Ms. Marvel is Cultural Representation Wrapped in Bubblegum and Pathos

The newest Marvel superhero gets a lot right for representation, including how much it hurts.

Ask any practicing Muslim you know in America if they have a story about losing their shoes at a mosque and I guarantee you’ll get someone who knows someone who had it happen to them or they themselves lost a pair to the dreaded mosque shoe-bin. It’s just one of those things everyone is aware of as something that happens, so you don’t wear your good shoes to prayer. You wear the rattiest sneakers you own that also won’t get the community talking about how lowly your shoes look.

When Ms. Marvel, the latest Disney+ Marvel Cinematic Universe show, made a joke about this exact phenomenon, I felt seen in a way that the continuing adventures of Thor the Asgardian or the not-continuing adventures of Tony Stark the billionaire playboy have failed to ever really do for me. It’s not just Ms. Marvel is a more personal story with smaller stakes, it’s not just that I happen to share a name and a culture with the protagonist Kamala Khan, it’s that someone took a look at what it would mean to be a Muslim superhero in the modern age and tried to actually represent that culture well in a major TV show.

But things like shoe jokes — of both masjid and mendhi varieties — and the outsized social influence of aunties are superficial at the end of the day. They’re representation just above the level of a quick hit Family Guy joke that speaks to a wistful experience of growing up Muslim in some nonspecific time period in America. The true representation of Ms. Marvel, the brown Muslim superhero, is that America immediately mistrusts her. That is what truly resonates for all of us that have lived in this country since 9/11.

Ms. Marvel

In Ms. Marvel, Kamala is immediately pursued by a government entity focused on enhanced humans that pursues her harder because of her skintone. After piecing together that she might be Muslim, they bust out the military equipment and bust up an Eid party and then a wedding to capture her by force. The list of superheroes they don’t go this hard on is far longer than the list they do. Not one to ever let the subtext stay subtle, Marvel directly calls this out with a line arguing that her religious association is why the government officials are so worried.

It’s one of those things we sort of choose not to talk about anymore as a society. We don’t discuss the last twenty years, where Muslims were surveilled in houses of worship, or where a show could get pulled off the air because a woman was wearing a hijab. We don’t talk about the years of being othered, of being mistrusted, of being told that we have to go above and beyond “good” to surmount suspicious motives.

When I was jumped in a high school bathroom after 9/11, I hid my bruises from everyone because I thought I did something wrong. I wore baggier clothes to make sure no one could tell and so that the clothing wasn’t abrasive against my skin. I realized much later in life that I didn’t think I could trust anyone enough to treat me as a victim rather than a deserving target.

That feeling post-9/11 where the entire country looked at us with bloodlust never really went away, it just transmogrified into something more palatable for a modern audience. Ms. Marvel acknowledges that. In a world where Captain America is celebrated as an instrument of justice, “the brown girl from Jersey” will always be looked at as a potential airplane flying toward a tower near you.

Which is a very intense way for me to transition to saying that I appreciate that, in a way. I appreciate that Ms. Marvel isn’t just telling the story of the wide-eyed Pakistani girl that surmounted the generational trauma hoisted upon her by immigrant parents and became a force of good — rather, as Kamala would say, became a force to do good. To try and tell a story about a Muslim superhero after 9/11 without that aspect would be incomplete, a fantasy beyond that of Norse Gods and magic gems. It would not be representation.

The bits about the opulent Eid parties, about sending our white friends home with tupperware filled with food, about no one ever getting our names correct, they’re just the baggy clothes we use to cover the bruises. The real story is how we always had to be better just to be treated equally. I hope Ms. Marvel, however it ends, helps some people realize the different world people like Kamala Khan have lived in for the past two decades. And I hope that helps everyone realize why representation matters, even if it’s a game of inches.