In the lead-up to the The Phantom Menace’s return to theaters, StarWars.com devoted an Episode I-themed week to Queen Amidala, and Lex and I decided there was no better time to wrap up our discussion of Padmé. Since we both took a turn at delving into her character – Tricia with What is Strong? and Lex with The Life and Death of Padmé – it seemed appropriate for us to finish with a combined final look at her portrayal. We admire Lucas for his storytelling and the monumental steps he made with Princess Leia and Padmé on behalf of strong female characters, but we still feel a couple of storytelling points have kept those two characters off the all-time strong female heroines lists, and we thought it was worth discussing the reasons why.
Tricia: No doubt The Phantom Menace is the strongest portrayal of Padmé within the Prequel Trilogy. She stands firm in the face of oppression, doesn’t wilt before the Senate, and returns home to fearlessly defend her people when a diplomatic solution becomes untenable. In Attack of the Clones, this same ferocity and passion for the Naboo is on display, but in the move to reveal her sexual awakening that paralleled Leia’s in The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas managed to cheapen her character instead of enhance it. I remember the first time I watched the arena sequence. When Padmé steps off the chariot that has taken her into an arena of blood-thirsty bugs, she’s not a love-swooning woman after finally declaring her love to Anakin; instead, she proceeds to save herself from bondage to the huge phallic symbol while her male Jedi counterparts bickered, still trapped in their chains. I absolutely loved the scene – right up until the moment the nexu strips off half her shirt to reveal Padmé’s midriff. It’s ironic that her kick-butt moment is exactly the point that Padmé began losing traction as a strong female character.
Lex: While The Clone Wars continues to further build up her strong side, the television series is limited in its ability to repair the damage done by these elements in the movies. Although Palpatine lures Anakin with the offer of the power to save Padmé from death, only one man truly holds the power to save her characterization.
For all the heat he has taken in some quarters for making small revisions to new releases of his own films, George Lucas never apologizes for tinkering with the movies. In fact, he frequently insists that he only makes these edits to bring the films closer in line with the vision in his head. Some edits are basically superficial, like the additional and enhanced visual effects for Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back or the blinking Ewoks in Return of the Jedi. Some add content without affecting the story, such as the quick appearance by Jabba and Boba in A New Hope or the extended Podrace opening in The Phantom Menace. Others, though, do change the characterization implications, including swapping in Hayden Christensen as the redeemed Anakin’s Force Ghost and, most notoriously, Han Solo no longer definitively shooting first. Most dramatically of all, perhaps, Lucas not only filmed new footage of Ian McDiarmid for the brief conversation between Vader and the Emperor in Episode V, but also rewrote the dialogue to more directly connect the two trilogies.
From this perspective, then, it’s fair to ask: why not make a few edits on Padmé’s behalf, too?
The easiest edits would also pay big dividends for her portrayal: restoring the deleted Naberrie family scenes from Attack of the Clones and the deleted political dissent scenes from Revenge of the Sith. The scenes in her childhood home, discussing her upbringing and interacting with her family, add a great deal of dimension to Padmé’s character, as well as showing a more positive and endearing side of Anakin that helps convey what she found so easy to love about him. Likewise, the scene with Padmé and her allies in the Senate form a direct connection to her daughter’s Rebellion two decades later. They also form a juxtaposition of strength – even standing up to the Chancellor, to his face, just days before giving birth – against the more anxious and tearful scenes. If the movies can bear the weight of the additional time for scenes such as Jabba in Episode IV or the extended Podrace in Episode I, surely they also can afford a few extra minutes to bolster and support Padmé’s characterization.
Tricia: Unfortunately the midriff-baring in the arena scene cannot be as easily remediated. For all its titillating nature, the infamous metal bikini actually served the story in Return of the Jedi; it emphasized both Jabba’s despicable personality and Leia’s strength and courage to literally turn the chains of her degradation back upon her tormentor. Padmé’s light blue dress with a bare midriff on Tatooine both fits the context of the searing desert and displays an informality and openness toward Anakin in the moments before he heads off to seek his abducted mother. Sadly, nothing similar can be said about Padmé’s arena experience. Having the nexu rip off the bottom half of the shirt to her diplomatic attire is simply gratuitous – it adds nothing to the story or to her characterization. Instead, it falls right into the typical pattern of marginalizing female characters by showing their skin. As much as Lucas wants Padmé to be a strong character, this aspect of Episode II will mark a contrary indication.
Lex: On the other hand, it may not be too late to repair some of the harm from the single most damaging scene of all – Padmé’s death in the medical ward on Polis Massa.
Medical Droid: Medically, she is completely healthy. For reasons we can’t explain, we are losing her.
Obi-Wan: She’s dying?
Medical Droid: We don’t know why. She has lost the will to live. We need to operate quickly if we are to save the babies.
Simply deleting a single sentence – “She has lost the will to live.” – would change the nature of this exchange from an objective medical analysis to an inexplicable mystical phenomenon. Rather than a presumably reliable assessment from a droid, seeming to place the blame on Padmé’s own lack of fortitude, her fate would be mysterious and beyond her control. No one blames Qui-Gon or Shmi for the cruel twists of misfortune that took their lives. At a minimum, Padmé deserves the same.
In light of all the lore and backstory recently revealed in Darth Plagueis, however, it seems likely that George Lucas does in fact have in mind a more specific explanation for the causes of Padmé’s death. Thematically, for example, the symbolic connection of Anakin and Padmé as symbionts links their multiple rescues of each other in Episode I and their “true love” whirlwind romance in Episode II, and there is powerful resonance in the symbolism that Anakin and Padmé die as Vader and the twins are born. A single line of dialogue, perhaps from Yoda, could convey this metaphysical symbiotic notion quickly yet effectively.
Tricia: Or perhaps something else was going on. Was Anakin somehow subconsciously projecting his power through the Force to keep her alive, only to fail amid the pain of his reconstruction?
Lex: Was the medical droid simply incorrect in his diagnosis and Padmé actually was dying of her injuries, and only through her own strength of will held on long enough to save her children? (Although that possibility would strengthen Padmé, it also would make Anakin far more directly culpable in causing her death, something that Lucas seemed to deliberately avoid.)
Tricia: Or did Darth Sidious reach out through the Force to snuff out her light, believing he had killed not just Anakin’s wife but his child as well?
Lex: Whatever the explanation Lucas really intends to be the truth, he should reveal it – formally and officially as part of the Star Wars canon. Ideally, by editing the dialogue in Revenge of the Sith itself for the expected 3D theatrical run and subsequent home-video releases. If not that, then at least in an Expanded Universe story, such as a Padmé lore book.
Until then, Padmé’s death scene will inevitably continue – rightfully – to undermine her strength in the mind of many Star Wars fans. I think it’s entirely fair for io9 to include Padmé on their list of the 10 Most Undignified Deaths in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Even with all the bravery and willpower that Lucas, Dave Filoni, and Cat Taber have brought to her character in The Clone Wars, nothing in those pre-Episode III stories can erase the manner of her demise. Only George Lucas has the power to save Padmé from his own writing in Revenge of the Sith.
Tricia: Fans, of course, are not limited in the scope of their imaginations the way George Lucas presumably would feel constrained to make only minor edits to the film. Back in the heyday of Prequel Trilogy fanfiction, both before and after the release of Episode III, fans conceived numerous heroic deaths for Padmé that gave her an exit far more worthy of her status as a strong female heroine and one of the saga’s Big Six protagonists. Not to mention a wide range of alternate-universe tales in which Padmé survived Episode III, an option presumably not available in the canon.
Lex: Or is it?
Tricia: This fangirl thinks resurrecting Darth Maul is a nifty turn of events, but I’m not sure anyone’s ready for Padmé to emerge from the hereafter. I’m actually fine with the tragedy of her death, just not how her heroic nature was diminished by a couple of poor storytelling choices. The fact is, there were some potentially better ways to end Padmé’s life.
Lex: Agreed. There are simple modifications like a mystical explanation for her death in childbirth or building upon the concept art with Padmé bringing a knife to Mustafar to face Anakin, to significant differences like a combat showdown with Vader or the Emperor after the children are born and already in hiding.
Tricia: Similarly, it’s worth considering why Padmé’s death scene has affected so many people’s perceptions of her character so substantially. Certainly it could have been worse, whether a Romeo-and-Juliet Shakespearean suicide or a melodramatic “I can’t live without him” overt declaration of hopelessness. Why does one weak moment, disappointing as it is, undermine everything else about Padmé’s strengths to such a degree? Is there a double standard at play – would a male character with an equivalent weak moment be judged so harshly? Perhaps he would, but I wonder.
Lex: Regardless, the issues raised by her death in Revenge of the Sith present a great case study for thinking about strong female heroines, their character arcs, and their fates. Although it is probably too late to save Padmé’s story, learning from her tale presents the opportunity to do better with other characters in the future.
Feel free to share in the comments your thoughts on the various versions of Padmé’s death, and why her death scene in Episode III troubles fans so much.