Men in tights and Cinderella in jeans: The Labyrinth as feminist masterpiece
“To be worshipped is not freedom” (Firestone 1970)
Jareth: I ask for so little. Just fear me. Love me. Do as I ask, and I shall be your slave.
Sarah: You have no power over me!
It is fair to say that Jim Henson’s The Labyrinth was part of the essential fabric of my childhood. Released the year I was born, 1986, I drove my grandmother crazy as she babysat me, demanding that we watch it over and over again. The Labyrinth has literally everything you could ever want for in a film: crystal balls, glitter, musical numbers, feminist ideas, and David Bowie in tights.
I was a child quite afraid of things like monsters so it is somewhat surprising to me that The Labyrinth appealed, given its cast of goblins and other mysterious creatures. But I think what made all of the dark and frightful things seem not so scary after all, was that the female lead—Sarah—stood up to them. Played by a dashing young Jennifer Connelly, Sarah was the girl who wasn’t afraid.
It’s funny that a film studio full of men could produce what is ostensibly such a feminist film. Or, maybe it’s not funny at all, and shows that anti-sexist sentiment can come from anyone with half a brain. Written by Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame), and visually conceived by the magical Brian Froud, the film is a masterpiece of fantasy adventure. The film draws in large part on the narrative elements of fairytales—someone has to complete a task set upon them, they journey and overcomes obstacles, meet strange creatures along the way, and so on. On this note the film specifically draws upon the fairytale of Cinderella, with Sarah positioned as the lead.
Interestingly at the beginning of the film Sarah’s stepmother is referenced as the traditional villain, as Sarah tells her baby brother: ‘Once upon a time, there was a beautiful young girl whose stepmother always made her stay home with the baby. And the baby was a spoiled child, and wanted everything to himself, and the young girl was practically a slave’. However, when the goblin king Jareth (played by Bowie) arrives, we soon become aware that it is not the mother who is the villain of the piece at all, but the controlling man who is king of the land. We learn that this royalty ought not be lusted over (as the traditional Cinderella would have it), but rather, must be challenged in their authority.
Later in the film, the Cinderella story is further significantly inverted. Sarah enters a dream world of the goblin king’s creation, a masquerade ball that references the traditional fairytale. Jareth attempts to woo Sarah throughout this scene, as she moves between masks that loom demonic, and dances with him as he sings words like, ‘I’ll paint you mornings of gold. I’ll spin you Valentine evenings’. But, much to our feminist delight Sarah is only drawn in momentarily. As the clock chimes, she realises that this dream sequence is a prison that has been constructed for her, and smashes the walls of the bourgeois carnival of love she has been thrown into.
In the lead up to this scene we are also confronted with an interesting reflection on gender and power. Jareth accosts the dwarf Hoggle, who is helping Sarah (a call to the fairytale Snow White). Exerting his kingly power over the hapless dwarf, Hoggle is forced to give Sarah a poisoned peach, which sends her into the dream world of the ballroom. Here we learn that violent acts only emerge in context, not because of individual natural dispositions, but because of structures of inequality. While Hoggle psychologises the act and calls himself a “coward”, it is not until the end that he realises that it is really the common enemy that he and Sarah share that is the problem: the goblin king.
The feminist peak of the film happens in its final moments. At the beginning of the story we see Sarah practicing her lines from a play called The Labyrinth, but forgetting her final words. In the end, after her long and drawn out struggle she doesn’t just remember the words: she feels them. As she says to Jareth, who offers her “everything” in exchange for her subservience, ‘you have no power over me’. His kingdom crumbles. However it is not the words she has said that have this effect, but her understanding. Sarah finally gets it. While Jareth may be able to provide her with possessions, romance, and a kind of love, this is no fair exchange for her freedom.
There’s a lot more that could be said about the queerness of The Labyrinth, not just its feminist overtones. These elements of queerness involve making things strange and fantastical, and most importantly, subverting the normal. For example, there are significant animal-vegetable-human boundaries that are broken down when we learn that even rocks can be friends. Indeed a key message of the film is that things are not always what they seem. We ought to suspend judgment, expect the unexpected, and face the world unafraid of the weird and the wonderful things we might face along the way.
Along these lines, there is a plethora of masculinities we are exposed to in the film that deviate from the standards of hegemonic masculinity. For example, there is the meek and inviting blue worm, the fearful but giant Ludo, the macho but tiny Sir Didymus fox, and of course, the bedazzled goblin king caked with so much glitter, hairspray, and makeup you’d think he walked right out of a Mardi Gras parade. The film teaches us the essential life lessons that: a) character cannot be judged on surface appearance; and b) that David Bowie in tights was one of the great wonders of the twentieth century.
The Labyrinth taught me lots of things, but least of all of these lessons is that ‘life isn’t fair’. This is what Jareth tells Sarah when she complains about the various tricks and schemes that he pulls on her, in order to keep her from finding Toby in a timely fashion. But far from being a nihilistic message, the idea here is about power. To learn that life isn’t fair isn’t to accept that this is the natural order of things, but rather, that there is a larger system operating beyond you the individual, built to screw you over and take from you what is yours. Herein lies yet another radical message of the film: things aren’t going to be better unless you fight for it, unless you take power into your own hands. This is what we all need to not only remember, but to feel and understand through struggle.
Hannah is a lecturer in gender studies at the Australian National University. Her research focuses on femininity as explored in feminist writing and queer femme subculture. She has published in Australian Feminist Studies and Australian Humanities Review, as well as The Conversation.You can visit her blog at binarythis.com or follow her on Twitter@binarythis