Wavy black hair. Olive skin. She’s fashionable, with the patterned scarf and the rings and the jeans fitting just so.
People assume she’s Arab — like they know what that means — but she’s Pakistani. She was born in 1997.
She grew up in a conservative house, but she’s fighting for progress. People around the world marvel at her, because she stands up for education. She stands up for women.
She’s a shape-shifter, defying what the world tells her to be. She is not what we expected.
No, not Malala.
It’s Kamala Khan.
* * *
There’s a lot of talk swirling about Marvel’s new Muslim superhero, a 16 year old Muslim girl name Kamala.
Our interest is rightly piqued. We should be excited by the prospect of this sort of intercultural, interfaith adventure in such a public forum.
I’m not an avid comic book reader — and by that I mean apart from The Watchmen I haven’t read a comic book in ten years — but the idea of a young Muslim girl being cast with the same heroic glow as Superman is exciting to me.
It’s exciting because, hopefully, Kamala will show that Muslim women can be as strong and as independent as anyone else. She will be an icon, an emblem of Islamic values.
At least, a certain set of Islamic values.
And those values — whatever Kamala ends up standing for and fighting against — will undoubtedly plant her in the middle of an imaginary world that represents a very real one.
It is helpful to society when our superheroes fit into the world we live in. If I’m not mistaken, Marvel and DC Comics have often placed their superheroes smack in the middle of real-life events: World War II, the Civil Rights Movement, the Cold War and Vietnam, to mention a sampling.
I like this. It makes superheroes no longer purely fictional; it gives them context, makes them relatable, admirable, inspirational. Inserting superheroes into the public consciousness, the status quo, also allows them to teach, to exemplify the values we care about and the virtues we want our citizens to emulate.
My hope is this will be the case with Kamala Khan.
My hope is that young people, especially young girls — Muslim or not — will see someone to emulate, even if they can’t hope to have the literal power of shape-shifting. (Though, we’re all shape-shifters in our own way.)
Kamala might become a paper-and-pencil version of the real life superhero, Malala Yousafzai, the 16 year old Pakistani girl who opposed the Taliban and advocates for girls’ education. The parallels are inspiring and unmistakable.
* * *
While I’m amped to see what comes of Kamala — how she’s portrayed and how she’s accepted — I can’t help but wonder at the her sheer uniqueness — a teenage, female, Muslim, Pakistani-diaspora superhero — and what it might mean.
I think of the other superheroes I’m familiar with. Captain America. Batman. Spiderman. Catwoman. Daredevil. The Hulk. Ghost Rider. The Green Lantern. Wolverine. Thor.
And the question I ask myself is: Do any of them have religions?
Or do we assume they’re Christians?
I hope it’s not the latter. As much as I like Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” movies, I wouldn’t want Batman to be a representative of Christianity. I don’t want anyone to think Spiderman or Wolverine or, heaven forbid, Captain America holds the DNA of the perfect Christian.
When giving superheroes religions, we don’t want to perpetuate stereotypes.
But isn’t that what superheroes are about? Stereotypical values of a culture. Superhuman strength. Superhuman cunning. The superhuman ability to make the moral choice against all the odds.
That’s okay if you think these cultural values mirror religious values, but I don’t think many Muslims or Christians would say that.
And, not only do superheroes lend themselves to stereotypes, the genre itself is a stereotype. When you hear there’s a new superhero coming, you already know things about him or her. We already know the story. We know what they’ll do, even if we don’t know how they’ll do it.
So, there’s the danger of stereotypes, but there’s another danger, too.
The second danger is not so much that a religious superhero would imperfectly represent the faith — just think of how your version of Christianity differs from your neighbor’s or one person’s perception of Islam differs from another’s — but that the crime-fighter would become a caricature of the faith.
A caricature makes the values it represents smaller than they are. A caricature is a cartoon of the real thing, an exaggeration. It falls short. It is both fragile as glass and indestructible in generality. Perhaps, above all, a caricature is easy to mock.
The headline of a recent article from the Religion News Service says it all: “Muslim superhero Kamala Khan is no match for real-life Islamophobia.”
I worry that raising up a Muslim superhero instead of, say, a superhero who is a teenage girl of Pakistani descent, will make the religion a target and a scapegoat.
As good as we want her to be, she will be smaller, faker, simpler than the real flesh-and-blood thing of Muslims and, especially, young Muslim girls.
* * *
I’m not cynical of the character. I’m proud of Marvel for doing this thing that will raise eyebrows and, hopefully, enlighten people about their Muslim neighbors.
It’s brave and ambitious, and I’m hopeful.
But if it doesn’t go perfectly (and it won’t), if it doesn’t represent all Muslims (and it can’t), if it plays into stereotypes (and it will: Kamala’s mother is paranoid about boys, her father wants her to become a doctor and her brother is “extremely conservative”), if it creates a caricature (and it may), we need to remember Kamala Khan is not Islam.
And we need to remember that we have real Muslim girls to admire, like Malala, who is not a stereotype and not a caricature. Who struggles and succeeds in the real world. Whose enemies are neither subhuman nor superhuman. There is no “SMACK!” when she falls. There is no burst of paint on the page when she rises. No thought bubble can contain her mind.
She is strong and brave and beautiful and, most of all, real. Real in her rarity as an individual. Real in her relatability, her humanness, as part of a community.
So I’m excited for Kamala.
But, given the choice, I will take Malala any day.