stories let us explore other people’s experiences. Stories let us see each other as we see ourselves. Stories make the foreign recognizable. Stories take Them, and make them Us.

It’s hard to dislike people once you’ve met them, once you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Good stories let us in to other people’s lives. Ms. Marvel offers a narrative where the Pakistani-American girl is just like everyone else, Homegoing gives a voice to people you hear about. Alongside all this, they lend weight to experiences, say that, hey, your experiences are valid. Your life is worthwhile.

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(Re)Constructing Narratives

Yes, this is sort of a follow up to to last week’s post, but in my defense I’ve been reading an anthropological book on inclusion/exclusion stuff. So bear with me.

We need more narratives, that’s a given. Meaning we need there to be more versions of what can happen to people, and what people can be. Because when there’s only one accepted narrative, the outsiders become othered. Having more narratives encompassing more people, more takes on people, let us see them as people and not just as stereotypes or what not. Frequently, changing the narratives means having to build new ones.

Narratives exist about people, whether we acknowledge them or not. In the years since 9/11, the prominent American narrative about Muslims has been that they’re violent extremists stuck in an old fashioned mindset. Which, y’know, isn’t true; but since it’s the only one most folks in the States hear it’s the one that’s accepted. Which is why these different narratives are so crucial. When a character like Kamala Khan — the new Ms. Marvel in the comics — comes along, who presents a different view of Muslim life; suddenly, bam, they become human, ordinary.

Kamala Khan is, for the most part, a normal teenager (minus, y’know, superpowers). She goes to school, she struggles with crushes, she fights with her family. Kamala is instantly relatable; we’ve all been there, right? Then we see how what her faith expects of her; how she and her brother deal differently with their identities as immigrant children. Through Ms. Marvel, writer G. Willow Wilson is able to reconstruct the narrative of a muslim family into one that’s relatable, even if it’s not the one we’re most familiar with. Kamala and her family stop being the unknowable other and become friends, neighbors. G. Willow Wilson — herself a Muslim — thus takes the established Muslim narrative and gives us a new one. This is particularly important because the central narrative surrounding Muslims is so toxic. Ms. Marvel provides an alternative to the vitriol so prevalent, something vital not just for people at large, but for a young woman like Kamala trying to find her own place in the world.

Fiction has the great ability to affect the way we see people. It lets us into others’ heads, yeah, but it also shapes how we see them. When Star Trek came out in the Sixties, the crew had Sulu, Uhura, and Chekov; a Japanese man, Black woman, and Russian man. The US had been in a fierce war with the first, was embroiled in a Civil Rights debate regarding the second, and had just taken the third as the primary enemy of the time. Not only was Sulu different from the anti-Japanese propaganda that permeated the US barely two decades earlier, but he also ran counter to the general consensus that Asian men were effeminate and hapless; Sulu was capable, masculine, and heroic. Uhura was intelligent and an officer, at the same time African Americans were still fighting for the right to be treated as equal citizens. What made Star Trek so revolutionary was how it changed the narratives of ‘enemy’ and ‘other,’ however it’s still an issue that we’re grappling with today. Here was a story about ‘those people’ where they weren’t mysterious and scary, but rather fellow shipmates.

So are narratives stereotypes? Sort of. Stereotypes are informed by narratives, especially when there’s too much of just one. Changing them up is also a way of undoing stereotypes. Look at Terry in Brooklyn Nine-Nine; by all accounts he should be another big, stern, scary, black police sergeant. Instead, he’s the epitome of a family man who loves his wife and daughters even more than his muscle mass.

These sorts of issues can’t be solved by any one comic or tv show; it will take a bunch of time to build the new narratives and show a large shift in public opinion . But hey, it’s all one step to seeing people as people, no matter who they are.

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Importance of Different Narratives

Narratives are important. They don’t just affect how we interpret events happening around us, but influence the way we see the world. Stories tell us what to expect.

The question then is what narrative do we hear? Chances are, there’s an ‘accepted’ version of it all. Y’know the saying about history being written by the victors? That’s the thing about narratives: they tend to be established by whoever’s in power (usually meaning white, male, and wealthy). The problem is, that’s not everyone’s story.

There’s a great TED Talk by Chimamanda Adichie about how there needs to be more narratives out there. She talks about how, growing up in Nigeria, she would read a lot of British books and thus, when she started writing her own stories, they were about traipsing about in the heather and drinking ginger beer and doing other things that were decidedly not typical of Nigeria. Because when people begin to accept one narrative and see themselves as the Other, there’s a hesitation to embracing that Other, even if it’s your story. The epiphany for Adichie was realizing that stories didn’t have to be about that; that she could tell a story about her own life. So she created narratives that were ‘different,’ but normal.

So we need more narratives. Different ones. Ones about different people, by different people.

It’s one of the big reasons I’ve really been loving Marvel’s recent work. I’m not talking about the MCU here — which tend to employ white dudes named Chris — but rather the comics. Marvel’s done quite the shake-up in their titles recently, adding a lot more women and people who aren’t white.

Sometimes it can be simple things. Silk features Cindy Moon, who was bitten by the same spider as Peter Parker, but instead of having an uncle Ben she was locked away in a bunker for ten years. Now out, she’s adjusting to the normal world while looking for her missing family. That Cindy’s both Asian and female isn’t overly important, but she does facilitate a new story. With that, she’s also a new face in comics that’s not another white guy.

These new stories can be really interesting. There was some outrage when Sam Wilson, who used to be Falcon, took over as Captain America from Steve Rogers. Some people said it was just a political correctness move, a plot to sell more comics because diversity. Thing is, Sam Wilson makes for a very interesting Captain America. Yes, he’s trying to live up to Steve’s reputation, but there’s the added depth from just who he is. The son of a Harlem preacher, Sam tries to father his father’s example best as he can while he, a black man, takes on Hydra — who still show shades of their Nazi roots. Sam as Cap is very different from Steve as Cap. There’s the story of a black man representing the US and taking over the mantle. It’s interesting, it’s new, and it represents someone else.

Perhaps the most interesting new face is Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel. Kamila is fourteen, a total fangirl, and the daughter of Pakistani immigrants to New Jersey. She’s a lot like Peter Parker of old, a teenager thrust into superheroing and wrestling with all that means. Alongside that is her own personal life. Ms. Marvel is in many ways a story about identity: it’s Kamala as Inhuman, Muslim, an immigrant daughter, and a teenager. Each attribute affects her adventures; she finds solace at Attilan with the other Inhumans, but lessons from her Imam help her grapple with the heaviness of being a superhero. Kamala’s story is unlike many others in fiction in general, let alone comics. Importantly, her narratives says that anyone can be a superhero.

So yeah, narratives are important. Diversifying a cast lets more and different stories be told. And all this is hardly touching on the topic of representation, which is important too. Let’s not have just one narrative in fiction, like Adichie says, let’s bring more in and create more normals. Let’s tell more stories.

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