She’s not exactly starving for affirmation.
To the contrary, Malala Yousafzai is a global icon. Since 2012 when, as a 15-year-old Pakistani girl, she survived being shot in the head by a Taliban thug, she has met with heads of state, addressed the United Nations and won the Nobel Peace Prize.
It says something, then, that this celebrated woman finds validation in a Marvel superhero. “Ms. Marvel,” to be exact, now streaming on Disney+. On screen as in the comics, Ms. Marvel is a Muslim teenager named Kamala Khan, a high school student from Jersey City, the sweetly awkward, superhero-obsessed daughter of Pakistani immigrants whose complicated life becomes exponentially more so when she gains the usual powers beyond mortal ken.
“It is not every day,” wrote Malala on Twitter, “that I turn on the TV and find a character who eats the same foods, listens to the same music or uses the same Urdu phrases as me. What a joy to see Ms. Marvel reflect the lives of a Pakistani immigrant family...”
She linked to an interview with Sana Amanat, the character’s co-creator, who confided that her parents were not overjoyed to learn she was set on a career in comics. But since Ms. Marvel’s success, she said, her mother has “started going to the comic shop and picking up comics herself. A Pakistani woman in her 70s going to a comic shop. It’s just really funny.”
And also rather poignant.
You may not get that. It may seem strange to you that a real hero would make a fuss over a Marvel hero or that a Pakistani woman of a certain age would start frequenting a comic shop. If media have always reflected some idealized version of your culture, you may have little sense of how it feels when they render you invisible.
It’s as if, on some level, you don’t exist. Or at the very least, you don’t matter. If you did, wouldn’t they see you there? Wouldn’t your stories be told? As Kamala puts it in the first episode of “Ms. Marvel,” “Let’s be honest: it’s not really the brown girls from Jersey City who save the world.”
Or the Black girls. Or the queer kids, the disabled men, the Chinese women. Or at least, so the various media have long implicitly proclaimed.
The fact that some people are deeply invested in that lie is seen in the fact that three “Star Wars” stars — John Boyega, Moses Ingram and Kelly Marie Tran — have now endured racist broadsides from alleged fans. And that Leslie Jones was briefly driven off Twitter by hateful responses to her appearance in a “Ghostbusters” film. And that NME, the British entertainment website, reports “Ms. Marvel” has been hit by a swarm of apparently baseless one-star user reviews on the IMDb website. It’s called “review bombing,” a practice that, NME notes, is “particularly prevalent among Marvel films with diverse lead casting.”
Indeed, one reviewer’s gripe was that the show is “literally aimed at grabbing (cq) indian peoples attention.” We will pass lightly over the fact that India and Pakistan are different places.
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Suffice it to say, some of us hate it when the invisible become visible. But if you have ever been invisible, you know there are few things more empowering than to be seen. If that need is felt by a Malala Yousafzai, imagine how much more it is felt by some brown girl who is not a global icon. Imagine what psychic doors that must fling open. Imagine how she must feel to suddenly learn the simple, yet revolutionary truth:
There is absolutely no reason brown girls can’t save the world.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Miami, Fla., 33172. Readers may contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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