Back in the Labyrinth day, eight year old me was surrounded by males jostling for position at the expense of females; in the school gym I had already noted the double standard whereby I was given a dressing down for getting overexcited and squealing during a game of pirates, while the boys (one in particular) ran unpunished up and down the gym effing and blinding at the top of their voices, and slapping girls on their way past. Home life felt like a perpetual struggle to have any meaningful power at all, and the real world felt scary and unfair, so I retreated into books and fantasy where I felt safe.
I remember seeing a clip of Labyrinth on some Saturday morning kids' TV show, and knew instantly that I just *had* to see it. This being the late 80s I had to be patient and wait for it to come out on video, which probably took a year or so, so I will have been 10 or 11 when I watched it for the first time. And I was fascinated!
Sure, I liked Sarah; although if I'm being completely honest I have to admit that her two dresses - especially the iconic ballgown - were what interested me most about her. Already, I had internalised the belief that the most important thing about a woman was how she looked. I found myself feeling faintly disappointed that she spent most of the movie wearing jeans and a sensible shirt and waistcoat. Not my first feminist fail, and I'm sure it wont be the last either.
The real attraction for me was Jareth the Goblin King. Not since I watched an old BBC adaptation of Dracula had I found myself so weirdly drawn to such a dark character. What was it about these men who threatened innocent girls that I found so compelling? Of course, these days the educated grown-arse woman in me realises that I was simply responding to my programming - I adored and feared my father in equal measure as a child, so it makes perfect sense that a confusing loving/not safe kind of vibe felt familiar and appealing.
It's only as an adult that I can see how very remarkable Sarah was in the context of the late 1980s. Looking at her family situation, she has clearly been separated from her mother, whom her father has replaced with another woman who lacks the emotional skills necessary to connect with an angry and grieving teenager. Sarah's apparent petulance and "spoiled brat" behaviour in this context can be more properly understood as the very natural response of a young girl who feels abandoned by her mother, and who's then forced to share her father with two brand new people - her stepmother and new baby brother. As powerless and unheard as she feels, it's kind of easy to understand how she ends up taking it out on the one person with even less power than her - Toby, her baby brother, who is only doing what babies do when he screams and screams after being put to bed alone and ignored.
Another theme I notice as an adult is one of clear communication. Sarah's a quick learner, and from the beginning of the movie her words are a powerful asset - but only if she can choose them carefully and speak the truth. Think of her first overblown chant, straight out of one of her fairy tales - "Goblin King, Goblin King, wherever you may be - come and take this child of mine* far away from me!" which is an abject failure - much to the impatience of the goblins, who are only too ready to listen and follow her instructions. Eventually a simple, clear "I wish the goblins would come and take you away, right now." succeeds, for the very simple reason that it's exactly what she feels at the time. It's her truth in that moment.
This learning is repeated throughout Sarah's journey through the Labyrinth, and it takes her until the end to fully understand what she's doing - she is creating her own experience via the words she uses. You watch her learning to ask the right questions, and you see her being punished by the Labyrinth immediately for choosing her words without enough care:
After solving the riddle set by the gatekeepers:
"I think I'm getting smarter - this is a piece of cake!" BAM - straight into an oubliette via the unpleasant, groping, "helping hands".
When trying to comfort Ludo as they walk towards the castle:
"See Ludo? There's nothing to be afraid of." BAM - Ludo vanishes down a trapdoor, leaving her alone.
The Labyrinth teaches her the power of her words, by immediately showing her what the truth is - it's *not* a piece of cake, and there is *plenty* to be afraid of. Sarah's task is to learn enough about the world she's in, to understand how she can use the power of her words to wrestle control of it from the Goblin King and save her baby brother. And learn it she does - not only does she figure out that "it's not fair, but that's just the way it is", but we also see her intervene in a fight between Hoggle, Ludo and Sir Didymus (whose sworn duty it is to make sure nobody crosses a particular bridge) and uses clear communication and logic to calm everyone down and establish that all she actually needs to do to cross the bridge is politely ask permission. Game on!
If we can pop a feminist lens over the whole thing for a moment, and imagine that the Goblin King represents the Patriarchy and the Labyrinth is the world that he owns and controls, then we can see Sarah's journey even more clearly. It becomes her job to save wee Toby from the patriarchy and from becoming a goblin himself, forever. But the environment itself is conspiring against her - it's unfair by its very nature, and she won't be able to make any real progress until she accepts that. She also can't do it alone; she needs help from the people she meets on the way - all male, and inside the Labyrinth as well - but not full-blown goblins.
Hoggle begins the journey unhelpful, uncouth and contemptuous of Sarah. Bit by bit, we learn more about him, his likes/dislikes, his low self esteem ("I'm a coward, and Jareth scares me") and Sarah uses his love of plastic jewels to help him control his duplicitous behaviour for a while. We see that he is abused by the patriarchy himself when the Goblin King mocks him for his budding friendship with Sarah by asking if he really believes she could love "a repulsive little scab like you" and he gradually shifts his allegiance from the fear-based control of the Goblin King to a genuine attachment to a woman who's learning to value people over objects, and who is not afraid to hold him accountable for his behaviour.
Ludo is a gentle giant whom Sarah meets while he's being persecuted by creatures in the Labyrinth. Being aware by this time that things are not always as they seem, she is not intimidated by his size or his fearsome appearance, and the two quickly learn to trust each other. The one time Sarah abuses Ludo's trust by trying to falsely assure him there's nothing to be afraid of, he vanishes. However in his absence she continues learning, and by the time they meet again she understands enough about their respective strengths and skills to be able to give him clear and simple instructions that enable them to fight their way through the goblin army and reach the castle.
Sir Didymus initially seems like a jobsworth with small man syndrome. His default response to any situation is to fight, and he will defend his sacred duty to guard his bridge to the death. It comes as a bit of a surprise to him when Sarah simply respects his (questionable) authority and politely asks his permission to pass. Later on, she is forced to massage his ego a little when all his noisy derring-do at the goblin gates threatens to give them away, and we see that his readiness to fight really just masks an underlying insecurity and a need for reassurance. As soon as Sarah gives him the validation he craves, he calms down and starts to help again instead of hindering.
The one thing these three very different males have in common, is that they are perfectly willing to follow (or in Hoggle's case, to learn to follow) a female leader; the only caveat being that she needs to learn how to communicate her needs and desires clearly to them in ways they will understand and that will elicit a positive response. For Hoggle that means Sarah accepting his innate pedantry and being prepared to ask him straight questions, while not being afraid to make it clear what behaviours she finds acceptable and unacceptable. In Ludo's case, it's being able to take responsibility for his limited vocabulary and timid nature, being careful not to betray his trust; and Sir Didymus really just needs a bit of reassurance and validation.
It's my belief that modern feminists could learn a lot from the lessons hidden in this movie. A lot of us are stuck in the "men are trash" phase of feminist development, where we simply blame men for their behaviour and expect them to change because we asked them to. I suspect the next step will be (and believe me, I insert a giant and WEARY feminist sigh here) for women to take on more responsibility and learn how to communicate with men about feminism in ways that are meaningful for *them* rather than just by speaking our truth and expecting them to hear us. The truth is too painful for many men, because really and truly hearing it would force them to examine their own role in the whole mess - and you can bet that won't be a fun process.
The problem we women have, is that we have no way of knowing at a glance whether any one man is a Hoggle, a Ludo, a Sir Didymus or just a plain old nasty goblin who is so far gone in patriarchal programming that he will only ever treat us like shit, no matter how we deal with him. And the painful reality is that the process of figuring that out is absolutely *laden* with risk for us - risk of abuse, sexual violence, social ridicule - the list really does go on...
Once again we have reached the point where there's no point in fighting with each other. It's time to down swords and start really listening and communicating, and because women are, in general, more self-aware and emotionally literate than men (obligatory #notallmen klaxon), it probably falls to us to find ways of explaining our reality in a manner that will make men want to hear us - at least the men who are in the Patriarchy rather than of it.
It will be those men, I suspect, who will be willing to support women (or learn to support them) until we can all look the Patriarchy in the face and simply say "You have no power over me."
Watch this space for more examinations of popular culture through a feminist lens. I'd love to hear from you in the comments if you have any thoughts or insights. No more delicious Jareth GIFs though, I've put myself right off the Goblin King by writing this article!
In the meantime, if you enjoyed this article and missed the last one about a bright girl's battle of wills with a badass mermaid, click here.
*In an extremely dark theory; given what we know about the innate truth of Sarah's words (take this child of mine far away from me), and then the hint Jareth drops about how the baby "has my eyes" later in the film, is it possible that Toby is actually Sarah's son who's being brought up as her brother for appearance's sake? The implications of that one are pretty uncomfortable...