In the last two installments of Star Wars’ Forgotten Women we have covered Zam Wessel and Shmi Skywalker, two interesting female characters who play a crucial role in their respective Star Wars films. This post, though, will not focus on a single woman but rather on a whole gang of them which are constantly, consciously, in the background of the first two Star Wars Prequel films. I am talking, of course, about Padmé’s gang of Handmaidens. Describing them as a gang may be pushing it a little bit but I simply can’t deny that whenever I see them I feel a little thrill of admiration because of how powerful they look. Bringing together a group of women so trained, intelligent and capable, and having them headed by certified badass Padmé Amidala, is one of my favourite choices that George Lucas has ever made. Let me get into why below.
George Lucas first got the idea for the Handmaidens while writing the rough draft for Star Wars, where he intended them to accompany Princess Leia on her travels. Traditionally in history Handmaidens were nothing more than maids or even slaves, but when George Lucas envisioned them for New Hope he already envisioned them as more than just servants. Rather than servants the Handmaidens would feature as travel companions and even stand-ins for Princess Leia. Although they were scrapped then, the Handmaidens finally appeared on screen in the Prequel films where they had become much more interesting characters. Highly trained in combat and diplomacy, they accompany Padmé Amidala both during her reign as Queen and during her time as Senator and were her close confidants. Although largely silent apart from Sabé, the Handmaidens have a very strong presence in the Prequel films and also in the, now, Legends.
We get our first sight of the Handmaidens at the same time that we see Padmé for the first time. In her message to the Trade Federation she is flanked by two Handmaidens, standing where usually one would expect bodyguards to be. This shot is clearly meant to be intimidating, while also retaining the sense of culture and sophistication which is elemental to Naboo. The Handmaidens are dressed almost like classical statues, standing stock-still and come across as ancient and immovable. It is as such that they remain throughout the films, both powerful and secretive. As characters they are very open to exploration because not a lot is (canonically) said about them. Because of this the Handmaidens have also managed to capture the fandom imagination rather well. Whole websites are dedicated to them, outlining their exploits inside as well as outside the films. Especially Sabé, whose big role in The Phantom Menace meant she was very much at the forefront of the film, is a favourite. Whether it’s her being shipped with Obi-Wan Kenobi or all the Handmaidens’ lives being expanded on in fanfiction, they open up a whole plethora of female stories within the Star Wars Universe. For this alone they are amazing additions to the Star Wars canon.
What is great about the presence of the Handmaidens is that, for once, we didn’t have a young woman surrounded by men telling her what to do. This has been a weakness of many “strong female characters” in film, who may be strong in their own right but have to (emotionally) rely solely on men to survive with not another woman in sight. On a planet like Naboo where only Queens are elected Lucas recognized the need for a strong female presence on all different levels of society. Padmé Amidala is powerful but she is also young and her confrontation with the Trade Federation would be enough to send even toughened rulers scrambling for safety. Even her wizened male counsellors suggest surrender, but with her Handmaidens backing her and offering her support, Padmé is able to make the choices that will not only lead her people to freedom but will also unite them with the Gungans.
Aside from diplomatic support, the Handmaidens were also great at shifting roles. Whenever we see them on screen they are active, even if they seem passive. This is especially clear during the Hangar Battle and the whole invasion of the palace in Theed in The Phantom Menace where the Handmaidens show their versatility. Many of the Handmaidens is seen with a blaster, each of them actively fighting alongside the Palace guards and being a crucial part of the Palace take-over. While maintaining an image that seems very feminine (elaborate dresses, neat appearance and seeming respectful silence) they can rough it in the Naboo marshes, shoot a blaster and, as The Clone Wars show, be part of covert operation. The Handmaidens use the preconceptions of others against them, with the Trade Federation being the prime example. Just because they’re women doesn’t mean they can’t do everything they set their mind to and because of this they make amazing role models.
Finally there is one small point which actually can’t be emphasized enough. The Handmaidens show how capable women are of hard work and sacrifice for a greater good, rather than just a man. Too often in fantasy and sci-fi the female characters are only spurred into action when they have to prove themselves to their lovers or sacrifice themselves for them. Star Wars started a different trend with Princess Leia and thankfully continued that with the Handmaidens. Whether it’s Cordé going above and beyond her duty in The Attack of the Clones or Teckla Minnau helping Padmé sabotage the Banking Clan in the The Clone Wars, the Handmaidens are women who are willing to strive and die for what they believe in. These women, including Padmé, chose careers based on their beliefs and ideals. By doing so they are an example to all of us and definitely deserve more recognition.
If you also love the Handmaidens and want to know more about them I recommend checking out the Royal Handmaiden Society.