The 30th anniversary of Labyrinth brought the film back to theatres recently and to celebrate my bestie and I took her kids to see it on the big screen. They were
confused thrilled, I’m sure, at the visual mastery of Jim Henson’s odd musical version of The Wizard of Oz. I was still obsessed by my first crush—the man himself—Mr. David Bowie. But what happens when you bring 30 years of life experience, an art degree, a divorce (and years of therapy) to the viewing of such an odd film (that could never have been made by today’s censor-rich standards)? A Botfriendly blog post, that’s what!
Since I have said “Art Degree” and I loved writing papers in college and over-analyzing books and media, I couldn’t help marveling at the potential symbolism behind the story in this fable. Sure, the base storyline is about a young girl growing up. But this was Jim Henson! Maybe there was more to it? What was our heroine really going through? Maybe, just maybe, it was about a young girl choosing her own path through a complicated labyrinth in order to escape from under the shadow of a charismatic person and leave the lifestyle she thought she’d wanted? Just go with me on this little journey…
Sex, drugs, and muppets
So…at some point in the making of this movie, I’m willing to bet a producer or two got a little concerned about the overt sexual prowess of their leading man. This is the man that inspired the tagline “The Bowie Buldge.” I think the initial plan was to get his music behind the project. But then he showed up on set and was like, “Hey mate, I think I’ll play this part like some sort of sexy, fantasy Demi-God who enjoys torturing young girls.” Imagine his vampiric teeth and that Brixton accent when they sent an intern to his trailer to ask him to cool it with his steely gaze and all-powerful presence around what was literally a child cast as his leading lady. “Nah, mate, I’m David Bowie…”
Not your Manic Pixie Dream Girl
Jennifer Connely was fantastic in this movie. At 14, she played the character, Sarah, with more depth than a lot of adults might have. She wasn’t a flat hysterical teenager, and she wasn’t annoying. Watching the movie in my 30’s, it’s a trip to view her as the miscast Manic Pixie. What I mean is, try to imagine that the Goblin King has become enamored by her ‘appearance’ as the MPDG…but he’s misjudged her. Yes, she’s young, willful, dreamy and likes to live in her own head full of fantasy. She doesn’t want to grow up and prefers to play with her toys. But she actually has ambitions and goals. His entire plan depends on his bet that she’ll fail and give up. Initially appearing in her bedroom in all his glory, he offers her a crystal ball which can show her “everything (she’s) ever dreamed of.” He urges her to give up and go back before she gets started trying to save her baby brother, whom he’s kidnapped and trapped in the castle beyond the Goblin City. Yet, she defies him.
Poking the hornet’s nest
So what happens when you challenge a narcissist, which surely the Goblin King must be? If he’s so sure of himself, why is he spying on her the whole time? Why does he employ people to smear her reputation (literally in shit) at one point, and trip her up every step of the way when she doesn’t do as he says? All she has to do is admire him and love him, after all. Is that too much to ask? Forget about everything else, and just praise him for being so great…just like all of his loyal followers in the kingdom he’s built around himself—and the entire universe, really—devoted to adoring him. He gets pretty angry and ugly about it.
You think you’re so hot?
There’s a very real psychological puzzle or (heavy air quotes) labyrinth that narcissist put you through known as moving goal posts. Jareth gives Sarah 13 hours to make it through the maze. When she starts to figure it out and make progress, he trips her up, poisons her, and turns the clock forward several hours to make it harder. Every step of the way, he moves the goal posts so that she has to try a little harder. She can’t win.
Nothing is quite as it seems (in the real world)
As Sarah steps out into the real world/labyrinth she’s told that nothing is quite as it seems. At first, she’s staring down a long, unending alley with no exit. She can’t find a turn or a way out with no escape plan or anything (cough, cough, metaphor, cough). Will she have to continue on the straight and narrow journey, only to wear herself down with no chance of making a change? No possibility of controlling her destiny? Nah, bro…she’s just looking at things the wrong way. The “brick wall” before her isn’t as solid as she’s been led to believe and she can actually move right through that thing.
Monsters, trolls, and blowhards
Sarah runs into all sorts of scary muppet-types on her journey. A misunderstood monster, a troll who has no friends, Sir Didymus. Though scary on the surface, she befriends each character and enlists them as teammates to help her. There aren’t enough movies or stories where female leaders use cooperation to lead the pack. We need more of this. There’s also an early lesson in the story: Sarah is attracted to a pretty fairy fluttering around the gates. But, pretty doesn’t equal nice. The fairy bites her right off the bat.
Don’t lose your head
OK, this one might be a stretch—but when Sarah encounters the gropey, grabby, creepers dancing around the firepit, all I could think about were the guys I’ve met on Tinder. I mean, they shout at her about their rules and expectations. They’re overly aggressive. She’s on her own. Come on girl…
Let me distract you from your dreams
Jareth lures Sarah into a fancy party where the guests are all stunning, although creepy, and she’s literally the bell of the ball. Pretty dresses and fancy masks can disguise the true nature of Jareth’s intentions for only so long. When Sarah begins to see that he’s manipulating her, the menagerie literally falls apart. Or, she breaks out and her fantasy world comes crashing down. It was a nice dream, but she simply can’t give up her goals to love someone who isn’t real.
In what I think is the creepiest scene in the entire movie, Sarah becomes drugged and forgets who she is. She wanders into a trash heap where an old woman followers her around and legitimately Gaslights her over and over again to make her question her sanity. She ends up in her old bedroom where the woman points out all the nice things she has to play with and focus on. It’s almost as if a small network of Jareth’s supporters are there to make sure his victim stays subservient and copesetic by numbing her with material goods: just look at how good you have it – why would you fuck this up now?
I need you so much
Jareth’s one weakness is revealed in Bowie’s final number. Working his way through a maze built to confuse her, he leans against a wall looking forlorn. He knows he’s about to lose her and admits, “I need you so much.” For the narcissist, they really, truly depend on their poor victims. They need to be worshiped, admired, feared. They can’t exist without you.
The big reveal
Sarah has to face Jareth in the end. And this part of the movie always bothered me as a kid. I really hated it. It felt so weak and anti-climatic. But, I think I get it now. She walks right up to him, and he begs her to stop. Consider what you’re doing, Sarah. This isn’t a game. And she kind of smirks and thinks to herself and says, “You have no power over me.” And then Bowie just kind of loses. He’s lost her. And that’s it.
And, to be honest, when I’m really having a rough time? When I run into my ex or see his shitty ass car on the road—or he pretends he doesn’t know who I am because he’s with his new girlfriend—or he’s sending me texts because she’s not there, inviting me to come see my favorite band (the one he hated and wouldn’t let me listen to the whole time we were married) because he has an extra ticket, or sending our “dog” text messages…I literally say, out loud, “YOU HAVE NO POWER OVER ME.”
Bechdel test: pass/fail?
Hard to say. Do muppets count?