None of that — plot, characters, direction — matters too much, though, because: Baby Yoda.
From first fuzzy-headed blush, Baby Yoda tugs out our squishy insides. His eyes are just … but of course the ears are so … and the little oft-dismayed frown!!! We want to be the champion he must so desperately need. A cry transmits throughout the galaxy: Protect Baby Yoda at all costs!
Cooler heads have urged us to temper our enthusiasm. Nothing so brain-meltingly popular could be so benign — even if it wears a delightful fur-lined jumper. Born of the multibillion-dollar industry-unto-itself that is “Star Wars,” Baby Yoda fits neatly into the category of, as Vulture puts it, “Adorable Little Star Wars Creatures You Are Now Contractually Obligated to Love.” Like wide-eyed porgs and droids such as BB-8 — I own plushes of both — Baby Yoda was made to be made and sell, effectively the tractor beam towing your money to the House of Mouse.
If this sounds at all sinister, I dare say we’re selling the li’l guy short. Baby Yoda is not only greased to go viral, not only perfectly primed for merchandise, but the way he makes us feel also crystallizes the beliefs that maintain our present economy. “He is lovable and terrifying,” writes New York Times television critic James Poniewozik, adding, “He may well grow up to be our master.” Poniewozik is almost there. Baby Yoda could hardly be more powerful than he is now, ensconced in his space pram, manipulating the Force with tiny fingers. It is not capitalism that sustains Baby Yoda; it is Baby Yoda who permits capitalism to persist. Baby Yoda is our master, and he need never make a single sale.
Baby Yoda is something of a myth. There exists no baby Yoda by that name. The precious goblin to whom we’ve given the moniker is vaguely called “the child,” lowercase “c” in closed captions, which some viewers have, perhaps more appropriately, chosen to nominalize as “The Child,” the title of the episode where we first fully apprehend the being. The child resembles the well-known green, elf-eared elder, but the location of “Mandalorian’s” tale within the continuity of the franchise, nestled a short seven years following the events of “Return of the Jedi,” precludes the possibility that the child is Yoda. And yet, I — and presumably most of the known Internet — refuse to let it go. There is delight in a name, the logic appropriately infantile for the thing beheld. Not all babies are cute, but everything cute is baby, and everything baby is cute. And cute Baby Yoda is.
Cute things compel us precisely because of the powerlessness they suggest. In her study on aesthetics and capitalism, Sianne Ngai, professor of English at the University of Chicago, describes cuteness as “an aesthetic of accentuated helplessness and vulnerability” that stirs in us complex feelings, among them the desire to protect even a fiction from harm. Cuteness, Ngai argues, is an aesthetic category that discloses our relationship “to the often artfully designed, packaged, and advertised merchandise that surrounds us in our homes, in our workplaces, and on the street.” Cute commodities let us pretend we have an uncomplicated relationship to something we’ve been sold. We’re connecting to the heart of the cute thing, we think; we do its bidding. “The cute commodity, for all its pathos of powerlessness,” writes Ngai, “is thus capable of making surprisingly powerful demands.” Even as an on-screen character, Baby Yoda animates the extremes of power and powerlessness that have come to define today’s stark and escalating inequality. He beckons us to feel in control of something, anything, for once in our aimlessly regulated American half-lives.
It may seem that the child requires our guidance, but the object of affection is not as vulnerable as we’re wont to believe. A deeply memeable still from the fourth episode shows him grasping a smol cup canonically containing broth. He cuts a judgmental figure — in one scene, he waits in the background for his hotheaded helmeted protector and an opponent to finish rolling about in the thoroughfare. Baby Yoda is forever chillin’, more collected than anyone around him, including us. To the contrary, we supposedly autonomous beings are reduced by his pinched countenance to babbling and gibberish, “a squeal or a cluck, a murmur or a coo,” as Ngai puts it. I cannot discuss the tiny lizard without contorting my voice in this way, without scrunching my face and hunching down as though he were a child in fact and not the digitally altered puppet he, or, I guess, it in fact is — nor would I alter this reaction if I could. The matter-of-fact eloquence of Werner Herzog is struck dumb by the thing, per an interview with Variety. “Heartbreaking,” he repeats, unable to elaborate, at a loss familiar to anyone with the pleasurable misfortune of encountering the cutest patootie.
Even those who have — out of cynicism or contrarianism — girded their senses against the infant don’t remain unaffected. Warning against the latent power of Baby Yoda, Outline deputy editor Jeremy Gordon cannot help but sink to childishness on the matter of the “widdle” godlike infant — “Aw. Awwww. Isn’t he a little darling thing? A sweet honey diamond?” Haters play the sucker as well as anyone else, falling prey to the power of cute things “to infantilize the language of its infantilizer,” as Ngai puts it. For even to be disgusted is to enter the cuteness rules of engagement, insulting admirers in a language their cute-addled brains can understand: mush and goo.
But Gordon is correct to urge caution against, as he writes, “the feeling that I’m being pandered to, that all of this is a foregone conclusion,” that he and we are powerless. The feelings Baby Yoda inspires are mixed. We want to hold him and tickle his feetsies. We want to boop his nose and nibble his cheeks. We want to squeeze him until his eyes pop out. We want to destroy all takers. We want to be loved by him, owned by him, crushed by him. “baby yoda run me over with your adorable floating cradle,” tweeted Kevin Nguyen, an editor at the Verge, coupling two capitalism-induced idioms — cuteness and suicidal horniness. We could just eat him up. We want to. Both glib and thoughtful readings of Baby Yoda take for granted that our feelings about the phenom are natural — organic — distorted only by the hulking shadow of intellectual property, without which we could feel good about feeling some type of way. Such faith, too, belongs to fantasy. These contradictions — adoration to the point of murder — are the toxic runoff of our relations to what we buy and what we’re sold. What feels primordial is actually capital.
Not merely moved but manipulated are we, to put it in the syntax Baby Yoda might use if given the faculties. (Baby Yoda is surprisingly mobile, tottering about like a drunkard, but coos and cries suffice as speech for now.) That Disney will absolutely rake it in off our aesthetic judgment of this character is largely beside the point. Baby Yoda is not powerful for the propriety of one megacorporoglomerate in particular — even if that one megacorporoglomerate seemingly owns the world — but for the leashed hostility of cuteness in general. Baby Yoda tells us a story not about Disney’s alleged marketing prowess, but about our own desire for faith in the things we consume. Peering into the round, dewy eyes of capital, there is one fitting response: I’m baby.