For those of you that don’t know, Padme is the leading lady in George Lucas’s Star Wars prequels trilogy. Released in the late nineties and early 2000s, the prequels document Anakin Skywalker’s transition from hopeful young Jedi to evil asthmatic badass, Darth Vader. Padme is a huge part of this – as her role is the only significant female character in the prequels trilogy – and remains an integral part of all three films. While the films were a huge success (because who doesn’t love Star Wars), they were critically panned, to the extent that most fans would just prefer not to think about them. Padme received a similarly mixed reception, with some fans seeing her as a feminist icon and some as a massive let-down.
But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!
NOTE: Just so we’re clear, I will not be looking at Extended Universe material in this post – unfortunately I just don’t have the time to go through it all.
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
In the first two films, Padme is pretty much in control of her own destiny. When her home planet is invaded, she escapes, attempts to appeal to the Galactic Senate to lift the invasion, and when that fails, she brokers a peace treaty between the Naboo and the Gungans and leads an army to get rid of the invaders herself. When she’s almost assassinated and sent back to Naboo for her own safety, she decides there are more important things at stake – like rescuing Anakin’s mother, Shmi, or helping out Obi-Wan Kenobi. She isn’t always in control of absolutely everything, but she doesn’t need to be – no matter what happens around her, she still tries to do what’s best for her friends and her people.
That all changes in the third film. In Revenge of the Sith, Padme becomes pregnant with Anakin’s children, and spends the entire film moping. She doesn’t lead rebellions, she bows out of political life and she has absolutely no interest in all the intrigue and betrayal going on around her – she’s got a baby to think about. If handled properly, this could have been actually very understandable. Anakin and Padme married in secret, and a pregnancy could reveal their relationship to everyone and destroy both their careers – you can see why it would be a sensible idea for Padme to duck out of the public eye once she started showing.
However, it isn’t handled well at all – and that’s mainly because of how Padme reacts. In the previous two films, it’s made pretty clear that the thought of bowing out of public life for a while is not something she wants to do. It’s established that she feels she has a duty to her people, and pretty much nothing is going to stop her from fulfilling it. In the third film, she seems to have forgotten about that side of her personality completely, and is very happy talking about her plans to raise her children. What’s crucial here is that we don’t see Padme’s transition from passionate political player to a contented expecting mother – we don’t even see a moment of realisation from her where it dawns on her that her future children are more important to her than her political career.
Instead, it’s like a switch has been flipped. She begins the third film as a completely different character – one who is content to sit back and let other people dictate the important events in her life. She goes from a very active character to one who does nothing of significance in the film apart from get pregnant and die. That’s one hell of a step down. I’ll give her half a point for the first two films, but rest assured I’ll be talking about this again.
SCORE SO FAR: 0.5
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
We don’t see a lot of Padme’s hobbies, but she mentions swimming a lot when she was younger so I’ll allow it. Her goals and beliefs are much more clearly defined. She strongly believes in a fair and representative democracy and has very well-informed political opinions. This also ties in with her belief that she has a duty to her people, and tries to do her best for them at every turn. Her goals are closely aligned with this. Whether she’s trying to stop an invasion or rescue her friend, they’re made very clear. I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 1.5
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
Some elements of Padme’s character are consistent. As far as her skills go, she’s shown to be politically astute, have a decent grasp of speech-making and negotiations, and is a dab hand with a blaster. Her personality is much patchier. She’s always shown to be kind, fair-minded and optimistic, even in Revenge of the Sith when all she does is sit around and be pregnant.
However, Revenge of the Sith is only one film – and in the other two, she’s a very different character. She’s active, hard-working, a little stubborn, ambitious, very determined, easily adaptable to a range of different situations and incredibly brave. These traits are made clear in The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, but have almost completely disappeared by the third film. The second she gets pregnant, she becomes a completely different person.
Now, I understand that pregnancy changes people. Aside from all the hormones and body stuff you have to go through, the fact that a woman is bringing a child into the world – a tiny little human who she is now COMPLETELY responsible for – is obviously going to lead to some pretty serious soul-searching and re-arranging of priorities. However, the key thing is that we never actually see Padme do any of this. You’d think that a character who was such an active political player might have some trouble adjusting to a much more secluded existence – but Padme never even mentions any of this. She and Anakin don’t talk about it, we don’t see her discuss it with anyone else – her absence from political life isn’t mentioned by any other character AT ALL. She just disappears, sporting a pretty sizeable pregnancy belly, and we don’t even see another character ask where she’s gone.
This is why I think Revenge of the Sith made Padme into such an inconsistent character. We don’t see her adjusting to her new role. We don’t see her talk about her changing circumstances with anyone – she and Anakin don’t even talk about how they’re going to keep their relationship (and babies) secret after the children are actually born. We don’t see anyone else ask about where she’s gone. We don’t see anyone asking for her help. The first two films painted her as a politically significant woman heavily involved in the Senate – the third film wipes this away completely. Everyone forgets about the role she used to play, and everyone treats her like a completely different character. Which, in fact, she is.
SCORE SO FAR: 1.5
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
A determined young Senator with a passionate belief in democracy tries to stand up for her beliefs.
(I’m ignoring Revenge of the Sith here, obviously.)
SCORE SO FAR: 2.5
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
In the first film, Padme’s love life isn’t mentioned at all. She’s a political player trying to do what’s best for her people, and doesn’t have time for romance in the middle of an invasion. Her love life only starts being relevant in the second film, when she meets Anakin Skywalker again – except this time, he’s all grown up. Then, as I’ve already discussed, she gets pregnant in the third film and her personality (and motivations) do a complete 180.
Her love life is a pretty central part of her storyline in Attack of the Clones. After he’s assigned to be her bodyguard, she starts developing feelings for him. She resists it at first, because Jedi aren’t allowed to have personal relationships with anyone, but after a few near-death experiences she realises that she can’t ignore her feelings and the two marry, but keep their relationship a secret. But despite the fact that this is a pretty big part of Padme’s character arc, it doesn’t really feel like she’s completely ruled by her love life. She makes a lot of decisions in this film that don’t have anything to do with her love life – like going into hiding, taking Anakin to Tatooine and rescuing Obi-Wan Kenobi. She’s motivated here by her desire to do what’s best for other people, rather than her feelings for Anakin.
This is how the third film should have been handled, but of course, that didn’t happen. In Attack of the Clones, Padme’s decisions to help people clearly mean a lot to Anakin, and that’s what ends up bringing them closer together. In Revenge of the Sith, Padme’s decisions revolve around her relationship with Anakin and their unborn children. This is understandable, but it makes the relationship between them seem kind of static. Most of this stagnation can be directly traced back to Padme – Anakin is undergoing huge changes, but she just reacts to them.
In short, the extent that Padme’s love life influences her decision depends on what film she’s in. In Attack of the Clones it’s handled well, and her love life is allowed to blossom while she’s an active player in the story and makes decisions that affect the plot that don’t involve her boyfriend. In Revenge of the Sith, it isn’t handled well – all her decisions and actions revolve around her relationship, making her seem like less of a developed character and more of a token love interest – and this is only multiplied by the fact that she’s the only significant female character in the movies. I’ll give her half a point.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
Padme does change over the course of the prequel trilogy, but I’m not really sure if I’d call it character development. She starts the story as a determined, ambitious politician determined to do her best for her people, and ends it as a young woman starting a family with someone who increasingly starts to scare her.
However, we don’t really see this character change for ourselves. Padme ends a film as one version of herself and, when the next film starts up, begins it as another – we don’t see what made her personality change so much in a short amount of time, and we don’t really know how she feels about it, either. She seems like a different character altogether, rather than a slightly different version of the same character who’s changed as a result of her experiences.
This isn’t proper character development. It’s fine for a character to undergo a dramatic change, but to make it believable we actually need to see that happen. We never see Padme talk about how having children has made her reconsider her priorities, or how her changing circumstances have affected her emotionally, or how she reacts when confronted with something from her old life. We never see her make a decision to step down from public life, and we never get to see whether this decision was actually difficult for her to make. We don’t even see her panic – which would be perfectly understandable in her position. Long story short, we don’t actually see her react to the drastic change in her own circumstances.
This is a huge problem. It’s not the same as proper growth because we don’t actually see how she dealt with the change. It’s a complete change in her personality – going from someone who actively said that she didn’t want to step down from public life to someone who is more than happy to back down from the career that forms the foundation of so much of her personal beliefs and goals. This really needed to be discussed and explored properly – but it simply wasn’t.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Does she have a weakness?
Padme doesn’t really have all that much of a weakness. She’s stubborn, but more often than not this is taken as proof of her political convictions or the depth of feeling she has for her friends or her people. Her stubbornness does put her in harm’s way, certainly, but it’s not portrayed as a flaw – rather as an indication of how good other parts of her personality are. It certainly doesn’t throw a spanner in any of her personal relationships or wider political goals, so I’m withholding the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
For most of the prequels trilogy, Padme does influence the plot. She’s an active political figure who makes her own decisions, leading various resistance forces and rescue missions alike. True, she spends most of Revenge of the Sith sitting around, but I’ll overlook that this round – in the other two films, she’s a driving force on the plot.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
I’ll try not to repeat myself too much here, but at this point it’s kind of inevitable.
If Padme was only in The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, she’d be an incredibly progressive character. In those two films, she’s smart, determined, brave – she’s a good leader and negotiator driven by strong political convictions. That’s actually a really positive role model for young girls to have – she’s not just a hero, she’s also a military and political leader, and a respected one to boot. That’s not something we usually see in female characters.
However, that all goes down the toilet in Revenge of the Sith. Padme doesn’t go to the Senate any more – she stays at home, refusing to see anyone, hiding her pregnancy from all her friends and sticking by her increasingly unstable man. We see Anakin go out killing people and then cut back to Padme, worrying prettily at home – a far cry from the capable leader she used to be.
This is pretty much the exact opposite of what you want to be telling young girls. She gave up everything she believed in the second she got pregnant. It’s fine for her priorities to change, and it’s fine for her to want to start a family, but the fact that she just doesn’t talk about this makes it hugely problematic. Everyone – the other characters, the audience and the writer included – assumes that Padme is happy to give up her political career and start a family, but we never actually see Padme say this herself.
This is really where the crux of the problem lies. Padme just doesn’t talk about the way she feels about trading negotiations for nappies. It’s never discussed, and in the previous two films politics was practically all she talked about. If we’d actually seen her saying that she wanted to start a family, that she was looking forward to the prospect of having children, or even that she was becoming jaded by the politics of the Republic, that would have been a completely different story. It would have made Padme’s transition from politician to stay-at-home mother much more believable and added another layer to her character – but of course, that isn’t what we got. What we did get was a young woman who, on finding out she’s pregnant, forgets about everything she cared about before and spends the entire film mooning after her crazy, homicidal husband.
And that brings me nicely onto her relationship with Anakin. Padme is shown to be a pretty moral person – someone to whom values are very important and who believes in treating people as equally as possible. She ends up marrying Anakin, who massacres an entire tribe of Sand People as vengeance (including defenceless children), kills more children at the Jedi Temple and, ultimately, ends up killing her.
Padme knows that Anakin has done terrible things. He tells her so himself – confessing to the murder of the Sand People who took his mother – and doesn’t consider that he’s done anything wrong. She knows all of this, and yet she still decides to stay with him and start a family with him. Even after he told her he murdered an entire village of Sand People, she still can’t believe that he’s capable of committing more atrocities, and is shocked when she ends up becoming one of his targets. By the time she realises what’s going on and tries to leave, it’s too late. Anakin almost kills her, and though she survives his attack, she gives up on life completely, only staying alive long enough to deliver and name her two children.
This is an incredibly damaging narrative. To watch an intelligent young woman delude herself that the man she married isn’t a monster is a frankly painful experience. We never see Padme question her relationship with Anakin, or start to take steps to protect herself from him, or even resolve to fight for her unborn children. To Padme, romantic love is the most important thing in her life, to the extent that she’s prepared to stay with a man who has the blood of hundreds on his hands.
However, Padme’s love for Anakin isn’t treated as the incredibly sketchy relationship that it is. Her insisting that there is good in him, even after he tried to kill her and their children, is treated as a sign of their mutual love and devotion, rather than as someone unable to face up to what their partner has done. Anakin and Padme’s scenes together are filled with declarations of love, they race across the galaxy to throw themselves into each other’s arms – and Padme never stops to think that maybe, a man who literally committed genocide is not a good choice of husband.
This is really unhealthy, and feeds into all kinds of ideas about love being able to fix every problem, and love being the most important thing in a woman’s life, and that women should always ‘stay the course’ in their relationships and avoid breaking up with someone unless they cross some arbitrary line. Padme ‘stands by her man’ – but that man is a child-murderer, and she knew that before she married him. There’s pretty much no coming back from that.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- How does she relate to other female characters?
Padme doesn’t really relate to any other female characters. We know she’s close with her decoys, but we rarely know their names – and often, they die the second their characters are introduced. She only lives long enough to name her only daughter, Leia, so they don’t have a relationship to speak of. She chats a little bit with Shmi Skywalker, Anakin’s mother, but never with any kind of depth or feeling. I’m withholding the point.
FINAL SCORE: 4/10
Padme is a mostly-active character who influences the plot and has a clearly defined set of goals and beliefs, but she falls far short of passing my test. She doesn’t develop, she isn’t consistent, she doesn’t have much of a weakness nor any significant relationship with another female character, and she reinforces some frankly dangerous gender stereotypes.
But to be perfectly honest, she would have got a much higher score if Revenge of the Sith had been a different movie. Pretty much all of the problems with her character can be traced back to this film, and if it had been handled more thoughtfully, I’m confident she would have come close to passing. But of course, this wasn’t to be.
Next week, it’ll be the seventieth post on my blog and that’s making me feel a little old. I’ll be doing another comparison post – Sleeping Beauty, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.