Kamala Khan and Kumail Nanjiani: The Pop Culture Icons Young Americans Need

“This is me. Kamala is me,” one of my students said. She described her parents, very religious and very protective. They routinely tried to set her up with the boys they approved of. Prayer and worship were routine. And instead of therapists, she and her siblings were told to see their religious leader. It would almost be exactly like Ms. Marvel’s experience if my student weren’t a white Christian American from the South. She’s also far from the only non-Muslim student to comment on how much they could relate to G. Willow Wilson’s Kamala Khan. Ms. Marvel Vol 1: No Normal is a class favorite every time I teach it. Many students end up buying the volumes that come after. Almost all of my students love the character.

Totes Relatable

Almost. Every so often I get a student who says “This is too politically correct. Muslims aren’t like this, really.” That’s an actual response from a student. They weren’t Muslim, and they didn’t know any Muslim people—by choice. While it would be easy to tie this kind of comment to the Trump sticker on his laptop that faces the entire class (it’s a discussion-based class, so we sit in a giant circle), but there were plenty of Trump students in the class who confronted him on that statement. But again, he’s not the only student who felt this way. While most students read about this Pakistani-American teenager and had that moment of “huh. We’re not different after all,” there are maybe 2% of students who actually don’t want to learn that they are very similar to the people they are taught to hate and fear.

In the same way, The Big Sick is also great for young Americans, especially students in college. While the movie is predominately a romantic dramedy (can’t call it a comedy when the love interest is in a coma and about to die for more than half the movie), it’s also a true story about Kumail Nanjiani’s life. Nanjiani spends the movie having a 30-year-old crisis. He doesn’t know what he believes, what he wants, what aspects of his culture are important to him, how to handle conflicts when people confront him about being Pakistani. He also takes it in stride, mostly. How do you know if a movie is well-written? It has 9/11 and ISIS jokes that work. His story is like most 30-year-old American males. Aside from the cultural significance of the film, it’s much like Garden State (but so much better).

Writing on a couch with a cute blonde…basically my entire twenties.

Okay, it’s time to get a little political before getting back to movies and comics. First-Year College students are obviously still learning about the world. They’re 18, at most 19. And what they don’t know about the world is not their fault—it’s because of their previous education (a different conversation for a different website). Even many of my adult students have a surprising lack of cultural awareness. What is great is that once they are exposed to another culture, they are almost immediately empathetic to them—when they see them as a hero. It’s why having heroes of different races, genders, religions, and sexualities are so important. Another classroom favorite? The Imitation Game. While the benefit of kids seeing heroes of various kinds is important, it’s just as important for adults of all ages.

Which brings us back to Ms. Marvel and Kumail  Nanjiani, a Pakistani-American superhero, and a Pakistani comedian. It’s no secret that hate crimes have increased over the last two years. There is more Islamophobia now than there was after 9/11. A primary reason for that is education. One of the first things George W. Bush made clear after the attacks was that Islam was not to blame:

“The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam.  That’s not what Islam is all about.  Islam is peace.  These terrorists don’t represent peace.  They represent evil and war.”

But since then, how has American culture portrayed Muslims? The show 24 used Muslim characters as their terrorist villains so often, they had to air a disclaimer starring Kiefer Sutherland explaining that not all Muslims are evil. The News media focuses almost only on terrorist attacks committed by Muslims, even though, domestically, they are outranked by White terrorists. And even when a politician acknowledges White terrorism, they are dismissive about it.

Is it any surprise that when my students read Ms. Marvel, they are almost blindsided that Kamala is just a regular American teenager? In fact, many of them comment on how similar she is to Peter Parker, another awkward American teenager before and after getting superpowers. Their cultural context for Muslims is fear and not much else. Even one of the few Muslim heroes in pop culture, Sayid from Lost, tortured people when he was an Iraqi soldier. Kamala Khan blindsides them by how much she isn’t different from them.

Expect for when she’s a giant, that is.

When I teach my pop culture class next spring, I’ll include The Big Sick. I already know that their reaction will be very similar, and I’m hoping the fact that the film is based on Kumail Nanjiani’s real experience will make them feel even more connected to him and the movie. At the same time, Ms. Marvel and The Big Sick together create a framework for them. Ms. Marvel is where they’re coming from—high school teenagers—and The Big Sick is where they are going—adults trying to find their identity while establishing their careers. Being able to see themselves in these works, with characters who might not look like them, is how empathy is created. In an era othering is prominent, Ms. Marvel and Nanjiani don’t—as a student described Kamala—feel like “others.” That’s the “ding” moment that students have when they are exposed to characters like these. As another student said, “Othering is bulls**t” (ah, college classes). Exactly. The young student simultaneously realized how he characterized Muslims, and how absurd he was for doing that. But again—it’s what he was taught.

That’s why Ms. Marvel and The Big Sick are perfect for college students. They can undo 20 years of poor cultural education in a matter of hours. That’s powerful. That will change them for life, and make them better people.

Well, at least 98% of them.

Roman Colombo
Roman Colombohttp://romancolombo.com
Roman Colombo has been teaching comics and movies at Philadelphia area colleges since 2010, including Temple University, Drexel University, and Rosemont College. He has several publications in journals such as The Bookends Review and monkeybicycle. He's also the author of Trading Saints for Sinners, his first published novel.