As sketched out, The Mandalorian, the Star Wars TV spin-off that follows a lone bounty hunter on his missions and adventures across the galaxy’s fringes, hardly has room for cute diversions. But just half an hour into its debut 2019 episode, the cutest thing arrives, in the form of a tiny alien creature with oversized ears and huge black saucers for eyes, prone to cooing, and swaddled in a Margiela-style beige robe. An infant member of the same species that gave us Yoda, it was dubbed The Child before season two’s Chapter 13 divulged its actual name, Grogu. But trust the internet to land on the label that stuck: Baby Yoda.
And Baby Yoda killed it on the internet. Listicles, tweets, and memes abounded, melting in the face of the Child’s screen presence and proclaiming it the Cutest Thing Ever (sample: “I never thought anything could warm my cold dead heart until now”). The show’s cast members were inclined to agree. Of the fledgling, guest star Werner Herzog gushed to Variety, “It made you cry when you saw it… it’s heartbreaking,” while Carl Weathers kept it real with, “It’s one of those things that if you have kids, come Christmas, you may wind up with a little toy.”
No doubt, Baby Yoda is yet another marketing and merchandising home run for Star Wars, the franchise that launched in 1977 with (pretty much) a two-hour advertisement for toys. But unlike action figures of Jedi knights and stormtroopers, Baby Yoda’s appeal hinged nakedly on cuteness — the one thing that’s bound to tap our compassion, make us go “awww”, and revive our withered hearts.
We’re hardwired for this too, as generations’ worth of cuteness studies have uncovered just what we find cute and how cute finds us. At the heart of these interrogations is the infant schema (Kindchenschema), posited by Nobel Prize-decorated ethologist Konrad Lorenz in 1943. Denoting a set of baby-like features — you know, round faces, huge eyes, chubby cheeks — that we humans find impossibly adorable, it helps our brains to recognize a defenseless toddler in need of caretaking, hence ensuring said infant’s survival. In short, cuteness serves an evolutionary function, one that Baby Yoda itself brandishes to devastating effect.
But of course, cuteness does more than uncork our parental instincts; baby-like sounds, smells, and behaviors also kindle in us complex emotions. Notes a 2016 study spearheaded by neuroscientist Morten Kringelbach: “Cuteness has a key role in facilitating social relations, pleasure, and well-being, as well as increasing empathy and compassion.” If you’ve ever viewed a single kitten or puppy video, you’ll know. And if you’ve watched an episode of My Little Pony or a Disney cartoon, you’ll get the whole picture.
In fact, Disney, Star Wars’ parent company, has spent decades upon decades mining cuteness to craft characters, tell stories, and sell toys. Animated creations from Nemo to Bambi, Mickey Mouse to Winnie The Pooh have been meticulously designed with infant-esque signifiers to endear, beguile, and engender sympathy. Early Disney animator Preston Blair, in his 1949 guide Advanced Animation, deftly summed up the company’s formula for a cute character, “The basic proportions of a baby + expressions of shyness or coyness.”
Disney’s never been alone with that recipe; Japan has been a mean competitor in the cute stakes ever since it stuck the littlest red bow on a cat. In fact, so much of the country’s postwar culture is rooted in kawaii, roughly translated as “cuteness,” which Joshua Paul Dale, a scholar of cuteness, defined as “a pure feeling of unabashed joy taken in the undemanding presence of innocent, harmless, adorable things.”
Across Japan’s pop landscape, those feels are typified in manga, Sanrio and Pokémon characters, emojis, Studio Ghibli productions, the art of Takashi Murakami, and a plenitude of mascot characters (yuru-chara). It’s a veritable feast of kawaii that draws a cross-generational audience and has circulated the planet many times over. As Krista Suh, who co-created the “pussy hat” that adapted Hello Kitty’s silhouette for the 2017 Women’s March in Washington D.C., readily admitted, “I was practically raised in Sanrio shops.”
All that cuteness, though, is not always an end in itself. Perhaps more compelling than a cute Pompompurin or Pikachu created to sell lunchboxes are the kawaii characters or creations that harbor darker, deeper undercurrents. Hence the sub-genres of kimo-kawaii (creepy cute) or guro-kawaii (grotesque cute). And hence the work of Murakami, whose anime-inspired character Mr DOB bears googly eyes as much as a mouth of menacing teeth; and Yoshitomo Nara, whose paintings of forlorn children explore themes of isolation and aggression.
It’s less an undermining of cuteness than deploying cuteness as a mirror or salve to the world’s woes and uncertainties. Consider Baymax, the huggable, rotund star of Disney’s Big Hero 6, whose role as a “personal healthcare companion” eventually extends into helping its maker tackle loss and grief. Or check out Wall-E, the expressive-eyed robot who roams a post-apocalyptic landscape while embodying an urgent environmental message. “This faintly menacing subversion of boundaries — between the fragile and the resilient, the reassuring and the unsettling, the innocent and the knowing,” writes philosopher Simon May, “when presented in cute’s frivolous, teasing idiom, is central to its immense popularity.”
It’s no wonder that Baby Yoda would contain those same multitudes. Yes, it’s criminally cute, but the creature also happens to possess the Force, the Star Wars version of space magic that can be wielded for good or evil. (And to the outsized dismay of some on Twitter, Chapter 10 further revealed — spoiler alert! — Grogu to be an avid frog egg-chomping animal. Kimo-kawaii, much?) Our titular Mandalorian, charged with watching over Grogu, finds his childcare duties to include feeding the creature as much as checking its primal instincts. Grogu, in turn, does the job of any cute thing, offering Mando a spot of comfort and connection in a vast galaxy. “Take care of this little one,” fellow warrior Cara Dune tells him in Chapter 8 as she bids the pair farewell, to which Weathers’ Greef Karga adds, “Or maybe it will take care of you.”