Soulmates, Sholay and Stereotypes: How Kamran Steals Our Girl in Ms. Marvel #13-15 (SPOILERS)
WARNING: This article contains BIG FAT SPOILERS for events occurring in Issues #13-15 of Ms. Marvel.
As Ms. Marvel editor Sana Amanat notes in the “Holla at Kamala” section of issue #13, the arrival of Kamran, Kamala’s love interest in the 3-part story arc Crushed, is “a big deal.” Kamran’s appearance in Ms. Marvel signifies that our teenage heroine Kamala is finally growing up, and having to navigate romantic feelings that she has not previously had (much to pal Bruno Carelli’s dismay.) The Kamran storyline also explores the myriad ways in which (as I can attest) even trying to pull off something resembling dating is super tricky (and often hilarious) when you come from a religious POC family. Lastly, as the title “Crushed” foreshadows, we get to experience Kamala’s resilience in the face of her disappointment when Kamran ends up being less noble and perfect than he seems (even though, like a true South Asian kid, he doesn’t wear his shoes in the house).
Issue #13 begins with Wilson touching on the tradition of parents who want to set their kids up with their friends’ kids. Of course, when Kamala’s mom lets her know that Kamran is coming over, Kamala is repulsed, remembering the five-year-old boy she last saw as “an overachiever and a nose picker.” Because Kamran is exactly the kind of guy Kamala’s parents approve of, she wants no part in their attempts to instigate what she imagines can only be an eventual marriage proposal. Obviously this kind of set-up is usually depicted in mainstream media as a South Asian thing, but substitute in the phrase “nice Jewish boy” or “nice boy from church” and Kamala’s situation becomes pretty relatable for a lot of teens with folks from tight-knit/religious communities.
Much to Kamala’s chagrin, the “nose picker” instead turns out to be a Zayn Malik doppelganger. I’ve mentioned this before, because I really want to believe that such a depiction is intentional. Ms. Marvel’s creative team has always been quite culturally aware, and coincidentally, this story arc started up right around the time Zayn left 1D. Fans freaked out, and were mocked relentlessly on social media, a testament to how girls’ interests are still largely marginalized and scorned by many online communities. Even a cranky music-nerd curmudgeon such as myself is pretty aware (as you should be too) that folks who claim 1D fans are “not real music fans” are likely of the same camp who would cry “fake geek girl” to young female readers of Kamala’s story. To think that Wilson and Miyazawa are tapping into these cultural inferences wouldn’t be a stretch.
Also significant here is a South Asian MOC as a leading man. Though South Asian dudes are usually relegated to Bollywood films or given roles as nerdy scientist–types or comedic sidekicks who get confused for each other on prime time television, Kamran is a full-on heartthrob who has piqued Kamala’s romantic curiosity, and hopefully, the curiosity of Ms. Marvel’s young readers as well. Furthermore, like Zayn IRL, a Muslim-Pakistani teen idol in the current cultural climate is noteworthy, especially for a U.S. audience that is still pretty regularly bombarded with images of Muslim terrorists (thanks for being gross, Fox News!) As Kamala herself says:
She’s talking about the Inhumans here, of course, but it’s also pretty easy to figure out what else Wilson might be getting at with this statement, and why that might matter in mainstream media.
Most importantly, Kamran’s race, religion and (as we find out at the beginning of issue 14) his own superpowers as an Inhuman means that Kamala believes that she has found someone who is just like her. This also means that, in the eyes of Kamala, who has been struggling with her own identity as a Pakistani-American since issue 001, Kamran is perfect. Though Kamran also shares Kamala’s Western, geeky interests like World of Battlecraft, he is also into Bollywood and Sholay, details that allow Wilson to write in in thoughtful, nuanced conversations about second-generation kids and cultural identity, namely, how one can simultaneously be amused by and appreciate aspects of one’s cultural background. In discussing Hindi action-adventure films, Kamala and Kamran clearly distinguish between the mocking laughter of Westerners and the “nice” way in which second-gen kids might laugh at these films instead.
Wilson is also careful to distinguish between cultures that might share some similarities, but are ultimately very different from each other. In another of the insightful conversations that continue to set Ms. Marvel apart from its peers, Bruno and Kamala’s brother Amir discuss Bruno’s crush on Kamala (were this an episode of Glee, Bruno and Kamran would totally be duetting call-and-response style on Steal My Girl at this point.) All kidding aside, Amir’s concern as a brother and a POC, and Bruno’s white privilege are both apparent during this conversation. Cue Captain Carelli’s Smallest Violin, in which a heartbroken Bruno’s well-intentioned “I know where you guys are coming from, ‘cause I’ve been there” argument ends up reading like “but it’s all fine because I don’t see color!” Sorry Bruno, I’m sure your family is lovely and have had their own struggles, but it’s not the same; nobody’s going to stick you on a no-fly list just because of your last name (side note: this has straight-up happened to my Dad multiple times). Though Bruno does have a valid point about the near-universality of immigrant heritage, the historical and cultural context of his family’s story is still quite different from Kamala’s. That Wilson lets us see Bruno not understanding this is also tremendous, as sometimes, even the kindest, most well-meaning allies do make missteps.
Like the exchange between Kamran and Kamala about Sholay, the conversation between Bruno and Amir also touches on the issue of assimilation at the expense of cultural preservation, and why Kamala’s parents might want her to marry someone from the same background. For second-generation kids especially, this is a huge issue; parents’ desires to preserve and pass on cultural traditions to their children are almost always in conflict with the second-gen fear of being, in Sana Amanat’s words, too “fobbed-out.” The implication here is that the refusal to assimilate completely is somehow shameful, which, by extension, would also mean that cultural traditions from one’s parents homeland are viewed as unimportant or even worse, irrelevant when re-situated in a Western context. The fact that both Kamala and Kamran are depicted as actively trying to rally against this kind of stigma is both admirable and very realistic.
That Kamran and Kamala’s rooftop flirtation in issue 14 is emotionally rooted in this kind of identity-related bonding is really quite sweet, and extremely well done both by Wilson and Miyazawa. Kamala’s awkwardness, in particular, is so relatable, and just as charming in its own way as the idea of Kamran is. Kamala’s internal monologue and Miyazawa’s midnight cityscape capture teenage crush-feelings so perfectly that they had me screaming “Kamala & Kamran forever! OTP! OTP!” in my head.
But, just like Kamala, I was led, starry-eyed, into a trap.
So of course, my heart sank when Kamran literally steals our girl, kidnapping Kamala in his fancy car and taking her (against her will) to Inhuman headquarters to meet Lineage, a bad dude with an even worse plan. Even more troubling, though, is the language that Kamran uses while trying to convince Kamala her compliance would mean that she’s doing the right thing.
Kamran’s point about “a society that wasn’t built for us” works pretty well if contextualized from a POC perspective. But then, especially with that first part in mind, the rest of his rhetoric starts sounding really cringeworthy and well… kind of fundamentalist. (THERE, I SAID IT.) Honestly, I don’t know how Kamran’s spiel will scan to other culturally aware readers, but it made me pretty uncomfortable, and I really hope we will later find out that there was an exceptionally good reason for it.
The worst part is that Kamran only becomes more dastardly from here on out, the tone shifting even more abruptly as he uses his powers to knock Kamala out once they reach New Attilan and she (rightfully) refuses to cooperate. Kamran’s betrayal is much more somber and emotionally fraught than any of the stuff we’ve seen in Ms. Marvel thus far, mainly because we are so invested in Kamala, but also given the fact that Wilson & co. spent two entire issues carefully dismantling harmful Muslim-dude stereotypes, only to heap them back onto Kamran one by one (see also: controlling South Asian male.) Obviously, Kamran’s turn as a villain at worst, untrustworthy as best, has some disheartening cultural associations which only reinforce the prominent depiction of Muslim males in mainstream Hollywood,. That being said, I don’t want to be too disappointed just yet because I trust Wilson, so I have faith that something might be retconned to remedy this. (I’m basically hoping that Kamran was somehow set up to the be fall guy here, possibly because his own family was threatened.)
As it stands, there is still some value to be found in Kamran’s betrayal, as his actions do destabilize quite a few model minority myths (see: his encouraging Kamala to skip school, sneak out at night, and y’know, help Lineage and his crew to stage a huge coup.) Kamran’s treachery also highlights how MOC who consciously attempt to debunk model minority tropes are usually only able to do so at the expense of women (see: Fresh off the Boat chef Eddie Huang’s casual misogyny.) As Genevieve Ting asserts in her piece on Huang, allowing MOC to subvert models of minority compliance only by “sacrificing women’s rights and viewing their bodies as collateral damage” is unacceptable. This is definitely the case for Kamran/Kamala, the point about women’s bodies and women’s rights becoming especially relevant as Wilson writes some truly excellent scenes for Kamala which touch on consent, rape culture, and abuse. Kamala quickly processes Kamran’s smarminess and expresses her disgust for his behavior, simultaneously arming her young readership with knowledge about these issues after Wilson has laid plenty of groundwork to show us just how seriously Kamala was wronged.
This story arc (and the above scene in particular) also reminded me a lot of a PG version of the Surprise/Innocence storyline way back in season 2 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, another testament to how Wilson & Co are reinventing existing teen tropes to make them accessible to a younger audience. In both Buffy and Ms. Marvel, the story arc is a “game-changer” wherein our superheroine truly believes that she has found both the perfect boyfriend and the perfect ally to fight alongside her, only to discover in the worst possible way that A) she couldn’t have been more wrong and B) while she is processing a deep betrayal, she still need to somehow find the physical strength to kick this dude’s ass, just to survive.
Since Wilson never weaponizes Kamala without some kind of moral lesson (most recently see: Kamala’s concern in issue 013 over physically harming Kaboom), our heroine reclaims physical agency over the situation with Kamran while also mentally re-asserting herself; as Kamala notes: “I gave him power over me — power over what I do, power over my identity. No more.” Whether the bad guy is a longtime family friend or a baby-snatching goblin king, the realization is the same.
As for Kamran, I can only hope that he was under some kind of mind control, as it would be really great to see him have to earn back Kamala’s trust, a difficult thing considering both his actions and the gross language that he’s used to justify them. I don’t want to be a Kamran apologist, because he’s obviously turned out to be a creep, but I can’t help but wish the stakes had been lower for both Kamala and the implications of Kamran’s turn as a villain, especially since Kamala ends up being consoled by Bruno at the end of issue 15. Nonetheless, Wilson has done justice to what were no doubt difficult choices in the writer’s room, once again fusing familiar comic book tropes with teen drama to show us how the most devastating bad-guys are usually the ones who have first embiggened your heart.