To both a seasoned Star Wars fan and a casual viewer, the treatment of Natalie Portman's Padmé in the prequel trilogy (Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Episode II: Attack of the Clones, and Episode III: Revenge of the Sith) is certainly something to scoff at. She has a laughably small role outside of being Anakin's catalyst for destruction; she has little screen-time despite being an essential character to the story, and, of course, there are the mysterious details of her untimely death.
For years, many—myself included—have questioned why Lucasfilm would relegate such an essential character as the mother of Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa to such a humiliating death as that of implied heartbreak. I mean, consider: Anakin (Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christensen) has most of his limbs severed and is thrown into a raging river of lava by his best friend, and Padmé… well, Padmé dies of a broken heart.
How can that be, all within the same scene, too? As a female fan, my answer came pretty intuitively.
While there are other female characters in the prequel trilogy, none of them play a significant role. The roles Padmé plays in the storyline are relentlessly overshadowed by those of the male characters like Anakin and Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor). As fans, we can come up with ideas for making the story better than it already is all we want, but it's important to examine the reasons behind why Padmé's death scene wasn't treated with more dignity, and beyond that, why her character wasn't treated with more respect.
I'm not saying that George Lucas intentionally slighted Padmé because she's a woman. What I am saying, however, is that it's evident in the treatment of her character throughout the films, including in her death scene, that inherent biases against women prevalent in our society (especially in the late '90s/early 00s when these films were released) prevented Padmé from getting the respect and the story she deserved. Her story was used only to further Anakin's character development (or regression, I suppose), and this is no isolated incident; this happens all the time to female characters in Hollywood.
There are plenty of male fans who think Padmé deserved better, too. For a professional fellow fanatic's opinion, I interviewed my brother. The two of us grew up on Star Wars. We were always playing lightsabers in the yard, running around the house with bedsheets on as Jedi robes, and playing with Star Wars action figures (of which I was always Padmé. Always.). When asked what he thought of Padmé's death, my brother said, "it shows [Lucasfilm's] intentions pretty clearly that they couldn't even write-in strong enough technology to save Padmé while giving birth, when they wrote-in an entire suit-making machine to save Anakin from burning in lava. Also, Padmé is way too strong of a woman to give up being there for her kids and her people just because Anakin went to the dark side." 'Nuf said.
Plenty of others have opinions on Padmé's fate, as well, and they have ample suggestions for improvement. Let's look at some of the ways fans have applied their theories and alternate-endings to allow room for Padmé to have a death deserving of the brilliant woman and leader she's implied to be (or has been, as it were).
This is perhaps the most prevalent theory out there; that Palpatine (first Senator, then Supreme Chancellor Palpatine, all played by Ian McDiarmid) stole Padmé's life force to save Anakin and turn him into Darth Vader. Joseph Tavano from RetroZap goes in-depth with this theory here, so I'll spare a reiteration of the details. Instead, let's examine this theory regarding how it treats Padmé's character and allows for a more respectable death than her canon fate.
This suggestion gives Padmé power even though Palpatine is manipulating her in this theory. This power comes because she's being placed on the same level as Anakin; instead of being shoved by the wayside to create a more tragic story for him, Padmé becomes an active part of the greater plan, here. She still works as a catalyst for Anakin's destruction, which is understandable because he's the main character. But instead of being an afterthought, Padmé is afforded the status of a character that matters enough for the biggest baddie of the Star Wars franchise to manipulate her life force directly.
This theory is interesting, too, because, as Tavano mentions, there are glimmers within the films that this theory could have been intended to be part of the story from the beginning. However, it's clearly not how it played out in the end.
This theory is my personal favorite because I think that, despite being the most manipulative of all the theories, it makes the most sense to me. All of the gritty details of this theory can be read at Inside the Magic here, but the most important thing to note is that this means that Padmé was being manipulated in some capacity the entire time.
While on the surface, this seems to suggest that we can't really know her character, we see plenty of examples of her behavior that indicate how she would act in situations throughout the prequel trilogy were she not under a Jedi mind trick. We know she is headstrong, that she is a leader first and foremost, she cares deeply for those in need, values compassion greatly, and knows what she wants. I find it hard to believe that in The Phantom Menace, what she wants is a weird, pre-pubescent boy, especially when Ewan McGregor's handsome Obi-Wan is right there.
Jokes aside, there are glaring instances throughout the prequels in which I and plenty of other fans find Padmé's behavior and reactions hard to believe, given what we know about her character. One instance, in particular, comes to mind: Anakin's rageful admission after his mother's death in The Clone Wars.
After announcing, quite intimidatingly, that he has slaughtered all of the men, women, and children in the village in which his mother was taken captive, everything we know about Padmé's character suggests that she would run far, far away. Instead, she stands there, quite uselessly, acting as Anakin's sounding board. Being under a Jedi mind trick would mean that Padmé wouldn't have acted as her true self, and would explain her useless behavior, thus sparing Lucasfilm from simply using Padmé as a plot device.
The Original Ending of Revenge of the Sith in Which Padmé Actually Has Agency
So, this one isn't actually a theory; it's the original ending of Revenge of the Sith, according to Iain McCaig, a concept artist for the prequel trilogy. All of the details can be found at SlashFilm here. After reading this ending, it's clear that Lucasfilm had at least some idea of how to give Padmé a dignified ending and allow her to be her own character. So why was all of that scrapped for the laughable ending she really received?
It all goes back to the treatment of female characters in Hollywood: I would wager that a solid nine times out of ten, a female character will be overlooked for her male counterparts and even used to further their character development and stories. This dismissal relegates female characters like Padmé to plot devices and nothing more than companions for their husbands/family/coworkers/etc. So it comes as no surprise that while Padmé's original ending involves her attempting to kill Anakin before he can cause any more destruction and using her power as a senator to form the beginnings of the Rebel Alliance, she got stuck with the ending in which she uncharacteristically sits silently aside, while everything she has ever stood for and loved collapses around her. Figures.
Needless to say, Padmé certainly deserved better. I think we're coming to a point in Star Wars fandom where more people feel that way too—a reflection of the progressive thinking in our society regarding the treatment of female characters in the media as a whole. It's important to examine the ways in which female characters from previous films have been poorly treated so that we can avoid that kind of storytelling in the future, and Padmé, were she real, would be proud to know that her character has been a stepping stone in that long road called "progress".