Our Mightiest Heroes: US Identity Politics and Ideal Citizenship in the new Ms. Marvel
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Kamala Khan is the new Ms. Marvel, a superhero with polymorphing, shape-shifting abilities. She is also a Muslim, Pakistani-American, high school student who loves playing videogames and writing fan fiction about the Avengers. Kamala Khan replaced Carol Danvers, a white, European-American military officer who previously held the mantle. In a popular culture environment saturated with images of superheroes, it is important to look beyond the apparent entertainment value of the genre and consider the social effects of superhero stories, particularly their potential to visualize national ideals and engage a shared morality. The central question of my research was whether, in transmitting ideal-laden narratives superhero comics serve only to reflect established social norms, or if they can themselves act to constitute new ideals and imagine a new national morality. Towards this end I examined the new Ms. Marvel series as a case study, exploring its social positioning and impact. I conducted my research over many sites, both physically bounded and virtually constituted, mixing participant-observation, interviews, and archival research. I gained insight into the industry norms that dominate comics “diversity,” the public narratives Ms. Marvel’s creators employed in presenting the series, the narrative and aesthetic techniques used to encode socially salient themes in the comic, and the way these themes were received and renegotiated by audiences through fan productions. I concluded Ms. Marvel is a dynamic text and a site of reimagining that engages an emerging praxis of identity politics, built upon an intersectional model of identity. It leverages perceived difference and highlights the heterogeneity that exists within groups imagined to be cohesive. Ms. Marvel ultimately calls into question the legitimacy of the lines upon which we draw the exclusionary boundaries that demarcate ideal citizenship in the United States.