Reality Girl: From Pakistan to the World
Wealth inequality might be the single most defining issue of our moment, but it often receives scant attention from the media and popular discourses of activism. As globalization continues unabated, all over the world populations are segmented into economic classes that benefit from the 21st Century’s prosperity and those who are either unaffected or even exploited by it. However, it remains very difficult to motivate those who do benefit to even look up from their phones and acknowledge the injustice of the present economic order. Solutions proposed in academia have often been political, but the presence of economic justice’s great evangelists in popular culture might be pointing to a cultural solution to income inequality.
Enter Reality Girl, a super-heroine whose greatest power is to overcome globalization’s consumerist temptations to advocate for those left out of prosperity in her community. She is the creation of a team led by Abbas Saleem Khan and Khaya Ahmed of Optera Digital, an Islamabad-based transmedia company. Sarah’s (the protagonist and eponymous reality girl) story begins with a discarded coffee cup and the claim that, “some kid will pick it up anyway”—a fatalistic outlook common to urban dwellers all over the world. However, after watching the same street kid that eventually picks up her coffee be whisked away by an older man, presumably to be sexually assaulted, her empathy awakens. She exclaims, “I never want to see such pain again!” and transforms into an ass-kicking protector of the vulnerable.
Ahmed told me in an interview about a month ago, “A lot of what we injected into Sara’s personality was what we do on a daily basis, that lack of empathy that a lot of people nowadays have towards homeless kids and stuff.” But don’t mistake this attitude as something specific to the Global South. She went on to tell me that Sarah represents an international and multicultural phenomenon: “I recently went to San Francisco, and I even saw that divide between the middle class and the homeless crowd, there was a lack of empathy.”
In Rich People, Poor Country, Syed Zaidi estimates that seven to eight percent of Pakistan’s population is wealthy by international standards. This wealth both insulates them from many of that country’s social problems, but also manifests as a kind of myopia sometimes. Khaya said, “Especially the upper middle class—they feel entitled. There’s a sense of entitlement that goes on. And that entitlement, we wanted to resonate in the comic book that we have this thing that, ‘No, someone else will do it. Why should we pick up the litter, someone else can pick that up for us?’ And we’ve already draw up on that. I know this is also something that’s very evident in our society and needs to change. The abuse is front and center. But these actions Sarah takes, we wanted to gauge upon them and show them that this is the real face, this is what people do.” Essentially Sarah is a humanization of the problem, a relatable but flawed protagonist, whom both Pakistanis and those who fill similar economic and class niches in their own cultures and societies can identify with. Her redemption is their redemption as well, so long as they act. This is why the comic is written in English as well. The creators wanted to give Sarah resonance with a specific audience—Pakistan’s English-fluent moneyed classes—but also a more general appeal.
Optera has a track-record of creating content that straddles generic and cultural boundaries. The Broken Banner, another project Khaya is working on, tells South Asian history through the generic conventions of both high fantasy and comic books, and will be a graphic novel. Their work has a distinct flair that is both South Asia-specific but also very fluent in transnational media jargons. They also have a flair for utilizing new technologies, such as their project working on a hologram of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s revered founder, for Hive Pakistan’s “AIK – Better Together” campaign to foster pluralism and multiculturalism. Khan, the company’s founder, got his start in video games, before moving onto VR and AR.
He told me that he saw the future of their work as continuing to focus on Pakistan, but left the door open to other collaborations in South Asia and across the world. Already, the simultaneous specificity and universality of Reality Girl is promising. After all, in an increasingly globalized world, their problems are increasingly revealed to be ours, whether that “they” entails people in a foreign country or the most marginalized in our own.
Tyler Quick studies the integration of queer counterpublics into the neoliberal public sphere, as well as how rhetorics of queerness shape contemporary pop culture and public life. After a decade of working in electoral politics, Tyler came to Annenberg to research the mainstreaming of queer theory in popular discourses. His dissertation project is an ethnography of queer nightlife in Los Angeles, paying special attention to the aestheticization of queerness as a branding mechanism and its political repercussions.
He holds degrees from the University of Colorado and the University of Chicago. His work has been presented at conferences including the International Communication Association, the National Communication Association, and the Cultural Studies Association annual conferences