Labyrinth As Feminist Myth

themazeDespite its potential, feature movie fantasy hasn’t traditionally been the go-to genre for feminist fiction.

Enter Labyrinth, in 1986.

Jennifer Connelly is an absolute joy as teenage protagonist Sarah Williams, discovering her power – not just the power to solve the labyrinth of the title, but the power to resist the coercion of David Bowie’s illusionist Goblin King, Jareth. Sarah solves puzzles, makes friends, and navigates her way through a series of illusions and temptations, culminating in her rejection of the King’s power in a maze of Escher staircases.

Do other fantasy geeks of a certain age & background here remember holding your breath endlessly for that exquisite moment where Sarah remembers her line, “You have no power over me“? The moment where the Jareth’s elaborately-constructed house of cards collapsed? At an age when we were subtle or not-so-subtly told that we should be embracing male power over us, when we were poring over Seventeen and Dolly, as (some of us) were moving between swooning over Billy Idol and the Finn brothers or embracing the 80s “girl power” of Madonna and Cyndi Lauper or enjoying the less gender-conforming images of Boy George and Grace Jones and Annie Lennox, there was a world of possibilities. That breathless moment of hard-won power reclamation in an obscure cult movie was a moment of feminist discovery. You might have felt the full-blown feminist impact of Sarah’s coming-of-age journey at the time; for me, I think it planted a slow-to-flourish seed.

nopowerovermeNow, that line, “You have no power over me“, spoken first in a tentative, exploratory way, and then with intensity and conviction, resonates deeply for me.

I’ve been re-watching Labyrinth recently with my Lad, aged six. As a not particularly metaphor- or symbol-literate teenager, I thought that the Goblin King was, y’know, just a Goblin King. On a re-watch, however, the associations are running wild. Perhaps too wild; you may well have different associations, but that doesn’t make any of us wrong; it just means that this is a movie much richer than it seems as first glance.

The key metaphor that I’m seeing is that Bowie’s Goblin King is the Patriarchy, with his pants and his shiny dream-balls and his minions and his illusions and his fortified castle and his fake-benevolence and his threats. At the climax, when directly confronted by the King, Sarah need only completely reject his power over her in order to be free. Perhaps this could be seen as a fault in the metaphor, a failure to interrogate to other systems forcibly holding women in their place. However, Sarah only gets to that point by enduring a series of hardships and difficulties, including misdirection, betrayal, poisoning, incarceration, and other physical and magical threats.

The following clips pull out the some of the highlights of Sarah’s walk of power. Full transcripts are provided (which is why this post has taken so long!)

“Not if you ask the right questions.”

(Background: After racing home late in the rain from rehearsing a play alone, Sarah is left to babysit her little brother. Toby cries incessantly, and Sarah ends up making a wish that the Goblin King will take him away. Poof! The baby disappears, and the Goblin King appears, magic crystal balls and illusions in hand. He challenges her to reach the centre of the labyrinth within the next 13 hours, where he is keeping the baby in the castle beyond the Goblin City. If she doesn’t make it in time, the baby will be turned into a goblin forever.)

As Sarah enters the Labyrinth, she is told by the groundskeeper Hoggle that she takes too many things for granted. She needs to ask the right questions, or she will never solve the labyrinth. This is the beginning of Sarah’s journey into questioning her assumptions into seeing through the illusions being thrown at her from every side.


Sarah and Hoggle are outside a large wall.

SARAH: [to Hoggle, who is spraying fairies] You monster! [bitten by fairy, drops it] Ow! It bit me!

HOGGLE: [Laughs] What did you expect fairies to do?

SARAH: I thought they did nice things, like granting wishes.

HOGGLE: Shoes what you know, don’t it? [sprays another fairy] 58!

SARAH: You’re horrible!

HOGGLE: No, I ain’t. I’m Hoggle. Who are you?

SARAH: Sarah.

HOGGLE: That’s what I thought. 59!

SARAH: Do you know where the door to the Labyrinth is?

HOGGLE: Ooh, maybe.

SARAH: Well, where is it?

HOGGLE: Oh, you little…. 60!

SARAH: I said, where is it? I

HOGGLE: Where is what?

SARAH: The door!

HOGGLE: What door?

SARAH: It’s hopeless asking you anything.

HOGGLE: Not if you ask the right questions.

SARAH: How do I get into the labyrinth?

HOGGLE: [stops fairy-spraying] Ah! Now, that’s more like it. You gets in there. [Points. Huge stone door opens, mist is streaming out.] You really going in there, are you?

SARAH: Yes. I’m afraid I have to. [Sarah passes through the door into a stone passage that goes what seems like forever, left and right]

HOGGLE: [comes up silently behind Sarah] Cozy, isn’t it? [Laughs at her startled response]

HOGGLE: Now, would you go left or right?

SARAH: They both look the same.

HOGGLE: Well, you’re not going to get very far.

SARAH: How would you go?

HOGGLE: Me? I wouldn’t go either way.

SARAH: If that’s all the help you’re going to be, you can just leave.

HOGGLE: You know your problem? You take too many things for granted. Take this labyrinth. Even if you reach the centre, you’ll never get out again.

SARAH: That’s your opinion.

HOGGLE: It’s a lot better than yours.

SARAH: Thanks for nothing, Hogwart!

HOGGLE: Oh! It’s Hoggle! And don’t say I didn’t warn you. [Marches out. Wall slams closed.]

“Sarah – friend!”

Sarah meets a variety of friends along her way through the labyrinth. They’re all nominally male within the movie, but they have very different gender presentations to the seductive, abusive Goblin King. The loner groundskeeper Hoggle helps Sarah at first, then struggles with his own cowardice and complicity. He gives in to the King by offering Sarah poisoned fruit for him, and later attempts to atone for his betrayal. Sir Didymus is a flamboyantly camp “Tally-ho!” figure riding a Saint BernardOld English Sheepdog and brandishing his weapons in an unconvincing show of bravado.

But who is Ludo?

[Be warned that there also seems to be some really skeevy Japanese stereotyping going on in this scene.]


HOGGLE: I ain’t never been no one’s friend before.

[Growling noises in the background]

HOGGLE: Aah! Goodbye!

SARAH: Wait a minute! Are you my friend or not?

HOGGLE: No. Hoggle ain’t no one’s friend. He looks after himself, like everyone. Yah! Hoggle is Hoggle’s friend. [escapes between the hedges]

SARAH: Hoggle, you coward!

[Growling noises in the background]

SARAH: Well I’m not afraid. Things aren’t always what they seem in this place.

[Growling noises in the background]

GOBLIN: [cackling] Try this for size, you big yeti!

[Several goblins with sticks are poking them at a huge, growling, orange-furred, fanged, horned creature who is suspended upside down above the path. On the heads of the sticks are clinging pink naked creatures with snapping teeth, which bite at the captured creature as it is poked.]

GOBLIN: Haha! We’ve got you now, fuzzball!

LUDO: Grrrrrrr, Aaaarrrrrgh!

GOBLINS: Hoohooo Yahhh, Nippy nippy nip! [lots of snapping noises]

SARAH: If only I had something to throw. [A stone spontaneously rolls across her path.]

GOBLIN: Bite him.[…] Socky! Socky to him! Hahaha!

[Sarah throws the stone. It hits one goblin on the helmet, spinning it around.]

GOBLIN: Oh, what happened? Who turned out the lights? I can’t see! [wildly swings stick, which bites another goblin.]

GOBLIN: Why’d you bite me?

[Sarah throws more stones, spinning more helmets. The goblins all start swinging their sticks, hitting each other.]

GOBLIN: Retreat!

[Sarah approaches Ludo, who is flailing and roaring.]

SARAH: Now stop that.


SARAH: Is that any way to treat someone who’s trying to help you?

SARAH: Don’t you want me to help you down?

LUDO: Ludo down.

SARAH: Ludo? Is that your name?

LUDO: Ludo.

SARAH: You seem like such a nice beast. Well I certainly hope you are what you seem to be.

[Ludo roars as if in pain]

SARAH: Just hang on, I’ll get you down. Just a second. [She unties the rope, and Ludo falls down.]

SARAH: Oh I’m sorry! Ludo, are you hurt?

LUDO: [breathes] Friend?

SARAH: That’s right Ludo, I’m Sarah.

LUDO: Sarah. Ohhh. [gets up]

SARAH: Here, let me help you. You ok?

LUDO: Sarah – friend!

SARAH: Now wait, just a second. I want to ask you something, Ludo.

LUDO: What?

SARAH: I have to get to the castle at the centre of the labyrinth. Do you know the way?

LUDO: Mmm, ahh, uh. No.

SARAH: You don’t know either?

I find Ludo the most fascinating and ambiguous characters in the Labyrinth. Here is the moment where Sarah meets and befriends Ludo. We are supposed to see Ludo at first as a threatening, Yeti-like creature. Then we see the truth of it – she is in fact been captured by torturers. Her assailants attack her with pikes mounted by strange, nasty, toothed, naked, baby-rat-like creatures who are nipping at her.

She“, you ask? I know Ludo is referred to as “him” and “brother” in the text, though I don’t recall any self-identification. But I can’t help but read her as butch and female. I have been trying to figure out why. I’m not trying to make a pejorative comment about hairiness or inarticulateness; on the contrary, Ludo is a sympathetic character, and one who has clearly been oppressed and mistreated by those in her environment. She can also invoke the power of the earth (see the next clip), which is often linked with female power in this style of mythology. “Rocks – friends”, explains Ludo. Her magic, her power is a deep-rooted power of connection and of collaboration, in contrast to Jareth’s superficial power over juggling balls, junk, and mirages.

But I think my “butch” reading is triggered mostly by the mode of her torture – multiple attack with the pink creatures reminiscent of nothing more than penis dentatas. I find this scene the most frightening in the movie. The torturers are cackling with glee and bonding together over the anguish they’re inflicting on Ludo. They fear her power, so they have immobilised her and are revelling together in her violation. I can’t help but see reflections of the “corrective rape” of lesbian women in this scene.

This isn’t the only possible reading, and I welcome hearing about yours. The beauty of fables is that they mean different things to different people; and different things to the same people at different times in their lives.

“Fair maiden, I will save thee…”

In this clip, Sarah and Ludo are trying to cross the Bog of Eternal Stench. Should they fall, they will smell bad forever. Ludo is roaring, not coping well with the smell. They meet Sir Didymus, who rides a St Bernard called Ambrosius. The small yet courageous Sir Didymus attempts to forbid them passage.


SARAH: OK, let’s handle this thing logically. What exactly have you sworn?

DIDYMUS: I have sworn with my lifeblood that no-one shall pass this way without my permission.

SARAH: Well, may we have your permission?

DIDYMUS: Well, I, uh – uh- um – ah – Yes?

SARAH: Thankyou, noble sir.

DIDYMUS: My lady. [bows deeply]

SARAH: [starts to cross a rickety wooden bridge over the Bog] Uh oh.

DIDYMUS: Have no fear, sweet lady! This bridge has lasted for a thousand years.

[Didymus taps base of bridge with his pike; the rocks crumble away and the bridge begins to fall.]

SARAH: Aah! Aaah! [grabs at branch as bridge falls out from under her]

DIDYMUS: It seemed solid enough.

SARAH: Hoggle! [Hoggle comes out from behind a rock, looks surprised]

DIDYMUS: Fear not, fair maiden! I will save thee! Somehow.

[Ludo’s howling increases.]

DIDYMUS: Ludo! Canst thou sit by and howl when yon maiden needs our help?

[Ludo howls and howls. Boulders begin to roll and rise to form a bridge under Sarah’s feet, saving her.

All seems well as the team assembles and gathers momentum – but all it not as it seems. Hoggle is talked into betraying Sarah. He gives her the Goblin King’s poisoned peach, and, drugged to the gills, Sarah slips into the dream-like Masquerade ball.

The Goblin King uses this fruit-spiking to try to tempt Sarah into a heterosexual princess white-wedding fantasy. This sequence is central to the film, as it triggers Sarah’s realisation that what is supposed to be every girl’s fantasy is not a consummation devoutly to be wished, but a prison. By force of will, she shakes off the masquerade-ball illusion, and falls, falls…


SARAH: [standing in the woods, holding a peach] Hoggle, what have you done?

HOGGLE: Oh, damn you, Jareth! And damn me, too! [runs away]

SARAH: [wandering through the forest, becoming drugged] Everything’s dancing.

[The Goblin King sits in his windowledge, juggling crystal balls. He picks up some ball, and blows them away like dandelion seed or soap bubbles. They float across the city, into the woods where Sarah sits slumped. She stares into a ball, and sees herself in a white-meringue wedding-style dress, stiff and turning, as a music box dancer.]

[Cut to Ludo and Sir Didymus, trotting through the woods, expecting that Sarah is following them.]

DIDYMUS: Yea verily! Whoa, Ambrosius, whoa! The castle doth lie yonder, my lady. [looks around] My lady? My lady? My lady?

[Didymus and Ludo watch a crystal ball-bubble float by, with dancing masked figures inside it. The camera zooms into the masquerade ball scene. Sarah is wandering through the dancers, looking about in stunned wonder. Jareth looks at her, and removes a horned mask from his face. Bowie’s music plays as Sarah stumbles through the dancers, slowly coming closer to him.]

LYRICS: There’s such a sad love deep in your eyes
A kind of pale jewel opened and closed within your eyes
I’ll place the sky within your eyes
There’s such a fooled heart beating so fast
In search of new dreams, a love that will last
Within your heart I’ll place the moon, within your heart

As the pain sweeps through, makes no sense for you
Every thrill has gone, wasn’t too much fun at all
But I’ll be there for you as the world falls down
It’s falling, it’s falling down

I’ll paint you mornings of gold, I’ll spin you Valentine evenings
Though we’re strangers till now, we’re choosing a path between the stars
I’ll lay my love between the stars

[Sarah and Jareth begin to dance together]

As the pain sweeps through, makes no sense for you
Every thrill has gone, wasn’t too much fun at all
But I’ll be there for you as the world falls down
It’s falling, it’s falling down

It’s falling, it’s falling, it’s falling, it’s falling
It’s falling, it’s falling down
Falling in love, it’s falling

[The other dancers circle closer and closer, laughing, as the dream becomes nightmarishly clautrophobic. A clock begins to strike, echoing as Sarah begins to realise that she is not where she wishes to be. She struggles out of Jareth’s grip, fighting her way to a hug convex mirror, which she smashes with a chair. She falls, falls, through broken glass and empty space.]

Crisis and confrontation: “Everything I’ve done, I’ve done for you”

Sarah’s resistance to being seduced into Queenly subjugation results in her spiralling, amnestic, into the junkyard that is also her childhood bedroom full of plush toys and small treasures. As she shakes off the drug, regains her memory, and refuses the junklady’s attempts to draw her back into her childhood reverie, Sarah realises “It’s junk! It’s all junk!”, and recalls her mission.

Setting aside her childhood things, yet also rejecting the wedding-servitude fantasy offered by the King, Sarah needs to find her own way to an independent maturity. To me, this is the progression that elevates the film to mythic feminist narrative, as this is a choice that many (though not all) of us who have experienced conventional Western girlhoods face.

Sarah is yet to directly confront the Goblin King, and this confrontation forms the climax of the film. This is the part that resonates most darkly for me, as Jareth’s words echo a very familiar script, one many of us will recognise only too well. He attempts more and more desperately to manipulate Sarah as he stalks her through the jumbled Escher-staircase set. Shocking yet mundane, Jareth sounds like every other abusive partner out there. He has drugged her, isolated her from her friends, and attempted to confuse her utterly by setting up his web of elaborate illusions; he now claims that he worships her, blames her for her own abuse, and threatens her openly.


{Sarah races up a staircase, then finds herself on a precarious landing, looking out over a maze of staircases in various directions and orientations. She starts to navigate through the maze. Jareth appears upside down below her landing, then in other doorways and staircases, all different ways up, until he confronts her. He begins to sing.]

How you turned my world, you precious thing
You starve and near exhaust me
Everything I’ve done, I’ve done for you
I move the stars for no one
You’ve run so long, you’ve run so far

Your eyes can be so cruel
Just as I can be so cruel

[Jareth throws another crystal ball. It bounces through staircases, coming to rest near the baby Toby, who is visible to Sarah, yet unreachable.]

Though I do believe in you
Yes I do
Live without the sunlight
Love without your heartbeat
I, I can’t live within you

[Sarah continues to pursue Toby within the maze. “Toby!” she shouts, and tries to get to him, closing her eyes and leaping an impossible distance. As she falls, the stone walls of the maze break apart. She is trapped on a small landing with Jareth.]

SARAH: Give me the child.

JARETH: Sarah, beware. I have been generous up until now, but I can be cruel.

SARAH: Generous? What have you done that’s generous?

JARETH: Everything! Everything that you wanted, I have done. You asked that the child be taken; I took him. You cowered before me; I was frightening. I have reordered time. I have turned the world upside-down, and I have done it all for you. I am exhausted from living up to your expectations. Isn’t that generous?

[At this point, Sarah begins to recite to him from the play “Labyrinth”, which she was rehearsing at the very start of the film. She advances on Jareth, and he retreats.]

SARAH: Through dangers untold, and harships unnumbered I have fought my way here to the castle beyond the goblin city.

For my will is as strong as yours, and my –

JARETH: [holding out his hand] Stop! Wait. Look, Sarah. Look what I’m offering you – [conjures another illusion-ball] Your dreams.

SARAH: And my kingdom as great.

JARETH: I ask for so little. Just let me rule you, and you can have everything that you want.

SARAH: Kingdom as great… Damn, I can never remember that line.

JARETH: Just fear me, love me, do as I say, and I will be your slave.

SARAH: [murmurs, trying to remember] My kingdom as great, my kingdom as great…

[She looks up, triumphant.]

SARAH: You have no power over me. You have no power over me!

[A clock strikes 13. Jareth throws his ball up, Sarah holds her hand out to catch it, and it breaks as a soap bubble. Falling fabric in black space, and we cut to Sarah back in the lobby of her family home, as the clock strikes midnight. A white owl flutters away. Sarah goes on, after this clip, to find Toby safe in his cot.]

When Sarah declares “you have no power over me!”, the metaphor is complete. She is talking about the dominance structures of society, about the entire edifice of patriarchy, and its weight of expectations and exploitation and false promises and threats.

In this fantasy world, Sarah speaks truth to power, and liberates herself in the process. She declares the patriarchy a very real fiction, a shared fantasy, maintained by a multitude of people with a variety of investments and interests.

Of course, in real life, things are not so easy as saying it makes it so – but Sarah didn’t actually have it that easy. The patriarchy is maintained by systems of dominance and duress, just as the castle beyond the Goblin City was almost impossible for Sarah to reach, and both her friends and her enemies attempted to slow her progress and turn her away from the final confrontation.

Further questions

I am disappointed at the lack of nominally female critters in the Labyrinth. On the other hand, perhaps the presence of male and gender-ambiguous allies for Sarah makes it clearer that the battles of feminism are not women pitted against men, but marginalised groups against abusive dominant groups. Who are our allies in the fight against kyriarchy? Is the film promoting Othered models of masculinity? Hoggle is the loner, lured by the dominant power into collusion, but ultimately rejecting it; Didymus is the champion who remains true and brave despite his small size and lack of physical power; Ludo is – well, Ludo is Ludo. None of these allegorical mappings are one-to-one or close correspondences; Ludo no more represents all butches (if she does at all) than Didymus represents all less traditionally-masculine men or Sarah all feminists.

Then, of course, there’s the huge and glaring issue of a middle-class thin able-bodied white cis girl representing “feminism” in the first place. Fables are ever beset by stereotyping issues. Nevertheless, I think these gendered metaphors are a bit of fun to play with, and I am left wondering just how deeply the writers thought about this in their own plans to explore these issues, and how far off base I am from their intent. However, intent does not always have to be manifestly conscious when talking of mythic resonances for those resonances to be true.

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? Perhaps I could also see it as being about women’s struggle to break down patriarchal power systems, not just today or in our own relationships; but also to reduce their influence on future generations, to save the adults of the future from maintaining (and being harmed by) systemic male dominance. Who would want their little brother to grow up to be a Goblin King?

Or maybe Toby is just a MacGuffin – a placeholder item, exact nature unimportant, that serves merely to drive Sarah into her journey of discovery.

I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

Gratuitous Jump, Magic Jump Video.

Categories: arts & entertainment, gender & feminism

Tags: , , ,

25 replies

  1. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 😛
    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. “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. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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. 😛

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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!

  18. 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.

  19. 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 😉

  20. “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.

  21. 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.

  22. I keep meaning to come back and write in this thread, bu haven’t got to it. Just want to say thanks for listening to me, and I think you’re all marvellous.
    I’ve been a bit amused reading responses to this elsewhere. Like the ones that dismiss me by saying “well OBVIOUSLY she’s just reading her OWN ISSUES into it! She has no idea that there are other ways of looking at this!” Um, yeah. I mentioned multiple readings in the post. It’s up there. ^^^^ And I’m fully aware of the “Jareth is Sarah’s id” reading; it just doesn’t resonate for me.
    Plus, read Beppie again for truth.

  23. 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. 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.

%d bloggers like this: