Ms. Marvel Defines How to Be Yourself

"All-New Ms Marvel" | Art by JPRart. Used with permission.
Nerds may not be the long-suffering social group they used to be, but I still don’t feel like I fit in any place where Star Wars isn’t a useful conversation starter. Hanging out at a bar isn’t fun for me. Fashion doesn’t intrigue me. I get more excited about a new superhero movie than a famous singer coming to town. I find working out boring, and I don’t even like the taste of coffee!

But if I think I stick out at Starbucks with my hot chocolate and Boba Fett hat, I need to remember Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel, and how drastically different she feels from everyone around her.

Kamala is a second-generation Pakistani Muslim teen living in Jersey City. Sometimes her heritage isn’t a big deal, but as a 16-year-old, she’s fed up with restrictions. Her religion means she eats different foods, dresses modestly, and celebrates holidays most people are unfamiliar with. Her parents want to keep her away from boys and wild parties, but she claims they won’t let her out because she’s a girl. Plus, her nerdy interests distance her from her straight-laced family and draw ridicule.

She spends her time drooling over bacon sandwiches, writing superhero fan fiction, and questioning traditions at her mosque—such as why women have to sit separately from men.

She imagines that if she became a hero, she’d take a page from her role model—Ms. Marvel, now rebranded as Captain Marvel: “I would wear the classic, politically incorrect costume and kick butt in giant wedge heels.”

It’s fun to spend a few hours pretending to be someone vastly different from me. Whether I’m cosplaying or playing a roleplaying game, I get to put on a mask and act in ways I otherwise wouldn’t. I can be impeccably logical as Spock, heroic as Batgirl, or adventurous as my rogue in Dungeons and Dragons.

I choose these characters because they possess qualities I’d like to have. I want to give up all emotion after a frustrating day at work; I want to be a selfless hero (and sport an awesome costume) when someone’s in need; I want to fearlessly battle monsters and unlock doors to treasure rooms.

Sometimes my regular, unmasked self seems boring in comparison.

Kamala’s tired of being herself too. But she’s given a “reboot” when Terrigen mist covers the city and awakens her latent Inhuman powers. She’s suddenly transformed into her idol, Ms. Marvel, complete with long, flowing blonde hair, a skintight leotard with a red sash that just barely covers her hips, and thigh-high boots. As she experiments with her new ability, she notices she can polymorph into anything she wants. But Ms. Marvel is her default; it’s the identity she’s always wanted—or so she thinks.

“Being someone else isn’t liberating. It’s exhausting.”

After she rescues a civilian and gets lost in a mist-filled city, she struggles to control her powers and un-morph. And she discovers her new form isn’t all she thought it would be.

“Why don’t I feel strong and confident and beautiful?” she asks. “Why do I just feel freaked out and underdressed? . . . Being someone else isn’t liberating. It’s exhausting. I always thought that if I had amazing hair, if I could pull off great boots, if I could fly—that would make me feel strong. That would make me happy. But the hair gets in my face, the boots pinch . . . and this leotard is giving me an epic wedgie.”

Even though I love cosplaying, it’s not something I can maintain all the time. It’s like being an actor on a stage, and I have to go back to being myself eventually. It’s not bad to find traits to emulate in my favourite characters, like stoicism or bravery, but those will look different displayed in me than in Spock or Batgirl.

When superheroes put on a mask, they embrace their qualities and quirks instead of hiding them. Peter Parker can be as snarky as he wants as Spider-Man without fear of getting beaten up by the school bullies. Steve Rogers doesn’t need a star-spangled uniform to act like Captain America, it just goes well with the shield. In Tony Stark’s words, he is Iron Man—why bother pretending otherwise? Even superheroes with drastically different alter egos, like Superman, are their true selves in costume, not out.

As Kamala tries to figure out a new look, she realizes all she really wants to do with her powers is help people. And this desire comes from her parents’ teaching, all the differences that make her stick out, and her heritage. Maybe no one else in her high school—certainly not the flaky teenagers Kamala admires—would use superpowers for good. But that’s what defines a hero more than a costume. As Kamala puts it, “Good is not a thing you are. It’s a thing you do.”

Sometimes my regular, unmasked self seems boring in comparison.

So Kamala claims the Ms. Marvel lightning bolt as part of her costume, but her look is unique. Her getup is a red-and-blue burkini minus the head covering, low boots, a red scarf that pays homage to Carol Danvers’ sash, and a mask—not to disguise herself from the public, but to make sure her parents never catch on.

Being a superhero is still an intimidating new challenge, but she’s no longer afraid of what people think of her. She’s still hiding her identity, but she’s showing the world her character.

That’s the confidence that I want. I want to unashamedly be my nerdy self who enjoys quoting the Bible and being a perfectionist and laughing too loud. I want my heritage—my Christian values and my desire to be more like Jesus—to guide my actions, and I don’t want to hide anything that makes me who I am. I’m still growing and changing and learning from my mistakes, but the only person I’m learning to become is me.

Alex Mellen

Alex Mellen

Staff Writer at Area of Effect
Alex Mellen likes a little bit of everything, including movies, books, sports, music, crafts, and especially Star Wars. She works as a copyeditor for a small-town newspaper while freelance writing and editing on the side.
Alex Mellen