'Ms. Marvel' Is A Turning Point For Muslim American Visibility In Hollywood

It’s not enough to be included on screen. Our communities deserve range.
Iman Vellani plays Kamala Khan on "Ms. Marvel."
Iman Vellani plays Kamala Khan on "Ms. Marvel."
Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty

In 2014, Marvel Comics introduced a new character that quickly became an international sensation. Unlike Thanos from the planet Titan or Dr. Strange, who wielded the powers of the Sorcerer Supreme, this young phenom was the product of a regular Muslim American family living in New Jersey. Kamala Khan, aka Ms. Marvel, possessed the coveted superpower of shapeshifting. But other than that, she was just a quirky high school kid navigating her blended identity.

Many of my Muslim American peers and I were amazed by what finally appeared to be a positive and fun, yet powerful, representation of our community. Khan’s infectious charm and steadfast strength slayed her nemeses in vivid color through the pages, her character unapologetically bucking the negative stereotypes impressed upon Muslim Americans.

Eight years later, we’re on the cusp of another groundbreaking milestone: the long-anticipated release of the Disney+ adaptation of the comic, with Iman Vellani playing Kamala Khan. On the show, the cosmic Ms. Marvel fights to protect the streets of Jersey City as she grapples with everyday coming-of-age challenges.

A female Muslim superhero is a rather satisfying herald of progress — both for Hollywood diversity and Muslim visibility in general. The casting feels right, for once.

Kamala Khan and Yasmeen Fletcher, who plays Nakia, offer an empowering reflection of young Muslim Americans.
Kamala Khan and Yasmeen Fletcher, who plays Nakia, offer an empowering reflection of young Muslim Americans.
Daniel McFadden/Marvel Studios

Vellani lives out her character’s family dynamics at home to a T — and they feel familiar and even comforting. At school, she’s just trying to figure it all out. But the streets and her imagination are where the magic happens.

In the trailer for the series (only one episode has dropped so far), she’s all at once tender, reverent and explosive. Khan’s range is meaningful not just for all the brown girls out there trying to save the world, but for everyone who’s never felt totally seen.

In an attempt at diversity, Marvel has shaken up its repertoire of box office-slaying superheroes in recent years, launching successful film franchises around the Black Panther or Shang-Chi. Yet, there’s still a lot of work to be done and “Ms. Marvel” feels like another step in the right direction. It’s not enough to be included on-screen; Our communities have to be represented in various ways to reflect our realities.

There are currently 3.5 million Muslim-identifying people in the U.S. and Islam has been deemed the world’s fastest-growing religion, but it’s safe to say that Muslim characters are often monolithic when portrayed in Hollywood. If represented at all, Muslim characters are negatively stereotyped and/or relegated to a supporting role with no backstory, according to research from USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, a leading think tank addressing inequality in entertainment.

While Muslims are one of the most racially and socially diverse religious groups, their existences are all too often expressed by one-dimensional narratives associated with terrorism and orientalist tropes of oppression.

"Ms. Marvel" fights to protect the streets of Jersey City — and deals with being a teenage girl.
"Ms. Marvel" fights to protect the streets of Jersey City — and deals with being a teenage girl.
Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Muslim American women face even larger hurdles around visibility. Fewer than one quarter of Muslim characters depicted in global movies are women. This type of gender erasure further amplifies what Dr. Stacey L. Smith, the founding director of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, calls an “epidemic of invisibility.” This is one of the reasons “Ms. Marvel” feels necessary.

According to Marvel, show co-creator and executive producer Sana Amanat was inspired in part by her life experiences to take the hand of the average American viewer and introduce them to their Muslim American neighbors through an ultra-familiar vehicle: the modern teenager.

The series, which includes predominantly Muslim and South Asian talent on and off-screen, emphasizes strong character relatability by showcasing a universally-accessible teenage experience while advancing a wholesome storyline around Muslim families. It colorfully serves as a mirror for young adults to see an empowering reflection of themselves.

“‘Ms. Marvel’ is going to inspire generations of Muslims as well as bring understanding to so many others while connecting both groups in ways that are much needed today,” Khalid Latif, executive director and chaplain for the Islamic Center at New York University, told me.

The unfortunate reality is that Hollywood is a hugely risk-averse business that has too often churned out formulaic stories. Yet, films such as “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians” have demonstrated the profitability of diversity and inclusion, generating staggering revenues for film studios. A recent study from the UCLA-based Center for Scholars and Storytellers found that major Hollywood films lacking diversity within their cast and crew more often result in significant box office losses than those with diverse, authentic cast representation.

“With ‘Ms. Marvel’ tapping into international talent, there is an even significant potential to create a robust and an authentic ecosystem that can resonate with audiences globally and extend visibility into future series and other media crossovers,” says Serena Rasoul, founder of Muslim Casting, an agency that casts and consults for Muslim and SWANA talent. Khan’s character expansion cross-media also serves as a model in investing in more diverse storylines about young, Muslim Americans.

Kamala Khan lives out the vulnerabilities I felt as a teenager as well as the ones I experience today as I continue to navigate my sense of self. That said, the series has something to offer for everyone. It’s a moment to collectively recognize our humanity and boundless empathy. It gives us all a sense of belonging in a time we need it the most. Perhaps most importantly, “Ms. Marvel” proves that the greatest superpower of all could just be relatability.

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