Commissioned essay for Shane deNota-Hoffman. Thanks for backing my Patreon, Shane!
We have talked a great deal of late about the secret identity as a metaphor for trauma, and in particular for the fragmentation of identity engendered by trauma. We’ve also looked at a couple of potential challenges to that model, most importantly Wonder Woman (and Wonder Woman).
Ms. Marvel poses another, distinct challenge to the heroic trauma model, namely that Kamala Khan’s origin doesn’t seem to be particularly traumatic: it’s depicted as being more like a superhero-themed mystical experience than the violence and chaos of seeing one’s parents murdered or becoming a refugee from a destroyed world. Instead, the comic deploys Kamala’s emerging dual identities as a metaphor for double consciousness.
Coined by W.E.B. Dubois, double consciousness refers to the way in which marginalization (and racism in particular) causes a fragmentation of identity, because the marginalized person is simultaneously forced to adapt themselves to a culture hostile to them, and excluded by that culture. For their own safety, they must predict how the hostile culture will react to them, and therefore must maintain moment-to-moment awareness of how bigoted members of that culture would view them, in addition to the natural self-awareness we all have. This dual self-awareness is double consciousness, and distorts the formation of identity, as well as forcing a degree of internalization of the bigoted attitudes that underlie the marginalization.
We can see this play out over the course of Ms. Marvel vol. 1. Kamala wishes to be seen as beautiful, but expresses this in terms of wanting blonde hair or looking like her more popular, white classmate Zoe. She wants, as many teens do, to fit in, but the ways in which she doesn’t fit in are racialized: her religion, appearance, and family are all targets both of Zoe’s passive-aggressive racism and Kamala’s own self-criticism. As a young teen, she is in the process of carving out her own identity as young teens do, seeking it in community and culture, but that process is disrupted by the racism all around her. The people she wishes to be like–Zoe and Captain Marvel both–are pretty blonde white women, because a part of what she has learned about herself is that her own appearance and ethnicity are considered less-than.
The reason her superheroic origin is not depicted as traumatic is because her identity is already fragmented. Kamala has an inner Zoe, constantly judging her for being “too Muslim,” “too Pakistani,” “too different.” She considers herself ugly compared to Zoe, yet as she herself notes, donning Pakistani clothing gives her “+5 bling.” When she is within a cultural context where she isn’t othered, she’s beautiful. The problem isn’t her; it’s Zoe and everything Zoe represents–and the internal voice of Zoe that Kamala has had to adopt to protect herself from the Zoes of the world.
And then Kamala gets the power to change her shape and appearance.
At first she has little control over the power, and manifests as a duplicate of Captain Marvel. This makes total sense in terms of the protector fantasy: double consciousness is a survival tactic, after all. Kamala’s internalized racism is her default protector, and so her protector identity is initially an expression of the very white European beauty ideals she negatively judges herself against.
But from the start, Kamala’s consciousness of herself as herself, as opposed to her consciousness of herself as seen by racists and Islamophobes, is pushing back. Her vision when she receives her powers is of an angelic Captain Marvel, yes, but it’s an angelic Captain Marvel reciting Urdu poetry. Kamala soon finds that trying to be Captain Marvel feels wrong, and instead becomes the new Ms. Marvel, making her own costume and sticking to her own face, her own hair. What kind of a protector could she be, if she othered herself, perpetuated one of the greatest evils of our culture against herself? (And it is our culture–she has as good a claim to it as anyone.)
For Kamala, then, becoming Ms. Marvel isn’t a fragmentation of identity. The fragmentation is already there. Ms. Marvel is a path to healing, to finding a way of protecting herself and others while embracing all of who she is.
And who she is, as it turns out, is an immensely likable and entertaining character.
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