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Ms Marvel

A Marvelous change in direction?

November 9, 2013

It’s an accepted approach that if you feel intimated by an individual, or a group of people, that you should imagine them sans clothing, naked.

It’s worked for me on numerous stressful occasions – from judgemental audiences to interview panels. Sometimes more humorously than others.

But I didn’t learn the trick until I’d well-and-truly reached adulthood.

So if I’d used my hidden “superpowers” as a child, particularly in my imaginary battles in quiet play, all of my so-called foes would have blended into one:

A naked white male.

That’s right – consider them: Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Captain America, Daredevil, Wolverine, Iron Man, Magneto, The Thing, Thor, Green Lantern, The Incredible Hulk,  Flash, Green Arrow, Robin, Starman, Blue Beetle, Aquaman … all single, white males. Even their foes – Lex Luthor, The Joker, Doctor Doom, The Penguin etc … all likewise.

a parallel between her quest for identity, and the modern woman’s quest for raised consciousness, for self-liberation, for identity

There have been some limited exceptions.

Both DC  and Marvel Comics have – from time to time – attempted to address the gender imbalance but usually in terms of sex only; Batwoman, Supergirl, Catwoman, Wonder Woman. All white, sexualised and slightly flawed when it came to dealing with their male counterparts. Perhaps due to their roots in the ‘60s, perhaps due to their writers’ prejudices.

So when Marvel developed the character Ms. Marvel in 1977, they promoted her as a female character to stand alongside the real women of the generation.

As writer Gerry Conway said at the time of the launch of the character, “you might see a parallel between her quest for identity, and the modern woman’s quest for raised consciousness, for self-liberation, for identity”.

It was a debatable subject.

The Ms. Marvel letters page (“Ms. Prints”) featured letters debating whether or not the character was feminist. Reader Jana C. Hollingsworth took issue with Ms. Marvel’s entire origin:

“For the eleven years I’ve been a comics fan, I’ve been proud of how Marvel resisted the temptation to create male-based heroines à la Supergirl. It’s been proudly proclaimed that Ms. Marvel is not Marvel Girl; well, maybe the early Marvel Girl did have weak powers and an insipid personality, but at least her powers were her powers and her personality was her personality…. I hope you can change her costume if it’s all possible, and keep her on her own instead of associating her with Captain Marvel….”

Another reader had issue with the character’s outfit: “Question: where is a woman who wears long sleeves, gloves, high boots and a scarf (winter wear), and at the same time has a bare back, belly, and legs? The Arctic equator? That costume requires a few alterations.”[67] These questions, and the controversial rape in Avengers #200, caused many readers to question the character’s portrayal, and whether she was a good role model for female readers.”

Marvel is now reinventing Ms Marvel – replacing the former Carol Danvers, a blonde, blue-eyed and busty former US Air Force Major, with Amala Khan is the 16-year-old Muslim daughter of Pakistani immigrants from Jersey City, New Jersey.

The character of Khan will star in a new Ms Marvel series starting in February, making her one of few female Muslim comic-book characters, let alone series protagonists. Her introduction indicates Marvel has an eye on contemporary cultural and gender relevance, even as the company maintains its A-list roster of white, male superheroes.

The teenager’s creators say she will be forced to deal not only with her developing superpowers and the day-to-day struggles of adolescence, but also with the strict demands placed on her by her family. Marvel editor Sana Amanat told The New York Times, “Her brother is extremely conservative. Her mom is paranoid that she’s going to touch a boy and get pregnant. Her father wants her to concentrate on her studies and become a doctor.”

You’re not a true fan because you’re only watching to look at the men.

Marvel editor-in-chief Axel Alonso emphasised that Khan’s religion is just one facet of her character, and that she has much in common with Marvel’s existing protagonists, not least Spider-Man. “Kamala is not unlike Peter Parker,” Mr Alonso told the Associated Press. “She’s a 16-year-old girl from the suburbs who is trying to figure out who she is and trying to forge an identity when she suddenly bestows great power and learns the great responsibility that comes with it.”

It’s positive news for Marvel’s wider audience; Khan’s instant top-billing demonstrates their confidence in the character. Traditionally, its new heroes start life in the pages of another title, where they acquire a reputation and a following before striking out alone.

How it will be accepted by the fans is another matter.

Comics have been historically hostile towards female fans. From the scourge of the so-called “Fake Geek Girl” sexism at conventions, from horrifically over-sexualised characters to story lines that detail outright abuse of significant others … if you’re a female comic fan, you’d best keep it to yourself.

The backlash to the growing female audience, especially after the success of “The Avengers” and the burgeoning female-fandom, has been intense and hostile in online communities:

“Have you even read the comics? Name me the original Avengers.”

“I bet you don’t even know what her real name is.”

“You decided to cosplay as her because you wanted to get attention. Look how slutty you’re dressed!”

“You’re not a true fan because you’re only watching to look at the men.”

The mood isn’t restricted to fans.

The men in the higher ranks of Marvel studios seem to be equally perturbed by the growing female demographic. “It worked fine the way it was,” they say, amid cries from its audience for a female-led film, “So why bother changing?”

As a writer for Neon Tommy, Christine Bancroft, observed in September: “I don’t just hear laziness from Lee’s statement. I don’t just hear sexism; I hear fear. Because they still don’t think that female heroes can keep a film afloat, even though films like “The Hunger Games” have proven otherwise.

“As the percentage of female fans continues to grow, it also becomes more and more agitated with the lack of representation in the Marvel films. Don’t just pander to our demographic with shots that attract the so-called “female gaze” like a shirtless Thor or try to satisfy us with one (maybe two) token female characters. Tokenism is not representation. It’s not only saying that this character was almost an afterthought to fill some sort of quota, a necessity but not wanted, but also something mouthpieces could hold up proudly and say, “Look at this! Look what we did! You can’t complain now.”

The new Ms. Marvel might be a start in the right direction.

Post By Andrew Walters (6 Posts)

Andrew is a former journalist and now writer, editor and technology strategist with an interest in using the web and social media to promote positive change.

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