Spoilers for The Mandalorian Season 1 & 2 and The Skywalker Saga Films (Episodes I- IX) ahead.
Since the beginning, Star Wars has been known for churning out peak machismo characters that incite vengeful fanboys to hurriedly defend them and disparage the slightest sign of anyone different — AKA Rey or Rose. Kylo and Anakin are spoiled, alt-right children with anger issues and god complexes, Han is a cocky misogynist, and Emperor Palpatine is a manipulative, power-hungry politician who just won’t die so others can gain power (very similar to U.S. politics today). These characters’ growth (excluding Palpatine, who just gets more bitter) are too brief in screen-time and fans who defend said characters seldom take that change into account. Instead, they romanticize the toxicity the characters possessed for most of the films.
However, Lucasfilms has been ushering in a new era of Star Wars content that has not disappointed (unlike The Rise of Skywalker) and, with it, has come new feats in diverse representation for the franchise and the entertainment industry in general. From casting primarily “older” (which in Hollywood means over 30) women as central characters to a person of color (the incomparable Pedro Pascal) leading the show, fans are getting to see how truly diverse the Star Wars universe is and can continue to be. Specifically though, what has caught my attention is how different our male protagonist is from previous ones. The Mandolorian has a more nuanced and commentative take on masculinity that refrains from praising the toxic traits associated with the social category, while also showing a more positive and transformative representation of masculine characters.
The Mandalorian, aka Din Djarin, takes on some typically masculine characteristics that aren’t necessarily toxic but definitely limiting in defining manhood — distant, cold, morally ambiguous, stubborn, and rather indifferent to the people he may hurt through his actions. He’s a bounty hunter and a complete loner after his society was eradicated by genocide, so those overly protective and isolating traits do fit his storyline in his effort to live his life undisturbed. However, once Mando meets The Child (“Baby Yoda”, as the internet has dubbed him), he begins to reconsider the apathetic lifestyle he’s been living and is thrust into the world of parental responsibility and attachment. When tasked to retrieve The Child for money in the first episode, The Mandalorian is confronted with the choice between good or evil. He starts to question his morality when forced to decide whether to give up a Jedi child (which are the ancient enemies of Mandalorians) to be exploited and most likely killed. Instead, the anti-hero reconsiders this notion and decides instead to protect The Child at all costs from someone who wants to turn him into a superweapon — even when it means putting his own life on the line. Over the 8 episode arch of the first season, Mando forms a paternal bond with the charismatic little alien. He becomes much more sensitive, caring, and self-sacrificing in trying to keep his newfound son safe, but also manages to be a complex character who still retains his masculinity and goes on seedy adventures.
In the second season, Mando is much more conscientious. He leaves The Child to be babysat on some of the more intense missions now, but still, Grogu (as we come to find out is Baby Yoda’s actual name) being at Mando’s side is a given rather than an anomaly. Though neither character is really talkative, we get to see their loving bond through action and body language. Grogu gets himself snug in Mando’s cockpit and sits right next to him for every mission he's allowed. Not only is he physically with Mando all the time but, in the case of his ship, he is also nestled in the most action-heavy spot with him — the cockpit. He even breaks a handle and Mando learns to be compassionate about it, giving him the part the baby broke as a toy.
In addition to learning how to take care of someone he knows, Mando also starts to take chances on strangers — namely, a frog woman who is trying to be reunited with her husband across the galaxy. He goes out of his way to take her there. Though there is a transactional nature to it since the husband does have needed info, Mando still decides to take her anyway — showing that his once icy exterior is beginning to thaw. In many ways, he encapsulates the slickness of Han or Lando without having to be misogynistic or womanizing in the process. Mando brings to life that being demeaning to women does not have to be a central characteristic of morally ambiguous characters like the other two were. Similar to their respective character arcs, he is brought into a worthy cause because of friendship and compassion and starts to become a better person for it.
Watching this steady progression over the course of the two seasons is amazing to see in a male character, especially in comparison to the sparseness I mentioned previously. We see Mando go from this solitary livelihood to having a protective bond and a drive to fight against evil. Before, Din could care less about fighting against ex-empire loyalists. Now, he sees the value in saving people and possibly leading what's left of Mandalore civilization into a revivalist period again. Essentially, he has found a meaningful purpose in his life by undoing his own ill-conceived notions. He is helping the Jedi, plotting with law enforcement, fighting against conspirators, and — going against the most sacred rule for his particular sect of Mandalore — he removes his helmet. Din literally and metaphorically breaks down the shield he puts over himself to the outside world in order to be vulnerable enough to fight for what’s right. What’s even better is that he doesn’t let his identity and this newfound change become stagnant in his love for Grogu. When he eventually lets his son go train with Luke in the season 2 finale, the tearful protagonist takes off his mask and says a silent, emotional goodbye to the person who has transformed his life for the better. He understands that the greater good calls for Gorgu to leave him and he must accept this.
Another one of the reasons that Din’s arc stuck out to me is because there are almost no positive representations of good fathers or patriarchs in the Star Wars universe. The only non-toxic fathers/parental figures on-screen are killed off, barely shown, and not blood-related to the children they raised— namely Bail Organa and Uncle Owen. Heritage and fatherhood are central struggles for the entirety of the Skywalker series. Anakin doesn’t have a father and often takes on parental roles in providing for him and his mom, Darth Vader/grown-up Anakin is an imperialist genocidal maniac who tries to kill his kids and their adoptive families as well as almost doing so to their birth mother, and Kylo became alienated from his parents after they send him to Jedi training and eventually hates them while following in his idolized grandfather’s footsteps.
The healthiest family is a found one, or chosen one. That is established here in The Mandalorian when trauma evolves from the mistakes of the past. Instead of letting his orphaned childhood entirely consume him, as it did Anakin, Din becomes protective and loyal to his newfound son. He also doesn’t try to force a path upon him as Han did with Kylo, but lets Grogu decide to go with Luke. Though Mando does not always make the best parental decisions — like having Grogu accompany him on life-threatening missions on occasion or messing with the wires of his ship. He does, however, begin to learn from them — like leaving Baby Yoda at a schoolhouse while sneaking into an enemy base. He progresses and develops while the audience gets to soak this in, letting the emotional gravity weigh on them and watching as Din’s personality advances in a new direction.
We follow this story for two seasons; there’s this bond that grows between the two of them. He tries to not let himself soften, but he cannot help himself. - Pedro Pascal on Season 2
The Mandalorian provides a new type of male protagonist that challenges the more toxic men that have been put at the forefront of the universes’ content. Alongside its more explicit and authentic diversity, the show is wonderfully made featuring carefully crafted sets, fun-to-follow stories, and fantastical world-building that departs from what has been seen in films past. Off-screen there are a decent amount of opportunities for women and people of color in the director’s and producer’s chair but, the credits do seem to favor a white male-dominated crew in general. Hopefully, in the next seasons to come there will be more of an effort to diversify off-screen and add in LGBT+ characters in more than just a half-second kiss. Overall, it is a fresh example of breathing new life and perspective into a beloved story that also shows how diversity can be seamlessly integrated into tales of fantasy and science fiction. Hopefully, Mando’s evolutionary personality and kinder ways set a new standard on how to create male characters. And maybe, though this might be too optimistic, it will encourage the toxic fanboys who only want hyper-masculine characters to see that masculinity comes in a vast array of shapes, sizes, and colors.