I get fairly irritated when people overlook the simple fact that Padmé Naberrie Amidala is the hero of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. She is overlooked as a solid hero because she starts off timid and weak. On top of that, I feel the general “fandom” is looking for a boy to be the hero, probably based of their own cultural norms which say women are not heroes. Padmé is much more than the love interest in the film and she is actually never objectified as such in The Phantom Menace. An emerging character has a crush on her and that is the extent of it.
The conflict of the film resides with her internally and outwardly. Her planet has been invaded. She is their leader, she is responsible. When the film begins, she has failed her people and let these outsiders take control of the kingdom she is supposed to rule. Naboo is occupied by corporatists with their manufactured armies. Instead of saving the day, like a hero, Padmé has failed to act. Padmé’s “people are suffering, dying.” This is because she is not an actualized hero at the start of the film, anymore than Luke Skywalker was when he was a farm boy, repeatedly failing to meet his aspirations.
It is Padmé who decides to take that first step into the “much larger world.” Luke enters that wilderness when he steps foot into the cantina. Luke is “not in Kansas anymore” as Joseph Campbell would say. Padmé has the same experience, for all intents and purposes. She could have remained on the ship, but instead she has her decoy impersonate her and thus begins her true adventure. Yes, she is reluctant. She doesn’t like that the Jedi are wreckless. But she gambles on a boy and wins. Her first step off her ship takes her on a path that will save her people and alter her life forever.
Padmé at this point is still a pacifist who is about turning the other cheek, rather than fighting back. It isn’t until she actually surprises the galaxy and makes it to Coruscant that she wakes up and becomes a woman of action. She sees that the politicians and the corporations run the senate now. She sees that no one is going to help her. She must help herself. She makes two big decisions. She unseats Chancellor Valorum to get rid of the impotent leader (yes this is a worse thing in the end but with her knowledge at the time, it was rather sensible). Knowing her people are suffering, she decides she is going to go back to Naboo and liberate her people through her actions with force.
It is on Naboo that she comes up with the plan to take Naboo back from the Nute Gunray and his Trade Federation. She reunites the Gungans and the Naboo people. She comes up with the land battle diversion. She comes up with the battle in space that will knock out the droid control ships, and she herself captures the Viceroy. She physically arrests her invaders while her plan destroys her invaders armies. All of this is because of Padmé and no one else. It all came from her character’s head and heart.
We start the film with a weak, timid, sad girl. We end the film with a woman of action who did what needed to be done to save her planet. That is a pretty goddamn good hero if you ask me. The unlikely hero is Star Wars’ specialty and there is no difference here.
I believe accidental sexism is the main reason viewers misinterpret the film. Trolls like “Red Letter Media” are confused by who the hero of The Phantom Menace is. It is because they are looking at the movie through a culturally sexist lens. Yes, the film does feature a lot of emerging characters, but the core of the story could not be more apparent. The film only fails at giving us a hero if we insist that the hero must be male. Perhaps years of hearing that the film was about young Obi-Wan Kenobi and Young Anakin Skywalker set people up to look at the film from a skewed and erroneous perspective?
We have a long way to go with women in film as heroes. We have had some strong pushes recently, in films such as The Hunger Games. But back in 1999, a woman in a film franchise was either a sexual object or non-existent. I think it is time to stop looking at The Phantom Menace as a film where Padmé is not the hero.