‘Ms. Marvel’ Brings Much Needed Positivity To Muslims On Screen

While Muslims are still underrepresented in mainstream entertainment, there are many examples of them on screen. The problem though, as a major study identified last year, is that when Muslims do show up, they appear primarily in negative contexts of violence and terror. And of course, these are scenarios largely alien to the daily lives of American Muslims.

So, Marvel writer and producer Sana Amanat sought to bring audiences a more relatable Muslim story with the upcoming Disney+ series Ms. Marvel.

“What has been missing…[is] positive representation of our faces,” said Amanat. “And I think this show is just joyful, and fun, and heartwarming, and hopeful…So for us it just feels like a breath of fresh air.”

Ms. Marvel, Marvel Studios’ latest entry in their ever-growing blockbuster franchise, centers around a Muslim, South Asian high school student from New Jersey. And the story is as colorful and upbeat as one might expect from a Disney series set around teenagers. The protagonist, Kamala Khan, falls for boys, dives into animated fantasies, and dreams of a brighter future. This is very much the story of a Muslim girl growing up in the United States, and its authenticity comes in how familiar that journey is for any teenager growing up.

“There’s so many things that go on in a 16-year-old kid,” said Iman Vellani, who plays Kamala Khan in the series. “So ultimately this is a coming-of-age story, with superpowers. And she just so happens to be Muslim and Pakistani.”

This isn’t to say, though, that the show shies away from depicting the unique details of a South Asian-Muslim-American life. Kamala goes to the mosque, mixes languages in conversations with family, and spends weekends celebrating Muslim holidays. The conversations, daily concerns, and even backdrops all ring familiar for anyone who shares pieces of Kamala’s identity.

And in fact, the diverse cast of the show even add in elements from their own lives to breathe more depth into their characters. Vellani describes the challenges of being raised off both Bollywood and American pop culture, and then bringing that real world experience over to her character. Rish Shah, who plays new boy in town Kamran, also notes how he and Vellani worked mentions of the popular South Asian hip-hop group Swet Shop Boys into the show’s script.

“The music is such an important and integral part of this series, right?” said Shah. “That was probably something that was discussed between Iman and I. And we kind of pitched it to Sana [Amanat]. And we were like, ‘Can we have the Swet Shop Boys?’”

Now, Ms. Marvel is of course not the first mainstream entertainment project putting forth a more positive Muslim experience. Entries such as The Big Sick, Little Mosque on the Prairie, Ramy, and others have already done so much to steer representation of Muslims on screen in a new direction. And while Amanat appreciates this progress, she holds that Ms. Marvel is still adding something crucially new.

“I love that we are getting a lot more Muslim representation, but there have been no women,” said Amanat. “So, I think this is what’s so exciting— is that we’re actually telling a story through the lens of a young woman. It’s a coming-of-age story, but she’s a young woman experiencing the world.”

Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, the director duo who helmed the series’ first and sixth episodes, echo this sentiment, and describe the project as an homage to all the Muslim women in their lives, from friends to family.

“They got somebody to look up to [now]. They recognize themselves in them and they are also inspired. And that’s just super cool to be a part of that,” said El Arbi.

But despite the hope that this does resonate with Muslim and South Asian audiences, those working on the show are also adamant that this story is by no means only for people of those backgrounds. Rather, the narrative is a universal one that anyone should be able to get behind and feel moved by.

“It’s not always that you need to watch something just because it’s related to you. I mean it’s not like that at all,” said Rish Shah. “If anything, Black Panther resonated across cultures for so many reasons. Shang-Chi did the same thing. And I feel like Ms. Marvel has the opportunity to do that as well. It is an incredible story, and at the heart of it is one of the most relatable superheroes people will possibly find.”

“We hope that, inshallah, by us making [this] show and making it successful not only for people who are Muslim— just telling a universal story that people can relate to, everybody can relate to— I hope that that’s going to motivate all the people, all the generations of makers, [to tell] their authentic story” said El Arbi.

Further, Amanat refers to Marvel Studios’ already announced slate of upcoming projects and describes how this is only just the beginning for more diverse stories. From She-Hulk, to Echo, to Ironheart and others, the ever-growing mega-franchise is looking to tell stories from more and more different perspectives.

But, for Amanat, what is key to all of this is that the core of what makes these narratives so compelling remains intact.

“I think inherently the content is the same. It’s about someone who is sort of down on their luck and they get these incredible powers,” said Amanat. “But they’re different kinds of people putting on the mask now. And I think that’s what I’ve loved so much about Marvel.”

MS. MARVEL begins streaming on Disney+ on June 8th, 2022. The show stars Iman Vellani, Yasmeen Fletcher, and Rish Shah and is created by Bisha K. Ali.

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