Myths, Misfits & Masks: Sana Amanat (Full Transcript)

Sana Amanat at TEDxTeen 2014

Here is the full text of Sana Amanat’s talk titled “Myths, Misfits & Masks” at TEDxTeen 2014 conference.

Sana Amanat – TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT

Now, I am actually going to do something that you guys do every single day.

I’m going to ask you guys to judge me right now. The Bumbys were just doing it; it’s very appropriate. Take a good look, and describe me in your head.

Now, based on those descriptions, how would you categorize me? By my height? By my skin color? By my hair?

Now, would any of those descriptions scream comic-book editor? Maybe my T-shirt, actually; I think that might have given it away.

But no, probably not. I’m actually one of the few South Asian, female comic-book editors out there. I think, actually, I might be the only one, so for any of you South Asian females interested, it’s a good gig.

I highly recommend it. Holler at my ladies? No? All right, that’s cool.

Now, what I do as a comic-book editor is I make things up. I work with creators to tell the most uncanny, amazing, sensational stories about seemingly ordinary individuals who come to possess extraordinary identities. We call them superheroes.

Now, when I was first asked to speak at this event, it was actually after the announcement of a character I had co-created: Ms. Marvel, the all-new Ms. Marvel, was the first Muslim American superhero to have her own series.

It really was the most obvious thing in the world in my mind. I had created a character that I could identify with. And yet it was quite possibly the biggest publicity that Marvel had seen in quite some time.

Parents called us, thanking us for creating a book that they could finally share with their daughter. Fans called us thanking us for creating a character that they could finally relate to.

We’d clearly tapped into something really powerful, something people had been craving for quite some time. And yet it was the simplest idea, just masked as the craziest.

Now, to understand the origins of Ms. Marvel, we have to take a trip to a land far, far away…

[It was New Jersey]

a long, long time ago, where — come on — where a young girl with a cowlick and bad taste in clothes never felt like she could fit in. She didn’t look like the other girls in her class, couldn’t eat the delicious, delicious BLTs that they could eat.

She began to become fascinated with bacon. What is that delicious meat? She had no idea. Her parents weren’t on the PTA. She didn’t get Christmas presents.

And in fact, she had to wear a T-shirt over her bathing suit every single time she swam. So clearly this girl was different. But she did have an outlet, and it wasn’t her parents, who she adored, who just didn’t quite understand her yet, or her three older brothers, who were too busy with hair gel and light sabers to pay any attention to her.

It was something else altogether different. It was the X-Men. Yes! Yes!

The X-Men were mutants, individuals with mutated and enhanced genes that triggered in adolescence, giving them superpowers. It was the coolest thing in the world.

A woman with brown skin and white hair who can manipulate the weather, a gigantic beast of a man with blue fur, a shy girl with a Southern drawl who couldn’t touch anyone.

So these people were that little girl’s safe place. These people she understood because they, too, were different. And it also helped that they also wore ridiculous-looking outfits.

I don’t know, Mom, I have no idea what you were doing in that picture. I apologize.

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So, the X-Men embraced who they are. Adamantium claws, weird weather-controlling habits, mutations. They owned it: they knew who they were, and they would defend it, no matter what.

So every Saturday morning, when this little girl used to rush down the stairs to watch that show, she felt a little less alone because they had fulfilled a need to see herself in the world outside.

So, let’s talk about why that need existed in the first place.

Now, remember when I was asking you guys earlier about categories? Why don’t you guys think about the categories that you all belong to? I’m going to do that up here for myself.

So, I am a Muslim, a woman, an American, a comic book editor, a short person, a lazy person, a nerd — you can ignore that, though.

Now, the strange thing about defining yourself in this way is that it simplifies who you are. How can everything that I am be encompassed into a label?

Now, some of these labels we choose for ourselves, others we’re born into and others are assigned for us. But regardless, all of them come with preconceived notions — assumptions and expectations — of what they mean.

So if I’m Muslim, people may expect that I cover my head, that I don’t associate with men, that I don’t drink alcohol. Others may assume that I’m a terrorist — I’m not — that I hate Americans.

Well, I’m an American, so I certainly don’t hate myself, sometimes. I’m an oppressed woman. I’m way too stubborn for that. You can ask my poor parents; they deal with it every day.

Now, because we allow others to create these definitions for us, we inherently accept them to be true, whether it’s a conscious decision or not.

So at some point, the line between perspective and reality begins to blur. When we are told by others, constantly and incessantly, who we are, when we allow others to define ourselves — whether it’s the media, our parents, our friends — we begin to accept a standard of self that is not of our own choosing.

We become a splintered version of the person we are destined to be. I remember in junior high school — it was actually right after the first World Trade Center bombing, and it was a very confusing time for me for a bunch of reasons, but in particular because it was the first time my religion was made synonymous with violence in such a public way.

I’d walked into school the next morning, and a classmate who I’d never actually talked to before tapped me on the shoulder, and he said, “Hey, tell your people to stop attacking us.”

I was confused, hurt, stunned. “Us?”

I thought I was “us.” I certainly wasn’t “them,” was I?

That would be the first time that I saw the way the world viewed the category I belonged to. Names like Muhammed, Ahmed, Sharif, names I had grown up with all of my life were equated with terms like “terrorist,” “hate monger,” “enemy.”

I was angry at those men who had warped my faith into a vengeful weapon, and at the same time at the media for propagating those stereotypes.

I swung from self-defense to self-doubt, pride to shame. Who was I? What side was I on? Where did I fit in? I had no idea.

For years, I had constantly measured myself against images that looked nothing like me. I didn’t see myself in the TV, in the classroom or in magazines. And suddenly, my face was everywhere with a big red X painted over it.

Why did I feel so uncertain and insecure about my identity? I’m going to throw some social-psychological jargon out at you to make myself sound really smart.

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There’s something called a “stereotype threat,” and what it says is that individuals of a particular group internalize and react to the negative stereotypes associated with that group.

So because I’m so afraid of everybody thinking that all those bad things that people say about me are true, sometimes, I don’t act to the best of my abilities. I underperform.

Whether it’s academically, socially — I was definitely an introvert for a reason. And basically what that means is that you act against your true nature because you’re constantly trying to live up to other people’s expectations or deny their assumptions. You mask who you truly are.


Yes, you’re right: with more jargon! There is something called a “mirror-neuron theory.” What it means is that your brain neurons react in the same way, whether or not you are the one doing the action.

So, if I’m watching you eat a really delicious cheeseburger, my brain is reacting in the same way as if I was eating that really delicious cheeseburger myself. Which is why the Food Network is quite possibly the greatest programming of all time. Only show I watch!

Now, imagine if what we saw on the media reflected a positive portrayal of the group that we belonged to. How would our brains react? How would our perceptions change?

That was the secret of the success of the show “The Cosby Show,” the groundbreaking and intelligent sitcom that truly helped to adjust perception of African Americans. It was the first of its kind.

By focusing on the comedic trials and tribulations of a successful and lovable family that just happened to be African American, it took away those limiting qualifiers of race and helped to redefine what it meant to just be an American family, all through the power of story.

Now while we look to the media to bring us the stark realities of humankind, we seek stories to find some emotional connectivity with it. Stories give us a glimpse into the inner workings of the human spirit, its pitfalls and its potentials.

And they stir within us a desire to reach the excesses of our imagination. They challenge us and force us to look at one another for who we truly are in the hopes of possibly connecting our souls, and for that reason, they are sacred.

And at the same time, they can be the shields against the threats to our soul, threats to our identity.

So what the mirror-neuron theory is saying is that it’s human nature to follow the actions of the masses. We repeat and/or believe what people tell us to believe about others and about ourselves.

So why not tell stories that are empowering and aspirational and challenge us to be better? That is exactly what superhero stories do.

The history of comics is about the misfit, the unlikely hero, the ability to create greatness where there was once doubt. The unassuming Peter Parker, the wallflower who’s picked on and misunderstood, gets bitten by a radioactive spider that gives him extraordinary powers and extraordinary responsibilities.

Yet his path is filled with villains who would doubt his determination, who would threaten those he loves, threaten his life choices. And yet Spider-Man, being the hero that he is, would always swing back, he’d always beat the bad guy and he’d always get the girl. Or girls, in Spider-Man’s case. Lots of love drama there.

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For 75 years, Marvel has been telling the tale of the outcast behind the mask. It’s through his flaws and desires that we connect with the heart of the character so that when he emerges as a hero, we have a real reason to champion him because we understand those struggles too, don’t we?

And we also want to move past them. Heroes make a choice to fight injustice, to protect the innocent, to put the balance back on the side of the good, no matter how much they sacrifice of themselves. They’re willing to die for it because they’ve chosen who they are. And they will defend it no matter what.

So when that little girl sat rapt to attention, all those years ago at her television screen, watching the X-Men, it wasn’t just because they had taken her on an astonishing adventure. It’s because they told her that it was okay to be different.

In fact, you had to fight for it. Because we all want to be heroes, don’t we? And wouldn’t it be amazing if heroes looked just like us?

So why does a character like Kamala Khan resonate with so many people? Like the first African-American and Latino Spider-Man, Miles Morales, Kamala Khan is so much larger than just a pop-culture icon.

She came together in response to that global subconscious desire for representation for those Muslim American, bacon-sniffing, short, nerdy girls like me and for anyone else, regardless of their gender, sexuality, race, religion, who just feel like misfits themselves.

In the actual Ms. Marvel series, Kamala Khan is just a girl trying to fit in. She’s constantly negotiating, renegotiating who she is and all of the rules that come with it.

Where does she belong? She has no idea. She’s still figuring out that journey to her authentic self. But all she knows is that she does not want to be limited by the labels imposed upon her.

So really, Kamala Khan’s story is everyone’s. It’s about confronting the labels you’ve been assigned and sculpting them and redefining them until you figure out who you truly are and what you actually believe.

One of my favorite mottos — actually I have it written on a post-it over my computer. I look at it every single day, and it was said by a poet named Rumi. And it goes:

“Do not be satisfied with stories, that which has come before. Unfold your own myth.”

And that is our challenge. Every single one of us, no matter the categories we’ve inherited, we must unfold our own myth. And it won’t be easy.

We’re constantly navigating, rearranging, reinventing others’ expectations of ourselves every day. But every word we write in the narrative of our own lives, we come closer to uncovering what’s beneath our own masks, maybe even embracing that true misfit, that true crazy one within.

Oh, it’ll be a fight, that’s for sure. But that battle for your soul, for your authentic self, it’s worth it, isn’t it? It’s bold; it’s brave.

In fact, I would say it’s heroic. So now it’s your turn. Tell me your story.

Thank you.


Download This Transcript as PDF here: Myths, Misfits, Masks_ Sana Amanat (Full Transcript)


Resources for Further Reading:

Julie Lythcott-Haims: Be Your Authentic Self TEDxStanford (Full Transcript)

Why We Tell Stories by Phil Kaye (Transcript)

Stan Lee: What Makes a Superhero? (Full Transcript)

There are no Superheroes, Just Us: My Journey with Malala (Full Transcript)

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