Disney’s Ms. Marvel just hit the company’s streaming service this month, and the promotional machine for the series touted its “positive representation” of Southeast Asian Islamic culture. I put positive representation in quotes because, as a Muslim, the show seems fairly light on “representation” beyond the surface level. And while the show is decently congruent to how Marvel “represents” Islamic culture through Kamala Khan in the comics, I still feel like the entire series is cynically pandering to a demographic without truly presenting a show from their worldview.
Let me expound on my point for those who have seen the show. Sure, a lot of characters say “bismillah” and “astaghfirullah” in Ms. Marvel, but the show continues the trope of Muslim American characters that bemoan their faith because it prevents them from enjoying the modern wonders of Western culture. The trope of Muslim women in Western media who pine for the freedom of their peers has become so widespread that it’s a joke in the Muslim community. Normally, Muslim women in Western media take off their hijabs to symbolize an enlightened and post-Islamic worldview, but Disney and Marvel cut to the chase by not even giving Kamala a hijab in the first place.
Muslims aren’t a monolith, so I can’t speak for everyone. Moreover, as a Black convert to Islam, I can’t even vouch for the Southeast Asians born into the Islamic faith that the show claims to champion. The Southeast Asian element of the show might be accurate for all I know. My only entry point into that specific culture is through my fiancée — a Southeast Asian Muslim woman -— but, again, Muslims aren’t a monolith.
My staunch reservations around the depiction of Southeast Asian culture in Ms. Marvel are based on the fact that Disney deals in this tepid representation style far too often. Raya and the Last Dragon, which amalgamated various Southeast Asian cultures into a disjointed hodgepodge of cultural references devoid of significance, came under fire from the very community it tried to pander to — I mean, represent.
In the video linked here, the YouTube channel Accented Cinema — hosted by an Asian film critic — delineates why Raya and the Last Dragon feels so inauthentic to many Asian fans, whereas films like The Last Dragon and Big Trouble in Little China feel like loving homages to the culture.