This is a blog post was written as part of the ANU’s ‘Modern Mongolia’ field course held in Mongolia in July 2019.
The Secret History of Star Wars: Padmé Amidala – Queen, Senator or Mongolian princess?
By Georgie Juszczyk
Note: This blog also contains spoilers for the star wars movie franchise.
The Star Wars franchise is big. Really big. Its box office earnings alone total an estimated $9.323 billion. That is without accounting for the television shows, video games, books, graphic novels and merchandising (think the ‘Baby Yoda’ plush toys about to be released in 2020) that comprise the behemoth franchise.
Part of this success is its incredibly detailed world-building. This includes everything from the ‘Cantina Bar’ song, to the intricate lore that underlies each character and their back story, to the costumes.
Particularly famed, is the character Padmé Amidala and her ensemble of fantastic, rich raiment. She is the love interest of Anakin Skywalker, as well as Queen and Senator of Naboo (the planet is the scene of the climactic battle in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace). Her character is one possessed with dignity, strength, and royalty (although if you were really nerdy, you would know that she is not technically of royal blood, as Naboo elects their monarchs).
In one crucial scene, where Senator Amidala is beseeching the Galactic Senate on Coruscant to aid her ailing country, she is seen wearing a particularly striking gown and headdress (pictured below).
For detailed pictures of the costume in question, click here.
The costume designers for this piece have since confirmed that they looked at Mongolian, Tibetan and other traditional Asian fashion styles as inspiration for the costume. Red is a lucky colour in many Asian cultures, the powdered white face is a reference to the esteemed Japanese geisha and is a signal of wealth, and the headdress and voluminous sleeves is a common feature of the Mongolian del and Korean hanbok. (Some say that the spacious sleeves in the Mongolian del are indicative of the shape of a horseshoe).
Most striking, however, is the headdress. The construction is mounted on a ‘close-fitting metallic gold cap’ constructed from copper, plated in gold and other coloured jewels. It is directly inspired by the Mongolian headdress used by women from the Khalkha Mongols tribe, one of the largest ethnic groups in Mongolia today (they comprise an estimated 86% of the modern Mongolian population).
In the Secret History of the Mongols, said to be the oldest surviving literary work of Mongolian history, the anonymous author explains that this odd configuration for women’s hair, styled in place by sheep-fat, represents cow horns. It is a reference to the myth that Khalkha Mongols ‘were the fruit of a love affair between a nature spirit and a cow’, while the jewellery, which accents the protruding ‘horns’, are indicators of wealth.
The use of the headdress for Padmé’s character is also likely to be a nod to the Mongolian tradition of ‘warrior queens.’ Mongol history is peppered with accounts of these fierce women, who ruled the Mongol empire alongside and often in lieu of their male counterparts.
For example, Börte, Chinggis’ Khan’s first wife, capably ruled the Mongol homeland while Chinggis was busy conquering. When Chinggis’ second son and heir to the empire died, Töregene assumed complete power, and relied on Fatima (another incredible woman) and two other female governors, to rule successfully before handing over the empire to her son Guyuk. Referencing such an impressive lineage only bolsters Padmé’s regal credentials.
Cultural Appropriation or Appreciation?
Yet while Star Wars designers certainly reference this legacy in Princess Padmé’s portrayal, it is not clear that they give adequate credit to it. Are these visual imitations of Mongolian history cultural appropriation or appreciation?
Disney, for example, is no stranger to controversy when it comes to questions of cultural appropriation and cultural imperialism. On the one hand, drawing inspiration from the world around you is an important part of the creative process. Nods to certain cultures and their individual experiences can be uplifting, as well as an enriching part of the creative work in question.
On the other hand, the Star Wars franchise makes no effort to mention or reference the experiences of the Mongol culture, other than simply borrowing from the ‘strength’ and unique look of Mongol heritage. Some have gone further, saying that modern movies’ practice of turning to Asian cultures in order to make something seem foreign and ‘exotic’ (George Lucas himself describes Amidala as ‘exotic’ multiple times) is problematic, and potentially laden with ‘Orientalist’ undertones. Instead, they argue, these cultures should be normalised, celebrated, or only authoritatively represented by the custodians of that culture.
So, is this reference to the Mongol legacy laced with admiration and a positive sign of cross-cultural communication that should be encouraged? Or is it an example of an incredibly powerful franchise failing to pay adequate respect to the content, which contributed to that success? At what point does history end and ownership of the creative process begin and are the concepts mutually exclusive? Should Padmé be rightly portrayed as Queen, Senator or Mongolian princess?