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Diversity Triumphs as Muslim Woman Suits Up in Latest Marvel Video Game

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Kamala Khan bursts onto the screens in Marvel’s latest installment, “Marvel’s Avengers,” as the teen superhero, Ms. Marvel. Her inclusion into the ranks of Marvel’s premier superhero group marks a new chapter in the history of diversity as a Muslim woman headlines a AAA video game.

The meeting of Marvel with successful video game developers, Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics, brought forth lofty expectations for the new game. The development team behind Marvel’s Avengers sought to create a deep, story-driven experience about the titular team without retreading familiar ground from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As a result, they came to a stunning conclusion: a woman named Kamala Khan. 

Ms. Marvel is a vibrant, Muslim superhero of Pakistani descent. Gifted with amazing powers of elasticity, Kamala can contort, stretch, and elongate any part of her body. This unique ability makes for an extremely flexible character. While carrying the emotional weight of the story,  Ms. Marvel’s unique, hero-like abilities make the gaming experience all the more thrilling 

Players will experience the game vicariously through Kamala. The fledgling hero journeys through peril, danger, and hijinks, as she ventures desperately to reassemble everyone’s favorite super team.

Shaun Escayg, the creative director behind “Marvel’s Avengers,” had positive remarks about the heroine’s new arrival to the gaming world, “She’s the glue, the conduit that is drawing all these characters in.” Escayg further explains that featuring Kamala’s evolution from a humble fan of superheroes to a full-time avenger was always the goal of the company.

The decision to allow a Muslim woman to carry a blockbuster game was certainly an uncommon one. The Avengers brand practically guaranteed this game would sell well, so the decision to potentially jeopardize that in order to buck the trend of traditional superhero stories is truly astonishing.

Audiences have grown accustomed to seeing one predominant demographic represented in the superhero genre. What do Iron Man, Hulk, and Thor have in common with their rivals, Superman and Batman? They are all white men. Women and people of color are rarely given the chance to shine in the spotlight of a massive franchise. The Avengers brand decided that it was just about time to break that mold.

One of the reasons to celebrate the release of the project is that it took huge risks. The creators gambled on a relatively unknown character and rewarded audiences with a story that has never been told before.

Players can experience a well-known, action-packed story while simultaneously getting a fresh new perspective on the successful superhero format. Featuring a Muslim woman as the lead, playable character truly exemplifies how the game champions diversity.

Debuting as a comic book character in 2014 before earning her own solo title the following year, Ms. Marvel is indeed no stranger to being the star of a franchise. The series, “Ms. Marvel,” received critical acclaim upon its release, with many citing Kamala’s personal struggles as a Muslim woman fighting to fit into a world dominated by white men as the highlight of the book.

Similar to her role in the groundbreaking comic series, Ms. Marvel embraces her heritage in the new game, modeling her crime-fighting outfit after a traditional Muslim swimming outfit called a burkini.

Zoomed in on an Xbox controller, featuring the green A button, red B, yellow Y, and blue X.
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G. Willow Wilson, the writer behind Kamala’s comic series dissects how the young character upends her readers’ anticipations. “Everybody’s expecting Ms. Marvel,” referring to the blonde woman that previously used that moniker. “A real superhero. With perfect hair and big boots. Not Kamala from Jersey City.” 

Hopefully, this won’t be seen simply as a check in the so-called diversity requirement box for a massive video game publisher—but rather, indicative of superhero stories growing more inclusive. There is a larger audience for superheroes than ever before. With that larger audience comes an appetite for a wider array of stories and characters. 

Marvel, after noticing Kamala Kahn’s rising popularity and increased profitability, recently greenlit a live-action television series starring the Pakistani teen. The creative heads behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe also hinted at the strong possibility of a future film featuring Kamala is on the horizon. 

Marvel certainly seems poised to diversify its costumed heroes on screen. Upcoming projects for the company include a Spider-Man game featuring Miles Morales in lieu of Peter Parker, a female version of Thor starring in an upcoming movie, and of course, the big plans for Ms. Marvel as well.

The game, “Marvel’s Avengers” has been met with mostly positive reviews. While critics can look forward to a steady stream of content headed to the game to patch its flaws, the character-driven story content anchored by Kamala Kahn garnered near-universal praise and requires no such fixing.

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A New Home for Asian American Representation in Film

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Kelly Marie Tran on MTV International.
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After the onslaught of negative reactions to Mulan (2020), Disney’s recent film announcements offer new hope for Asian representation in the entertainment industry. From Raya and the Last Dragon to Shang-Chi: The Legend of the Ten Rings, Disney has opened up a larger space for Asian Americans to shine, but can they do it right this time? Here are a few movies that offer a new home for Asian American representation in film. 

Mulan in Crisis 

Over quarantine, Disney+ users dreamed about the promise of greater authenticity and Chinese representation in the live-action of Mulan. The film had an aggressive campaign of staying true to the original ballad of Mulan, and established a more serious approach than its animated companion. 

Soon after its release, however, audiences were sorely met with lackluster characterization and collapsing themes of Asian female empowerment. In addition to the outrage concerning main actress Yifei Liu’s support of Hong Kong police, Mulan (2020) suffered from its generalization of Chinese history and glorification of outdated values. 

An overwhelming backlash, in this case, was inevitable. The Asian American community responded with a plethora of media criticizing Disney’s failures with Mulan

As Disney enters a new era in the streaming industry, however, there has been some hope for growth in its relationship with Asian representation. 

Disney Plus on all platforms.
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Raya the First 

Though some have pointed out its stylistic similarity to Avatar: The Last Airbender, many others have applauded Raya and the Last Dragon for its introduction of Southeast Asian representation into the animated sphere. The new film portrays Raya, a fictional Southeast Asian warrior princess, who must search for the last dragon in order to save her world. 

Throughout its trailer, Raya and the Last Dragon hints at a variety of Southeast Asian cultures. Producers have claimed inspiration from countries such as Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam and others, but many viewers have recognized the film’s direct representation of Filipino design and culture.

While the ability to openly point out such specific cultural moments paves an optimistic path, another question arises in Disney’s choice for a film that works to “blend Southeast Asian cultures” rather a distinct country. This particularly speaks to the ways in which Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander communities are too often consolidated as one culture. Whereas films like Mulan enjoy the cultural specificity of being Chinese, Moana and now Raya and the Last Dragon must settle for a more generic representation of being “Southeast Asian” or “Pacific Islander”, as opposed to Filipino or Tongan. 

2019 Hong Kong anti-extradition law protest with an ambulance driving through a crowd of people.
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This also comes with the replacement of half-Filipina Cassie Steele with Vietnamese Kelly Marie Tran. While Raya and the Last Dragon has been largely recognized for its distinctive Filipino references, the film continues to largely err on the side of mixing (and potentially confusing) a variety of Southeast Asian creatives. 

In the midst of such a struggle, however, Raya and the Last Dragon nevertheless represents the beginning of Southeast Asian involvement in the film industry, with hopes for more to come. 

Shang-Chi and the Legend of Yellow Peril 

Marvel’s latest Shang-Chi: The Legend of the Ten Rings also provides a new avenue for Asian representation, especially in the superhero realm. 

Simu Liu, set to play Shang-Chi, has been a longtime favorite in the Asian American film industry. From acting in short films with Wong Fu Productions to playing the sweet but arrogant Jung on Kim’s Convenience, Liu is a familiar face in the Asian American community and reflects their desire for diversity on camera. 

However, there is hesitation about rehashing the damaging Asian stereotypes from the original Shang-Chi comics. Inspired by the age of martial arts films, Shang-Chi echoes the era of Fu Manchu and Yellow Peril, when Asians were essentially characterized as purely evil

Fu Manchu represented the culmination of America’s anti-Asian, anti-immigrant anxieties and fears. In the comics, Shang-Chi is the son of Fu Manchu and equips his martial arts to destroy his father. Such a relationship spoke to the utilization of the “best” parts of Asian culture (a.k.a martial arts) to take down the “worst” parts (acting or looking “too Asian”). This divisiveness ultimately denounces an Asian identity, uplifting only that which is “best” in the eyes of others. 

Knowing this history, Shang-Chi holds the potential to backslide in the same ways that Mulan (2020) did, by focusing too much on a presumed perspective of “authenticity”. In the making of Shang-Chi, Disney must pull from contemporary Asian America, rather than its past.

Simu Liu speaking at Comic Con San Diego.
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As Simu Liu has pointed out, however, there is hope! Both Shang-Chi: The Legend of the Ten Rings and Raya and the Last Dragon have released their massive inclusion of a largely Asian and Asian American cast and creative team. This means that, in contrast to Mulan’s implementation of solely Asian actors, these two new films will be written and creatively produced by the same people it seeks to represent. In this way, Disney is truly learning from its failure with the live-action Mulan (2020). Though there has been some early criticism for the next two films, a positive anticipation flourishes in Disney’s changes for greater Asian representation in film and media.

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Culture

Different Ways to celebrate Christmas-Comparing Christmas Traditions Across the Globe

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Four girls holding candles, singing Christmas carols.
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Christmas caroling, gingerbread houses, eggnog and candy canes are an indication that the holiday season is upon us. In the U.S. and certain other countries, we have traditions like setting out milk and cookies for Santa, lining our mantels with stockings, and hanging wreaths and bright lights outside. But many other countries around the world have their own unique traditions to celebrate this most wonderful time of the year. Let’s take a look at some of the different ways other cultures embrace the magic of Christmas. 

Region of Puerto Rico 

In Puerto Rico, Christmas is an extravagant, go-all-out type of holiday. Christmas celebrations start the day after Thanksgiving and last until the beginning of January. An important holiday tradition is caroling, referred to as a parranda, meaning the gift of music. The parranda isn’t your average Christmas caroling excursion; there are maracas, guitars and tamboras involved, making it all the more festive. In many cities, fireworks are set off each night in celebration. Some special holiday foods in Puerto Rico include lechón asado (a pork dish), tembleque (coconut pudding), and coquito (a coconut-rum drink).

Australia

Christmas is a holiday that is typically associated with winter. But in Australia, Christmas takes place in the summer season, swapping snowmen for sandmen. The beach is a very popular destination on Christmas day, filled with live music, barbeques, and decorated trees in the sand. If you’re lucky, you may even see Santa Claus, better known as Father Christmas in Australia, surfing the waves. Australians also celebrate the holiday season by gathering in large groups to sing Christmas carols with candles in hand. This tradition is known as ‘Carols by Candlelight.’

Finland

Rovaniemi, located in Lapland, Finland, is a city noted for its holiday spirit. In fact, Rovaniemi is the official hometown of Santa Claus. Santa’s post office (it’s a real post office) is open year-round, collecting letters from thousands of children. The subpolar climate of Rovaniemi makes the city a winter wonderland for several months. Christmas theme parks filled with reindeer sleigh rides and Santa and his elves make for a wonderful holiday experience.

Mexico

In Mexico, the Las Posadas celebration begins on December 16th and ends on Christmas Eve. Communities dress up and reenact Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem in search of shelter. There’s music, parties, and holiday foods such as buñuelos, a dessert made of fried dough and topped with cinnamon sugar or syrup. On Christmas Eve, the party culminates with the breaking of piñatas.

A tree ornament in the form of a globe.
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Germany

Germany has a rich history of Christmas traditions, some more terrifying than others. In Germany and some other European countries, the Krampus, an evil demon-goat creature, is rumored to be Santa’s evil relative. Krampus punishes children who misbehave, and if you’re in Germany, you may see people dressed up as Krampus wandering through the streets and scaring bystanders. On a happier note, Christmas markets and holiday shopping are all the rage in Germany. In the city of Nuremberg, Christkindlesmarkt is a famously large Christmas market, attracting millions of visitors each year. Famous holiday foods at this market include gingerbread, bratwursts, and fruitcake. 

Japan

Although only a small fraction of the population of Japan is Christian, the spirit of Christmas is still in the air. In Japan, millions of families celebrate Christmas with a special tradition: a chicken dinner, typically from KFC. Santa Claus has been traded in for Colonel Sanders. In some ways, Christmas in Japan is celebrated in the same way that we celebrate Valentine’s Day. Rather than spending Christmas day with family, couples go out for romantic dinners. 

Netherlands

In Amsterdam, Santa Claus is not the only one to deliver presents — Sinterklaas, a Santa-like Nordic figure, also distributes gifts to children. Sinterklass sails from Spain over to the Netherlands to deliver presents on December 5. Santa then arrives on Christmas day to fill childrens’ shoes with gifts. Another important Christmas tradition in the Netherlands is gourmetten, a big dinner where meats and vegetables are grilled at the table, and underneath the grill or hot plate, tiny pans filled with sauces and cheeses are broiled. These dinners somewhat resemble an indoor barbeque.

Iceland

In Iceland, the Yule Lads, 13 mischievous troll-like figures, deliver gifts to children or give them potatoes if they have been naughty that year. Starting on December 12th, a different lad visits each night leading up to Christmas. Children leave their shoes out on windowsills in anticipation of the Yule Lads’ visits. Grýla, the mother of the Yule Lads, is a scary troll rumored to eat misbehaving children. 

While many Christmas celebrations and family traditions are on hold due to Covid, it’s always nice to reminisce on the pre-Covid holiday seasons, as we hope to resume the celebrations next year.

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College Voices

Hanukkah: 8 Things You Might Not Know About the Eight Nights

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A closeup of candles burning.

It’s finally the holiday season here in the US, and all the signs are upon us. Christmas music is playing in most public spaces on the rare occasions we leave our homes, decorations and Christmas trees are going up in private and public spaces, and anticipation of that one magical night is high. Or, it is if you’re Christian.

Jewish people living in the United States, while the world around them gears up for Christmas, celebrate Hanukkah while simultaneously weathering the yearly bombardment of questions and assumptions about what the holiday is like.

There are a lot of misconceptions about what Hanukkah is actually like from people outside the Jewish community, so to help with that confusion, here’s a list of common mistakes people make about how to celebrate Hanukkah, and some general fun facts about a common Jewish holiday.

1. It’s Not “Jewish Christmas”

This is likely self-explanatory, but it’s important to cover. Because of its closeness to Christmas during the year, Hanukkah has become perceived as the “Jewish Christmas”, a holiday with equivalent importance to Christmas, which is not true at all. Christmas is one of the most important holidays in the Christian tradition, commemorating the birth of Jesus. Hanukkah is not on par with that importance.

2. It’s Actually a Minor Holiday

This is the big one that trips non-Jewish people up a lot: Hanukkah is not a big deal at all for Jewish people. For Jews, all the important holidays are tied directly to holy or important days, like Rosh Hashanah, which celebrates the Jewish New Year; and Yom Kippur, which is a day of mourning and remembrance. Hanukkah has no associated holiness to it, making it a very minor event in the Jewish Calendar.

A menorah with two candles burning, one in the middle and one on the far right.
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3. Hanukkah is About a Rebellion and a Miracle

Part of the reason why Hanukkah is actually not very important is that the story it commemorates is not part of important Jewish traditions like The Torah. Hanukkah celebrates the rebellion and reclamation of Jewish land and temples by a band of rebels known as the Maccabees. Once the rebellion succeeded and the temple was reclaimed, the Jewish people wanted to relight the menorah (that branching candle holder that’s associated with Hanukkah) inside to reconsecrate the temple, but all the special oil they burned in the menorah was destroyed. They only found a tiny jar which held barely enough oil to last a night. Amazingly though, the small amount of oil burned for eight days and eight nights, giving the Jewish people time to make more oil. This is the miracle of Hanukkah, and why Jews celebrate by lighting Hanukkiah for eight nights. Pretty interesting, huh?

4. There Aren’t Christmas Levels of Gifts

This isn’t true for all families, but for the most part, Hanukkah is a more low-key affair than Christmas. Most Jewish people give smaller gifts across the whole of the eight nights, with maybe a few larger items in there, but not an overflow of gifts every night.

5. Shockingly Enough, Gift Giving Isn’t Even Traditional

This might be surprising even to Jewish-Americans, but gift giving during Hanukkah is not actually traditional! There is no significance to gift giving like there is to other parts of the Hanukkah tradition, and in fact, it’s almost entirely a Jewish-American behavior. Why? Because of Christmas. Sometime around the 1920s, American Jews began buying gifts for their children to celebrate Hanukkah so they wouldn’t feel left out when all their peers got Christmas gifts, so it’s largely an American invention.

6. But Eating Fried Food is Traditional

Everyone always focuses on gifts and lighting candles, but it’s interesting to note that another tradition in Hanukkah is eating fried food. “Latkes”, a kind of fried potato pancake, are associated closely with the holiday, but they’re actually important because they’re fried. The tradition relates back to the story of Hanukkah and the oil that burned for eight nights. To honor this, Jews eat fried food like latkes and “sufganiyot”, fried donuts that are often jelly-filled. That’s one thing Christmas and Hanukkah do have in common: they’re both incredibly healthy holidays. 

A large sculpture of a menorah outside in the snow.
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7. Blue and White Decorations Aren’t, Though

If you’ve ever seen any decorations for Hanukkah you’ve likely seen strings of blue and white lights or decorations, as opposed to the normal red and green of Christmas. Surprisingly, though, there’s actually no association between Hanukkah and blue and white. Blue and white are important colors for Jews, as the traditional prayer shawl called a “tallit” is usually white with stripes of blue on the ends. Hanukkah decorations in blue and white are another tradition that started in America because of Christmas. To not feel left out of the Christmas spirit, some Jews began decorating with blue and white, but outside the US, this isn’t a common behavior at all.

8. Hanukkah is “The Festival of Lights,” but ‘Hanukkah’ Means Something Different

Finally, it’s important to think about the most important part of Hanukkah. The lighting of the menorah is the most crucial tradition of Hanukkah and the main way Jewish people the world over celebrate the holiday, which is why the holiday is affectionately called The Festival of Lights. The word ‘Hanukkah’, however, actually means ‘rededication’ or ‘consecration’, to commemorate the consecration of the temple by the lighting of the menorah in the Hanukkah story.

In 2020, Hanukkah runs from December 10th to 18th, so if you know anyone Jewish who observes the holiday, wish them a happy holiday and a good new year to come. Hopefully, you understand at least one Jewish tradition a little bit better now.

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