Disney Plus’ Ms. Marvel series has some pretty drastic changes from the comics, but one thing that remains is that its central heroine, Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), is Pakistani American and (like most Pakistani Americans) is Muslim. She attends mosque services and Eid celebrations and talks about how brown girls from Jersey City don’t ever get to be heroes.
Like many first-generation Americans, Kamala has a complicated relationship with her family’s traditions and her own burgeoning sense of self. But instead of painting her and her friends in total opposition to their heritage, the creators behind Ms. Marvel took great care in portraying the culture as a source of both celebration and conflict. One scene in the first episode really solidifies the nuanced relationship that Kamala has with her heritage.
[Ed. note: This post contains mild spoilers for the first two episodes of Ms. Marvel.]
“I remember that I wrote the first draft of the pilot in a rush of emotion over two nights,” says Ms. Marvel head writer Bisha K. Ali. “And it just came out of me in a flood. That scene is, like, verbatim the first draft of that scene, because everyone was like, Yes. [...] It turns from cute to painful very quickly.”
In the moment in question, Kamala’s parents finally agree that she can go to AvengerCon, the fan convention for all things Avengers, but only if she’s supervised by her father and if she wears the costume that her mother made for her: a Hulk cosplay made out of a salwar kameez, a type of traditional Pakistani clothing, complete with stitched-on abs and shoulder pads. And that’s not all — her father jumps in, wearing a matching Hulk cosplay with face paint.
“Big Hulk and little Hulk!” her mother enthusiastically gushes. “Bara Hulk aur choti Hulk!”
It is incredibly funny — but as Kamala winces and then snaps at her parents, it turns into something very heartbreaking. Kamala’s parents still don’t understand her world, and though they’re trying to meet her halfway, it’s still in a way so deeply embarrassing for her that she rejects it. The fact that the disagreement rests on an element of Pakistani culture drives an even deeper wedge between Kamala and her parents.
“There’s this element of traditional clothes being representative of something that as a teenager, you might think it means one thing, but I don’t think it does,” Ali tells us. “And she’s negotiating what that means for herself in that moment, and it might change over time or it might not. It might say the same. It’s different for everybody. Certainly for me as a teenager, I felt this wholesale rejection and then I felt shame about the rejection. But then I also wanted to be part of it, but I also thought I couldn’t be part of it. And all of that stuff. I was like, OK, let’s get this in a scene that’s also funny. That was the goal of that scene. I think we pulled it off.” She adds, “And if I don’t see loads of bara Hulk, choti Hulk cosplay next year, then I failed everyone.”
While Kamala certainly clashes with her parents, however, it’s less about her rejecting her culture and more about her trying to figure out who she is outside of her family. As a teenager, she’s trying to find a place in the world and express her interests, all while figuring out what that means in the context of how she was raised.
“So much of teenagehood, in my experience — and the experience of many other people, I’m sure — is a constant negotiation of What can I get away with? or What’s acceptable? or What do I want? And that’s changing,” says Ali. “But I also think from the parents’ perspective, their relationship with their child — now teenager, now adult — is also constant negotiation. They’re moving back and forth on that line, too.”
Of course, because her parents are more traditional in upholding their Pakistani Muslim culture, Kamala does end up brushing off some of her heritage. But the Ms. Marvel writers take great care to emphasize that Kamala and her friends still love their culture, even if they could do without some of the antiquated traditions. Kamala doesn’t really like that the women have to sit in the back of the mosque, but she enthusiastically attends the mosque’s Eid celebrations. Her friend Nakia is frustrated with the fact that all the mosque leaders are men — but that just inspires her to run for the board so she can have her name out there. Instead of outright rejecting their culture, the younger generation in Ms. Marvel has a more nuanced and complex relationship with it.
Finding the right balance to strike was definitely a concern for Ali and the rest of the writers, but it became intuitive.
“It feels quite natural to approach it from a place of love, from a place of complete nuance, from a place of complexity and a place of compassion, because that’s how I feel like my family,” explains Ali. “I love my family, and I want them to be portrayed in a way that is complicated and is presented without judgment and is presented genuinely from a place of understanding of, OK, we might be coming from different sides of this particular point. But we love each other and that’s foundational and love is a universal thing.”
New episodes of Ms. Marvel hit Disney Plus on Wednesdays.