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Here's an idea: Kamala Khan can teach us just as much about comics as she can about the world.
So in the world of superheroes and fantasy there is a LINGUA FRANCA of bodies:
Tough, taught, and toned. Mostly white, and with very few exceptions either male or arguably--very
easily arguably, in fact--designed. for. men.
That this is a central feature of video games, much of popular cinema and COMIC BOOKS--which
is what we're gonna be talking about today--is silly for a million reasons, all of which
we're gonna talk about in a minute.
There are indications, though, that it's sloooooooowly getting better! And by better I mean portraying
the world like it is: diverse, colorful, and full of ladies. No. REAL. ladies.
Marvel, for instance, recently introduced a new Spider-Man in Miles Morales, a black
Simon Baz is the Lebanese-American incarnation of the Green Lantern. Most notably, though,
and with the wildest excitement and loudest squeeing: Kamala Khan is the new Ms. Marvel.
With Issue 1 ranking 24th in North American Sales, Ms. Marvel is a big deal not only because
Kamala is a teenage girl, but because she is a Pakistani-American teenage girl and she
is Muslim. She is, in fact, the first Muslim heroine to headline her own title.
And if you were to think this bodes well for comics but also maybe MEEEEDIA IN GENERAL?
you might be called optimistic, but I wouldn't necessarily call you wrong.
However! Before we get too much further, let's talk for a tick about why this kind of thing
matters and who cares. Spoiler alert: it's lots of people and if you don't you probably should.
So! Lots of popular media catches flack for what's called POOR REPRESENTATION.
That means that there are tons of people in the actual world that are not represented
in the fictional world portrayed by that media.
So we see lots of straight, white guys like me--well, not EXACTLY like me--and comparably
few not-straight, not-white, not-guys who are anything more than set pieces, eye-candy
or troubling stereotypes.
There's no shortage of reasons why this might be: the historically white male dominated
media industry in the west, the comradery between the male gaze and capitalism...
...critical misunderstandings of culture and history, the troubling construction--or downright-myth--of
the wholly white male dominated audience and so on.
The point being: that it's bad because it portrays a world that doesn't exist. And in
doing suggests that the ACTUAL WORLD isn't the way that it ACTUALLY is.
But whooooaaaaaa I hear some of you saying -- if we're supposed to portray the world
as it exists then aren't you also saying that superheroes themselves are bad? They don't exist.
Good point! But I'm not! Because from a very young age we're taught to recognize fictional
characters and abilities but NOT fictional interpersonal relationships, social dynamics
Like: we're told that superheroes are not real... but we're NOT told that portraying
every Muslim or middle-eastern character as a terrorist is equally unreal.
We are not told that a female character is "make-believe" when she is only ever shown
talking to men, or to other women ABOUT men. Footnote, Bechdel Test--dooblydoo.
Lots of us--especially those of us who aren't women or Muslim--might think that these characterizations
are invisible or just "how things are". This is an attitude that's based on deeply complex
personal experiences and biases but not ... the ... truth.
And if you ARE a woman, Muslim or black or gay or trans or part of any other historically
underrepresented group ... hi! And thank you for bearing with me while *I* try to describe
TONS of stuff YOU experience everyday. I hope I'm doing it justice.
So! When we make media like this, we are sometimes inadvertently--and... sometimes... vertently?--saying
that the WORLD IS LIKE THIS. And that's bad.
THIS is why Kamala Kahn is such a big deal and why so many people, myself included--obviously--are excited.
Sure there are fairly portrayed female characters in comics; sure there are even Muslim characters.
There are characters struggling with their superpowers, coming of age, their race, their heritage.
But Kamala is all of these things. In a major series! And she's earnest, complicated, and
maybe a little confused by but ultimately PROUD of who she is.
Like, when momentarily transformed into what she thought she wanted to be--a "normal" blonde,
caucasian, thigh-high boot sporting herione--she realizes that looking the way that superheroes
TEND to look doesn't make her more confident.
Rather to be able to save people, to able to rush to someone's aid in a bad situation...
that is what's meaningful.
Which makes sense because, I mean, Kamala is a diehard super hero fan afterall! She
writes Avengers fan fics; Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel is her personal hero!
After that first shapeshift, she says "Being someone else isn't liberating, it's exhausting".
She's realizing that though she thought BEING a superhero and LOOKING LIKE a stereotypical
superhero were a packaged deal... maybe they're not. At all.
In other words, there is no reason Ms. Marvel cannot be Pakistani or Muslim.
And crucially, if she IS, she can teach us more about comics and whoa hold onto your
hats maybe THE WORLD than if she wasn't. Hear me out.
In a TEDx talk Ms. Marvel editor Sana Amanat talks about how Kamala's story is partly about
working against the labels foisted upon her. So in that sense, Kamala's story is everybody's.
Sana: "She came together in response to that global subconscious desire for representation.
For those Muslim American bacon-sniffing, short nerdy girls like me. And for anyone
else who just feel like misfits themselves."
I mean, 13 year old me CERTAINLY felt like a misfit, like an invisible nerd, just totally
unrepresented. And 13 year old me also didn't know that Pakistani-Americans exist.
Seeing Kamala and her family in a comic would have been a huge learning experience. But
also maybe, admittedly, an abstract one.
Like, maybe I would have thought "this is interesting but how does it fit into the
actual world that I live in with my body"? Where is the concrete learning experience?
For a 13 year old Sana Amanat it probably would have been on EVERY PAGE... For people like me:
Well. It's ... in the letters column, which is in the back of every issue. It's full of
Muslim and middle-eastern kids, families, mothers and daughters all comic book readers
...members of the Kamala Korps, writing in to say how important this comic is to them--how
great it is to finally see themselves in this universe they love so much.
Sana Amanat, writer G. Willow Wilson, artist Adrian Alphona, the whole crew have organized
a space in comics for the under-represented--
--and in doing so they've also organized a space for them in the minds of other comic
fans--including my own--as just a general part of the superhero fandom and, maybe most
importantly, as part of the comic industry as a whole.
Philosopher Richard Rorty wrote that
[The] processes of coming to see human beings as "one of us" rather than as "them" is a
matter of detailed description of what unfamiliar people are like and of what we ourselves are
like. This task is not for theory but for genres like the ethnography, the journalist's
report, the comic book, the docudrama, and, especially the novel.
Though as Michael Saler suggests in his book AS IF--where my pal Patrick found this Rorty
quote--the agency for change is really in communities and not media itself.
Ms. Marvel, or any other piece of media, alone is unlikely to unbigot a bigot
But as far as the goal of fiction is to provide something for us to think with, to portray
a world offering fun and challenging experiences and those experiences happen within communities:
I think Ms Marvel is an awesome, bendy-shapeshifty step in the right direction.
What do you guys think? WHAT ARE THE POSITIVE EFFECTS OF GOOD REPRESENTATION IN MEDIA?
Let us know in the comments, and in addition to subscribing to Idea Channel, you should
also go to your local comic book store and subscribe to Ms. Marvel. There have only been
two issues so it's very easy to catch up. I think it's very good. Obviously.
I feel like I should make a How I Met Your Mother joke, but all that's coming to mind
are insults and complaints. So instead let's see what you guys had to say about television
technology and narrative.
Zetsumeinaito, Joshua Jones, and Philosophy Tube all make really great comments about
the intersection of culture and technology influencing the narrative of TV shows. And
anime and British television being great examples of those things and how they are very different
from stuff that is broadcast in America. And I would have loved to talk more about VCR's
being sold as a way for you to not miss your favorite shows but there's only so many minutes
in the day, and by day I mean Youtube video, I guess.
String Epsilon writes a really great comment about the interconnectedness of things making
ARGs possible and how that is like another forward step in narrative related technology.
And yeah, this is a thing that we haven't talked nearly enough about. And yeah, I should
really add this to the list.
Lawra Weltreich and NerdGirl mention Everyman HYBRID and the Lizzy Bennett Diaries respectively
as stories which not only are maybe based on the connected technology but also make
use of it in that there are Twitter accounts and Wikis and all other kinds of things that
as fans you can dive really deep into, which yeah, that's stuff that I always find really
exciting. And then relatedly, Lloyd Cloer talks about how hyper-text allowed sort of
the most extreme expression of branching narratives and actually in Matthew Kirschenbaum's book,
Mechanism, that I quoted in the archive episode, he talks a lot about Afternoon, A Story which
is a really famous, maybe the first piece of hyper-text literature that is crazy interesting
if you don't know about it. Check it out.
Evan Conley writes an interesting comment about how maybe the growth in serialized content
is bound up in the growth in edgy narratives as well. And I think that, I mean, yeah maybe
that's also synonymous with the growth of finding more interesting stories. 'Cause I
think, you know, for the most part, broadcast episodic content is maybe, like it's supposed
to be bland. Right? It's supposed to be like TV gruel.
To Yoann Bourse and maybe every other French viewer, this is really interesting to me.
I had no idea! Can you, can someone maybe say a little more about why? And....why?
IvanRSaldias writes a really awesome comment about the shifting nature of influence between
us, our media, and our technology that you should just read all of. So we'll put a link
to that one and all of the other comments in the dooblydoo.
To TimmahDee. Funny story, it actually means exactly what it says. The way that we do comment
responses is that I will grab comments that I like throughout the week and there's a little
link and sometimes if I forget to get the link, we'll go back and try to get a screenshot
of it and the comment will just be gone. So yeah, sometimes Youtube will just eat a comment.
I don't know why. Maybe it's powered by comments.
To gheistlich, this is really interesting. I personally never go back to rewatch jokes
just after they've happened, but I did recently start rewatching Cheers and it is very frustrating
to me how much time they leave for the laugh track. So there might be. you might have a
point here. You might be on to something.
This week's episode was brought to you by the hard work of these members of the Kamala
Korps. We have a Twitter, an IRC and a Subreddit, links in the dooblydoo. And the Tweet of the
Week comes from Ricky Anderson who points us towards a video about the history of the movie
preview, the trailer. It's very good.
And finally, as promised this week we will be doing a record swap. We will be replacing
Bartok's Hungarian Folksongs with Hindemith's Concert Music. Adios Bartok, welcome