Why I'll be a fan of Kamala Khan's Ms. Marvel for life
But before we get into that… Ms. Marvel, or Kamala Khan – to give her her non-superhero name – first headlined her own comic book in 2014 (she’d appeared briefly the year before in Captain Marvel).
In getting her own comic, Ms. Marvel became Marvel’s first Muslim superhero to headline her own solo series, although the Marvel comics had previously contained other Muslim characters.
"For Kamala, people like her – brown, American Pakistani Muslim girls from New Jersey – don’t get to be superheroes. They don’t get to be protagonists, or individuals, or love interests, or nuanced"
It was, it’s an understatement to say, a huge deal for representation. And it became more so when the comic came out and we properly met Kamala: a 16-year-old student trying to deal with her family (mum, dad, and an older brother), navigate high school bullies, and just find her place in the world.
When it came down to it, it wasn’t the 'superheroing' that made Ms. Marvel so meaningful and extraordinary, it was her very ordinary-ness.
Which brings me back to that page containing those four panels in which are housed seven speech bubbles.
After getting in a spat with her parents over dinner when they refuse to let her go to a party, Kamala stomps upstairs to her room. It’s in these moments that we’re privy to her thoughts as she gets annoyed over the fact that she was only asking to go to a party, it’s not like she is “asking their permission to snort cocaine”.
“I’ve always done what they ask me to do… aren’t I allowed to do anything my way? Just once?” laments Kamala. That will be a familiar thought for anyone who’s ever been a teenager, regardless of your background.
In a proper snit, Kamala continues: “Why am I the only one who gets signed out of health class? Why do I have to bring pakoras to school for lunch?” It was at this moment I got flashbacks of taking keema sandwiches to school, trying to eat them as quickly as possible so none of my peers would smell them and make fun of me.
And then, as Kamala sneaks out of her house using a handy tree (only in America, right?) comes the kicker: “Everybody else gets to be normal? Why can’t I?”
Whomp. It was like being hit in the stomach. Even though I was way past my teenage years as I read Kamala’s words for the first time, I was taken back to being an insecure teenager who always felt out of place and, yes, not normal.
Of course, Kamala isn’t normal in some respects because she’s a superhero: her powers as an Inhuman mean she has the ability to body morph.
She can basically alter her size, shrinking and enlarging her whole body or just parts (her hands for example, so she can throw a whopper of a punch), she’s super strong and she has healing powers.
But her thoughts and feelings, as both Ms. Marvel and Kamala Khan – because they are both the same person after all – are completely normal, although it takes her some time to realise that.
It’s most clearly seen in the scenes where Kamala first gets her powers in the comic books: they also involve her changing into a skinny, white, blonde girl.
Because for Kamala, people like her – brown, American Pakistani Muslim girls from New Jersey – don’t get to be superheroes. They don’t get to be protagonists, or individuals, or love interests, or nuanced.
"Kamala learns that whiteness, or proximity to whiteness, is not the answer. What is the answer is being herself and forging her own path, however different that may be to other people’s"
I feel that on a deep, visceral level. I’ve never wanted to be white, but let’s be honest, in the Western world, whiteness is the default. More than that, it’s been the ideal for many, many years, in everything from beauty standards to who is allowed to sit in boardrooms and centres of power.
Centring whiteness made me feel different, like the other. It made me nervous about wearing shalwar kameez out in public as a teenager. It made me feel like the odd one out for not going to parties or staying out late. It made me, like Kamala Khan, feel not normal.
Kamala, after transforming back into herself for the first time on getting her powers, thinks: “This is what I asked for, right? So why don’t I feel strong and confident and beautiful?”
Eventually, Kamala learns that whiteness, or proximity to whiteness, is not the answer. What is the answer is being herself and forging her own path, however different that may be from other people’s.
She realises that the values and ideals instilled in her by her parents form the basis of her philosophy when it comes to being a superhero (even if her parents would be horrified to find out that is the case). “You don’t have to be someone else to impress anybody,” Kamala’s father tells her. “You are perfect just the way you are.”
It’s this journey that speaks to me, and that so reflected my own, minus the superheroing.
The change from feeling like I didn’t belong to realising that I needed, and wanted, to be my own kind of person was one that came from within, and it came from me deciding what mattered to me, and the kind of human being I wanted to be.
It required me to stop centring whiteness in my life and to figure out that it wasn’t me that was uncomfortable with the visible signs of my cultural heritage (my clothes, my food and so on) but other (white) people and power structures, because it showed them the world didn’t revolve around them.
It came from realising that I didn’t want to be, as Kamala says, “a watered-down version” of someone else, but just my whole self, honestly and unashamedly.
And it came from realising, to steal the name of the first volume of Ms. Marvel, that there is “no normal”.
Years might have passed since I’ve realised this, but to see it distilled in such a clear-sighted way in the Ms. Marvel comics, to see the way that it will speak to young people across the world means Kamala has a special place in my heart, and I’ll be a fan of hers for the rest of my life.
Sarah Shaffi is a freelance literary journalist and editor. She writes about books for Stylist Magazine online and is the books editor at Phoenix Magazine.
Follow her here: @sarahshaffi
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff, or the author's employer.