Materiality and the Mandalorian: Mando's Helmet is a Social Agent

Materiality and the Mandalorian: Mando's Helmet is a Social Agent
Photo by LekoArts / Unsplash


Hello and welcome back to Materiality and the Mandalorian. This is part two of a series where I puzzle over how materials and objects function in the world of The Mandalorian. Or, at least, I watch The Mandalorian episodes and think about how the materials and objects function and the role they play in the story.

This week, we're going to start thinking about Mando's helmet.

Now, usually I'm interested in how special objects are made, but I'm saving up what I've written about beskar steel for next week, because I did say I'd do the helmet this week, so I ought to at least try to follow up on my promises.

There are lots of more obvious sociological ways of considering the helmet and Mando's requirement to wear it at all times, but I'm going to be focused on the helmet as an object, a social agent, and its role in Mando's life and the life of his sect.

In-Group vs. Out-Group

The most obvious function of the helmet is that it is the key object that separates the in-group of Mando's particular sect and the rest of the world (including less orthodox Mandalorians like Bo Katan).

But how does it do that? Why should Mando have to wear it all the time?

The most obvious answer is that rules and doctrines often make prescriptions to conceal the faces of in-group members from out-group strangers. Mando's sect is so strict that this includes Mando's closest friends.

This can be for various reasons, depending on what the sect wants to achieve with its rules. Some groups, for example, apply rules about headwear for men and women, which carry multiple functions, including ensuring modesty or contact with a divine nonhuman agent.

The use of particular types of headgear conceal parts of the body from non-members of the group or family, privileging particular members with the right to see this concealed part.

To some degree, this is the role Mando's helmet plays. One of the most critical narrative moments is when he commits the transgression of revealing his face to a non-member. Within the context of the story, it underlines to the viewer the intensity of the bond Mando has built up with Grogu.*

This moment also underlines the helmet's function for the sect: it provides a critical physical boundary between two faces. Faces are important throughout the Star Wars series; we might expand this analysis to consider Darth Vader's mask and helmet too, eventually. Critical scenes involve removing helmets and masks.

This also tells us that faces matter—being seen matters. People can hear Mando and they may even know his name. True names are not exactly concealed. But another being seeing his face matters. My friend remarked in a discussion that this extends even as far as droids, and it takes a lot of cajoling to persuade Mando to remove his helmet in front of one.

As an aside, there's a hell of a lot to be said about the liminal category that droids occupy in Star Wars. The moment where Mando is very reluctant to remove his helmet in front of a droid tells us that he, like a lot of people, tend to see droids as "people", at least most of the time. Whole essays could be written about droids in Star Wars, and I don't have the space here.

Seeing is a mode of experiencing others, but it is only one. We, and indeed everybody else, hears a slightly modified version of his voice when he speaks. For Mando's sect, we can thus surmise that the critical boundary between the sect, Mando, and the world, that the helmet patrols and maintains, is the critical mode of sight.

But then I got to wondering, what about Mando's experience of the world? What impact does the helmet have on that?

Sensory Perception: What's It Like To Wear A Helmet?

Studies of sensory archaeology and the materiality of the senses have been growing recently (see Hamilakis 2013, below). We engage with the world through our senses, and only through our senses. We engage with our bodies, with objects, and with other people, through sensory information.

But here's the problem: we don't know what Mando's sensory world is like. We can't know. I found this the most frustrating part of my work on ancient magic and materiality because even if I collected all the objects and materials necessary to make an object and recreated the rituals as described, I would only be able to experience the ritual as a modern outsider, not as someone who grew up in and surrounded by that world.

The same is true for Mando. My brother in-law got a replica Stormtrooper helmet for his birthday, but it could never be the real thing.** It can only be a replica. Even if it can modify the voice and give the wearer some small sense of being a Stormtrooper, there are certain lived experiences it cannot provide.

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Not me wearing a helmet. Photo by Joshua Rondeau / Unsplash

It couldn't tell you, for example, with any level of accuracy, what it's like to wear it and experience the world solely through it, for hours every day. Members of the 501st Legion get much closer, but they aren't going into war. Probably they spend most of their time being told they're a little short for a Stormtrooper or other jokes that are likely mildly tedious after you've heard them X million times in a day.

Everyone around Mando (with the exception of the Marshall, who I've just upsettingly seen get shot, Boba Fett, and Bo Katan), is excluded from Mando's experience of the world. Of course, all people are in some ways excluded from the very specific means by which an individual's internal sensory setup and neurological structure modulates their understanding of the world.

Mando is even more separate, thanks to the helmet. Based on what I've seen, it's evident that his experience of the world is probably in some ways enhanced. On a physical level, in terms of threat-detection and other facets critical to his life as a Mandalorian, he isn't hindered.

But on a psychological and emotional level, Mando's experience is very much altered by the presence of the helmet. The helmet acts, here, as a physical manifestation of the rules of his sect. It's the presence of the Armourer and her rules, established into material fact.

The Helmet as a Social Agent

This is where I think we land with Mando's helmet. While we can't know what his experience of helmet-wearing is, we can potentially use Actor–Network Theory to explain the role the helmet plays, and even have some thoughts about why it cannot be removed.

Actor–Network Theory examines the relations between human and nonhuman agents. I like Actor–Network Theory as a means of examining Mando and his helmet because it deals with both the semiotic meanings of the helmet and its fundamental materiality. We can also tack on a little light Distributed Personhood, to suggest that Mando's helmet acts as an extension of the rest of his sect, perhaps especially the Armourer as the dispenser and guardian of the sect's understanding of the world and how to operate in it.

Mando's helmet is a social agent. It is also somewhat independent of him, because even though he wears it, the rules around how and when it is worn are dictated from outside him. He can choose to take it off, and we have see him do this, but the risk he runs in doing that is massive. On a related note, this is why it matters so much that Mando took off his helmet when he did, and his attitude toward Boba Fett and others who happily go without theirs.

The idea of the Distributed Person, or Distributed Self, comes from the work of Alfred Gell (see below, Gell 1988 and 1998). It describes how objects and materials can become part of a wider sense of a human's own agency. In ancient magic, this is illustrated by magic performed on a person by using objects they own, especially clothes, jewellery, and discarded fingernails or hair.

What I find fascinating about the helmet is that it might be acting as both an extension of Mando and the Armourer. While normally we'd describe objects as being part of the extended person of the wearer or owner, I think the helmet has an overlapping relationship with the sect, embodied as the Armourer. She, after all, made the helmet in the first place.

When Mando wears the helmet, he is allowing the Armourer to dictate his perception of the world from a distance. Even removing the helmet in one instance has not changed the psychological hold the sect has over him. The Armourer is very much there, in the room (or on the spaceship), wherever Mando is. She doesn't need to be there physically, because the helmet continues to maintain the boundary between Mando and the world even when she's entirely elsewhere.

Of course, this means we're going to have to think about the Armourer and her spiritual–social role in more detail, doesn't it?

Like, Rate, You Know The Drill

I'm going to keep writing these as I keep watching. I have so many thoughts spinning around my head, so if you're curious about the materiality of the Mandalorian, you can subscribe using the button on the right or the box below. If you want to join in the conversation, you can @TheCharmQuark on Twitter—if Elon Musk hasn't burned it to the ground entirely.

Gell, A. (1988). Technology and Magic. Anthropology Today, 4(2), 6.

Gell, A. (1998). Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory. Oxford University Press.

Hamilakis, Y. (2013). Archaeology and the senses: Human experience, memory, and affect. Cambridge University Press.

Harris, O. J. T., & Cipolla, C. N. (2017). Archaeological theory in the new millennium: Introducing current perspectives. Routledge.

* Baby Yoda. Disney kind of insists on calling Grogu The Child in the first couple of seasons but the rest of the world knew him as Baby Yoda. I personally prefer Baby Yoda.

** There are whole theoretical fields devoted to how an object can be both the thing and not the thing. If you're interested, I can write more on that, or you can read Timothy Morton's book, Magic Realism. I'll be coming back to it when I deal with magic in R F Kuang's Babel.