Calm go the wild seas

Questionable superhero casting, book updates, and a cat pic

Hello, all! Hope you’ve been well. Welcome to the all-new, all-different Type Slowly. I got sick of the old format, so I’m mixing it up. Although the newsletter will still feature some updates on my life and work, I’ve decided that I want the main character for each issue to be someone else.

I’m responding to a terrible fact of the contemporary media ecosystem: there are virtually no opportunities for novice writers to get their writing published in a sizable, non-terrible venue these days. With all the slashed budgets and decimated newsrooms, it’s extremely hard to get a foot in the door. I can’t fix that state of affairs on my own at a structural level, but I realized that I can help cast at least a little light into the darkness. I’m lucky enough that I’ve built a small following and have a platform that I get to use when I have something I want to say. So why not share that following and platform a little? I never would have made it in the media industry if not for people taking chances on me, so I see it as just keeping the cycle going.

And so, for the foreseeable future, the bulk of each newsletter will consist of an original essay on some topic or another, written by someone you’ve almost certainly never heard of. The idea originated in a Twitter thread where I promised that the criteria would be that writers have to (a) have been on Twitter for more than five years and (b) have fewer than 1,000 followers, so those are still the criteria because I’m a man of my word. The writers will be paid, rest assured.

If you’d like to enter the running to write an essay, please send me a pitch through the contact form on my website, with “PITCH” at the beginning of the subject line and your Twitter handle in the body, alongside a short description of what you want to write. Preference will be given to unpublished writers and people from marginalized groups. Don’t be insulted if I don’t get back to you, as I won’t have time to respond to every message.

The inaugural essay in this series comes from a woman named Fatima, whom I met on Twitter, where she tweets under the handle @FatimaComics. It’s a piece about her frustrations over the casting decisions made by Marvel Studios while putting together the upcoming Disney+ series Ms. Marvel. (Standard disclaimer: the views of the authors of these essays do not necessarily reflect the views of yours truly, although I don’t plan on publishing anything I find reprehensible just for the sake of objective balance or whatever.) I hope you find it illuminating.

Before that, a quick rundown of what’s going on with me. As the True Believer release date of Feb. 16 approaches, I’ve been focusing on promotion and marketing for the book, which has turned out to be almost a full-time job in and of itself. Printed copies of the book finally arrived a few days ago and Forbes ran a rave review, which was nice of them. Stay tuned for more media coverage in the coming weeks. If you haven’t preordered already, what the hell are you waiting for? Also, I’m recapping WandaVision for Vulture, so check that out, too.

A quick cat-and-book pic:

And now, without further ado, Fatima’s essay:

***

The past year has, hands down, been one of the bleakest of my life. One of my few escapes has been comic books — specifically, the new Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan. As a Pakistani-American dork, I adored her, saw a lot of myself in her, and eagerly kept my eyes peeled for any news or information about her upcoming Disney+ show while running a fan account on Twitter. 

On September 30th, the day that Deadline announced Pakistani-Canadian teen Iman Vellani had been cast as Kamala Khan, I felt ecstatic and hopeful. I expected as much care to be taken  regarding finding appropriate actors for Kamala’s supporting cast. But my friends within the fandom (who are mostly young South Asian and/or Muslim women and girls) were skeptical because of Marvel’s radio silence on the matter. On December 10th, Marvel officially released the full cast list for the show — and, unfortunately, my friends were right. 

Learning that Yasmeen Fletcher will play Nakia Bahadir, Kamala’s best friend, has been the biggest punch in the gut so far. As the only other Muslim teenage girl in the comic, Nakia is a mirror for all of my friends who couldn’t fully see themselves represented in Kamala. Nakia is Middle Eastern (Turkish), while Kamala is South Asian (Pakistani). Nakia is stylish and feminine, while Kamala is much more tomboyish. Nakia chooses to wear a hijab, while Kamala doesn’t. The very first issue of Ms. Marvel establishes that she’s much more confident in her Muslim-ness than Kamala, who must first overcome her desire to fit in with her non-Muslim classmates. When Kamala finally does accept herself, various authority figures try to take advantage of her power, image, and overly trusting disposition. Time and time again, it’s Nakia who’s not afraid to call them out. 

Before rumors of Fletcher’s casting started, fans of Nakia were anxious to find out who would play her. One of my friends, a Somali hijabi actress, had been looking for casting calls so her Turkish hijabi neighbor could audition for this role. I know that another younger fan, a dark-skinned Kurdish-German girl, was hoping that Nakia would not be lightwashed (her skin tone has always been lighter than Kamala’s, but still brown), so that she could see an actress who looked like her in mainstream media. 

Fletcher, a Disney Channel alum, is of Lebanese descent (per her mother’s Instagram page), Christian, and has lighter skin than Nakia has had in the comics. I don’t want to disparage her for taking the role, or insinuate that she’s not talented. But my friends and I are upset with Ms. Marvel’s producers and casting directors for this decision, on two counts. 

When Fletcher portrays Nakia in the series, she can treat her hijab as another part of her costume. But hijabis, or Muslim women who cover their hair for religious purposes, can’t treat it that way. As a result, if they want to become actresses, they are boxed into a limited number of roles. If casting directors continually opt for non-hijabi actresses to play hijabi roles, then there won’t be any opportunities left for them. 

Casting hijabi actresses to play hijabi characters, while not mainstream, is hardly unprecedented. Most recently, Kosar Ali was cast in the 2020 British indie film, Rocks, and Iman Meskini has played the iconic Sana in Norweigien teen drama Skam. Both actresses were discovered through open calls. If the Ms. Marvel casting directors had done the same for Nakia, they could’ve further normalized casting hijabi women. At the very least, they could’ve cast someone who could connect with Nakia through her Muslim faith and Turkish heritage, following the precedent they had set with the casting of Vellani as Kamala. 

Then, there’s the issue of colorism, or discrimination against darker-skinned people within a non-white community. When characters of color are adapted in live-action film or television, actors who are fair-skinned and even white-passing often portray them, regardless of how the source material describes or depicts them. Media from all over the world can perpetuate colorism, upholding Eurocentric beauty standards that influence the way darker-skinned people are treated — including media produced by people of color, as is the case with Bollywood films. 

Unfortunately, colorism is a problem across multiple castings in Ms. Marvel. It’s especially glaring through the casting of Aramis Knight — who is an American of Pakistani, Indian, and European descent — as the character Kareem. 

In the comics, Kareem is a Pakistani national who protects the city of Karachi under his vigilante identity, Laal Khanjeer (or Red Dagger in English). Kamala meets him when visiting her extended family abroad in Ms. Marvel (2015), issue #12. Within 22 pages, Kareem challenges Kamala’s perspective — and the status quo of the mainstream American superhero genre — in a very important way. In the age of Iron Man flying into foreign countries to “fix” the problems he caused by firing missiles at them, Laal Khanjeer proposes that American superheroes don’t always know what’s best for the rest of the world. 

As a kind and charismatic love interest to Kamala, Kareem subverts stereotypes about South Asian men, who are usually either portrayed as emasculated I.T. nerds (think Raj from The Big Bang Theory), or patriarchal extremists who abuse the women in their lives. Prior to Kareem’s introduction in the comics, Ms. Marvel came under fire for perpetuating the latter stereotype with the character of Kamran, a Pakistani-American metahuman who kidnaps and attempts to emotionally manipulate Kamala into joining his superpowered extremist group. 

Kamran and Kareem are the only two desi boys who are peers to Kamala in the comics, and they’re both her love interests. Introducing both characters in the same season could’ve helped mitigate the stereotypes perpetuated by Kamran — that is, if more thought was put into their casting. 

Rish Shah, a British Asian actor, is confirmed to be playing Kamran in the show. In comparison to Shah, Knight (being mixed white and South Asian) is much lighter-skinned. These two castings feel like a continuation of a stereotype perpetuated by both Hollywood and Bollywood since their conceptions: that dark skin is a visual indicator for “bad” and “evil,” while light skin is inherently “good.”

Knight may not have known what his character’s arc would be before he auditioned and accepted his role, but Ms. Marvel’s producers and casting directors did. They were also able to find talent from Pakistan’s own film industry for its cast and crew, including director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and actress Nimra Bucha. It feels odd that, in the fifth-most populous country in the world, they weren’t able to find one young man who could bring Laal Khanjeer to life.

It also feels odd that they weren’t able to find Pakistani actors to play Kamala’s parents, Yusuf and Muneeba Khan. In the series, they will be portrayed by Mohan Kapur and The Big Sick’s Zenobia Shroff, who are both non-Muslim Indians (Shroff is also much fairer than Mrs. Khan in the comics). 

When I told my mother about these castings, she grimaced and said, “They just think we’re the same.” She has no attachment to Marvel or Ms. Marvel, but she is a Pakistani immigrant. Some have dismissed criticisms of these castings on the same grounds that she alluded to — that India and Pakistan were  “the same country” less than a century ago. But in my opinion, the partition’s recency makes casting Pakistanis as Kamala’s parents even more important, as its wounds are still fresh in both countries’ collective consciousness. 

It’s not as though the producers or casting directors had no idea where to look. There’s a brown-skinned, middle-aged Pakistani woman in the show’s own goddamned cast — but she’s playing an undisclosed original character. Given the size of Pakistan and the fact that Ms. Marvel has cast and crew members from its film industry, I don’t understand why an actress like Nimra Bucha was not cast as Muneeba Khan instead of Shroff, other than the fact that Shroff is already a familiar face for American audiences because of her role in The Big Sick, and an actress like Bucha would be foreign — therefore, not as worthy of being a main character who’s guaranteed to come back if/when the series is renewed for a second season. 

When a young actress of Pakistani heritage couldn’t be found for the role of Kamala Khan, the producers and casting directors of Ms. Marvel conducted an open casting call, and discovered an unknown talent in Iman Vellani. For the rest of her career, Vellani will be a voice for Pakistanis and Muslims in mainstream Hollywood — and hopefully, one of many. The castings of Kamala Khan’s parents could’ve added to those voices. The casting of Kareem could’ve opened a door to international recognition for a young actor from Pakistan that had previously been welded shut. The casting of Nakia could’ve been groundbreaking for a whole group of Muslim women who did not even think that they could become actresses. At the very least, it could’ve given a Muslim girl of Turkish heritage the same Cinderella story as Vellani’s. 

But now, those opportunities are forever lost. Until the MCU reboots (and who knows if it ever will), these will likely be the versions of Nakia, Kareem, and Mr. & Mrs. Khan that most audiences will come to know. While my friends and I are far from the first comic book fans to be disappointed by casting news, I hope that you can still empathize with us, and understand why this particular instance is different. And if you happen to be playing one of these characters, I hope that you never shy away from mentioning and uplifting the people that they represent, just because they have experiences that you don’t share and still won’t share after you portray them on-screen to millions of people. Those experiences are what made your character special. 

If you happen to be one of the people who made these casting decisions, I hope that you feel bad about them. If you’re a white casting director, perhaps you can blame your own ignorance about these issues — but if you’re a brown executive producer, you really can’t. For months, many fans, including myself, took your involvement in the series as reassurance that care would be put into casting characters who reflect us, our friends, and our families — people who are rarely, if ever, respectfully portrayed in mainstream media. You let us down, hard, and your continued silence about the casting issues leaves many of us with the impression that you simply don’t care. 

Please have more sensitivity the next time you’re casting characters of color, and please know that people will probably continue to criticize your decisions after the show actually comes out.

And if you happen to be a producer or casting director for HBO Max’s upcoming Green Lanterns series, and you’re looking for actors to play Simon Baz and his family, I hope you’re taking notes.  Baz has been the first Muslim and Middle Eastern (Lebanese-American) superhero to take center stage in DC Comics, and will be the first one in the DC cinematic universe. His sister and mother will be first named characters in that universe who wear the hijab. Their arrival to live action could prove to be even more groundbreaking than Ms. Marvel’s, if some care is put into their casting. Fingers crossed.