Religious Representation in Pop Culture

Joseph Wiebe - 7 March 2023

Thor, Captain America, Iron Man… Kamala Khan. Writing these names next to each other reminds me of a Sesame Street song: One of things is not like the other. A hulking godman who looks like a “pirate and an angel had a baby,” the embodiment of white America bearing “America’s ass,” a billionaire playboy asserting the unquestioned triumph of STEM, and a 16-year-old Pakistani-American comic fangirl. As one might imagine, when Marvel announced Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel in 2013 there was predictable complaints from the Internet’s gutters. But that whining has been drowned out by critical praise, distinguished awards, and a Disney+ live-action series. The Marvel Cinematic Universe now features a brown teenager from New Jersey next to ripped, white dude-bros.

Truth be told, as a Marvel fan I’m as enamored with the likes of Thor as much as anyone else—I even wear my hair like him. But I was equally impressed and excited when Disney+ started advertising for their Ms. Marvel series. This wasn’t just a “token” presence. The comic book series won Hugo and American Book Awards. Both commercial success and the character’s uncompromised complexity demonstrates how Ms. Marvel’s diversity is more than window-dressing. It’s representative of real-life, modern human experience in North America for many.

G. Willow Wilson, the co-creator and original writer for the comic book series, is as unique as her superhero. She’s an American convert to Islam who writes both comics and novels. She writes for DC, Marvel, and Vertigo comics, including X-Men, Superman, and Wonder Woman. She’s written her memoir (The Butterfly Mosque) about her conversion experience and life in Egypt when she was in her 20s. Her next novel, Alif the Unseen, won awards and her most recent novel, The Bird King, received rave reviews. Like Kamala Khan, Wilson has had her share of push-back from both American and Muslim audience. She doesn’t pretend to represent more than herself and her own experience. She’s not an apologist for Islam, trying to convince prejudiced Americans that, hey, Muslims are human too. Wilson is a talented writer appealing to an audience that doesn’t subscribe to the American civil religion that dominated after 9/11. And she’s able to do that within a space male novelists have dominated.

While she addresses religious intolerance and gender politics, Wilson’s writing isn’t an education on women’s rights or Islam itself. She writes fiction not theology, comics not tracts. In Khan, for example, Wilson imagines one narrative within a particular cultural and historical context, formed through a defined genre. Readers can see themselves in this narrative more than one from another planet, another time, or another tax bracket. Other artists can be inspired to portray their own narratives. In other words, Wilson doesn’t use her platform as a mode to communicate ideas or teach people how to get Islam right. She does what good writers do: entertains.

People enjoy seeing themselves reflected in characters and their stories. Artists are energized by seeing new interpretations of traditional expressions. The significance of Kamala Khan’s portrayal of Islam in popular culture is captured in fans’ enjoyment. Wilson’s achievement isn’t boiled down to increasing “diversity” nominally or creating a new box to check. It’s rather in her approach to telling Kamala’s story as a teenager with common struggles who wrestles with her Pakistani Muslim heritage while learning how to be herself, a loyal friend, and a good family member… and a superhero. Wilson demonstrates that intimidating ideas like “diversity” and “inclusion” can be fun. Its success can be measured in the same way we judge anything else we read or watch: did you like it?

All of this isn’t to downplay the seriousness of equity or the problems of structural exclusion. Neither is it to say Wilson’s approach is the only—or even best—way to think about religious representation in popular culture. It is rather to see how the importance of presence for a marginalized or under-represented community is in its contribution to demonstrating the infinite range of human experience. Fiction, especially comics, explores that range publicly, showing us that expanding the imagination through various accounts of growing up in North America is a valued part of our cultural makeup. Seeing how a character like Kamala Khan can make a positive difference can help other authors who take their religious seriously find their voice and explore different ways to express their religious experience in popular culture.

March 20, 2023: G. Willow Wilson to visit Camrose