In most hero stories, babies and small children are invisible or nearly so. We may see the hero himself as a child; the hero may briefly interact with children (usually preadolescent or teenage); but the hero does not go on his quest with a child.
After all, he’s busy. He’s got a lot on his mind. Young children demand constant care, constant attention. Who has the time? Not the hero. If there are little children in the picture, he usually parks them somewhere safe, in the care of someone else—as Hawkeye and Tony Stark do in the Avengers movies.
Ursula Le Guin addresses this issue in Tehanu, the fourth of her Earthsea series. Her heroine Tenar adopts an abandoned, abused child. When Tenar’s lover, the ex-wizard hero Ged, returns to live with her, she has to remind him constantly of the simple realities of childcare. Tenar wonders at “the indifference of a man towards the exigencies that ruled a woman: that someone must be not far from a sleeping child.” Later she snaps at Ged, “Why do you think only of yourself? Always of yourself?” To think only of herself is a luxury a mother never has.
And so she learns to cope, even when—as is happening more and more—she is the hero. In Aliens 2, Ripley battles the monster with a child on one hip.
Aeryn Sun of the Farscape series gives birth while the crew of her ship holds off attack, then charges out, gun in one hand, her newborn held firmly to her with the other.
As women’s roles change, so do men’s. But not overnight. It’s a process. We began seeing a dad who stays home and the mom who works in movies like Mr. Mom and shows like Who’s the Boss? a generation ago. Then we got movies about the tough guy/action hero who has to babysit, as in Pacifier with Vin Diesel or Kindergarten Cop with Arnold Schwarzenegger. All of these were mostly played for laughs.
A more realistic hero-babysitter scenario was provided in Willow, where the dwarf Willow finds himself responsible for a human baby. The movie shows Willow—who has children of his own—dealing with diapers and feedings not as something gross or funny but as a matter of course.
But now the new Disney series The Mandalorian gives us an action hero who not only takes care of a child, but, like Ripley and Aeryn Sun, can fight while holding it. The Mandalorian is a bounty hunter, a member of a warrior caste, who is sent after an “asset” described only as 50 years old. The asset turns out to be a baby who belongs to the same race as the Jedi instructor Yoda, who lived to 900 years old. Clearly this race matures slowly, and “baby Yoda,” as it’s been dubbed by the Internet, can only toddle and babble.
And is adorable.
The Mandalorian brings the child back to the client, but he is suspicious of what the client intends. Himself an orphan, he has already begun to bond with the child. His disquiet leads him to break into the client’s stronghold and steal the child. His hero quest becomes the child: to protect it and find its home.
Many others want the child—both the Mandalorian and the child now have large bounties on their heads—plus, as a warrior, the Mandalorian inevitably finds himself in situations where he is called upon to protect others. So he has to fight. He makes attempts to put the child into the care of others, but this never works out. By the end of the first season, he has accepted his role as both warrior and adoptive father to this child and the obligations this dual identity entails.