In the face of these threats, which Marvel superhero might be best equipped to defend the people, ideals and institutions under attack? Some comic fans and critics are pointing to Kamala Khan, the new Ms. Marvel.
Khan, the brainchild of comic writer G. Willow Wilson and editor Sana Amanat, is a revamp of the classic Ms. Marvel character (originally named Carol Danvers and created in 1968). First introduced in early 2014, Khan is a Muslim, Pakistani-American teenager who fights crime in Jersey City and occasionally teams up with the Avengers.
Since Donald Trump’s inauguration, fans have created images of Khan tearing up a photo of the president, punching him (evoking a famous 1941 cover of Captain America punching Hitler) and grieving in her room. But the new Ms. Marvel’s significance extends beyond symbolism.
In Kamala Khan, Wilson and Amanat have created a superhero whose patriotism and contributions to Jersey City emerge because of her Muslim heritage, not despite it. She challenges the assumptions many Americans have about Muslims and is a radical departure from how the media tend to depict Muslim-Americans. She shows how Muslim-Americans and immigrants are not forces that threaten communities – as some would argue – but are people who can strengthen and preserve them.
After inhaling a mysterious gas, Kamala Khan discovers she can stretch, enlarge, shrink and otherwise manipulate her body. Like many superheroes, she chooses to keep her identity a secret. She selects the Ms. Marvel moniker in homage to the first Ms. Marvel, Carol Danvers, who has since given up the name in favor of becoming Captain Marvel. Khan cites her family’s safety and her desire to lead a normal life, while also fearing that “the NSA will wiretap our mosque or something.”
As she wrestles with her newfound powers, her parents grow concerned about broken curfews and send her to the local imam for counseling. Rather than reinforcing her parents’ curfew or prying the truth from Khan, though, Sheikh Abdullah says, “I am asking you for something more difficult. If you insist on pursuing this thing you will not tell me about, do it with the qualities benefiting an upright young woman: courage, strength, honesty, compassion and self-respect.”
Her experience at the mosque becomes an important step on her journey to superheroism. Sheikh Abdullah contributes to her education, as does Wolverine. Islam is not a restrictive force in her story. Instead, the religion models for Khan many of the traits she needs in order to become an effective superhero. When her mother learns the truth about why her daughter is sneaking out, she “thank[s] God for having raised a righteous child.”
The comics paint an accurate portrait of Jersey City. Her brother Aamir is a committed Salafi (a conservative and sometimes controversial branch of Sunni Islam) and member of his university’s Muslim Student Association. Her best friend and occasional love interest, Bruno, works at a corner store and comes from Italian roots. The city’s diversity helps Kamala as she learns to be a more effective superhero. But it also rescues her from being a stand-in for all Muslim-American or Jersey City experiences.
Fighting a ‘war on terror culture’
Kamala’s brown skin and costume – self-fashioned from an old burkini – point to Marvel Comics’ desire to diversify its roster of superheroes (as well as writers and artists). As creator Sana Amanat explained on “Late Night With Seth Meyers” last month, representation is a powerful thing, especially in comics. It matters when readers who feel marginalized can see people like themselves performing heroic acts.
As one of 3.3 million Muslim-Americans, Khan flips the script on what Moustafa Bayoumi, author of “This Muslim American Life,” calls a “war on terror culture” that sees Muslim-Americans “not as complex human being[s] but only as purveyor[s] of possible future violence.”
Bayoumi’s book echoes other studies that detail the heightened suspicion and racial profiling Muslim-Americans have faced since 9/11, whether it’s in the workplace or interactions with the police. Each time there’s been a high-profile terrorist attack, these experiences, coupled with hate crimes and speech, intensify. Political rhetoric – like Donald Trump’s proposal to have a Muslim registry or his lie that thousands of Muslims cheered from Jersey City rooftops after the Twin Towers fell – only fans the flames.
Scholars of media psychology see this suspicion fostered, in part, by negative representations of Muslims in both news media outlets and popular culture, where they are depicted as bloodthirsty terrorists or slavish informants to a non-Muslim hero.
These stereotypes are so entrenched that a single positive Muslim character cannot counteract their effects. In fact, some point to the dangers of “balanced” representations, arguing that confronting stereotypes with wholly positive images only enforces a simplistic division between “good” and “bad” Muslims.
Kamala Khan, however, signals an important development in cultural representations of Muslim-Americans. It’s not just because she is a powerful superhero instead of a terrorist. It’s because she is, at the same time, a clumsy teenager who makes a mountain of mistakes while trying to balance her abilities, school, friends and family. And it’s because Wilson surrounds Kamala with a diverse assortment of characters who demonstrate the array of heroic (and not-so-heroic) actions people can take.
For example, in one of Ms. Marvel’s most powerful narrative arcs, a planet attacks New York, leading to destruction eerily reminiscent of 9/11. Kamala works to protect Jersey City while realizing that her world has changed – and will change – irrevocably.
Carol Danvers appears to fill Kamala in on the gravity of the situation, telling her, “The fate of the world is out of your hands. It always was. But your fate – what you decide to do right now – is still up to you … Today is the day you stand up.” Kamala connects the talk with Sheikh Abdullah’s lectures about the value of one’s deeds, once again linking her superhero and religious training to rise to the occasion. In both cases, the lectures teach Kamala to take a stand to protect her community.
Arriving at the high school gym now serving as a safe haven for Jersey City residents, Kamala realizes her friends and classmates have been inspired by her heroism. They safely transport their neighbors to the gym while outfitting the space with water, food, dance parties and even a “non-denominational, non-judgmental prayer area.” The community response prompts Kamala to realize that “even if things are profoundly not okay, at least we’re not okay together. And even if we don’t always get along, we’re still connected by something you can’t break. Something there isn’t even a word for. Something … beautiful.”
Kamala Khan is precisely the hero America needs today, but not because of a bat sign in the sky or any single definitive image. She is, above all, committed to the idea that every member of her faith, her generation, and her city has value and that their lives should be respected and protected. She demonstrates that the most heroic action is to face even the most despair-inducing challenges of the world head on while standing up for – and empowering – every vulnerable neighbor, classmate or stranger. She shows us how diverse representation can transform into action and organization that connect whole communities “by something you can’t break.”
A significant portion of the NFL’s fan base has reacted negatively to the national anthem protests of the past year. The responses tend to follow a pattern:
The stadium is no place for political protest. The game is a color-blind meritocracy. To protest football is to protest America.
But according to a study we published last year, white football fans and black football fans hold very different views about the relationship between football and national pride. And it might explain why there have been such divergent, emotional responses to the protests.
Black Americans love football, but…
Social scientists who study sports have long argued that sports are a powerful political stage. Popular wisdom, on the other hand, tends to maintain that sports are inherently apolitical, and should remain that way.
It’s true that until recently, visible black protests in American sports were rare. Yes, Muhammad Ali was outspoken about politics and became a symbol of black protest in the 1960s. And there’s the famous instance of Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists in the 1968 Olympic Games. But generally, athletes have not waded into politics, no doubt in part because of the influence of corporate interests and sponsors. (Michael Jordan, when asked why he wouldn’t endorse a black Democratic candidate for Senate in 1990, famously said, “Republicans buy shoes too.”)
So for many white fans, the racial issues addressed by the protests upend what they see as the innocent, colorless patriotism of football.
But for black fans, feelings of alienation toward the imposed patriotism in NFL games have been stewing for a while. And it may be that black athletes finally decided to respond to the attitudes of their black fans.
In our study, we aggregated 75 opinion polls between 1981 and 2014, and compared the relationship between national pride and football fandom among white and black Americans.
We found that since the early 1980s, national pride has been in decline among American men and women of all races. But among black men, this decline has been especially sharp. At the same time, it’s also been accompanied by a marked increase in their interest in the NFL.
We suspect that this inverse relationship isn’t coincidental.
Which Americans do patriotic displays speak to?
For decades, the league and broadcasting networks have conflated football with patriotism. Massive American flags get spread across the field before the game, celebrities sing highly produced renditions of the national anthem, military jets streak across the skies and teams routinely honor veterans and active service members.
Networks air segments about the players’ lives and team histories that emphasize racial integration and national unity. They also promote the narrative that hard work and following the rules lead to success on the field – the crux of the American Dream.
Indeed, our study did show that enthusiasm for football and national pride are interrelated.
But the nature of this relationship depends on your race.
Only among white Americans did we find a positive association between football fandom and national pride: Football fans were much more likely to express high levels of national pride than white Americans who weren’t football fans. Among African-Americans, on the other hand, there was a negative association. This suggests that when black fans watch their favorite team play, it’s a very different type of experience.
And this was happening long before Colin Kaepernick decided to take a knee.
Black identity and American identity
W.E.B Du Bois once observed that for black Americans, a fundamental tension exists between their American identities and their black identities. We now know from other studies that African-Americans tend to see themselves as less “typically American” than other races. Meanwhile, among white Americans there’s a common tendency to link American national identity with whiteness.
It could be that the symbols of American national pride – so visible during football games – give white fans the chance to unite their national pride with their fandom. To them, the fact that African-Americans make up between 65 and 69 percent of all NFL players is simply part of the country’s ethos of “inclusion.”
But for black fans, the overrepresentation of African-American athletes might mean something else. Football broadcasts can create highly visible opportunities to express black prowess, pride and resistance. At the same time, watching wildly successful black players on the football field might sharpen the contrast of racial injustice off the field.
Meanwhile, studies have shown that the more black Americans emphasize their blackness, the less likely they are to have patriotic feelings.
Together, this could create a situation where black fans are prone to reject the popular national narrative that links football to a wider, ethnically blind meritocratic order. To many of them, football isn’t connected to any sort of national identity in a positive way, so it’s easier for black fans to press successful black athletes to protest the status quo and use their platforms to address issues of discrimination and inequality.
In other words, even before black athletes started taking an explicit stand, their presence and success on the field created the conditions to question the dominant ideology of a meritocratic, colorblind society. National debates about inequality, police brutality and incarceration clearly resonate with many players, and they’ve been pushed to respond.
Looking at it this way, these protests were only a matter a time.
“What’s your zombie apocalypse survival plan?”
The question invites the liveliest discussions of the semester. I teach a course on social movements in fiction and film at West Virginia University, where I also conduct research on race and gender politics in the United States.
George Romero’s first film, “Night of the Living Dead,” is on the syllabus. The film was groundbreaking in its use of horror as political critique. Half a century later, Romero’s films are still in conversation with racial politics in the United States, and Romero’s recent death calls for reflection on his legacy as a filmmaker.
Romero shot “Night of the Living Dead” in 1967, when Americans’ attention was focused on powerful televised images of race riots in cities like Newark and Detroit, and on the Vietnam War, the likes of which were new to broadcast news. Romero reimagined scores of bleeding faces, twisted in rage or vacant from trauma, as the zombie hoard. He filtered public anger and anxieties through the hoard, reflecting what many viewed as liberals’ rage and disappointment over a lack of real social change and others saw as conservatives’ fear over disruptions in race relations and traditional family structures. This is the utility of the zombie as a political metaphor – it’s flexible; there is room enough for all our fears.
In “Night of the Living Dead,” an unlikely cross-section of people are cornered in a farmhouse by a zombie hoard. They struggle with each other and against the zombies to survive the night. At the end of the film, black protagonist Ben Huss is the sole survivor. He emerges from the basement at daybreak, only to be mistaken for a zombie and shot by an all-white militia. The militiamen congratulate each other and remark that Huss is “another one for the fire.” They never realize their terrible error. Perhaps they are inclined to see Huss as a threat to begin with, because he is black.
At the start of Romero’s next film, “Dawn of the Dead,” in which another unlikely bunch faces off against zombies in a shopping mall, police surround a public housing building. One officer remarks on the unfairness of putting blacks and Hispanics in these “big-ass fancy hotels” and proceeds to shoot residents indiscriminately, not distinguishing between the living and the undead.
The officers are shooting to restore the “natural order” in which the dead stay dead. But their actions also restore the prevailing social order and the institutions that create and reinforce racial inequality.
In my class, I connect these scenes of dehumanization to contemporary racial politics, using them as a springboard for conversations about racially motivated police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement. These discussions focus on the zombie as a dehumanized creature.
In returning from the dead, zombies lose their human essence – their agency, critical reasoning capacities, empathy and language. As Cohen writes, “Zombies are a collective, a swarm. They do not own individualizing stories. They do not have personalities. They eat. They kill. They shamble. They suffer and they cause suffering. They are dirty, stinking, and poorly dressed. They are indifferent to their own decay.” Zombies retain a human form, but lose their individuality and are dehumanized in their reanimation.
Minority victims of police shootings are often portrayed in the media as dangerous, animalistic and even monstrous – meaning they too are stripped of their basic humanity. Social psychologists argue that perceptions of humanity are a critical part of social cognition – the way we process or think about other people and social settings. When we see people or groups as less than human, predictable consequences arise. Romero’s films tune us in to our own potential for dehumanization.
Dehumanization relaxes our moral restrictions on doing harm to others and ultimately facilitates violence against them. When people see members of a group as an undifferentiated “hoard,” they’re susceptible to the same error as the militiamen in “Night of the Living Dead.” When they couple dehumanization with hatred, resentment or fear, they become like the resentful police officer in “Dawn of the Dead.” Dehumanization of black Americans underpins the violence perpetrated against them in Romero’s films and in America today.
Dehumanization isn’t confined to police violence. New research shows that dehumanization of Muslims and Hispanics underlies support for restrictive immigration policies and a border wall. It also undercuts support for aid to refugees.
In my own research, I show that political candidates are often dehumanized in political discourse and campaign imagery. This work suggests that monsters plague our elections and governance processes more broadly.
Romero will be best remembered for giving the zombie a place in mainstream American culture, but he also gave us a warning about human psychology and critical insights into racial politics in the U.S. For this reason, his work will continue to have a revered place on my syllabus.