The Mandalorian's Political Allegory: Diversity Is the Way
When the president of Lucasfilm Kathleen Kennedy announced there will be more than 10 Star Wars shows and films coming out, she declared that popular culture is a space of diversity. All stories can and should be told simultaneously and adjacently.
For a television show that centers on a masked, male individual, the final episode of Jon Favreau's The Mandalorian Season 2 (which premiered on Disney+ 18 December 2020) showcases a sequence that is wildly unexpected and politically telling.
In the final episode, the titular Mandalorian is accompanied by a motley crew in order to rescue the cutest, most profitable puppet this side of Gizmo. In the final episode, one of the central themes of Star Wars is dramatized, that "hope" and change are achieved through forged collectivities, which assume the affective form of chosen families.
The political allegory of The Mandalorian, though, is not this abstract truism about found families, but rather, about diversity.
Onboard a big-baddie ship to rescue Baby Yo -- I mean, Grogu -- Mando goes one way, and the team that does the heavy-lifting, the team that decimates the ship's supply of endless stormtroopers are comprised of women. Feminist power the Hollywood way! The season finalé features a lengthy sequence following four kick-ass women: Cara Dune ( Gina Carano), Bo-Katan (Katee Sackhoff), Koska Reeves (Mercedes Varnado), and Fennec Shand (Ming-Na Wen).
A feminist collectivity emerging from a billion-dollar franchise was recently seen at the end of The Avengers: Endgame (2019). But that scene—while amazing—felt forced. In contrast, in The Mandalorian, the four women brandishing blasters and displaying out-of-this-galaxy fighting skills feels narratively earned. These four women have slowly but steadily made their way from the margins to the narrative center.
The point I want to emphasize, though, is not that The Mandalorian is a feminist allegory. Rather, I'm addressing how the show is an allegory for thinking about popular culture beyond the tired, reductive, and damaging discourses that assess popular culture through a political binary, discourses that dismiss franchise movies as either too liberal, or too conservative, or too politically correct.
Multiple articles have been penned documenting the horrific, abusive behavior of a small coven of Star Wars fans who scream into the digital void that the Force is the exclusive property of white men. These "fans" lambast the sequel trilogy, for example, for ruining Star Wars by capitulating to Social Justice Warriors (the sworn enemy of white, male Jedis!). Moreover, this coven harasses actors of color who dare believe that there is a place in the galaxy for non-white, non-masculine bodies, and they abuse female fans of Star Wars, as documented by the research of political science professor Dr. Bethany Lacina.
On 10 December 2020, however, Kathleen Kennedy, the President of Lucasfilm, offered a different way to think about the politics of popular culture. During Disney Investor Day, Kennedy shocked the world by disclosing that Lucasfilm was currently producing more than t0 different Star Wars television shows and movies. As Kennedy proclaimed: "There is truly a new Star Wars story for everyone".
Some projects announced include Obi-Wan Kenobi, helmed by Deborah Chow (who directed several episodes of The Mandalorian); The Acolyte, helmed by Leslye Headland (co-creator of Russian Doll); Lando, helmed by Justin Simien (creator of Dear White People); Ahsoka, focusing on the female Force-user from the animated series The Clone Wars and Star Wars: Rebels; the forthcoming movie Star Wars: Rogue Squadron, written and directed by Patty Jenkins, who helmed Wonder Woman and Wonder Woman 1984; and Taika Waititi's unnamed movie, which is still shrouded in secrecy. All these creators are women and/or people of color. In a sense, the last episode of The Mandalorian Season 2, which premiered seven days after Disney Investor Day, encapsulates this seismic shakeup in the galaxy as a single man's quest (the titular Mandalorian) gives way to a diverse collective led by women of myriad races and ethnicities.
There is a cynical reading of this Star Wars abundance and diversity. To proclaim that the future is Disney-controlled may be more evidence that Adorno and Horkheimer were right all along with their critique of the "culture industry". If the future is controlled by multi-national, billion-dollar corporations, many people may want to jump to hyperspeed in search of a different planet.
However, there's a more important allegory to highlight, one that helps reframe how we think about popular culture. Rather than cultural-political tribes working up all of their tribal energy to embrace or lambast a specific tentpole film as to how it coheres with or challenges a group's politics, Kennedy's vision is that popular culture is not a zero-sum game. Rather, as Kennedy helps highlight, popular culture is a space of diversity. All stories can and should be told simultaneously and adjacently.
This is a model of culture that is not based on an economy of scarcity, but on an economy of abundance. Indeed, not all the Star Wars movies and television shows in production were disclosed on Disney Investor Day. In the post-credit sequence of The Mandalorian's Season 2 finalé, a title informs that coming in December 2021, another previously unannounced series is going to premier: The Book of Boba Fett. There are always more stories to tell, to fund, and to critically consume, and these diverse worlds unfold in the same, shared world—or galaxy, in this case.
I am a teacher at a public university in Chicago and my education philosophy can be summarized in one sentence: diversity is the best teacher. Popular culture, like the classroom, should be a space where different creative voices are embraced and seen in relation to each other. Popular culture is a giant sandbox in which all creators—of all genders, sexualities, races, ethnicities, religions, nationalities, ages—can play and create and learn from.
Rather than exclusively focusing on—fetishizing, really—one film and endlessly debating its politics, motivations, and values, Kennedy is helping to expand the galaxy far, far away and to avoid the pitfall of what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls "the danger of a single story".
Kennedy's vision is not just to earn profits for Disney, but to create a Socratic media space where more voices—especially voices marginalized by the dominant culture—can be heard, seen, and celebrated. It's telling that Kennedy, one of the few women leading a US Hollywood franchise, is at the helm of this creative, revolutionary renaissance.