Let’s zoom in; a close-up of the mind:
The Jedi master and his apprentice Anakin are chained to two huge cement pillars, wrists shackled, shiny metal chains hoisting each man’s arms high. Against a third pillar, chained and pinioned like the two men, the young queen of Naboo stands in a skin-tight white catsuit. The clicking insectoid language of the planet Geonosis echoes across the coliseum as the prisoners’ execution is announced.
Three gigantic monsters, one selected for each of the chained malefactors, are released from their holds, and, amidst the vast crowd’s raucous cheers, Anakin looks straight at the shudderingly-roaring, dinosaur/bison-like creature destined for him and delivers the catchphrase of the whole franchise: “I have a bad feeling about this.”
The Jedi master sizes up his own creature, a huge blue crablike monstrosity with razor-sharp claws, and a shark-tooth-lined shriek. He admonishes his apprentice to focus, to concentrate. That’s all very well, retorts his young apprentice, but what about Padme?
“She seems to be on top of things,” the teacher quips.
In the background, as the men talk, we watch as their young female companion picks the lock of her shackles with her teeth, freeing one of her wrists and scaling the pillar to which she’s still partially chained, narrowly escaping. Oh, also? Her designated monster – a lion-like, spiny beast with a poisonous whip of a tail, actually ate its handler as it came onto the arena stage. An epic gladiator-style battle ensues, during which she more than holds her own.
This is Padme Amidala, female badass of the Star Wars prequels. Elected queen of a whole planet at age fourteen, she’s smart and resourceful, strong and independent, and more than capable of taking initiative as she makes choices alone. She disguises herself as a handmaiden to investigate diplomatic issues incognito, fights off droidekas at the head of her own troop of bodyguards, and manages to mediate the unification of two warring races after the Jedis’ attempt at a ‘diplomatic mission’ ends in slaughter and destruction. And all that in the space of the first film. Padme is, in all ways, badass. So it would be safe to assume she’s the protagonist of this story right? Right?
Padme may be the more interesting character, the stronger character, and the biggest badass of the prequels, but she’s not the protagonist, the center of the story—she is merely the center of Anakin’s life.
Let’s pan out. Wide shot: If Padme isn’t the protag, then what’s her role in the Star Wars prequels’ story as a whole? When our vision is zoomed in, her strength, capability and badassery is all we see. But when we step back and take a wider look at her function in the entire story arc of ‘real’ protagonist, Anakin, the problems that were invisible when we were blinded by her awesomeness come to the fore.
Anakin, quite understandably, falls hopelessly and obsessively in love with Padme. And we can see why: she’s unique and extraordinary. She’s also the *only* capable, independent, strong woman in Anakin’s world. The only one. In his world. His universe, even. (Actually she’s arguably the only woman in his universe, period. Apart from his daughter, Leia, later, who then becomes the only woman, also a badass, in his son Luke ‘s world.) Padme’s many achievements are summarily sidelined by the ‘love story’ that ensues, and once Anakin reaches the peak of his tragic hero’s journey, Padme dies – discarded the moment she no longer has a purpose in his story.
So what is her purpose?
Enter Trope #4 in the Problematic Badass Female Character series: The Meaning Of (His) Life. The badass female character who falls under this problematic trope has one purpose only: to enlighten, teach, and otherwise change for the better the male hero. It’s the badass version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl; no matter how badass, the female character is only there to change the man’s life. When this has been accomplished, she is eradicated.
Why is this so problematic?
Well, let’s take a look at the ‘real’ protagonist in comparison. While Anakin is a whining child in Ep. 1, Padme is the rock, the brains, brawn, and catalyst for everything that happens. The Jedis are just hustling to keep up with her. She calls all the shots. As Obi Wan later says, “She seems to be on top of things.”
Padme changes Anakin’s life completely—when, in Ep. 2, he admits love for her, one can see exactly why: she’s an incredible badass, an inspiring leader, as well as being beautiful, of course. Her calm capability is in distinct contrast to Anakin’s self-absorbed actions. She’s always a grown woman, Anakin always a child, in each of the three Star Wars prequels, even though she’s only supposed to be four years older than him. But he is the male hero, she ain’t. And he only grows up (as far as it can be claimed he does), because of her.
But why on Earth (or Naboo, or Geonosis) does she fall in love with him in return?! Nope, being a Jedi does not make him automatically awesome, sorry. And he really, really, isn’t. Guess again.
He’s selfish, impulsive, and displays an immature hatred of her involvement in politics, and continually undermines her attempts at diplomacy. There is nothing about Anakin that would make a woman like Padme fall in love with him. Except she does. Why? Because she’s expected to. Because that’s her only job.
Specifically, Padme as a character only exists to be Anakin’s love interest, and as such, to be the driving force for everything he does. Once his transformation into Darth Vader is complete, and his twins are born, she dies. Why? She’s no longer necessary. Padme’s occupation’s gone.
The Meaning Of (His) Life trope is so much more tricky and damaging than the manic pixie dream girl, because we are so easily blinded to the problems within these characters due to their portrayal as a badass (as indeed we do, to an extent, in each of these seven tropes). Let me reiterate: the seven tropes I’m covering in this blog series are specifically focused on *badass* female character types only. Why? Because the similar non-badass tropes (Damsel in Distress, Mary Sue, Fridging, Manic Pixie Dream Girl, etc.) are all ostentatious, obvious examples of popular entertainment’s (and therefore our culture’s) systemic misogyny. Their badass counterparts contain the very same underlying misogynist problems but it’s almost as though the makers of these things (Hollywood especially but not exclusively) think we won’t notice the sexism if the characters are badass enough. And, all too often, we don’t. That’s what this series of articles is for. Yer welcome. But I digress.
Here’s the thing about Trope #4: when we’re so close to the forest that we’re only looking at the trees, we see Padme as an awesome, strong character, because she does many awesome and strong things. We’re hoodwinked by the smart diplomacy of the queen, cheer as she fights off the monsters in the arena, and hey, if her form-fitting costume happens to get ripped into a crop top and low-slung tights, sexualizing her even as she receives Bruce-Lee-like claw marks across her perfectly slim midriff…? Well. She’s a beautiful girl after all. Ahem. And of course we root for Anakin to get the girl. Because she’s a badass!
But when we pan our vision out and thereby view the whole forest, we see that Padme’s purpose in the full narrative (not just as a character in a vacuum) is a device. Her purpose is not badass at all, and not empowering in the least. She’s not only subservient to the central male in the story, but exists solely for his character to develop.
Once again, as we admire a particular female character’s badassery, we fall victim to the old bait-and-switch: the fact that the Meaning Of (His) Life character is only there to further the male hero’s story. Padme herself has no real narrative arc—her incredible past, strength, political smarts, skill, leadership, queenhood, and yes, even her beauty, only serve to paint her over in a monochrome color called Badass. A ‘perfect’ woman – a literal guardian angel:
Padme’s skills and achievements are the reason the male hero falls for her and allow us to turn a blind eye to the major problem with her character: that she’s literally only there to fuel Anakin’s transformation. Literally. She dies when she’s no longer needed. And in childbirth, no less (see my next article which will break down some of the badass motherhood problematics). But Anakin’s heinous deeds, done as his journey towards the dark side nears completion, never find any opposition from ersatz badass Padme. She stays completely on the sidelines once she’s preggers, and does nothing about this awful descent, not an admonishment or even a question as to his behaviour. She stays on the sidelines, until the climax of Anakin’s story comes to a head in the torture porn of her death even as he transforms into something much more powerful.
Time for a little sub-trope: The Arwen Syndrome.
This sub-trope – a twig that grows out of the branch that is The Meaning Of (His) Life – is one I call The Arwen Syndrome. You remember Arwen Evenstar from Lord of the Rings? In the books, Arwen (daughter of a long line of extraordinarily powerful Elvish royalty) is the beacon and inspiration for male hero Aragorn. Memories of her and visions of her love are what gives Aragorn strength, what keeps him going when all seems lost, and gives him a reason to survive his adventure. But we as readers see her only twice in the main story arc (yes, there’s excess backstory and what-happened-next story in the appendices, but they’re not the *story*). The first time is during a huge gathering in which we’re provided with a long physical description of her beauty. The second time, she’s being given to Aragorn as a congratulatory prize for his success in saving the world, and she in turn bestows a gift to our male protagonist, Frodo, allowing him the huge honor of immortality.
We know nothing about her, except her parentage, and that a pivotal male character in our story loves her.
The movies made a feeble attempt to recalibrate and pump up Arwen’s character from what it is in the books, and the way they did so was to have her replace a couple of one-off male Elf characters from the books. So instead of meeting Glorfindel once, we meet Arwen. Instead of the river-horses protecting our band of heroes being a general defence of the Elvish city, they’re created by her. They also added some bits from the appendices in there too, just so we could see more clearly her relationship with Aragorn. So. Yanno, they tried. It was a valiant attempt, but it didn’t recreate her with any power beyond her original purpose in the books: the distant ladylove that our knight keeps in remembrance as he quests. She, like Padme, has no real reason for existence but to inspire a male hero from afar.
The Arwen Syndrome tradition comes from way back in the medieval troubadour stories of chivalric love, wherein the knight would attach a token from his lady to his armor or lance as he jousted or quested. The lady herself had nothing to do with his actual valor, and often wasn’t even the knight’s wife or love; instead, it was the idealized vision of her that became, supposedly, the source of the knight’s strength. The Lord of the Rings films may have attempted to change Arwen from an Arwen Syndrome phantom into a badass, but all they managed to do was create yet another Meaning Of (His) Life trope character.
As I’ve reiterated in each Problematic Badass Female Trope so far, recognizing and pointing out these issues of underlying misogyny isn’t meant to ruin the things you enjoy. But it’s important not to be fooled by the bait-and-switch tactic of the Badass being dangled in front of our faces like a rattle distracting a crying infant, while just beyond our vision, women continue to be treated as subhuman at worst, unequal to men at best. The least we can do as responsible media consumers is to point it out, call it out for what it is (systemic misogyny, kids), and then seek to understand how these portrayals of badass female characters influence our view of the real badass women in our real lives.
Entertainment and art inform our culture, and our culture is what sets up our social habits. Underlying misogyny in badass female characters translates directly to underlying misogyny in real badass women’s daily lives. If we call it out, we can change it. If we can’t see it because it’s hiding under a thick veneer of badassery, then there it remains. And all of us suffer for it.
Think of other examples of The Meaning Of (His) Life in your favorite media, and stay tuned for the next in the series: Mother Knows Best.
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