Marvel Rising at New York Comic Con 2018 had a single theme: empower girls, diverse representations of girls, to make content that creates a better future for girls.
If that didn’t grab your attention, I’m not entirely sure what will. Every response to every question came back to this message: we want to empower girls as leaders.
If a secondary messaging came out, it was that Marvel Rising seeks to create impactful and important messages to inspire the next generation.
Why Marvel Rising Matters
During the roundtables, executive producer Cort Lane explained, “I think for both of us it’s not just a new generation of fans, it’s the messages understand from the content, and then they communicated back to you Like when you’re watching girls watch it, and then they say afterward ‘it made me feel powerful. You say I could retire know that I made some sort of difference.”
I could argue that social awareness is an excellent marketing strategy these days. But listening to Amanat continue the discussion started bringing my cynical self around.
Amanat, Kamala Khan’s co-creator, followed up by explaining, “I think it’s so important to make sure that we have stories particularly like in pop culture that are inspiring and positive and challenging young generation, the next generation, to take in those ideals for themselves. Yeah, you can kick butt, but can you make sure that you give your friend a second chance? Can you make sure that you get to know someone that you don’t understand or may not like? That’s the stuff that we need to start integrating over the kicking of the butts, which we do really well, but we also love really well. That’s a really big message for the show.”
In a world where kindness often takes a backseat to winning, perhaps this message is more necessary than we realize. Polarized beliefs and hatred abound in the world. As the generation that began learning new ways of thinking, seeking out representations of that from my childhood is difficult.
Do I want better for my kid? Heck yes.
After all, as I’ve written in the past, there’s a lack of kind, intelligent characters on television.
Why Nothing About Marvel Rising Is Accidental
I’m the most callous writer on the planet. However, sitting down with Executive Producers Sana Amanat and Cort Lane might have softened even my hardest of hearts.
I love America Chavez. Nothing excited me more when watching Marvel Rising: Secret Warriors than seeing a Latinx queer character at the forefront. She’s amazing, strong, and snarky. When asked about how they chose the characters, Lane explained that most of the choices arose from female fans – mothers and daughters:
We always believe that the Marvel universe is about relatable characters who live in the real world, outside your window and that includes all kinds of people. That being said, in the program, we didn’t to be prescriptive; we didn’t want to check boxes. We had lots of conversations with girls and moms. We had a lot of characters that were popular in publishing. We started with that. Then we listened to people who were saying, ‘yeah I like that. Because I want to see her story. I like those various qualities about her.’ And in that help congeal a direction around this, out of not who they are in terms of race, religion or background but how they act with each other. They wanted to see America be tough because of her sad backstory. Then they wanted to see her play off Kamala and off of Doreen’s crazy positivity and see her soften. That’s something that they asked for.
That’s a lot of the reasons we have this wonderful new set of characters.
For those of us Marvel fans bemoaning the loss of favorite female characters, we can rejoice that there are people listening to us. And listening well.
Why Marvel Rising: Secret Warriors Focuses on Friendship
If you read the Marvel Rising comics series and then watch the show, you’re going to notice one huge change: Doreen (Squirrel Girl) is a teenager in the show, not an adult. This change reinforces not only the messages of kindness but also the ones about growing together.
When we were drafting the message of Marvel Rising, we also realized that the center point of the story was going to be for Doreen and Kamala because their friendship is so reflective of what I think a lot of young friendships are but also so endearing and so true. Of course, their journey is very much an extension Kamala’s journey about her struggle to figure out who she is, her identity struggle to try to stop comparing herself to these ideals that look nothing like her nor should they. She should try to find a way to cultivate that unique power. That’s really what her story was about, and I think it really is reflected in all the other heroes and they’re all sort of strange. They don’t have the shiny pretty high-tech power that Iron Man and Captain Marvel have. They’ve got brown stretchy skin and a bushy tail. Who’s going to take them seriously? The story is about them taking themselves seriously first and you get stronger when you actually realize your power might be different but it’s yours. It’s amazing, and if you grow them, you grow together, you will only go into great things.
This focus for Kamala, and extrapolated to Ms. Marvel readers, is one that existed from the start. Amanat stated in a Vogue interview that a lot of Kamala is about cultivating one’s power. However, in the new Marvel Rising series, the writers further this by creating a message about the importance of interconnectedness and community for finding your identity.
When asked about the age shift for Doreen, the character’s voice actress Milana Vayntrub explained, “I really would love to teach young girls that women are not their competition and that we are in this together. When they’re peers, I feel like it’s easier for kids to pick up on that. So I think it’s powerful that they’re the same age and that their buddies with each other without any kind of hierarchy.”
Even more critical in a world where white women often ignore the inherent racism in feminist movements, the first episode that highlights this disconnect acts as a starting point. In Secret Warriors, Doreen disregards Kamala’s concern for Dante then accidentally insults Inhumans, hurting and angering Kamala. Placing Inhuman as a metaphor for race, Doreen’s apology at the end becomes even more critical.
Women working together rather than ignoring the differences in their marginalization, and white women explicitly acknowledging the additional struggles that Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian women face is an essential message for furthering all women, not just the privileged ones.
How the Show Embraces Diversity and Inclusion
It’s all well and good to discuss both diversity and inclusion. However, attaining both simultaneously takes a lot of work. We can put out media that has a variety of identities. We can also put out works where people include a range of identities. However, finding a way to integrate the two seamlessly takes a lot of work. A lot of work. In fact, many of us struggle to do that in our daily lives, so it’s important to acknowledge a popular media production that not only attempts this but accomplishes it.
Throughout the interviews, cast and writers spoke endlessly of not only creating a diverse set of characters but of the team dynamic’s importance to growing all of the characters.
Kat Khavari, who voices Kamala Khan, explained,
I think everyone is hungry for — to see all these girls and the diversity. Ms. Marvel is a Pakistani girl from New Jersey, and that’s not a common thing to see whether it’s animation or not. People will appreciate the direction that our program is going, especially because I think it’s one thing important for the next generation. When you start to see diversity as something to be celebrated rather than something to be feared or judged, that’s the direction society needs to be going in. That’s what Marvel’s done well.
Moreover, when asked about Kamala being “more than” a box to be checked on the diversity list, she got even more excited,
I think actually that’s really important because as a child of immigrants myself so often the conversation always has to go back to where did your parents come from and people want to define you by that one thing. No one’s identity can be defined by one trait, and I think it’s actually extremely important to show what someone’s identity is made up of. It’s not where your parents come from necessarily. That’s part of it, but that’s not everything. I actually think they do a great job. We do get to see her family; we do get to see her relationship with her family. But we also get to see what her life is like outside of that. We get to see her relationship with Squirrel Girl and who she is as a hero as it has a new hero and I actually think that programming that has diverse characters needs to do it in that way where you are showing different facets not just this one thing that you often want to be the defining characteristic.
Kamala stands for racial and religious diversity, but she’s also the ultimate geek heroine. Geeky females remain marginalized within geek culture. For this reason, Kamala is vital since, as Khavani notes, “Kamala’s always geeking out. She is the geek hero. She’s always so juiced and excited and ready to do this and really really wants to live up to her heroes. All these other heroes have been her heroes, and she’s trying to live up to those expectations, and I think because she such a super fan of other heroes that kind of makes her the ultimate geek hero. She’s kind of amazing in that sense.”
How Marvel Rising Represents a New Masculinity
Empowering women also means empowering men to embrace a different type of masculinity. We live in a world where men maintain a patriarchal hierarchical position over women socially, politically, and economically. However, despite women asking for better from men, it’s hard to change when traditional notions of toxic masculinity steeped in emotional repression remain pervasive in society.
Empowering women and moving away from the inculcated rape culture requires teaching young boys better ways to view themselves, as well as the women around them.
Speaking with Tyler Posey (Dante/Inferno) and Khamil McFadden (Rayshaun Lucas/Patriot) showed Marvel’s commitment to changing the way children perceive themselves and their world.
I feel like the way Marvel has handled my character as far as his masculinity is it ties into the theme of female empowerment. You don’t see him having feelings about taking orders from Quake. That’s his partner, but he knows that she is leader of the team. I think just the way he talks to any of the female characters and the way that they interact, that is the insight into how comfortable he is with his masculinity. Just being OK with not taking the lead. He’s the right-hand man, the second. He enjoys that job. I think that’s important for young kids to see. A project like this with huge female empowerment, for young boys especially, seeing the strong female lead and not being intimidated by it. Realizing that your role model can be a strong female and being ok with that.
When asked about how Patriot’s relationship with the erstwhile Dante will help further this representation, McFadden continued,
I believe there are similarities between inferno and Patriot. They’re both super chill laid-back, so I think what will be explored moving forward is the growth. They’re the only two males in the team it’ll just kind a happen residually being around each other. You get to learn a lot about a person they’re open up to each other and I just think the setting that they’re in, being surrounded by so many females, is going to have them not even think about having that toxic masculinity. They’ll be able to say what they feel because they see that, they’re allowed that. Everybody says what’s on their minds. They say what they feel, and you know sometimes they’re vulnerable. That is one of the things that I am pretty sure, and I hope to see, — them just be OK with being vulnerable.
However, Posey nailed the problem on the head more succinctly. As a sports mom whose child does soccer and has played football, Posey explained,
Inferno is a really interesting character. He’s obviously a very hotheaded kid. but you know he’s he’s hot, and he’s got some deep-seated issues. It all comes out like this very surface, angsty kid, ‘I’m just mad teenager.’ It’s not just that. You’ve got to kind of figure out where he came from, this kind of a picture of why he’s like this. At the same time, even though he’s kind of a hothead is really vulnerable. I think that kids, guys, dudes, little boys can take something from that and be like you know it’s ok to be vulnerable. You know how in football, coaches say, ” boys don’t cry!’ But that’s wrong, you should say, ‘it’s ok to cry now get them back on the field!’ It’s kind of what Dante embodies. He’s a hothead because of his past, but he’s kind of vulnerable, and he’s becoming OK with that. You see that bros and a lot of little boys can take something from that. They’re all a team. The guys listen to the girls more than anybody and recognize that they’re the smart ones. I think that will prove to anyone watching the show, like young boys, fuck that macho shit. We’re all the same.
What Did I Learn About Marvel Rising: Secret Warriors?
I learned to love it more than I did before. It’s purposeful. It’s meaningful. And lord, yes, f— that macho sh*t. Because, whether you’re gender fluid or just a genuinely kind male, that is one of the things getting in the way of gender equality.
Marvel Rising rises above other children’s shows giving us the representation all kids need – girls and boys – so that the next generation can be better than ours.