Labyrinth (1986): Power, Sex, and Coming of Age
Many childhood favorites fall apart when re-visited twenty or thirty years later, but Labyrinth has aged well with its audience and holds its emotional resonance despite a more cynical, more familiar eye. Who in 1986 could have predicted David Bowie’s lip gloss would have such staying power? Yet Labyrinth remains a fan favorite nearly three decades later, loved partly for how closely it adheres to classic fairy tale structure… but mostly because of how it breaks those same rules.
The fairy tale aspects of the film are both obvious and subtle. At its heart the “fairy tale” is a code of instructions for passing into adulthood, and as such, the symbolism in fairy tales speaks to the most primal and difficult facets of growing up: sex or death, or both.
The stories written by Charles Perrault and collected by The Brothers Grimm are certainly darker than their Disney counterparts – in the earlier version, Snow White’s stepmother danced to death in red-hot shoes — but it is also true that even stripped down, a strong tale matures with its audience, becoming more full of meaning as a reader or viewer ages. Red Riding Hood’s famous cloak symbolizes a young woman’s first menses, and it evokes the murder in her tale as well. Symbols, humor, and metaphor a child will miss, or misunderstand, become outright lewd to the eyes of an older and more experienced adult. This fact horrifies many and delights the rest of us.
Like the story of Red Riding Hood, Labyrinth features a young woman entering a wild place, a place where sex and death cohabit in shameless abandon. In Sarah’s labyrinth death does not loom as explicitly as it does in Red’s forest, but both young women waltz innocently into the twilight of their childhood on the arms of monsters. Unlike classic fairy tales, Labyrinth is deliberately constructed to cross from the once-upon-a-time world into the “real” one. The movie’s opening shot is of Sarah speaking stilted language while wearing an ambiguously Old Timey gown, but then we soon see she’s rehearsing for a play and can’t remember her lines. This telegraphs the story’s willingness to subvert expectations. It also heightens the audience’s connection to Sarah simply because she more closely reflects them; she’s a “normal” girl.
Sarah is soon taken from “normal” and plunged into fantasies both delightful and dark; her labyrinthine journey is layered and contradictory. Jareth, Goblin King Extraordinaire, is tempting Suitor, stern Father Figure, and malicious Villain, all in one. He also has a measure of wicked, petulant Playmate thrown into the mix, though that is a face usually worn by younger, less powerful characters like Puck from Midsummer Night’s Dream. In all his roles, however, Jareth is much closer to Oberon than Puck — he is, shall we say, well-endowed with all the props befitting a larger-than-life leading man. In other words: the wardrobe crew stuffed his pants.
The internet hosts many jokes about Jareth’s pants, and I’m clearly not above adding a few, but the wardrobe decision speaks directly to the nature of the character and the story being told. Fairy tales feature archetypes. It is not enough that Jareth, King Tightpants, is David Friggin’ Bowie. He must be David Friggin’ Bowie turned up to an eleven. He must be a mature King, with the full bevy of fertility symbols on display, including that beautiful cane he uses to threaten and poke people, the BDSM-inspired clothing choices, and the fawning women in the masquerade ball.
It isn’t just Jareth, Bearer of Magic Balls, who displays phallic symbols. Sarah’s journey from childhood to young adult is fraught with reminders at every turn: she is changing. All that she has loved is fading, and it feels like dying, like she will die if she loses it all… and so she fights to hold on to what she knows. But during her struggle she is reminded constantly of the other world looming just beyond the barrier; neither she nor the viewer are allowed to forget that she is being stalked by time.
As an example of those “adult situations” on Sarah’s horizon, let’s look at Hoggle. Hoggle eventually becomes one of Sarah’s trusted advisors, but the first time we and Sarah meet him, he has his trousers open and is peeing into a pond.
To the young viewer, and all viewers with an Inner Seven Year Old, this is merely a joke about urination and is varying degrees of hilarious on that basis alone. The older viewer will instead contemplate the sexual undertones inherent in introducing a character with bare penis in hand, even though Hoggle himself is never a potential Suitor. Even so, when Jareth punishes Hoggle by sending him to the Pit of Eternal Stench it’s specifically for the sin of Sarah giving him a kiss.
Jareth: If she kisses you, I’ll turn you into a Prince.
Hoggle: <hopeful> Really?
Jareth: <with malicious glee> The Prince of Eternal Stench!
It seems Jareth is not above petty jealousy.
The symbolism in Labyrinth isn’t limited to the sexual. As an example: an older, more educated viewer finds an Easter egg in Hoggle’s introduction. If you aren’t too distracted by the, well, stream, you might notice Hoggle’s jacket has a face on the back – he’s two-faced; it’s right there. It’s the second-most obvious thing Sarah sees, but she doesn’t understand what it means. In addition to being a slang term for betrayal, a sin of which Hoggle is certainly guilty, the double face also invokes the two-faced Roman god of thresholds, Janus. And Hoggle is indeed the gatekeeper who shows Sarah the door to the labyrinth and how to open it. This is one example of the layered symbolism that allows Labyrinth to hold up so well to adult eyes.
Here’s another: The Babe With the Power.
Sarah’s baby brother Toby, aka The Babe With the Power, aka Plot McGuffin Du Bowie, is an interesting collection of symbols himself.
Life is full of things you can’t know until you’ve experienced them; some “first times” are given more significance than others. Certainly most acts involving sex or death are important thresholds, and whether the crossing of those lines is exhilarating, traumatic, or anti-climactic (sometimes literally), there is almost always a sense of a boundary being crossed. In this sense, innocence is more synonymous with ignorance than with purity.
In the pure symbolism of the fairy tale, sex and innocence exist in opposition, which is not so much a matter of judgment or slut-shaming as it is a function of knowledge gained vs. knowledge still to be learned. Toby sits on the cusp of this divide, steam of pure creation still rising heavy off him while his wide eyes view the world with wonder and trust. He is entering the childhood Sarah is leaving, which on some level she understands and resents… but he also represents, via motherhood, the exotic world of adulthood and adult pleasures which calls to her. His red and white onesie displays his ties to both sides of this divide: blood (and all that means) on the one hand, a blank slate on the other.
The Babe would have become a goblin if Sarah had failed, and one presumes that’s how Jareth’s goblin servants came to be. This means that he’s been stealing little brothers (and sisters, one supposes) out of cribs for a very long time, and further it seems that they themselves are the not the goal. What, then, would have become of Sarah had she agreed to stay? Would she have truly become Queen, as Jareth implied? There seem to be a lot of goblins – how many other elder siblings have taken Jareth’s offer, and what happened to them? Perhaps instead of becoming Queen, Sarah might have become one of the labyrinth’s deformed inhabitants, endlessly serving Jareth’s will.
Sarah’s trepidation regarding Jareth comes first from the fact that he seems to be responsible for keeping her from Toby, (although that, like so much else, was her own decision) and second from her well-earned distrust of his promises. But the myriad of conflicting archetypes he represents causes an even deeper level of unease. The roles of Playmate, Suitor, King, and Father are inherently in conflict, yet no matter which role he assumes, Sarah is too liminally balanced to fully accept him. She wants all and none of those, all at once, which eventually leads to Jareth’s statement that he is exhausted from living up to her expectations.
Consider her experience in the masquerade ball. This is what adulthood looks like to 15-year-old Sarah: painted masks, lascivious grins, a confusing cacophony of debauch and threat, and she the only one in a pure-white dress. The masquerade’s mixed messages are a function of Sarah’s conflict with Jareth – she desires to be privy to adult entertainments, yet they seem crass and false and dangerous. Too much, too soon, and it drives her to seek retreat.
Yet despite sexual and phallic symbols lurking throughout the film, and despite its adherence to fairy tale structure, Labyrinth breaks the rules at the climax, and it is awesome.
Vladimir Propp, in his work The Morphology of the Folktale, devised a system to categorize the plot structure of fairy tales as a way of classifying and comparing stories. A story can be said to qualify as a fairy tale based on how closely it follows Proppian functions. For example, the first function in Proppian analysis is I: One of the members of a family absents himself from home. In Labyrinth, we first meet Sarah in the park, where she has gone to escape her unhappiness at home. The second function in Proppian analysis happens when the hero is given an interdiction or command; Sarah is told to watch the baby.
For the majority of the movie, Labyrinth follows the Proppian functions almost exactly, making it a fairy tale by definition. There are, however, a few distinct and consistent differences which culminate in a major divergence in the resolution. One small but telling deviation happens when Sarah and Jareth first meet. In Proppian terms, that’s function XVI: The hero and villain engage in direct combat. The next step should be XVII: The hero is branded. The “brand” can be almost anything, from a wound to a ring, but Sarah doesn’t take anything that Jareth offers, nor does he wound or mark her in any way.
Thus Sarah remains un-branded – neither penetrated by a weapon nor claimed by jewelry – and this sets up a resolution that is far more feminist than fairy tale. While her hero’s journey seems full of blind corners and unfair hardships, it is nonetheless entirely dictated by her own choices. Even giving up Toby in the first place was a decision Sarah made, and with which Jareth complied.
Nearing the final confrontation, Jareth sings, “Everything I’ve done, I’ve done for you.” And this is the heart of the tale: it was always Sarah’s story, never Jareth’s. The power was hers for the claiming, as soon as she had enough maturity to grasp it. Jareth’s mis-matched roles, like his mis-matched eyes, were a function of Sarah not knowing or understanding what she wanted or where she belonged. He attempted to rule her – to woo her – by living up to her inexpert expectations of masculinity.
A classic, true-to-form fairy tale resolves with either an ascension to the throne or a wedding. In Proppian analysis, this is function XXXI: The hero is married and/or ascends the throne. Ostensibly, Sarah is given the choice to do both, assuming it’s true she would have been Jareth’s Queen had she stayed. Jareth offers Sarah her dreams, insofar as she is capable of imagining them, but they would always be dreams composed of his power, not built by hers. This is the standard fairy tale: Cinderella doesn’t conquer territory of her own, she marries up.
Faced with Jareth’s offer to be her slave if only she will fear him, love him, and do as he says, Sarah breaks the fairy tale mold by refusing her Suitor and the ascension. She thus comes into her own power, rather than the borrowed reflection of the power wielded by the Suitor. In their final confrontation, Sarah begins reciting the lines from the play she was rehearsing at the film’s beginning, but Jareth doesn’t physically step back until she gets to the phrase, “For my will is as strong as yours.” Before she can add, “and my kingdom as great” he interrupts to derail her by offering her another magic ball of glittery dream-stuff… which she again refuses.
Sarah verbally stumbles before she can conclude with the line she had such difficulty remembering at the beginning of her tale, but then it comes to her. “You have no power over me,” she says in triumphant epiphany, and with that she and Toby return to their world.
Thus our fairy tale princess returns victoriously home with neither wedding ring, nor wedding night, nor crown, nor King. Materially Sarah’s success is limited to a return of the status quo; the effects of her childish tantrum have been erased and Toby is back in his crib. Yet she has achieved, for the first time, some measure of understanding about the nature of her own power and the responsibilities inherent in adulthood. She knows that she is not yet ready for the full experience, and she accepts that. Just as when she made a choice to lose Toby, she has made a choice to take him back. She claims her sexuality as her own, and her innocence in this regard is not a win for the sake of purity, but a choice she makes with as much understanding as possible.
Labyrinth’s ending then gives us one additional surprise. Hoggle, and the other advisors and companions Sarah has made during her journey and struggle, do not stay confined to the fairy tale world of the labyrinth; they return with her. Once bound to Jareth, they are now Sarah’s – not servants, but friends – and their various qualities (honor, loyalty) are hers to call upon. They are, quite markedly, not included in the collection of childish things Sarah must part with in order to be a mature woman; they are part of the kingdom and power she has claimed.
And in the last scene of the movie, Jareth (in owl form) sits outside Sarah’s window. He has not been banished, but must wait to be invited in again on Sarah’s terms.
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