I’ve long held a grudge against Marvel productions for their lazy typecasting of villains, most egregiously when Iron Man cast the tremendous Egyptian actor Sayed Badreya to play a terrorist just a few years after he produced and starred in T for Terrorist, a short meant to raise awareness for how damaging those portrayals can be. (I get why he took the role, but damn!) Yet as a card-carrying New Jersey Muslim, I could not in good conscience skip Ms. Marvel, the Garden State-set story of a Muslim teenager discovering her superpowers. And I have to say: This show kind of nails it. It’s a lot of fun, and at times alarmingly accurate: We do in fact have our Eid celebrations in parking lots, but only because we’d never get a permit to bring a bouncy castle to Liberty State Park. Who knew if you hire Muslim writers and directors, you end up with work that can pass the smell test?
So as a Muslim, I can officially endorse this series. Unfortunately, as a longtime New Jersey resident, I cannot.
For as long as I’ve been alive, there’s been a cardinal unspoken rule when it comes to filming in Jersey: Come film our seedy underbellies, but don’t you dare make this place look inviting. New Jersey is known for a few things, and none of them are nice. But its residents have long relied on that image problem. It’s what keeps the place cheap. New Jersey is a beautiful place full of beautiful people and endless things to do. The only reason those things still exist here is because most people don’t know about them yet.
I know Jersey City extremely well. I was born in Christ Hospital, quite literally on a cliff overlooking the Holland Tunnel and the Manhattan skyline. My family was attached to a community of Muslims who worshiped right off Communipaw Avenue. My family eventually moved to Newark, a few miles west, but we continued to be a part of that community. I spent every morning driving up 1&9 to romp around Jersey City, before coming back to Newark in the evenings to romp around here too. I have fond, and frightening, memories on every corner. And I could tell right away that Ms. Marvel wasn’t actually filmed in New Jersey, because it just looks too damn nice.
In the show, Kamala Khan, a Muslim teenager, discovers a family heirloom, a bangle, that helps her harness the power inside her. She sneaks out of her bedroom to explore the city, and her new powers, with her best friend who lives nearby. But anyone who knows Jersey could sniff out the Hollywood magic that this is actually Atlanta dressed up to look like Jersey. Their purpose-built mosque, decorated with the beautiful dome and tall minaret, was a dead giveaway. In a place as old and broke as New Jersey, where communities are largely led by naturalized citizens who arrived here just one or two generation ago, virtually every mosque here was repurposed. My mosque in Jersey City was repurposed from an old Masonic Temple. My mosque in Newark was once the city’s Chamber of Commerce. This ain’t it.
To make up for being filmed in Atlanta, the show cuts in sweeping arial shots of Jersey City. They include shots of Jersey City’s iconic Grove Street, with its shops, restaurants, and a weekly farmer’s market. The show also uses the view of Manhattan from the Jersey side as B-roll. It’s all Too. Damn. Nice. (It’s true that our view of New York is a gem that not even New Yorkers can enjoy. They’re stuck having to look at New Jersey.) Why not show the exhaust spewing out of the tunnels? Why not show the waste treatment plants? What are you doing, Ms. Marvel?
I know what it’s like to go to school in Jersey City, and to hit puberty with immigrant parents who are terrified of the trouble you’ll get into, and going out and getting into trouble anyway. Being in Jersey made it easy to be outside, with public transportation that works just as good as it does in New York, without the extreme density that makes it impossible to have the kind of community where you recognize everyone on your block. Going to school here, having all of your classmates within just a few blocks, with stores cheap enough that we could afford, made Jersey the best place to grow up. Biking around was enough to get from one end of town to the next few towns over. And the No. 1 bus was always there to take us home. To my great distaste, Ms. Marvel made Jersey City look and feel just as awesome as it actually is, a cultural melting pot that demands you bring nothing but your authentic self.
I don’t want this attention. Jersey’s bad reputation for being America’s garbage dump has done a great job of keeping people out and our blocks relatively affordable. For years, Jersey City was protected by a forcefield of bad representation. Jersey is by far America’s favorite punchline of a state. Futurama imagined America’s founding fathers dubbing New Jersey “our nation’s official joke state.” Movie after movie refers to Jersey as “the armpit of America.” Even in Marvel’s What If…?, Harold “Happy” Hogan laments the only escape from a zombie apocalypse: “Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse, we gotta go to Jersey.” MTV’s Jersey Shore continues to do a fantastic job of finding the best cast to represent the state and all it has to offer folks on the outside. Snookie and J-Wow knew exactly how to lay out the red carpet. The Sopranos also knew exactly how to showcase Jersey’s finest hospitality. Come for the bar fights, stay for the gabagool.
But lately, the stench that kept developers and tourists away seems to be wearing off. My mosque in Newark is now being transformed into luxury condos. There’s lots of talk of “revitalization.” Too many people seem convinced it might be nice to live here; Jersey City is spilling over. Ms. Marvel’s representation of Jersey being a quaint place for a young person to grow up is the last thing we need.