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Lauredhel is an Australian woman and mother with a disability. She blogs about disability and accessibility, social and reproductive justice, gender, freedom from violence, the uses and misuses of language, medical science, otters, gardening, and cooking.

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25 responses to “Labyrinth As Feminist Myth”

  1. milylasouris

    I loved this film and saw it in the cinema when it first appeared in the UK. When this came out on video, I hassled my parents non-stop to buy it and my friends and I must have watched it fifty times. I’d pretty much forgotten it all these years later and hadn’t thought about the message as an adult. That’s quite a shame considering the impact this film had on my in my youth.

    There are certainly problems with it, as there are with so many films from the 80s which sought to oversimplify the message, but I do think it contains a strong, well-crafted message which made a difference to a lot of my friends, as well as to me.

    I don’t know whether there was a feminist intent behind the film (Jim Henson’s always been a mixture of either good or awful feminist messages), but I think there’s enough to take it as a potentially good influence for children and adults alike even nowadays!

  2. valarltd.livejournal.com/

    I loved Labyrinth when I first saw it. Being thin, white, cis and brunette, I identified with Sarah to a degree. I found her the most PRACTICAL of fantasy heroines. Sensible shoes. Jeans. light-weight, long-sleeved shirt. Hair back out of her face. You know, all the stuff the wild-haired warrior woman in the chainmail bikini lacks. She was more real to me than Red Sonja or She or Zula (Conan the Destroyer)

    I never saw her rescuing the baby for the baby’s sake. It was more to save her own skin from the parents. She never said “I love him and need him back.” It was all “They are going to KILL me for this!” So it can be argued that she was acting from self-interest, rather than to benefit a male.

    I always thought the sharp-toothed things on the sticks looked like fetuses. That scene disturbed me.

    Of course, there was my kink side that wanted her to say “Send the baby back. We’re gonna play, hot stuff.” to the Goblin King. And the part of me that wanted to at least dress like Jareth if not be him. But on the whole, Sarah stole it for me, because she was like me and my friends and we figured we could accomplish what she did.

  3. pmddisreal.blogspot.com/

    Thank you! I remember loving this movie, but never connected it with feminism… I will have to go back and watch it a few more times.
    One idea — the male baby could be seen as representing Sarah’s animus, which opens up a lot of fertile ground for more metaphor-making.

  4. Linda Radfem

    Wow great analysis here. It was a favourite with me and still gets regular viewings in this house. My own daughter adores it and it’s one of the more oft-quoted films with us (film-quoting being a bit of a hobby in this family).

    You’re right about how in the end all the trouble she went to was to save a male babay which can be kind of a bummer for a feminist, but perhaps it could be seen this way; she rebelled against having the role of care-giver forced on her and turned her back on Toby (she also implied some resentment at having heteronormativity shoved down her throat by her step-mother too but it’s less obvious “You should have dates at your age!”) but then she chooses to go after Toby in the interests of upholding his human right to be safe and not become the play thing of the predatory Jareth). She may have identified with Toby’s disempowerment.

    There could also be some symbolism of reproductive control here too, even though he is her brother and not her own baby, but that’s probably me being overly optimistic.

    It’s early here and I haven’t thought this through very well, but I saw this and got so excited I had to respond right away.

  5. slave2tehtink.livejournal.com/

    Hrm. I do love your analysis here, but the ending of Labyrinth always felt horribly unsatisfying to me. Sarah chooses to leave a fantastic adventuring life in the Labyrinth for…day to day mundane life? What? Where she babysits her younger brother? She traded this place where she could do fantastical things, where there was magic and wonder and she could be powerful for…that? It was such a horrible let-down, even with the very final shmaltzy scene of her with her Labyrinth buddies.

    I mean here was this place, terrifying and beautiful by turns, with talking dogs OMG, where she could be a warrior or a princess or whatever she wanted to be, a warrior-princess maybe. The animals talked, the rocks moved, it was exactly the kind of place I dreamed of in my imagination, and in the end her great triumph over the Goblin King just sees her reconciling with a world in which she feels her parents have put her in second place to an infant son. I was with her right up until then, but I always felt like she sold out.

  6. minna.livejournal.com/

    I watched Labyrinth to death when I was about six or seven, and one of the things I loved about it was that she was rescuing a baby -because babies, unlike the ‘damsels in distress’ I was shown elsewhere, have no ability to save themselves. And having a younger sibling that I spent a lot of time caring for even then, and having the traditional older sibling I-can-call-her-names-but-will-beat-up-anyone-else-who-dares complex, I identified really heavily with the idea of rescuing the annoying, frustrating younger sibling not because you want them around exactly, but because it’s The Right Thing To Do.

    Which isn’t to say that’s the only reading, or even necessarily a particularly valid one, just that that’s what I took from that story.

  7. Ariane

    Two Labyrinth references in the same day? Coincidence or inspiration?

    I had never thought of it that way, but I like your analysis. I had always read it as a coming of age – rejecting the completely self-centred child view of the world and accepting that other people exist and matter. Jareth had done everything for Sarah because he was a product of her own desire and indulgence. He can be cruel because self-centredness and self-indulgence often doesn’t lead to happiness.

    I also read Toby as a placeholder – he represents accepting responsibility and adult-hood rather than staying in child-hood and petulance.

    My eldest still finds it a bit scary, so it hasn’t been put on much here, but next time it is I’ll go looking for other interpretations.

    Toby may not have represented anything terribly significant to me, but whenever my youngest wore her stripy Bonds Wondersuit I’d be singing “The Power of voodoo, who do? you do, do what? remind me of the babe.” Earworm OTD. :)

  8. orlando

    Ariane: we did exactly the same thing when our bubby boy was in his Bonds stripey.

    Slave: I think the return-to-the-mundade ending is designed for the viewer, who’s been identifying with Sarah, but who has no choice but to return to the real world. It’s a (for me, powerful) message that however much your parents and the outside world insist that you have to grow up, they can’t make you give up the secret and fantastical things that are every bit as important.

  9. chintimin

    I couldn’t disagree more. It’s not feminist, it’s female archetype. The young woman, pure and white, while rebelling against the responsibilities of home and hearth runs astray a strong, compelling, cruel man who immediately attempts to twist her against her responsibilities, asking only that she forsake her own integrity, that she put sovereignity and power out of her mind and allow him his dominance. He is not an unromantic character, nor is she, but that adds all the more to the simple fact that

    THIS IS A MOVIE ABOUT BECOMING A RESPONSIBLE WOMAN INSIDE A MALE PATRIARCHY. Not about becoming yourself, or prioritizing personal power, but about being a good little girl, and finding strength in that “purity”, stronger than any complication, unbreakable (with friends) and able to slowly muddle through even the most masculine obfuscation (don’t worry her pretty little head, NO, she’s a girl and she can WORK THIS OUT)

    I absolutely love this movie, BUT. It’s very much a coming-of-age story, counterpointed with loneliness, shame, pain, and despair. I might add also that I wanted to grow up to be a pretty pretty princess. :P

    I’m rereading what you’ve typed, before I enter this in – and I do think your interperetation of it has value. It IS a beautiful story, and it IS a personal power myth.

    Unfortunately, I also feel it’s really strongly written into the archetypes of young women we know too well already.

  10. Rebekka

    “You’re right about how in the end all the trouble she went to was to save a male babay which can be kind of a bummer for a feminist”

    Um, he wasn’t just a random male baby, he was her SIBLING. Honestly, I don’t see how this is any kind of “bummer for a feminist”.

  11. tigtog

    Well said, Bekk.

  12. Linda Radfem

    Oh that was in response to this part of the OP, Rebekka;

    “Lastly, there’s the issue of Sarah’s ultimate goal. One simplistic view might be that the whole thing is patriarchy-reinforcing at its core, because Sarah’s apparent goal in the movie is to save a (male) baby. Her carer role is cemented, a woman sacrifices her own safety to care for male people… but is that all that this is about?”

    …and then I went on to say this;

    “but then she chooses to go after Toby in the interests of upholding his human right to be safe and not become the play thing of the predatory Jareth).”

    Maybe you didn’t pick up on the context, but can I just ask you not to address me beginning with “Um…” because it feels really condescending to me, like you think I’m stupid.

    Back to the Labyrinth, I was thinking about this some more, and I think chintimin makes a clear point about patriarchal framework.

    Also, perhaps the junk woman and the evil stepmother character represent the way women contribute to their own oppression by encouraging each other to live up social expectations and accept things the way they are.

  13. Beppie

    I think it’s important to remember the point that Wildly Parenthetical often makes in these discussions, which is that a text may contain both feminist and anti-feminist discourses simultaneously, and they don’t have to cancel each other out.

  14. chintimin

    Another point:

    “feminist” has an awful lot of baggage. Even a very predictable, socially acceptable coming of age story still may have a lesson for us. I do believe it was a powerful story, and well-told. I feel many of the most resonant scenes in the movie have more to do with loneliness and adversity than anything, anyways. What do I know, though – I’m a boy. :P

  15. lil sis

    oh! you have totally rocked my socks with this post! i never thought about the movie in this way and now i feel like i’ve just discovered this whole other world! ROCKED MY SOCKS!! also i always saw ludo as female too, and the scene introducing her is awful, it always chilled me.

  16. orlando

    Thanks Beppie, I don’t think that reminder could be more apt than when discussing a text like this one.

    Have more thoughts but aforementioned bubby boy is grisly with spectacularly snotty nose, so will be snatching free moments.

  17. orlando

    I really wish Ludo had been specifically identified as female. Hensen always did have a bit of the Smurfette syndrome going on.

    It’s hard to make the both/and of feminism work when interpreting fiction (by which I mean BOTH women should not be confined to behaviours designated as feminine AND there is nothing less valuable about those behaviours), because a positive framing of a “feminine” behaviour just looks like a reinforcing of the staus quo. However, I enjoy watching the courage/nurturing/selflessness of Sarah’s fierce fight to get her little brother back as traditional characteristics of a true hero’s (any hero’s) journey.

    The similarities in that aspect of the story to Pan’s Labyrinth are striking, and I saw that movie as shiningly feminist.

    My little sister and I took a little longer than most to give up the playing dressups bit of childhood, so we always identified with the jeans under the princessy gown. Now I’m going to watch that last scene again before bed.

  18. celticchrys

    I think that Toby was just supposed to be a sibling, and therefore, something that the loss of would both cause trouble with parents, and possible emotional distress. It’s very traditional in stories dealing with any type of feries/elves/goblins/etc that they steal children; especially babies. They chose a male baby simply because Brian Froud, who designed the Goblins, happened to have a son the right age. They used the baby they had on hand. Any of you who aren’t familiar with Brian Froud, start your web searches now!

    Interesting and different take on Labyrinth. I wonder what Jim Henson would have thought of it, or what Brian Froud would think? They are the two behind the story. I think they managed to be very supportive and positive as men at the time, making this story about a heroine, and using archaic frameworks.

    Some of you may not realize that while we hear about Brian Henson a lot, since he inherited Jim’s voice, and well, he’s Kermit now :), Jim Henson also had a daughter, Lisa, who is now CEO of the Jim Henson Company. Raising her had to be a big influence on this movie. Under her guidance, we’ve gotten movies like “Mirrormask.”

    What a family!

  19. Morgaine

    When you first mentioned the idea for this post I was sort of mildly agreed with the vague memories of one who hadn’t seen the movie in YEARS. Then, a few weeks after you first made the comment, I re-watched it. And, OH MY GOD! I wanted to kick myself. Why the hell hadn’t I see it earlier? “You have no power over me!” Holy shit, duh. Jareth is the Patriarchy in weird make up, a freaky wig and a big codpiece! Thank you for pointing out the obvious … its made the movie sooo much cooler than it already was. :)

    Having said that, though, I’m still having problems seeing Ludo as a butch lesbian. Not so much because I can’t see the wisdom behind your evidence (earth magic!), though. I think maybe I am having a gut reaction to the hairy inarticulate stereotype as you mentioned. Plus, well, I’ve known a few large, hairy, inarticulate yet gentle *men* who’ve been treated in much the same way. Perhaps Ludo is vaguely gender nonspecific for a reason. Perhaps she/he represents all people who don’t fit neatly into their gender roles … which isn’t, technically, problematic for your butch lesbian interpretation. I’m typing as I think here so this may not be very coherent. (BTW, I too always saw the biting creatures as creepy fetuses not “penis dentatas”)

    This last bit is totally unrelated but I had to mention it just because I can’t help myself. A bit of geek trivia about the behind the scenes crew of this movie: Gates McFadden (Dr. Beverly Crusher in Star Trek: TNG) was the puppet choreographer on Labrynth.

  20. calyx

    I enjoyed the movie when growing up, but I didn’t really identify with the hero. I guess cos she was encumbered with a baby, and fascinated by a man, neither things which I wanted. I do remember liking the kink aspects of their interaction though ;)

  21. Rebekka

    “Maybe you didn’t pick up on the context”

    I did, actually, I just disagreed with the statement even in context.

    I’m sorry you felt that starting a comment with “um” implied you were stupid – it never occured to me that using this language to make it clear that I think what I’m saying is a statement of the obvious could be taken as an implication that I think someone else is stupid. Different things are obvious to different people.

  22. ivy03.livejournal.com/

    This is a really interesting analysis–thanks for posting. I had not thought of Labyrinth in quite this way. It was one of my favorite films growing up, and it’s awfully nice to look back at an artifact of childhood and see that its subtext, oblivious to you as a kid, is actually uplifting.

    I’m wondering if her caring for Toby can’t be worked into a feminist reading. As you said, she is saving him from becoming like Jareth, which is what he says will happen if Toby stays with the goblins. And she’s also reconciled herself to a caring role without sacrificing her identity or her power. At the end of the film, she’s not “dating boys her age,” she’s not going back to the heteronormative fantasy, but she has reconciled caring for her brother with her own independence. I’m trying a little too hard here, I know, but I do like that her rejecting male power over her does not mean rejecting everything stereotypically feminine.

    I do remember that last confrontation with Jareth being so moving to me. Him saying that everything he put her through he only did because she wanted it–that’s an incredibly powerful statement in a kid’s film, and one I wrestled with. And the ultimate realization that the only power he had was the power she gave him–that is also an important realization, especially for preteen girls navigating the social world of their peers.

    When I was a babysitter as a teenager, I remember showing this to my charge, who was just going into middle school, because I thought that statement, “you have no power over me,” was something that she needed to hear. She liked the movie, but I think the moral was only mildly effective. I had not thought of it in terms of feminist power, but I think I was reacting to it that way all the same.

  23. WildlyParenthetical

    Mmm, I keep meaning to come back and write in this thread, too! It’s a great discussion, and Lauredhel, I love the original analysis. I have always loved the Labyrinth, mostly for the moment when she tells Jareth ‘You have no power over me.’ There’s something about how she says it: to me, she seems surprised by her own power, taken aback at how simple a step it is, and wondering that this ‘line’, which has so often eluded her, is her way out.

    I too think it’s a shame she winds up pretty much doing the ‘and now I am a grown up! set aside fanciful notions!’ thing, because I’m a big believer in Ursula LeGuin’s take on fantasy: that it’s not just for kids, and that in many ways our fantasies tell more truths than the facts. Which… well, I believe anyway, given that what counts as fact is so laden with measures of privilege… I do find Jareth hilarious and I can’t help but admire his fashion (non)sense, and contact juggling keeps me mesmerised for hours (though that wasn’t Bowie, for the record!).

    One thing that’s been touched on above, but that I think there’s more to say about, is Jareth’s response when Sarah starts to resist him: when he says she cowered, so he was terrifying etc. Whilst yes, on the one hand, there’s the dynamic of blaming the victim at work (and I don’t want to minimise the echo of real-life emotional abuse that takes that path) I do think there’s something interesting about how and where and why we find things scary or exciting or enticing, and the extent to which we ourselves are bound up with making them that way. This is an interesting line to me, because, for example, I would suggest that what makes POC scary for some white people, or gay lovin’ disgusting for homophobes, or mouthy women angry-making is not the person, or the action itself, but the assumptions about what people or actions are and ought to be. In this respect, Sarah’s ‘You have no power over me’ is a recognition of the (always strictly limited, and it is demonstrated by Jareth’s imaginary existence) extent to which sometimes the expectation that one will be limited and bound can be limited and binding itself. To repeat, this is not not not to say ‘women are responsible for their own oppression’ AT ALL, but to observe that sometimes oppression does its best work in teaching us not to challenge, not to fight back, in limiting our imaginations of what can be. Which links me back to some of the stuff I’ve been thinking about Ellie Levenson’s “feminism-for-all-just-don’t-dream-too-big-and-yes-dreaming-of-being-okay-with-your-own-pubic-hair-is-too-big” line. But too long and grr-making to get into here (not to mention not quite relevant).

  24. moville.blogspot.com/

    I always had trouble deciding if this story was actually a feminist fable or more akin to an into-the-woods loss of innocence thing. I have settled on looking at it as a combo- Little Red gets to shoot Big Bad Wolf herself. Sleeping Beauty kisses herself awake. Or something.
    As a pre-teen who LOVED this movie, I initially saw that the saving of Toby was more about Sarah choosing to face her responsibility like an adult than a reflection of anything maternal, which meant that this was a growing-up story to me. But the older I got, the more I also read the saving of her little brother as a preservation of her own inner child, the innocent part of herself that this spandex-clad sex elf is trying to steal.
    And there is where it goes beyond a simple breaking into adulthood story. After all, a female’s loss of innocence traditionally involves a symbolic or literal deflowering, no? And instead of embracing or submitting the sexual coming-of-age, she rejects it powerfully. She rejects the Wedding fantasy; she rejects David Bowie’s bulging package. She ultimately lays down childish things, but defiantly declares that she will NOT go to the prom with Mr. Penis.
    So, wait-is it an abstinence lesson? I don’t think so. Despite her choice to deal with adult issues, she does (cheesily enough, in the end scene) acknowledge that she has not put her young self aside for good. In the end, she is more grown-up, but has come through it all intact and proven that she has moved on into adulthood with nothing taken from her. I think that is the most important point-the young female coming into her own on her terms-no one elses.

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