The new Ms. Marvel is a fantastic show. It has beautiful visuals, an addictive soundtrack, and compelling characters with groundbreaking representation. Also, the hero doesn’t look like she popped out of a mold at some Hollywood actor factory. I’ll take five, please.
After the first episode came out, many people noticed that Kamala appears to have ADHD, even though it’s never stated outright. This type of representation is referred to as coding. Sometimes coding is subtle and subjective. Sometimes, such as in this case, it’s so blatant that even calling it coding feels like a stretch.
After being asked about Kamala and ADHD on Twitter, the head writer of Ms. Marvel, Bisha K. Ali, had this to say:
To my mind, the most obvious interpretation is that Ali put her own experiences of ADHD into the depiction, but she doesn’t have the authority to declare Kamala has ADHD. The corporation known as Disney gets to decide that.
However, it’s easy to interpret Ali’s statement in other ways. That matters, because there’s always a few coding deniers who insist a character doesn’t have a marginalized trait unless it’s been officially declared. In the neurodivergence space, this generally goes with the philosophy that if a tree falls in the middle of town, it doesn’t make a sound until a doctor diagnoses that it makes sounds.
Plus, anyone who doesn’t recognize Kamala’s ADHD coding may like to know what all the ADHD people are talking about. So as a person with the inattentive presentation of ADHD (aka ADD), I present my breakdown of how you can tell Kamala is inattentive in episode one. While the first episode focuses the most on Kamala’s personal issues, the same themes are echoed later in the season.
I invite our many ADHD readers to give your own take in the comments. If you haven’t seen the show yet, you should!
Kamala Is “Weird”
Several times in the episode, characters mention that Kamala is a weirdo or does weird things. Kamala says about her mother, “It’s like she thinks I’m some kind of weirdo.” To which her best friend, Bruno, responds, “You are a weirdo.” Kamala’s father also tells her that she is “not normal.”
While people could be called weird for all sorts of reasons, neurodivergent people are especially likely to be called weird. Our behavior and personal choices do not fit expectations, and people don’t see an obvious explanation for why. So they just call us weird – often with a curled lip and disgusted tone of voice.
When I was a kid, my sister and I were called weird so often that we decided to reclaim the label, owning our weirdness. We didn’t know how we were different from the other kids, but we knew that we were, and “weird” gave us a name for it. I continued identifying as weird until after college, when I managed to surround myself with others like me. At that point, I finally didn’t feel different anymore. Even now that I have a diagnosis, I’d still take “weird” over “ADHD.”
Unfortunately for Kamala, she’s clearly bothered by the “weird” label and has internalized the negative messages she’s getting from others. She muses to Bruno that maybe everyone is right to criticize her, because “dressing up as Captain Marvel is weird.”
She’s Creative and Even Entrepreneurial
As the episode opens, viewers are treated to a delightful creative video animated from drawn figures that look cut from paper. During the video, Kamala narrates that she’s created a 10-part series about Captain Marvel that will be posted to her YouTube channel, Sloth Baby Productions. Kamala’s colorful drawings become a visual theme that delights viewers throughout the season.
I’m not saying that neurotypical people can’t be creative like this, just that people with ADHD generally have lots of creative energy. Some studies have even demonstrated we’re more creative on average than people without ADHD. However, the science on this is still new and limited. Unfortunately, psychologists are more interested in studying our struggles than our advantages.
In my years of trying to identify people I would mesh with, I developed a rough neuro-dar I used to scan potential friends. In particular, I looked for people who were creative, ideally to the point of being eccentric. And Kamala’s YouTube channel would have been enough to set it off, thereby enticing me to make timid and inept attempts at friendship.
It’s not just that she has a YouTube channel; it’s that her channel is named “Sloth Baby Productions” instead of something like “Avenger Fans Unite!” This cute name means she’s linking disparate ideas together, and it implies she has a grander vision for her ongoing creative works than her current Avenger obsession. It also sounds like the name of a company, suggesting she has entrepreneurial aspirations. Recent studies have confirmed that people with ADHD are more likely to be entrepreneurs. I’m certainly no exception.
Granted, Kamala also says she has a weekly posting schedule. Assuming she really does post every week and doesn’t just think she will, that’s quite an accomplishment for an ADHD teenager. We’re much better at dreaming up ideas than completing anything. I write an article every week, but I’ve had an additional 20 years to learn work habits. However, since Kamala also has the superhuman ability to make professional-level illustrations in the blink of an eye, I think we can chalk this up to TV wish fulfillment.
She Sucks at Driving
In the episode, Kamala tries to take a driver’s test. Despite being as careful as she can, she abruptly fails, and it’s not because she can’t pull off some tricky parking maneuvers. Instead, she backs up and collides with the instructor’s car. While her mother’s driving lessons might have been lacking, if Kamala always drove like this, she wouldn’t have tried to take a test.
Yes, of course all teenagers suck at driving. But studies have shown ADHD teens are two to four times more likely to get into accidents on average. And what struck me about this scene is that Kamala’s error is so basic. She probably didn’t realize she was in reverse. While it’s certainly possible for a neurotypical person to do that, people with ADHD are especially prone to these kinds of basic oversights.
Inattentiveness and driving are not a great combination. So while I have a driver’s license, I have chosen not to drive. I found driving to be incredibly stressful, and more than that, I felt that trying to be a better driver only made things worse. The harder I tried, the more I would focus on one thing at the cost of something else. For instance, one time when I was backing up in a work vehicle, I was so intent on avoiding anything on the left side that I scraped something on the right. Two car doors had to be replaced.
This isn’t to say that people with inattentive ADHD can’t be good drivers. With enough practice, driving no longer requires as much active attention. Plus, stimulant medication helps. But while I know plenty of people with ADHD who drive just fine, I know others that, like me, have avoided driving. My mother drives fine until she also has to navigate unfamiliar roads. Navigating can cause her to pull her attention away from where it needs to be.
She Loses a Pair of Gloves
During the episode, Kamala attends an Avenger convention, largely so she can compete in the Captain Marvel costume contest. She’s in the bathroom, having just finished changing, when she takes her photon gloves out of her backpack. She ends up putting the gloves on the floor under her helmet and then hears the final call for the costume contest. Rushing off, she grabs her helmet but leaves her gloves behind.
This is not a particularly inattentive way of losing belongings. I suspect the time pressure would make even a neurotypical person likely to leave something behind, and Kamala realizes her gloves are missing before she looks in her backpack. That suggests she remembers taking them out.
For these reasons, I wouldn’t see this as a sign of inattentive ADHD on its own. A more obviously ADHD way of losing gloves would be to take them off to wash her hands, take a few steps away to dry her hands, and then just walk off without them. However, when viewed alongside Kamala’s other indicators of ADHD, it looks like part of a pattern. And frequently misplacing belongings is a significant indicator of inattentive ADHD. It appears in the official US diagnostic manual (DSM) as a symptom and is often used in diagnosis.
That said, I don’t actually lose my phone, because that implies I could ever keep track of it in the first place. It’s a free spirit; it goes where it wants to. Whenever I want to use it, I look around. If I’m lucky, it has followed me to my current location.
If I don’t see it, I wander around checking its favorite nesting spots, which by pure coincidence are usually within arm’s reach of the places I spend the most time. Other people thought it was strange when it nested on top of the dishes in the cupboard, but why not? Who knows what a phone likes. I mean, I assume it must have gone there on its own, because I have no memory of putting it anywhere.
She Fantasizes a Ton
The episode makes a big deal of how much Kamala fantasizes. When planning to sneak off to the convention, she comes up with an incredibly embellished plan that suggests she’s been daydreaming about it a lot. She says to Bruno, “Maybe I spend too much time with fan art, and costumes, and my head stuck in fantasy land.” And after Kamala’s failed driving test, her mother notes, “I come from a long line of fantasizing, unrealistic daydreamers.”
That last item is particularly notable, since ADHD is genetic and inherited. Of course, the line is also foreshadowing for the inheritance of Kamala’s powers, but there’s no reason it can’t be both. In episode two, Kamala says her powers feel like “an idea come to life.” Her thinking and her powers are clearly linked.
Anyone can fantasize, but people with inattentive ADHD are constantly doing it when we are supposed to be doing other things. You see, even though the “AD” part stands for “attention deficit,” we do not lack attention – it’s just focused elsewhere. When I look like a zombie on the outside, my attention is focused inward. The labels that have been assigned to us are based on an outsider perspective rather than our own experiences.
For many people with ADHD, the thoughts that demand their attention are usually unpleasant. Considering that 47.1% of adults with ADHD have anxiety and 38.3% have a mood disorder such as depression, that’s not surprising. But for others like me, it’s mostly a positive experience. I had trouble working last week because my brain kept writing this article, but on the plus side, I was writing this article! This doesn’t mean I can’t be pulled into negative thought whirls, particularly when I’m stressed about something. It just means that overall, it adds more to my life than it takes away.
Kamala appears to be in my camp. We see her look out a car window and imagine a colorful drawn version of Captain Marvel. When Kamala’s mother is upset, she asks Kamala, “Do you want to be this cosmic, head-in-the-clouds person?” After her mother leaves the room, Kamala looks at her new powers and says “cosmic” to herself, smiling. Yes, of course Kamala wants to be a cosmic, head-in-the-clouds person.
Some people have suggested that Kamala might also have what’s being called maladaptive daydreaming. This condition is not in the DSM yet, but it is described as voluntary daydreaming for hours to the point where it interferes with other life activities. Since I don’t daydream for hours, I’m not going to comment on that. However, even if Kamala does have maladaptive daydreaming, I think she also has inattentive ADHD.
The School Counselor Scene
If you believe we shouldn’t say Kamala has ADHD as long as a neurotypical person might do the things she’s doing, I have a scene for you. A scene that I find absolutely infuriating.
Let’s take it piece by piece. It starts when a school counselor calls Kamala in to have a private chat with him. He opens the conversation by saying, “I hear you’ve had a hectic couple weeks, but your teachers, you know, they’re telling me you’re doodling all day, staring off into space in your little fantasy land…”
When teachers actually notice inattentive ADHD, that’s probably what they’d pick up on. Even if they’ve only observed the behaviors for the last few weeks, that doesn’t mean it’s not a genetic trait like ADHD. Many women have reported that their expression of ADHD varies with hormone changes. Plus, maybe as the Avenger convention approaches, Kamala has become more preoccupied with it.
The counselor makes this statement in a disapproving, judgmental tone. In turn, that suggests teachers have been complaining about this. But here’s the thing: there’s nothing wrong with staring into space. For me, this is perfectly normal behavior and being judged for it throughout my life – at school, during social gatherings, in the workplace – has not helped me in the least. Thankfully, my bosses stopped making negative comments about it after I got my first desk job. No one can tell I’m staring into space if that space happens to contain a monitor.
Criticizing Kamala for doodling is just as wrongheaded. When I was in high school, I doodled to help myself pay attention to lectures. It provided a little extra stimulation, similar to a fidget toy, without taking all of my attention. It was ironic that I had to explain that to my psychology teacher.
Kamala’s teachers could still have a reason to be concerned. While some ADHD students get good grades, they generally underperform, at least without support. For instance, Kamala might be turning her homework in late or not at all. But teachers and counselors should focus on those failure points and never police behavior simply because it isn’t neurotypical enough.
After the counselor makes this ableist statement about staring and doodling, Kamala rolls her Masking skill and gets a critical failure. For anyone who is unfamiliar with the term, to mask is to mimic neurotypical behavior to fit in. In this case, Kamala looks away at the clock, and a fun special effect shows it moving in her mind’s eye.
Her counselor then snaps his fingers in front of her and says, “Hey! Oh… really? We truly started the meeting 30 seconds ago. You gotta be with me, girl.”
Thirty seconds into a one-on-one conversation with an authority figure, and Kamala’s attention is already elsewhere. If you say this is totally normal for you, but you don’t have ADHD, my answer has to be: Are you sure about that?
With this finger-snap routine, the counselor is once again berating her, and like before, it’s both ableist and counterproductive. These attention slips are involuntary. When my attention wanders, I’m not even aware that it’s happening. And why would Kamala choose to tune out when she’s likely to get in trouble? If the counselor wants her to listen, he could hand her something to fidget with, or maybe, I don’t know… let her doodle. Plus, since Kamala knows she’ll be blamed for attention lapses, she won’t admit she didn’t hear something and ask him to repeat it. Instead, she’ll work harder at masking.
Kamala apologizes for not listening to the counselor’s ableist rant, and he starts again. He rambles on about how Kamala needs to start thinking about her future by volunteering and yada yada. Naturally, she tunes him out again. It’s less obvious than before, but the sound of his dialogue is dimmed as she silently stares in his direction with a fixed and vaguely disgusted expression.
This time, Kamala gets a critical success on her Masking roll. You see, people equate eye contact with listening.* As long as she stares in the counselor’s direction, he won’t suspect that she doesn’t hear him. The tricky part is when he stops talking, and she has to answer intelligently.
The counselor starts to trail off, and there’s a pause while Kamala pulls out of her head and gropes for something convincing to say. She lands on making a crack: “Do I have to figure out my whole future before lunch?” This conceals that she may not have heard anything after the word “future.” The counselor continues none the wiser, and Kamala can congratulate herself for avoiding more ridicule.
This isn’t the only scene in the episode that we see Kamala isn’t listening. However, the other time was when she was in the back seat of the car and her mother was up front ranting about daydreamers the whole drive. Would anyone listen in that situation?
Why Both Coding and Canon Matter
Representation has a big impact on people. For those who are privileged, it normalizes marginalized identities and encourages equal treatment. For those on the marginalized side of the axis, it provides empowerment and validation. This confidence boost can inspire people to aim for things that are difficult to achieve in a system set against them. For instance, the movie Crazy Rich Asians inspired Ke Huy Quan to get back into acting and star in Everything Everywhere All at Once.
Coding allows underrepresented people to see themselves in their favorite stories. That comfort and validation makes a difference, even if it’s not officially recognized. Some of that coding may be subtle and subjective. But just because I don’t see a character as ADHD when someone else does, it doesn’t mean their interpretation is invalid. Nor do they need scientific evidence to feel the way they do. People with ADHD are varied, and we’ll never have enough studies to confirm every lived experience we’ve had.
This doesn’t mean coding is a replacement for canon. For one thing, coded characters without official backing can put marginalized people in the position of trying to defend their perspective while everyone gaslights them. For another, it allows privileged people to avoid both recognizing marginalized people and taking responsibility for their depiction.
In Ms. Marvel, Kamala deals with continual racial microaggressions from the white people around her. This is done in service of recognizing the marginalization that Muslims and Pakistanis face, both from American Islamophobia and atrocities committed by the British. Kamala also deals with some sexism in her community. That sexism is openly acknowledged when it comes up, and we see women in the community working on reform.
But if Bisha K. Ali is not allowed to acknowledge that Kamala has ADHD, will Kamala ever get to tell that school counselor where he can shove it? As the scene stands, with Kamala apologizing for something she has no control over, it could reinforce the idea that this is how inattentive people should be treated. That’s true regardless of whether viewers know she has ADHD or whether Ali intended to depict someone with ADHD. If it looks like us, people will apply it to us.
Don’t get me wrong; this is still a great show. I have no doubt that most ADHD viewers will appreciate the representation. Plus, the ADHD shaming could be much, much worse. For instance, it could be Sailor Moon.
Still, it would certainly be nice if Disney would officially acknowledge Kamala as a woman, a Pakistani American Muslim, and a person with ADHD. That doesn’t mean they’d handle it responsibly – have a look at Moon Knight – but I bet Ali would.
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