Critical Theory: The Multiple Dimensions of Social Justice
by Maha Bali
I came across Feminist Frequency and the great work of Anita Sarkeesian by coincidence when I found out about #gamergate, given my interest in educational games. Since then, I have been addicted to her work.
But, this post is not about her or about #gamergate, not really. It is about the multiple sides of social justice. We as critical pedagogues, and even educators who do not necessarily label ourselves as such, often refer to social justice—that we advocate for it, that we would like our students to fight for it—as if social justice were black and white. We know it is not. We just sometimes fall into a trap of talking about it as if it was non-controversial.
Let’s take Anita’s videos on LEGO. I agree completely with her assessment of the gender stereotypes in LEGO games and ads. However, I have noticed a few other things not included in the video.
Those games with ancient Egyptian themes—where they blow up things—they are blowing up my national heritage as an Egyptian! Can you even begin to imagine how that feels? What kind of messages are people portraying when they teach kids in school about ancient Egypt, and then play games where they destroy those monuments? And besides, my postcolonial self would like to remind Westerners that they often have stolen and destroyed our “stuff,” as simulated in these games.
Granted, Anita is against violence in boys’ games in general, and I know she would understand my specific complaint as an Egyptian, maybe even say it someday. But she wouldn’t feel it how I am feeling it now.
Additionally, I noticed almost all the people in the LEGO ads are White (I actually don’t remember any non-Whites, but I might have missed something). LEGO’s “Friends” theme for girls has a token Black girl and a token Latina. I’m not seeing girls like that in the ads. I am seeing just one of each in the midst of many White girls. And by the way, where is the token Muslim girl with a headscarf?
You see where I am going with this discussion, right? Critical theorists approach things with lenses, and our lenses are always incomplete. As an Egyptian, Muslim, headscarf-wearing woman, I see the world in a different way; I see injustice upon women, postcolonials, etc. more clearly from my personal experiences than I see injustice against, say, homosexuals or African Americans. I can try to understand it from their perspective, extrapolating from my own experiences of oppression, but it is not the same. I have never experienced poverty, and without firsthand grassroots experiences, I would have been ignorant of the extent of it in my own country. And yet I have not lived it; I cannot speak for them.
I once posted the hashtag #ineeddiversegames. I said I needed diverse games so I could find characters that represent me. Someone responded with a list of games centered around Muslim females. How does he know I meant me, as a Muslim woman, rather than me as a university professor? Or me as a mom? Oh, right. He looked at my twitter photo, and did not read my profile.
But, it was a fair guess. I actually partially meant it as he took it. I do feel uncomfortable with lack of avatars who cover their hair. Playing a Muslim-designed game does not solve this issue. However, regularly having such avatars in all games would—but I don’t think he got it.
I am reminded of a South Park episode about racism where Token (the implied “funny” name for the token black kid) tells Stan he just “doesn’t get it.” Near the end of the episode, Stan said, “Now I get it. I just don’t get it,” to which Token responds, “Now you get it, Stan.”
So here are two important situations where I just don’t get it. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict looks to me, as an Arab Muslim, to be a clear case of oppression of the Palestinian people. But, I am sure there is a moral ground upon which Israelis justify their existence. Not being one of them, I cannot possibly understand the Holocaust or other oppressions Jews have historically suffered. Knowing about them does not help me understand why the Palestinian people are suffering because of them.
I don’t know enough about the history and politics of this conflict, but I sense it is not a matter of knowledge, but of perspective. That justice there might be more complex than I can imagine. I get that the Israeli need to protect their citizens and allow them to live in peace. However, I don’t get how killing tens or hundreds of Palestinians for each one or two Israelis is going to help achieve that goal.
Another issue even closer to home is the ousting of Egyptian president Morsi in 2013. I get why many Egyptians wanted him out. But I also get that the way it has been done has created more instability and violence. What I don’t get is why people supporting either side can’t see the oppression and injustice that has occurred to the other.
In my two examples above, I am talking about individual citizens, not governments. Governments have different calculations, which I doubt have social justice factored into them. But I tend to assume that citizens strive towards social justice. And yet we have a long way to go, especially if we keep talking about social justice as if the goal was clear, and all the difficulty was in the battle.
Maha Bali is an Associate Professor of Practice at the Center for Learning and Teaching at American University in Cairo, Egypt (AUC). She teaches and researches a variety of things related to education and ed tech. She runs a blog: http://blog.mahabali.me; Twitter: @bali_maha), and is co-facilitator of www.edcontexts.org.
This post was inspired by:
Ellsworth, E. (1989). Why doesn’t this feel empowering? Working through the repressive myths of critical pedagogy. Harvard Educational Review, 59(3), 297-324.
Shape Shifting and Kamala Khan:
How the New Ms. Marvel Can Be a Role Model to Teenage Girls
by Margaret Robbins
Teenagers often have to manage dual identities. On one hand, they have to do well in school to please their parents and teachers; on the other, they have to wear the right clothes, drive the right cars, and go to the right parties to please their friends.
Teenage girls often have the added pressure to look a certain way in order to conform and gain popularity among their peers.
As a result, teenagers often look at celebrities as role models, even though their teachers try and encourage other role models, like the characters of classic literature. Yet, Marvel’s new comic series has a strong female protagonist who is worthy of recognition as well: Kamala Khan.
As a teenage superhero, Kamala struggles to balance her family’s expectations with fitting in at school and fighting the bad guys, yet through it all, she gains a better sense of her true self and her sense of right and wrong.
The new Ms. Marvel, also known as Kamala Khan, who first gained her own comic book series in February 2014 (after an appearance in Captain Marvel in August 2013), has many dualities within her identity.
First of all, she has the typical teenage girl issue of trying to please both her family and peers; her identity as a Pakistani American girl intensifies this challenge. She tries to find a balance between respecting her family’s cultural values and fitting in with American teenagers.
Kamala soon discovers that she has a larger destiny awaiting her. At the end of the first volume, Kamala’s transformation into a superhero begins, and Captain America, Iron Man, and Captain Marvel come to assist with the transition. Captain Marvel warns, her, though, “it’s not going to turn out the way you think.” In other words, sometimes, having superpowers is a little bit more than one bargained for.
In my opinion, Kamala’s story is a good example of how minority women are gaining more of a stronghold in leadership roles, especially in stories for young people and in the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and comics/graphica. Since these genres are sometimes marginalized due to readers not viewing them as serious literature, it seems almost fitting that these stories are the places for female protagonists and minority women to surface as prominent characters.
Kamala is among the first minority teenage female superheroes to have a lead role in a comic, and hopefully, more will follow. Her story is one worthy of study in classrooms, as her struggles are relatable, and her perseverance makes her a strong role model for teenagers.
However, when Kamala first becomes a superhero, she “shapeshifts,” or changes form, into Captain Marvel (also known as Carol Danvers). Initially, there seems to be no logical reason for Kamala’s ability to shapeshift. However, in volume 3, she comments, “everybody’s expecting Ms. Marvel. Ms. Marvel from the news, with the hair and the spandex and the Avenger’s swag, not a sixteen-year-old brown girl with a 9:00 p.m. curfew.”
It’s interesting that Kamala’s commentary reflects on other people’s expectation not only on the numerical age of female superheroes, but also of their physical appearance. However, she begins to realize that even as a teenager, she has agency and can make changes in her life and in how other people perceive her.
In volume 4 of Ms. Marvel, Kamala’s friend Bruce encourages her by saying, “Who cares what people expect? Maybe they expect some perfect blonde, what I need—I mean, what we need—is you.” Only gradually does Kamala realize that she should be her own kind of superhero, rather than the one people are expecting. Therefore, she gains a greater respect for her true identity.
By the time volume five comes along, the hero transformation is complete, but Kamala’s struggles at home intensify. Her father asks more questions about her late hours, her clothing, etc. However, after they argue, Kamala’s father tells her, “You don’t have to be someone else to impress anybody. You are perfect just the way you are.”
Although Kamala doesn’t always see eye to eye with her father, she realizes that she needs to fight for what she feels is right and also to be true to herself and her sense of morality. As she comments, “Abu is right. Bruno was right. I’m not here to be a watered down version of some other hero.”
Kamala still retains her superhero powers, but she stops shapeshifting into Carol Danvers (Captain Marvel). Instead, she keeps her superhero costume on, yet remains in her true bodily form.
Young women often feel that they have to fit a certain mold to please others, to get what they want out of life, and to succeed. However, Kamala realizes that she can help others the most simply by being herself and by fighting the battles she believes to be important.
Kamala learns to fight against oppressive forces and to be authentic, both valuable lessons to teenage girls. I hope teachers will consider studying this comic in the classroom, in conjunction with other literature, to discuss the roles of women in society and the portrayal of female minority characters.
Margaret Robbins is a second year doctoral student in the Language and Literacy Education department at the University of Georgia. She is a Graduate Assistant for both the Red Clay Writing Project and the English Education department. She also has done work with the Kennesaw Mountain Writing Project. Margaret taught high school English for three years and middle school reading and language arts for seven years. Currently, she is the Poetry and Arts Editor for the Journal of Language and Literacy Education. She has been an avid reader of YA literature for many years, and her research interests include children’s/YA literature, multicultural education, critical literacy, critical media literacy, and pop culture.