“Making Space in the World of Superheroes,” with Kimberly Segall
Amanda Stubbert: Welcome to the SPU Voices Podcast, where we tell personal stories with universal impact. I’m your host, Amanda Stubbert, and today we sat down with Dr. Kimberly Segall. She directs the Social Justice and Cultural Studies major here at SPU. And she’s here to talk about her new book project, Superheroes in the Streets: Public Protest in a Digital Age. She begins the book, which does tell personal stories, by talking about the newest Marvel character coming out with the newest miniseries. Kimberly, thank you so much for joining us today.
Kimberly Segall: Thank you, Amanda. It’s great to be here.
Amanda: Well, I love how your book, which looks at deep and complicated issues, actually begins with such a relatable world of Marvel comic books and all these movies and TV shows that we love to watch. Can you give us some of the history of these superheroes and how, I know a lot of that came out of World War II and gained popularity from there, let’s talk about that.
Kimberly: Thank you. Yes, some of the earliest superheroes that you think of, for instance, Captain America in the world war situations, as well as Wonder Woman came out of World War II. So Wonder Woman was a nurse, actually, on the battlefield during World War II. This is a particularly important time period, because in terms of collective memory then, there’s a certain memorialization of World War II, and still in the growing popularity that you see in many of the Marvel comics or DC comic series, you go back to either the Nazis or the Cold War time period. So in a way, there’s a sense of collective memory that is being organized around these early superheroes, but, paradoxically, there is also a critical erasure that’s happening at the same time.
“There’s a sense of collective memory that is being organized around these early superheroes, but, paradoxically, there is also a critical erasure that’s happening at the same time.”
So most of the superheroes are white superheroes, and this is during a time period in World War II, where you still have the military being segregated. And actually, after World War II, black veterans did not receive the same veteran’s package as others. And just to tell a personal story, and I think we could all do this in different ways in the States, after World War II, my grandfather, who was in the Navy, returned home and as a war veteran then, could get loans for education and housing loans. But for black Americans in this country, they were not given those same benefits. And so there was discrimination. So even as there’s a collective memory about white war heroes, there is an erasure of black war heroes and people of color war heroes, not to mention what happened for the Japanese American war heroes while their families were in concentration camps.
So there’s interesting ways in which these superheroes are both a memorialization of our history and an erasure of the structural racism. And not having a house created a huge racial equity gap, especially with the redlining and with banks, for instance, which are under the government. So it is a form of de jure, government structured racism when the banks didn’t loan money to black Americans to receive houses. So, that created a huge racial wage gap. And so the representation of largely and only white superheroes is part of that.
The other erasure that happens then with these early superheroes is the ways in which during World War II, this is actually also a time period of empire. So you’ve heard of the British Empire, where the sun never sets, right? So these countries are still being controlled, the land and the resources and the racism that existed within several continents, and then people from Morocco and all over Africa were being recruited or drafted or conscripted to fight in these world wars. So these superhero comics, also, unfortunately, had racist caricatures of these brown, mischievous people of color who were fighting for Hitler. So there’s an interesting legacy that’s happening around superheroes that is this paradox of both collective memory and racial erasure.
Amanda: It is interesting to me, I always think when you see a movie where the bad guys are Nazis, I laugh and say, well, because it’s a universal bad guy, I think most of our planet now can agree. Nazis are bad guys, right? That’s not a good worldview to fight for. And yet I think, we don’t think about how often who is our hero. We think, “Yes, we can universally be against this villain.” But we don’t think too deeply about who our hero is.
Kimberly: Right? So yeah, the sense of who the hero is, matters. And so this new Ms. Marvel comic series is extraordinary. We have a Pakistani-American hero to save us all. And so that’s just a really different nuance than we’ve had in the past.
Amanda: Yeah. And so from my understanding, even just from seeing the trailer to this new miniseries, I feel I can see her own story coming out, our author. I don’t want to pronounce her name incorrectly. Can you say the creator of Ms. Marvel for us?
Kimberly: Yes. So, Sana Amanat is the editor who first came up with this idea, but she also works with G. Willow Wilson, who is the writer of this series. Both of these women are U.S. Muslims and they co-create this, but the story, as Wilson says, is definitely based on Sana’s own experience growing up.
Amanda: Yeah. I think we all, all of us who are drawn to any superhero alternate universe, we see ourselves feeling marginalized and then our alter egos feeling powerful. And yet, I can see this new, again like you say, this new nuance of feeling marginalized in this post-9/11 world, where everyone who looks at you thinks of you as the enemy of the way that we, as my generation grew up, Nazis are bad guys, we can all just agree. And in this post-9/11 generation, they grew up in a high school where perhaps a lot of people thought, “Oh, Muslims are the enemy. They’re the bad guys.”
Kimberly: Right. And Sana Amanat gives a really interesting interview on Ted Talks. And she talks about this time period, she remembers during 9/11 and the trauma of it and feeling traumatized. And then she goes to school and this middle school white kid picks on her and says, “Hey, tell your people to stop attacking us.” And so she feels injured and attacked twice. First of all, as a U.S. citizen, having just watched the attack that happened. And then secondly, because she is attacked and accused of representing everything that is like a terrorist. And she talks about too, how she used to be invisible and then all of a sudden becomes hyper visible.
So that she feels like any representation of U.S. Muslims or Muslims in the media, it’s as if there’s a giant red X over their face, to use her language. And she feels a shattering of identity during this time period. And she says, this is the moment that she actually retreats into superheroes in order to survive. So, for her, superheroes became this way of coping during this period of alienation and the rising hate attacks and the hate speech that she experienced in middle school.
“For her, superheroes became this way of coping during this period of alienation and the rising hate attacks and the hate speech that she experienced in middle school.”
Amanda: And I feel, just as a human being, as a female, as a mom, that there’s so many times in my life where you feel misunderstood, you feel how you’re presented out in the world isn’t how you feel on the inside, which is, I think where comic books come from. They give us a way to live out who we think we really are on the inside to give us that power. How many stories are the orphan that then finds out they are the prince, or someone with power, someone with agency? Let’s talk about how this new Ms. Marvel is related to her predecessor, Captain Marvel, if people know the Marvel world.
Kimberly: Yes. Good. And you mentioned too, the ways in which empowerment happens within this series, is also a little bit different than some of the others too, because that sense of wanting to have a superhero to identify with is important. And it’s very different from being bit by a spider, versus the way in which she comes into her power. And what I love about this is the ways in which the scene that she is transformed in is really extraordinary because you have Captain Marvel there, who’s her predecessor, and I’ll talk about that in a minute, but then there’s also, Captain Marvel is speaking Urdu, not English. And it’s a mystical Sufi poet that she’s quoting about a woman who’s waiting for a beloved or waiting for a dream to happen. So it’s a really interesting juncture because often citizenship and what it means to be a hero is seen in terms of whiteness. And in this scene, you have a sense of racialized citizenship, and inclusion and belonging and hybridity, and modernity. This multiplicity that’s super exciting with them speaking Urdu to her in her scene of transformation.
But her transformation then is, she gets her wish. But what she does is she turns into the original Ms. Marvel, who was Carol Danvers. So we go from our Pakistani-American hero to this image of a blonde and this bikini-like superhero sexy suit, right? So we get this transformation, but then right afterward, she looks at herself and she’s overwhelmed. She thought that being a superhero meant to have these codes of white beauty attached to it, or sexiness or sex object attached to it. And she throws up and when she throws up, you see that it’s an incomplete metamorphosis to power. It hasn’t really happened all the way. And half of her hair turns blonde, half of it brown, one eye brown, one eye blue. And so there’s almost this splitting of identity and this crisis of identity. So it’s an incomplete metamorphosis that happens as she’s coming into power. And it’s only later when she has to help someone else, the person who’s bullied her, this white girl named Zoe, that’s always bullying her, by rescuing her she starts to more move into her own identity of helping others.
And then finally, she has a sense of moving into her power and she actually ends up borrowing a sweater from someone who is homeless on the street. And so it’s not this sexy leather Carol Danvers figure that we got going here, instead, when she has the sweater of a homeless man and identifies with the people on the street and class issues and helping others, almost as a figure of protests and interracial solidarity, does she come in as her own. So that’s really different from these glowing, romantic, sexy heroines. This is a woman who is attached to and in connection with things that are going on in the street and issues of justice that matter.
“This is a woman who is attached to and in connection with things that are going on in the street and issues of justice that matter.”
Amanda: Well, what I’m hearing, that I love about this, granted, I haven’t seen it yet, but it hasn’t come out yet. But what I love about what you’re saying is she’s finding her power, not by getting handed a key to be the opposite of who you are, she finds her power in becoming all of who she is.
Kimberly: Yes, exactly. And that sense of belonging is really key too. Because after 9/11, citizens of this country, and we’ve done this before with the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Japanese American internment camps, but after 9/11, U.S. Muslim citizens were treated as alien, right? As foreign, and so that sense of being the hero and belonging for who she is, and there’s this whole, I don’t know… Mass media often sees us as white people or American people rescuing people from Afghanistan or rescuing brown women. And in this case, it is the Pakistani-American heroine who is rescuing the white woman who is drowning. So there’s just a reversal that this is essential for who we are as a country to have interracial inclusion.
Amanda: And to have everybody be able to step into their own powers, their own agency, their own talents. I mean, isn’t that right there where we all want to be, that we get to be all of who we are, every piece of us, and even as we grow and get older, we discover that there are more and more pieces of who we are. And I think the world works best when we all get to be all of who we are. And we don’t have to pretend and push down parts of ourselves, because we just don’t think they fit into society.
Kimberly: Yeah. She definitely embraces her multiplicity in this series.
Amanda: What are her superpowers?
Kimberly: So her creator, Willow Wilson, she didn’t want her to have powers of destruction. And she also, a lot of the female white superhero women have migraines and amnesia. In fact, the first Ms. Marvel character, Carol Danvers, in the modern representation, she has amnesia because she’s taken over by the enemy and she realizes that she’s supposed to fight the terrorists in this series. And she realizes they’re actually refugees, so there’s an awakening in the Captain Marvel movie. But in the original comic series, it’s even darker than that. So the original Carol Danvers is actually, so there’s a veiled rape and amnesia that happens to her, so a really dark history.
And so she has great powers, but she doesn’t know who she is at all. Whereas Kamala Khan, Wilson wants her to have the power to become indigent. And so instead of being invisible or hyper visible as a U.S. Muslim woman, she’s able to negotiate. So sometimes she gets small and goes away. And other times she uses her words and other times she gets really big and a strong force. So she changes her sense of size, but she doesn’t destroy things, she’s not a Hulk. She negotiates in ways that are really great without those stereotypes of women with headaches or amnesia or the over-emotional Phoenix who burns out and has to be killed at the end. I mean, there’s some really horrific endings to most of our superhero females.
Amanda: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, absolutely. So there can’t be everyone that’s on her side. I’m sure there are critics to these new storylines. How are they talking about Kamala and the relationship she has with her family?
Kimberly: Yeah. And this is a little bit of a touchy subject, but let’s go for it. So a lot of the critics don’t like her father, let’s just put it out there. They see him as representing an immigrant, a stereotype of a Muslim who’s overly bearing and strict, but here’s the gig. And I’m talking as a mother here, are you ready for it? If my daughter is out until three in the morning and comes home in homeless clothing, right, and won’t tell me where she is, I am concerned. So I feel they over-read the stereotype of Muslim men into this book, or they talk about it as if you are either American or you’re Muslim, in assimilation terms that just erases the possibility of her hybridity and the way in which a U.S. Muslim woman doesn’t have to be one thing or the other. So there’s a binary that I think is really problematic.
And I talk about the ways in which the father has a lot of tender masculinities and there’s this gorgeous scene where he talks about believing in her and gives her this full-on embrace, and tells her the meaning of her name. And I think it’s just right that he’s concerned when she’s out half the night and won’t tell him what she’s up to.
Amanda: That sounds like most parents.
Kimberly: Yes, exactly, exactly.
Amanda: And I also feel that can be from critics, from society, when you’re held up as one of the only examples of anything, then there’s so much judgment and criticism when there’s many, many, many examples out there, people accept that you’re just one of the views, one of the perspectives of this person, of this character, of this archetype. But that’s our problem, when we have very few examples of certain archetypes, then we can judge them too harshly, I think, because they’re the only one we have to look at and we expect them to be all things.
Kimberly: Exactly. And so I think one of my main arguments is that superheroes with these white archetypes, which are extremely problematic, especially for women, this is an interruption of that conversation. And I think it’s interesting too, because one of the most powerful series that she has, there’s immigrant communities or those with powers are rounded up almost like it’s an ICE-like group that’s coming and actually imprisons, arrest her brother and stereotypes him. And she has to figure out what to do to help her brother and to help her family. And I think one of the most painful things is the neighbors around are the ones that turn them in.
And so most superhero genres, they bust in and they got the Wonder Woman whip or whatever, and they solve the day, but that’s not what happens in this series. So I think it’s a real interruption of how power works. So her sister-in-law, Tyesha, who is a black American Muslim, as well as Nakia, her best friend who is Turkish American. They start a protest with an interracial group of neighbors and they all take to the streets. And this is part of the historic era that we live in, where more people have taken to the streets since the civil rights movement, more than ever before in our history. And so it’s in solidarity and working with each other, that they talk about the injustices of her brother being taken without charges and placed into prison. So it’s both a documentation of history, but also that you can’t do it individually, there’s a sense of solidarity that communities have to come up beside one another.
“This is part of the historic era that we live in, where more people have taken to the streets since the civil rights movement, more than ever before in our history.”
Amanda: So you are the director of the Social Justice major here at SPU?
Amanda: And I know this book is going to be out there standing on its own, but do you teach out of this text? Do you bring this subject matter into the classroom with you?
Kimberly: I do. And I love it. So, I just love it.
Amanda: I’m sure your students do too. I mean yeah. It’s so relatable for students.
Kimberly: Yes. You get to come to college and read Ms. Marvel comic books. Okay. But seriously, so there’s a book by Nicole Fleetwood on racial icons and superheroes. And it’s all about the ways in which blackness has functioned and black resistance has functioned. And so we read this book and talk about it, and then I add my own work as an extension of it, because I think that in terms of even how we think about feminisms as a plural thing, the first wave feminist movement, we mostly imagine white feminists taking to the street to break the glass ceiling.
But unfortunately, along with that came this colonial notion that somehow white women or U.S. citizens, U.S. women were somewhat rescuing others, that was really problematic. And so we have this shift then, where we have Kamala Khan as a U.S. Muslim woman superhero. And just the ways in which she presents radical feminisms as a plurality to think through agency and histories in a new way, I think that’s a really interesting way in which I bring that into the classroom.
Amanda: Let me just help both myself and maybe some of our listeners who don’t live in the academic world, bring that down to our day-to-day vernacular, the idea that you don’t have to look like Wonder Woman, or be Wonder Woman to be a female superhero. That there are many, many ways that you can be a superhero in your own right, in your own way, that doesn’t match the only stereotype you were brought up with. Am I on the right track there?
Kimberly: Yeah, definitely. And on another level, to talk about what you’re saying, there are codes of beauty that have been inscribed within these very sexy heroines, and Wilson and Amanat are very clear that they didn’t want to, and this is their words, create this size-two superhero so that anyone could cosplay Kamala. And, so there’s ways in which they refuse some of the codes of beauty and even the ways in which she thinks she wants to be the sexy superhero and ends up in the homeless, oversized sweater.
Amanda: Yeah. But I love that. I can’t wait to see that scene. I love the idea that you get, because how many of us, maybe especially women, have had that moment where you get what you think you always wanted and the minute you get it, you realize, “This doesn’t actually fit. This isn’t really who I am.”
Kimberly: Right. And I think what’s unique about this is, although the codes of beauty are true for all women, it is very specifically then, about the ways in which U.S. Muslim women haven’t been invited to this stage in any way. And so to have this superhero come up, I mean, they just released the new, I mean, they’re releasing many new forms, there’s a video game, there’s a miniseries. There’s ways in which Ms. Marvel is being replicated. And the popular audience is just extraordinary, thinking through the ways in which people are taking a step back, “Wait a minute. These stereotypes that we’ve had of Muslimness or of brownness or of femininity need to be rethought.” And here is a superhero that brings that to the stage.
Amanda: And we should mention that your book does not begin and end with the Marvel universe and Ms. Marvel. It begins there but then you go on to tell real-life Muslim American women’s stories.
Kimberly: Yes. And that’s a really exciting part of this work too because there are grassroots movements where U.S. Muslim women are fighting for immigration rights, being part of the Black Lives Matter movement, and taking to the streets in different ways. And so I think that what it means to be a superhero then, each chapter has a different superhero in it, if you will. And that includes, too, women like Ibtihaj Muhammad, who is a black Muslim fencer for the Olympics. And so each of the chapters has really exciting portraits of U.S. Muslim women. And I see my role then, to make sure that audiences hear these amazing voices. These women have extraordinary voices and so how to amplify those and to bring more attention to these women and to make it so that we don’t have so much conditional citizenship, but more of a sense of inclusive citizenship in this country.
“These women have extraordinary voices.”
Amanda: Yeah. And I’ve heard you talk about; you don’t have to be Muslim to make space for Muslim American stories. You don’t have to be a Christian to make room for faith stories, but I’ve heard you say that as a Christian, it is our duty to make space. And I love that perspective. Do you want to talk about that for a second?
Kimberly: Sure. Well, one of my favorite black radical feminists, bell hooks, talks about this idea of radical love, right? And then also the framework of social justice, to love your neighbor as yourself, this is this impossible task, but also these critical ways in which we need to make space. And when you follow grassroots movements, you hear important core voices and leadership voices that speak of marginalization and the need for change and plan for change. So I think it’s important, yes, to yeah, to make room.
Amanda: Yeah, yeah. How can we love when we have not made room? I mean, how can you sit down next to someone and show them love, when there’s no place for them to sit beside you? I don’t know how else to say it, but I absolutely agree with that, that that is what we are all called to do, and we’re learning.
Kimberly: Yes. Making room at the table.
Amanda: Yeah, absolutely. Well, Kimberly, I have loved talking to you today. I always love talking to you and I’m so excited to hear your answer to our famous final question.
Amanda: If you could have everyone in Seattle do one thing differently tomorrow that would make the world a better place, what would you have all of us do?
Kimberly: Ooh, I like this question. I think, act locally and think structurally. I think that this idea of acting locally so that… One out of five kids in our state are hungry and we can do something about that, and we need to do something about that. Or the longest war in U.S. history, in Seattle, we need to go to the airport to bring in recent immigrants from Afghanistan to Seattle, that’s acting locally. But at the same time, we need to think structurally about changing structures that are, why aren’t people getting enough food? And that shouldn’t just be a private matter, that should be a restructuring of policy. So that combination of ethical action and listening to others in our home city, which even the academy, sometimes we get into what some critics have called academic silos, without listening to the grassroots movements around us and the voices around us as we act. But then also to step back and think about restructuring the racialization and the problems of our society.
Amanda: Well, thank you so much. I think you have given us so much to think about, I think this is one of the episodes I’m going to listen to several times myself. Remember that Superheroes in the Streets: Public Protest in a Digital Age by Dr. Kimberly Segall, go check it out. Kimberly, thank you so much for joining us today.
Kimberly: Thank you, Amanda.