"I'm a superhero.": Seeing Ourselves in Unlikely Spaces

Curator's Note

TW: Rape/Sexual Assault "I’m a superhero. I am powerful." These are Yasmin’s words. Yasmin is a twelve-year-old Egyptian girl: impoverished, illiterate, and now rape survivor. Her story forms part of the Girl Rising project and accompanying documentary. Although acclaimed, the 2013 documentary triggered legitimate criticism centring on the mediation of the girls’ stories. Indeed, due to the socio-cultural climate within which she lives, it would have been perilous for Yasmin herself to appear on screen. We see and hear only echoes of her: an anonymous girl acts as her stand-in during the dramatization, an animated Yasmin battles the "bad man", and the narrative is born from Yasmin’s collaboration with journalist Mona Eltahawy. ‘Masks’ protect Yasmin’s identity, evoking costuming practices within the superhero genre. Yet, Yasmin’s story does much more than evoke superhero motifs. To survive, Yasmin transforms herself into a conquering superhero. In her utmost need, Yasmin looked to the superhero genre, nowhere else, for the strength to endure. From her account, we see that she is versed in the tenets of the genre: "a true hero does not kill.". So, what is it that drew Yasmin - a financially impoverished, formally uneducated Egyptian girl - to the superhero genre? How, given her marginalisation in a historically patriarchal and politico-religious conservative state, did she come to know this genre, and further, given its categorical biases, how is it that she took this most unrepresentative genre to her heart? We may never know her reasons. Yet, within her compelling narrative we glimpse a magical quality of the superhero genre: that, despite itself, and the conditions of its creation, it speaks to all kinds of people. To Yasmin, to me, and perhaps, to you. Yasmin has done what many marginalised fans do when engaging the superhero genre, they make space: placing themselves behind the masks and writing themselves into the stories. We gain much from such creative work, but this genre cannot remain merely translatable; it must become directly relatable. Titles like Ms. Marvel are encouraging, showing us different kinds of superheroes and fans. Stories show us how things are, and how they can be. Yasmin’s is a life-story that needs to be told, and as her account reveals, the superhero genre needs to keep telling its stories, but better versions, ones that allow us to see our diversity represented within its pages, screens, and creative teams.

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