In November, Marvel announced its newest superhero reboot: Ms Marvel, of previous blond-haired, blue-eyed, to-quote-Stephen Colbert-“wholesome and all-American,” fame, will be reimagined as Kamala Khan, the 16-year-old daughter of Pakistani immigrants and, quite suddenly, the possessor of an array of new super powers.
Much has been made of the new Ms. Marvel’s Muslimness (as was the case with the newest incarnation of Spider Man, with his multiracial—black and Latino—heritages). In fact, much has been made about all the new superheroes in the Marvel NOW! initiative. Marvel aims, by recasting long-established superhero characters, to reflect more truly the diversity of today’s comic book readers and also the world in which we have always lived.
As with the much-touted Muslim identity, the way Kamala inhabits her new powers will be significant. Not much has been written about Kamala beyond mentioning that she will be a polymorph—a shapeshifter, able to change size, form and appearance at will.
Kamala’s powers represent a similarly huge departure from Carol Danvers (the original Ms. Marvel), whose powers include superhuman strength and precognitive abilities. The fact that Marvel’s first female Muslim superhero shapeshifts seems just as significant as Kamala’s ethnic and religious identity…and not necessarily in a good way.
Here’s what I mean. Much like being a Pakistani-American girl in a post 9-11 world, being a shapeshifter comes with a lot of baggage.
In the super-powered universe, shapeshifters often get the short end of the stick—they often appear as degenerate villains, subservient lackeys or perpetual underdogs. Think about the most prominent shifters in the Marvel universe: Mystique (evil by virtue of political ideology); Morph (evil by virtue of insanity); Apocalpyse (evil by virtue of evil).
Beyond the Marvel universe(s), shapeshifters don’t really fare much better. In True Blood and Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake series, we find shapeshifters, generally, at the service of infinitely more powerful vampires. Even when shapeshifters fight the good fight, creators frequently portray them as outcasts and underdogs—Lupin and Sirius Black from the Potterverse come to mind. In the spell-a-day wizarding world, there seems to be no true place for them.
More telling is the recent trend of othering shapeshifters via race, ethnicity or class. This seems particularly true when the shifting ability in question allows characters to assume animal form.
Kevin Gervioux’s Raze counts for the first Lycan to make an appearance in the Underworld series. Racing down a London street, Gervioux’s distinctive physical appearance juxtaposes inescapably and strikingly against the very Old World and very white (because they have to stay out of the sun, wink) world of vampires. At the moment of Gervioux/Raze’s appearance, Kate Beckinsale’s Selene, representing those living dead, has just finished a monologue about wiping Lycans from the face of the earth. (I’ll let you dissect the subtext there.)
Gervioux’s character also happens to be the first Lycan to shift on-screen, assuming his bestial form somewhere between man and wolf. These directorial decisions become all the more important because the tribe of Lycans, every bit as Old World and European as the vampires, is not significantly populated by people of color.
Stephanie Meyer leaps another 10 steps forward on the spectrum of egregiousness with her fictional werewolves of the Quileute tribe. The shapeshifters in Meyer’s novels happen to be indigenous—native—again juxtaposed against the so-white-they-sparkle vampires, the Cullens.
Finally, in True Blood it’s all about class. None of the shapeshifting creatures—from the weirdly random werepanthers in season four to werewolf packs and Sam and other shapeshifters—enjoy lives that in anyway approach the opulence of Bill Compton’s and the other vampires’...or even the kind of rural gentility that Sookie and kin enjoy. They range from the poorest of the poor, living in backwoods trailers and cooking meth, to Sam, who has carved a niche with Merlotte’s, but still lives very much on the margins of Bon Temps life.
In the popular cultural imagination, shapeshifters seems always to veer toward baser instincts. Their shifting bodies serve as shorthand for a kind of shifty and undesirable character. Nearly always, shapeshifters—seemingly in an extension of their abilities—find no fixed place in the “mainstream” communities, no matter how those communities happen to be demarcated.
So Kamala—the new Ms. Marvel—enters this broader cultural context, a place where the very powers she claims in some ways already conscript her to the exact marginalization and demonization her newly minted character means to subvert.
Her story doesn’t have to fall along these predictable lines.
We can think another way about shapeshifting powers, in their many manifestations. The werefolk, polymorphs, unimorphs (did I just make that up?)—all these protean folk—seem at their essence to be multiple beings in one. Shapeshifters gain power through their alternate, diverse forms, whether that power comes in the form of greater strength or greater size, sharper teeth or sharper claws. In that mutable power lies the strength to conquer enemies and surmount obstacles otherwise insurmountable.
The condition resonates in undeniable ways with the experiences of people, like Kamala, from marginalized communities—shapeshifting becomes the physical, fantastical equivalent to what scholars, for decades, have called code switching.
Initially a linguistic term describing transition between dialects or vernaculars in the same language, code switching now more broadly encompasses the many small ways in which people adjust (language, clothing, mannerisms) so they can move between and within the spaces they must occupy to survive or make a living.
These switches might be concessions of a type—for example, the man who moves between colloquial speech at home, with his people, and then into the version of English that he uses in professional spheres. (Just to be clear: No one speaks true, proper English. No one.) Another example? Consider the attorney who straightens her hair during the week because she knows her natural curls might be perceived as unkempt or unprofessional at her conservative firm.
The code switches might also engender empowerment. Think of a politician fluent in Chinese she learned from her grandmother. The politician may use that linguistic and cultural asset to connect with the values of a constituency and secure its support.
The trick of code switching comes from the power implicit in having access to all the spaces and facets that compose one’s identity. Code switching is about strategic deployment rather than sublimation or assimilation. The more fluid the switch, the more masterful the switcher, the more success a person finds in all the spheres she/he inhabits.
If we think about shapeshifting from this perspective, Kamala’s story at this point could go either way.
In promotions for the new series, Marvel describes Kamala as a girl trying to reconcile her Pakistani heritage…and expectations implicit in it…with her American upbringing. Kamala must be, figuratively, a different person in all the different spaces she travels in her daily, teen-aged world.
The first issue of the new Ms. Marvel will premiere in February of 2014. To date, we have only a few hints about the representative turns this character will take. Several seem a little troubling, including author G. Willow Wilson’s pronouncement that for Kamala, Captain Marvel (nee Ms. Marvel), “represents an ideal that Kamala pines for…She’s strong, beautiful and doesn’t have any of the baggage of being Pakistani and ‘different.’” (Sidebar: I’m pretty sure the new Captain Marvel had and continues to have plenty of battles of her own to fight.)
Couple this with the preemptive disavowal on the part of the comic’s creative team, according to the Christian Science Monitor, that “growing up Muslim is an element of the story, but not the critical foundation.”
I’m actually more than a little worried.
Doesn’t it seem that the way Kamala embodies her Muslim, Pakistani-American identity means everything to the possibilities and success of this new character, storyline and world?
Let’s see what Marvel does. Kamala’s story does not have be one that succumbs to the perils and pitfalls that seem to plague shifters elsewhere. Shapeshifting can be the very tool she uses in grappling with multiple facets of her identity and learning to merge them.
This shift won’t happen magically on its own, however—the creators who tell Kamala’s story must have this intention. Marvel has to start by owning up to Kamala’s Pakistani, Muslim heritage as an absolutely critical foundation. It’s who she is…not who she has to downplay for the sake of dodging controversy.
L. M. Davis writes about shapeshifters, probably for the very reasons discussed above, in her three novels. The latest is skinless: a novel in III parts. Follow her of Twitter @lmdaviswrites.