In my RBA I plan to analyze the comic series Ms. Marvel and its lead, Kamala Khan, as a response to Islamophobia in media representation post-9/11. By examining the creation of the image of the Muslim male as a terrorist and therefore a dangerous “other”, I hope to determine the importance of media representation and how or why it is effective in supporting a specific national image. Furthermore, I plan to establish how Kamala Khan is a response to this rhetoric and in what ways her story and character reinforces or subverts it, particularly as a possible response to assimilation pressures and the erasure of hyphenated identities.
My research topic focuses on Ms. Marvel as a response to Islamophobia in the post-9/11 era. Specifically, I hope to relate how this attitude echoes the “us vs. them” dichotomy rhetoric that was prevalent during the Cold War era.
There has been frequent discussion in both academic and popular press about Ms. Marvel as a face of the changing dynamics of representation in comics. In her book Superwomen: Gender, Power, and Representation, Carolyn Cocca outlines the surprising success of the series and the relatability of its protagonist, as well. She also briefly discuss the image of Kamala and her family as subversions of the image of Muslims as terrorists that is frequently presented in modern media. Miriam Kent has also examined the popularity of the comic in her article “Unveiling Marvels: Ms. Marvel And The Reception Of The New Muslim Superheroine.”, where she addresses the overwhelmingly positive reception that Ms.Marvel has received from the press. However, she notes “a fondness for assimilation” in pitches from critics, who frequently stress the character’s relatability as a quirky teenager who is “just like us”, thereby reducing and sometimes ignoring the importance of her status as a depiction of a female Muslim character in comics. Kent also discusses the depiction of “otherness” in Ms. Marvel and Kamala’s attempt to balance her identity as a Pakistani American and her desire to fit in. I hope to further the discussion by addressing how Ms. Marvel’s depiction of Kamala Khan as an American superhero reconstructs what it means to be American, specifically as it relates to the “us vs. them” rhetoric that returned in the post-9/11 era, and better explain how this representation is a response to the post-9/11 era.
In his article “Cold War Pop Culture and the Image of U.S. Foreign Policy: The Perspective of the Original Star Trek Series”, Nicholas Evan Sarantakes outlines the various instances in which the science fiction classic Star Trek used allegories to explore, support, or condemn the issues of the day. For instance, the Star Trek episode “The Enterprise Incident” references the incident involving the USS Pueblo. On January 23, 1968, the crew of the USS Pueblo was captured by North Korean forces and accused of espionage. While the outside world waited to learn the fates of the captured seamen, Gene Roddenberry, the show’s creator, decided to proceed with filming an episode of Star Trek based off of the event. Both the writer, D.C. Fontana, and Roddenberry realized that the story’s origin lacked subtlety; Roddenberry went so far as to refer to the episode as “The Pueblo Incident”, while Fontana assumed the television network, NBC, would be unhappy with the story. Changes were made to the initial script, Sarantakes writes, as “sensitivity to public sentiment demanded such a move”.
In the episode, Captain Kirk orders his ship into enemy territory in order to steal cloaking technology that the Romulans have developed. Taken hostage aboard the Romulan vessel, Kirk proceeds to fake his own death with Spock’s help then goes undercover as a Romulan to search for the cloaking device. Although Kirk is successful in retrieving the device, Spock is captured and put on trial, where he claims that as his duty as a Starfleet officer is “to protect the security of the Federation”, the course of action that he and Kirk pursued was justified. Sarantakes states that “the theme of the episode is that efforts to preserve international peace and stability, even actions such as theft, deception, and espionage that would be unacceptable in some other context, were legitimate because they served the moral and ethical purpose of prevent large-scale death and suffering”. This episode therefore also upholds the moral right of the actions of the USS Pueblo crew.
The speculative nature of both the science fiction and fantasy genres allows writers to explore the extremes of the possibilities of our actions and the potential consequences of our beliefs. Furthermore, science fiction and fantasy has mass appeal; the use of storytelling captures a large audience that might not be engaged through other means, while relatable characters can provide a foundation through which the reader might gain a new perspective. Through science fiction and fantasy, we can effectively analyze the risks or rewards a certain path might bring. For example, The Sultana’s Dream, first published in 1905, was written by Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain as a response to gender roles in Indian society. It presents a feminist utopian vision of a futuristic India governed by women: the men are now the ones forced to observe purdah while the women run the community. Through the lens of a science fiction short story, Hussain imagines how a society in which gender roles are reversed might function; furthermore, she examines common beliefs of how gender should be performed.
In “Disaster and Decentralization: American Cities and the Cold War”, author Matthew Farish argues that the fear of atomic weaponry did in fact contribute to the decentralization of post-World War II America. The process of suburbanization in the early Cold War era was further aided through a mix of the publication of images from the aftermath of the bombings on Hiroshima & Nagasaki, depictions of potential destruction of urban centers in the American media, and the publication of scientific studies. “The postwar climate was responsible for ‘feeding, not breeding’ the landscapes of fear, violence and misogyny already present in noir progenitors such as prewar hardboiled fiction and tabloid street photography,” states Farish. “Yet both Jean-Paul Sartre’s oft-quoted description of Manhattan as ‘the great American desert’ and Albert Camus’s noir vision of New York as ‘a prodigious funeral pyre at midnight’ seemed to take on additional valence after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when the fallen American city became a common media image, and even more so after the first Soviet atomic test in 1949.”
The urban center, as the main destination of immigrants, was viewed as a possible “breeding ground for communists”; furthermore, because of the dense population in most older American cities, places such as New York City were considered to be at immediate threat of an atomic attack from the Soviet Union. Neither option considered at the time for dealing with an attack was considered viable: public shelters were thought to be too costly, and experts feared the lack of containment by the government of urban populations that a widespread evacuation would lead to. Based on an opinion from an article by Federal Civil Defence Organization (FCDA) head Val Peterson that argued that Americans were “the most panic-prone people”, the FCDA worried about the consequences of large groups of refugees overwhelming the American countryside. Furthermore, it was believed that the breakdown of racial barriers that would occur during an evacuation would be disruptive. By moving the American public away from urban centers, already considered areas of corruption, the risk of such a possibility would be lowered.
Images from the devastation of Nagasaki and Hiroshima kept the fear of the possibility of an atomic attack occurring on American soil in the public mind. Furthermore, fictionalized depictions of the possible destruction of American cities fed on the anxiety of the American people. Fear of scenes that described the results of an atomic attack were depicted in periodicals of the time and only increased this anxiety. Additionally, publicized reports of scientific studies, such as the Project East River, reinforced the image of potential disaster now present in the American public.
Use of the imagery of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center has had a similar effect of reinforcing fear in the modern American consciousness. Calls to “never forget” have kept the tragedy in the forefront of American mind; furthermore, it has kept the American public malleable to pressure to conform to whatever standards impressed upon them as necessary for public safety, such as increased airport security or a lack of privacy, as a part of their patriotic duty as citizens.
“They really truly want to equate homosexual marriage with heterosexual marriage. The sad reality is that it’s never going to be the same. The American people know marriage is not something to be messed with.”
This quote from Sandy Rios demonstrates George W. Bush’s George W. Bush successful use of containment rhetoric to tie LGBT rights, specifically that of marriage equality, to terrorism, thus placing the LGBT movement into the clearly defined category of other and thus un-American. By using interconnected rhetoric to equate anything un-American with terrorism, President Bush was able to force his own beliefs of what was morally right and what should be considered American on the general populace and therefore heighten anti-gay sentiment. The use of this rhetorical approach is frightening, as it appears to have led to an increase in homophobia in the early 2000s, as evidenced by the statistics mentioned by Lugo that show a decline in support for same-sex civil unions from 49 percent of the poll participants in May 2003 to only 34 percent in January 2004.
In Mad Men, a TV drama set in the 1960s, the fear of the “other” is demonstrated in the season one episode “Marriage of Figaro”, as seen in this linked post. Francine Hanson and Betty Draper are confused as they gossip about Helen Bishop, a new neighbor, who has been seen walking around the neighborhood, instead of using the routine form of transportation by car. The group of neighborhood housewives later question Helen and further exclude her when her answers prove unsatisfactory. Already a symbol of nonconformity through her role as a divorced single mother in the suburbs, Helen’s lack of conventional transportation further embodies her status as other, alienating her from her neighbors, a condition that is only intensified by her masculine clothing choices and need to seek work outside the home. Helen’s deviance from the “American way of life” as described by Elaine May in Homeward Bound threatens Betty’s upholding of the standard way of life and opens the door to questions about her unhappiness with the choices that she has made.