If you’ve been trying to keep up with Ms. Marvel, then you know the superhero is championing new milestones for Muslim representation on screen. When you hear breakout star Iman Vellani and co-creator Sana Amanat tell it, you realize their real superpower is taking the notion of representation to a totally new level: normalization.
Iman is a 19-year-old Pakistani-Canadian teenager that has had a lifelong obsession with comic books. It’s obvious that as a certified Marvel fangirl turned actual superhero, Iman embodies the character of Kamala Khan herself. The teen worked on the Toronto Film Festival’s Next Wave Committee in 2019 and is now making her acting debut in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. She even donned a gorgeous purple dress for the Los Angeles red carpet premiere that resembled the color of her own character’s superhero uniform.
“We didn’t want to make the show about a Pakistani Muslim. It was about this Avengers-loving, fanfic-writing dork, and just so happens to be a Pakistani Muslim,” Iman tells Muslim Girl.
In that sense, the most refreshing experience that Muslim watchers can look forward to is seeing that Ms. Marvel doesn’t politicize our Muslim identity and culture; it creates a space for us among the rest of the standardized identities that we see around us.
Kamala is just like any other high school girl that finds a sense of belonging in comic books and spends most of her time fangirling over her favorite superheroes. And being South Asian or Muslim doesn’t dominate her storyline. The whole show revolves around the idea that you can watch Kamala Khan and see a reflection of yourself in the teen girl on screen — whether or not you’re a South Asian Muslim. Facets of her identity are naturally intertwined with the origin story of her power.
“It’s like, ‘This is the time I wake up. This is the time I go to school. This is the time I pray. This is the time I eat.’ Like, it’s just a normal thing,” Iman continued.
If Kamala is the personality, then Sana is the soul. The prolific comic book editor intimately brought the character of Kamala Khan to life using her own personal experiences with identity while growing up. “Her whole arc in the show is self-acceptance, and subverting all the expectations and labels that have been thrown at her,” explains Sana. “Realizing that you can marry all these fifty million things that, when combined, make Kamala, Kamala.”
It’s easy to feel a connection with the show: the heartbeat is its “coming of age” storyline that focuses on growing pains: family relationships, crushes and the teenage quest to develop their own unique identity while under the watchful eye of protective parents.
Sana doesn’t understate the familiar role of family in Kamala’s story. “I think this is a story about a young woman and her family, and her mother,” she says. “There’s a relationship between mothers and daughters, and any tension and misunderstanding come from that dynamic, and from parents being protective.”
On top of its universal themes, Ms. Marvel sets our eyes squarely on a sight that we rarely get to see on television: Muslim joy.
“Here we are, showing Muslims on-screen celebrating Eid, having fun, dancing, making jokes… I never see this on TV,” Iman says. “But this is what my life as a Muslim is. I went to so many cultural events and mosque events, and what I get to see, the world never gets to.”
And just like her character, Iman had to go on her own journey with identity for the show. She felt a cultural disconnect from stepping into her character at first, but her shared Pakistani heritage with Sana helped her better reacquaint herself with her background for Kamala Khan.
“Culture and religion were never the main thing of her [Kamala Khan’s] personality. It was just a part of her life,” Iman said. “When I was reading the scenes of me being in a shalwar kameez, I was so angry because I hate wearing them in real life. My mom was ecstatic at the fact I had to do all these Bollywood references and wear shalwar kameez, and have little bits of Urdu thrown in there,” Iman laughed.
She admits that in the beginning she was “kind of embarrassed,” but seeing Sana show up unapologetic and proud of her identity helped her to walk her own hero story alongside her character’s.
“[Sana] is the woman who co-created Kamala as a character in the comics. Her saying how proud of it she was, was inspiring for me because I admire and respect her so much. I just wanted to do this character justice, so Kamala and I went on a very similar journey of rediscovering and reconnecting with our roots, and realizing the value of the importance of religion and faith,” Iman explained. “I got to learn a lot on this show, honestly.”
“We’re kind of leaning into the fact that Kamala has embraced her culture and her religion,” Sana explains. “She’s just navigating who she is and there’s going to be tension along the way with some of those aspects. But, at the end of the day, I think it is about celebrating these aspects of our identity because that’s how we grew up. Like, we didn’t really reject it — we were just figuring out who we were. And I think at the end of the day, it’s a confluence of all those things that make you who you are.”
And that’s one of the show’s triumphs: Iman revels in the fact that Ms. Marvel will show Muslims as multi-faceted humans and not our usual portrayal as a monolith or caricature that “don’t really come across as real people.”
“It’s so important that we show children of immigrant parents who are proud of their culture,” Iman says. “I really think that that’s what grounds her. Her family and her culture are her rock. The entire community around her. They really support her, and they motivate her. It plays a big part in her becoming her own version of what a superhero can look like versus some watered-down version of any other Avenger.”
In other words, Ms. Marvel is a story of a girl that wants to convey to the world that who you are is solely determined by who you believe you are.
Ms. Marvel premieres on June 8 on Disney+.