Star Wars, for better or for worse, has managed to endure for 40 years -- and it shows no signs of slowing down. Since Disney's purchase of the franchise back in 2012, the company has jumped right back into the fray of making new Star Wars movies -- not only with picking up the thread of the main episodes but adding on by way of separate anthology films all set within the same universe. For fans both new and old, it's an exciting time; the promise of more Star Wars is leaving many with guarded optimism and the hope that new films will succeed in areas where past installments may have stumbled.
While the original trilogy of Star Wars films is held in high regard among many fans, that same affection doesn't always extend to the prequels. Beginning with 1999's The Phantom Menace, the prequel trilogy suffered not just critically but among the fans as well. Most negative fan criticisms point to elements like George Lucas' heavy incorporation of CGI (with the character of Jar Jar Binks serving as a prime example) or clunky dialogue in what are supposed to be romantic scenes between Anakin Skywalker and Padme Amidala.
Those judgments are definitely not inaccurate, but the prequels themselves have many hidden gems amongst the over-use of green screen and awkward character exchanges. The politics of the Star Wars prequels make for a fascinating study; one could write an entire thesis on Palpatine manipulating his way to power -- first in the Galactic Senate and then over the entire galaxy as Emperor. (If you want to watch a prime example of a scene where character dialogue succeeds, look no further than Palpatine’s monologue at the opera house in Revenge of the Sith.)
Beyond any political analysis, the prequels have a lot more to offer than might be perceived at surface level. One of the main characters over the course of the trilogy is a 14-year-old girl elected by her people to serve as queen. Within the plot of The Phantom Menace alone, Padme Amidala accomplishes several things:
1. She escapes capture by an invading force called the Trade Federation.
The Neimodians who make up the Trade Federation are convinced that the takeover of Naboo will be an easy feat due to the relative youth and inexperience of its queen -- and Darth Sidious, working to orchestrate things behind the scenes, even refers to her as "young and naive" and that "controlling [Amidala] will not be difficult." However, if Padme's story in the first film establishes anything it's the importance of not underestimating young women simply because of their age. (Of course, the fact that she had a pair of helpful Jedi assisting in her escape didn't hurt either.)
2. She goes undercover on a dangerous planet controlled by gangsters.
Much of the movie is spent on Tatooine, which even Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn points out is a particularly dangerous world since it is not technically part of the Republic and under the control of the Hutt crime family, among others. When he sets off in search of parts to repair the ship, the Queen sends her handmaiden Padme along. Later, it's revealed that Padme is actually the queen herself -- which makes all of Amidala's earlier choices all the more courageous given the risk to her safety. Amidala's choice to go into the "hive of scum and villainy" that is Tatooine is proof that she's not above involving herself in some of the more unsavory aspects of her mission.
3. She singlehandedly organizes an alliance with an alien race to take back control of her homeworld.
After finally making it to Coruscant to participate in a Senate hearing, Amidala makes the decision to go back to Naboo against the recommendation of several of her political advisors. She refuses to allow Naboo to remain under the control of the Trade Federation, and against an opposition of their impressive battle droid army she enlists the help of the Gungan species to recover the planet alongside her own people. In the Battle of Naboo we see her taking down droids right alongside her security chief Captain Panaka, fighting her way back to her own throne room. She serves as an integral part of the team in removing the occupying force from her planet.
While it might be easy to dismiss Padme Amidala as little more than a few elaborate costume and makeup changes, those remarks are ultimately doing a disservice to her journey. There may be parts of the prequels that are worth critiquing, but other aspects shouldn't be so readily dismissed simply because the films themselves are generalized as being bad movies.
It's interesting that when we think of "strong female characters," the examples most often pointed to are those fictional women who have literal, physical strength -- but that's not the only thing that should define a female character. While Padme does possess the physical ability to handle herself -- in Attack of the Clones, she frees herself from her chains on Geonosis long before Obi-Wan and Anakin have even finished discussing an escape plan - her strength is also signified by her skills as a politician and a natural leader. After her term as Queen of Naboo ends, she is elected as the planet's Senator - costume changes and all. There are some unfortunate aspects of Padme's later arc; in Revenge of the Sith, she spends most of the film sidelined from any action due to her pregnancy, but she serves as a driving force to influence Anakin and all of the decisions he makes - even if those choices lead to a miserable end for them both.
Those who don't look back on the prequels with any fond feelings might overlook Padme or not consider her an action hero when compared alongside her film predecessor and canonical progeny, Leia Organa, but there's more that unites these women than mere genetics. There are shades of the same defiance in Padme's vote of no confidence against Chancellor Valorum as there are in Leia standing up to Darth Vader. They both experience threats against their home planets -- and eventually their very lives -- but no amount of opposition and intimidation can scare them away from doing the right thing. They both have no problem wielding a blaster against their foes even when the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against them. Sure, they're both "strong female characters" -- if by "strong" you also mean capable, intelligent, quick-thinking and compassionate.
As a whole, the Star Wars franchise has made some strides in certain areas of representation - but it does have a ways to go in depicting a galaxy far, far away that reflects all of the fans who enjoy it so much. Hopefully, as the franchise continues to expand, fans will have the opportunity to see more female characters who embody all aspects of strength. With that in mind, we shouldn't forget that the women of this universe -- both existing and waiting to be created -- don't have to be defined by their ability to fight or hold a blaster or a lightsaber. There is strength in passion, proactiveness and intuition -- traits that the women of Star Wars have never been lacking in.