Mr. Peanut wasn’t born; he was hatched, fully-formed, from the mind of a 14-year-old boy who entered a contest held by Planters Chocolate and Nut Company in 1916 to design a new mascot. “Mr. P. Nut Planter from Virginia” was a high-class legume with a knowing smirk. He carried his own briefcase and cane but was still young, with a spring in his step. More than a century later, Mr. Peanut was wizened and worldly in his monocle, top hat, and spats. He had seen war, he had known loss, and then, he was gone.
About a week and a half before the recent Super Bowl, Planters announced the death of Mr. Peanut via Twitter. On game day, they ran an ad that begins with Mr. Peanut’s funeral — notable attendees include Mr. Clean, Wesley Snipes, Veep’s Matt Walsh, and the Kool-Aid Man, who sheds a tear for his friend. The tears fall on Mr. Peanut’s peanut-shaped grave, the clouds part, and a beam of sunlight materializes. A baby peanut emerges from the ground, clad in Mr. Peanut’s signature top hat, making dolphin noises. Suddenly, it speaks in the voice of Mr. Peanut, “Just kidding, I’m back.” The hashtag #BabyNut appears on-screen. He is risen.
As advertising, the campaign was a success; we wouldn’t shut up about an anthropomorphized nut for nearly two weeks. But reviews of Baby Nut were mixed online. “He’s my son, I want him,” one Twitter user wrote. “I want to cave its fucking head in and eat the contents inside,” another opined. “Baby nut” doesn’t have a great connotation for anyone who is extremely online. (“Desperately want to talk to the internet genius who thought ‘baby nut’ was a good idea,” Slate writer Ashley Feinberg remarked. “Qanon is going to citizens arrest Mr. Peanut.”) Baby Nut also isn’t much of a baby: It’s Mr. Peanut trapped inside the body of an adorable little legume. Terrifying.
Nevertheless, reinventing Mr. Peanut as Baby Nut was a savvy move on the part of Planters. After all, we are currently living in the era of The Baby. Baby Nut wasn’t the only baby to debut during this year’s Super Bowl. In the trailer for Minions 2, a Despicable Me prequel, we were introduced to Baby Gru, a babified version of the villain at the heart of the multibillion-dollar franchise. (Minions, of course, are a type of baby. This is canon.) Hollywood’s baby boom has been happening for several years now. Baby Groot, the cutest tree you’ll ever lay your eyes on in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, was also reborn after the death of his adult form at the end of the original Guardians of the Galaxy, ahead of the 2017 sequel. The hero of The Boss Baby (2017), a hyper-intelligent baby in a suit, speaks in the voice of Alec Baldwin by way of Glengarry Glen Ross and code-switches among his infant peers.
But the poster child for this new era of the baby is, naturally, Baby Yoda, also known as “The Child,” introduced earlier this year on the Disney+ Star Wars spinoff The Mandalorian. Unlike Baby Nut, Baby Yoda is not necessarily the young Jedi; it’s not quite clear what its relationship to the original Yoda is. Baby Yoda doesn’t exhibit the weariness of the wise sage or speak with cryptic grammar. If Baby Yoda has experienced trauma and hardship, it’s not yet been vocalized. The Child’s role is to be someone the Mandalorian must protect at all costs. The Child is powerful but doesn’t quite yet know how to use its power, deploying it with the twist of its adorable little hands only when absolutely necessary. “The Mandalorian is merely the ship,” wrote New York Times television critic James Poniewozik. “Baby Yoda is the cargo.”
Internet users, from Star Wars superfans to casual viewers, exploded with glee when they caught the first glimpse of The Child. Its likeness birthed a thousand memes: sad Baby Yoda captioned with “When I gotta work again even though I just went yesterday”; a photoshopped image of the pope praying with Baby Yoda between his hands; Baby Yoda cupping a warm mug, like a character in a Nancy Meyers movie. Disney, unprepared for the reaction, eventually released Baby Yoda licensed merchandise, which riffed on the character’s meme fame and also its adorability.
Have you ever met a puppy and, as you’re playing with it, think about how nice its life must be because it doesn’t have to pay rent or go to work or think about how Donald Trump is president every minute of the day? There’s something inherently appealing about this ordained ignorance, the requisite ineptitude that a small child or an animal possesses. Being beautiful allows you get to away with being stupid, the stereotype goes. But being young and cute takes it a step further: It turns your ignorance into a virtue because one day you’ll be an old, smart, and ugly adult.
I was overcome with this urge to retreat back inside the womb, to be rebirthed into an innocent little baby who didn’t yet understand the struggle of being a conscious person in this difficult world.
For the past four years, birth rates have steadily declined; they are currently below the rate at which a generation can replace itself. Demographers at the National Center for Health Statistics attributed this trend to “the lingering effects of the Great Recession, which made it harder for people now in their 20s and 30s to reach the kind of milestones — like getting married, establishing a career or buying a home — that often precede starting a family.” But even though millennials aren’t having as many babies as previous generations, it doesn’t mean our biological baby mania has gone away. Instead, we’ve channeled those emotions into fictional babies. (For a mere $350, you can own a life-size doll of Baby Yoda, which is a steal when you think about the fact that you won’t have to pay its college tuition.)
It’s not that millennials are unable to care for themselves, but rather, they live in a world that’s hostile to their maturation. The line between entertainment for children and adults has grown increasingly blurred. While previous generations’ tastes might have changed as they age, millennials in particular are gluttons for nostalgia, and brands are happy to provide it to them since nostalgia sells even better than sex. Adults as well as children are obsessed with Disney’s intellectual property, from Marvel to Pixar. In 2019, Advertising agency MBLM found that Disney ranked #1 in “brand intimacy,” outranking Apple for the first time. “Brand Intimacy is defined as the emotional science that measures the bonds we form with the brands we use and love,” the report said. “Disney continues to dominate through its associations with nostalgia and the strong bonds it builds with both men and women and across a variety of age groups.”
I understand the yearning for infancy all too well. When I began to approach adolescence, I was overcome with this urge to retreat back inside the womb, to be rebirthed into an innocent little baby who didn’t yet understand the struggle of being a conscious person in this difficult world, a creature who needed to be cared for, who spent her days sleeping and drinking milk. It became a joke between me and my mother, my fantastical desire to re-experience infancy.
As I entered into adulthood, overwhelmed by responsibility, crushed by low wages and the astronomical cost of living, I again found myself fantasizing about infanthood. This time, instead of imagining myself as a little human baby, I envisioned myself as Baby Yoda. Of all the things I want but cannot have, wanting to be Baby Yoda feels unattainable in a safe way. And even if I’ll never shrink down to the size of a Gremlin, possess long and elegant green ears, or communicate in baby noises, Baby Yoda isn’t the ultimate goal. It’s finding the love of someone like the Mandalorian to shield me from this cold, hard world.