By Eissa Saeed, @senoreissa
Here’s a fun exercise: name one film or TV show that has a Muslim desi female character as the lead. I’ll wait.
That might be about to change - last month, Kevin Feige confirmed to BBC that Marvel Studios is developing a film adaptation of Ms. Marvel, the alter-ego of Kamala Khan, a Muslim Pakistani-American teenager from Jersey City, New Jersey. Three days later, everyone’s favorite actor-rapper-Kristen Bell’s perennial crush Riz Ahmed took to Twitter to throw his hat in the ring to pen the film along with two staple Hollywood staples Mindy Kaling and Kumail Nanjiani.
— Riz Ahmed (@rizmc) May 16, 2021
While Kaling and the creative team behind the Kamala’s Ms. Marvel all got behind the idea, Ahmed volunteering his brown super-group also received a slew of criticism, which it deserves. First of all, the fact that Ahmed thinks Nanjiani would be a good fit for a project featuring a female desi lead is telling of how out of touch the suggestion is. (The Big Sick didn’t just erase desi women from the narrative but also pandered to white sensibilities by reinforcing stereotypes about Muslim immigrant families.) And while Kaling is a significant step up from Nanjiani, none of these three people, regardless of their talent, have perspectives that would produce a real, nuanced representation of the female Muslim-American experience.
Ms. Marvel could be a pivotal moment for desi representation in the mainstream and that’s exactly why desi men should not be involved in it. Suggesting that a desi man would be well-equipped to capture the nuances of the female experience of living in a system that he benefits from is not just absurd, it perpetuates power structures that dictate who gets to tell their story and how.
Ahmed’s suggestion is in sharp contradiction to his otherwise informed perspective on representation – he spoke before the British parliament in March 2017, saying: “What people are looking for is the message that they… are seen and heard and that despite, or perhaps because of, the uniqueness of their experience, they are valued. They want to feel represented.”
And that’s exactly the point the here – it is time for desi Muslim women to have their moment. By nominating himself and two other popular brown folks who don’t fit the bill, Ahmed effectively attempted to usurp a rare opportunity for female desi Muslim screenwriters to write a big budget film regardless of whether that was his intent. Atypical showrunner Robia Rashid would be a great fit for this gig, so would queer writer and actor Fawzia Mirza. There certainly isn’t a shortage of capable female desi screenwriters.
To be fair, Ahmed followed up his tweet a few hours later, possibly owing to the backlash, with this:
— Riz Ahmed (@rizmc) May 16, 2021
It’s entirely possible that working with the creative team behind the comic books could result in a decent film – Hassan Minhaj is slated to contribute a storyline to Ms. Marvel’s 50th Issue – but the stakes are higher for a film adaptation that is going to reach a significantly larger audience.
The number of people who lauded Riz’s tweet is reflective of a glaring blind spot in our understanding of representation, which only encourages Hollywood’s tendency to homogenize ethnic groups and become complacent despite its commitment to inclusion and diversity. Now that Riz has an Emmy and Mindy is part of star-studded movie ensembles, it’s easy to believe that we’re living in the golden age of representation. But it’s equally as easy to forget that there is a whole lot of variance within the desi community, much of which has not made it onto our screens yet.
If we want to enrich the culture with truthful narratives about desi life, established artists have to create opportunities for lesser-known artists instead of taking them away. This is an opportunity for us, as a community, to demand that female desi Muslim screenwriters are not just considered but championed to write the Ms. Marvel adaptation.
The problem of gender parity is a structural one – Marvel has released 19 films over the last decade, out of which only one film was co-written by a woman; none have had a female director at the helm. Onscreen female representation doesn’t fare any better, female characters have racked up about 40 percent of runtime over 19 films. The Brie Larson-starring Captain Marvel, due out early next year, is set to change course for the studio – it’s the first female-led film from the studio and not only boasts a number of female writers but also a female co-director.
Film studios can no longer excuse the lack of appropriate representation with low-profit margins. Earlier this year, we saw the impact Black Panther had - it set a standard for representation done right. When studios hire creative teams that are representative of the story, the product is going to have gravity and truth to it, as a result of which, audiences show up.
We are living through a cultural renaissance that is forcing studio executives and decision-makers to move towards diversity and gender parity in response to important conversations that are happening. But these changes mean little if folks don’t take on the responsibility to step aside from opportunities that are not theirs to take.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said that Kamala Khan is from New York when she has is actually from New Jersey. This version has been corrected.
Eissa is a playwright and a media strategist whose work merges communication tactics and performance to create narratives that challenge sociopolitical ideas. In 2017, he wrote “Home Sick,” a play that explores how Muslim-American communities deal with questions of sexuality and being American. Eissa holds a BA from Bennington College and an MA from the George Washington University.