Baby Yoda isn’t a baby, and his name isn’t Yoda. In fact, he doesn’t have a name at all: Disney Plus’s “The Mandalorian” dubs the character “the Child.” But the best symbols are blank enough for us to fill them as we please, and the most salient cultural phenomena are often also the simplest.
It’s the blankness, in fact, that gives Baby Yoda his power.
Baby Yoda towers in his captivating tininess above not only the TV-scape that his creators have conjured up but also the larger cultural ecosystem that stretches across the Internet. Maybe you haven’t seen “The Mandalorian.” You’ve seen Baby Yoda. And now, you can’t look away.
His eyes, big and bright, his eensy-weensy nose that actually earns the tired “button” adjective — and, oh, his ears, endearingly enormous yet somehow delicate, the sun filtering through them as he clutches a mug as miniature as he.
This creature is adorable by design, crafted to possess every characteristic that makes humans say “aww.” But just because we know we’re being fooled doesn’t mean we’ll stop being foolish. “You are cowards,” filmmaker Werner Herzog, grizzled and grim and altogether tough, reportedly said when producers tried to remove Baby Yoda from the set for a backup shot in case the puppet wasn’t convincing and a digital version needed to be substituted. “Leave it.”
He had fallen in love.
Baby Yoda plays on the biology of our species, but he also plays on the biology of the Web. He produces so many minutely different expressions in so many minutely different situations that he’s perfect for any amateur meme-maker who wants to repurpose him.
Oh, Rep. Barry Loudermilk (R-Ga.) just compared Trump to Jesus Christ on the House floor? Here is Baby Yoda, sipping from that little mug again, and you’d better bet he’s feeling judgmental. Or here’s Baby Yoda, this time making a baby frown. Here he is in a ramshackle stroller, looking worried for our democracy.
Baby Yoda can fit into any existing joke format, too — like that ubiquitous stock photo of a guy glancing away from his girlfriend at a passing other woman. Now BB-8 is the girlfriend, and Baby Yoda is the other woman. Baby Yoda can be accompanied by any text. He doesn’t speak, so the whole world can put words in his itsy-bitsy mouth. And people who’ve actually seen the show can’t explain that we’re getting Yoda all wrong, because on that Disney Plus screen he is just as much of a cipher as he is off it.
Baby Yoda’s blankness also makes him implacably likable. He doesn’t do enough things for anything he does to annoy us. He doesn’t say enough for anything he says to deter us from mimicking the Mandalorian’s sole imperative: to cherish and protect the child.
All these facts amount to an essential tension — of the super-galactic reach of this one small, imaginary alien, yes, but also of the experience of online life.
We’re doing Disney’s work by becoming Baby Yoda evangelists. Even those who haven’t purchased a subscription to the conglomerate’s mass-market entertainment are gobbling up its mass-market entertainment almost by accident. And, yes, as many have written, we’re being drugged into doing that with the heady cocktail of capitalist cuteness.
Then again, Baby Yoda is blank. And that means Baby Yoda, in a sense, is ours. We’re making Baby Yoda weigh in on congressional antics, on the top albums of the 2010s, on J.K. Rowling’s unexpected support for trans-exclusionary radical feminism. We’re creating a mythology of our own around this delightful object of 21st-century consumerism — a mythology that almost overtakes whatever saga Disney is building in its cinematic universe. Most of us haven’t even watched the show, right?
It happens all the time, whenever a video goes viral on the largest scale, or whenever we discover a new song we like on Spotify on the smallest scale. We’re not usually the ones who put these things online in the first place, and we’re certainly not the ones who built the algorithms that lift some posts into the digital canon and relegate others to the ash heap of Internet history. But we are the ones sharing the stuff, and it’s our ears saying yes to the music.
We’re floating between two realities. Those at the Web’s switchboard use what we like today to push us toward what we’ll like tomorrow, yet these mind-warping mechanics still do start with what we like, after all.
The original Yoda might say a question this raises: Who is the force really with?