“Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered, I have fought my way here to the castle beyond the Goblin City to take back the child that you have stolen, for my will is as strong as yours, and my kingdom is as great… For my will is as strong as yours. My kingdom is great… Damn. I can never remember that line.”
Gag me with a spoon! I mean far out! I mean, damn am I really that old?
Labyrinth is up on Netflix and I thought it was time for a post-collegiate analysis of the film. I don't really have narrate the plot because odds are, you've seen or heard of this film. Jennifer Connelly plays obnoxious jail bait for a crystal-ball fondling David Bowie in a very muppet coming-of-age tale.
The strength of my purple diesel aside, I had a major breakthrough about the film. “The Labyrinth” is actually a stand in for “The Patriarchy.” Oh yes. Here it goes:
Sarah is LARPing by herself (is that similar to “dancing with yourself?”) in a park during a very rushed opening sequence that clearly had a lot of back story to it. She comes off as the most annoying and obnoxious teenager you've ever seen but I can't help but pick up on little details like: the scrapbook of her mother's playbills. We know that the woman downstairs is her step-mother and that she's tasked with babysitting her step-brother. She wants her father's affections but he seems to direct them towards his wife and new child.
Sarah stops seeming over-the-top whiny when this is considered. She's obviously sublimating the disconnect with her parents (her father seems to be directing his full attention to new wife and child, her mother is out of the picture for an untold reason) into rage against her brother. Regardless of her complex relationship to the baby, she still tends to him with care. When she asks for the goblins to come take him away, she's probably reaching out to the nuclear unit she once knew in her childhood. The fact that she's attached to it through a very “childlike” bedroom that is “unfitting” for her age seems to support this.
Now, I absolutely adore Jim Henson but I'm fascinated by the maturity policing in this film. When dudes hang on to action figures, posters of movies they loved as children, RPG's, table top, or digital games we might offer a “man child” label at worst but it isn't seen as being pathological the way it is when a chick hangs onto her fantasy based interests as an adult. “Growing Up” for Sarah is going to mean: learning to better manage childcare responsibilities and being able to be the subject of a sexual gaze without making anyone feel like a ‘pedo' because of her interests and pastimes.
And David Bowie as Jareth, the Nutsack King, arrives to make her a properly sexual lady indeed. At their initial introduction, he offers her a gift and flirtatious flattery. When she turns him down very politely, he turns on his heels and threatens her with a snake that he uncoils in his hand and then tosses at her face. It is very much like being asked out on a date and having sexual threats thrown at you as retaliation for rejection, especially when it's done in front of a crowd.
It's fascinating to me that the coming-of-age tale for Sarah is led by men. The phallic imagery abounds: Jareth fondles his balls constantly, Hoggle (her guide) is a walking choad obsessed with the “family jewels” that hang between his legs, Ludo and Sir Didymus each represent masculine archetypes. Yes, Dorothy had 3 male companions on the yellow brick road but they were all pretty gay (Scarecrow swings every which way, obviously) and more importantly they were several hugely influential feminine guides for her on the journey.
Well, Sarah is a teen girl surrounded entirely for men with two exceptions: her stepmother (for about 2 minutes of run time) and then the junk yard lady later on the film for approximately 4 minutes of screen time. This is incredibly notable to me and is one of the reasons why the Labyrinth is really a stand in for “patriarchy.” For those of you who hate the word, let's revisit that concept. Sarah's coming of age is learning how to navigate a world controlled entirely by men and how to adapt to their needs, their desires, and what they want from her at any given time.
Additionally, following her confidence levels is fascinating in and of itself. Any time Sarah makes a statement of confidence, something bad happens. “It doesn't look that hard,” or “it's a piece of cake!” or “I figured it out! I'm getting better at this!” always precedes something of a major problem. When she makes the statement, “I'm doing OK,” it's a sign of growth and maturity. Apparently, it's not mature to boost your own self-esteem as a lady type. She's overconfident and has to be taken down a few notches and humbled. When you consider the fact that young women in our society often need to have their self-esteem boosted because of the endless negative commentary directed at “little girls” or “teenage girls” this is a really backwards message.
To continue with the phallic imagery, Sarah finally meets her choad of a companion. I guess he is like an early boyfriend one might have if one were the type to LARP alone in a park on a weekend night. When she first rests her eyes on him, he's pissing and then resumes the task of killing fairies. Although the flying little white girls look beautiful and sweet, it turns out they'll bite at the first chance which is an interesting statement in context of the film. When she's finished with him, she passes by a number of “one-eyed wall creatures” who stare at her as she passes by and then receives counsel from a worm. Like I said: phallic imagery abounds.
Another recurring theme is the crossing of thresholds. She constantly having to pass through doorways that are guarded by (ding! ding! ding! You guessed it!) men who tease her and present very high stakes puzzles for her to solve. One of her early puzzles is the ancient test of distinguishing the liar and the truth teller at risk of “certain death.” She makes a choice and she falls: not the center of the castle but not to certain death either. Maybe she choice correctly and it was just a really long path to the center of the castle. They didn't promise is a quick route.
Falling down the hole into the oubliette, Sarah is grabbed and supported by the “helping hands.” When they introduce themselves, Sarah is quick to say, “You're hurting!” to which they drop her further. More than anything, this is just an incredible visual and masterful image and stunt. It's also a little like the creepy groping you get on your way though The Patriarchy. Instead of going back up, Sarah makes the bizarre decision to continue downward because the plot compels her to do so.
After that first tumble, she's back with that choad of a companion again who has all kinds of masculinity problems and crumbles in the presence of the “alpha male.” There are at least a handful of very cool visual tricks that depict Jareth's panopticon over the Labyrinth. His face is seen in hidden in the corner of images in quick flashes or in scattered pieces of rock sculpture that create his image from only one possible perspective. These are a reminder of the all-encompassing power Jareth has over the entire labyrinth and Sarah's experience inside of it. Thinking about that two long makes the entire story start to fall apart with questions so we won't dwell on it too long because at heart, it's all about using muppets and muppet magic in as many dazzling ways as possible even if there is still sexism in Henson's amazing brilliance and talent.
As the story continues, we get more metaphors for masculine control and the challenges presented by that. Sarah receives more counsel for an old man with a bird hat that makes it look like (ding! ding! ding! You guessed it!) an annoying talking penis head. He offers very little advice and still asks for compensation from her which she provides. She runs into the flame colored muppets who sing and reassemble themselves in every which way representing the “party” phase one often gets stuck in while dealing with patriarchal bullshit and Sarah nearly loses her head for it. There's a slight gang bang tone to it but we'll stick with the drug metaphors because I don't want to feel that uncomfortable about a children's movie. Still, they all want a piece of her and have a dedicated group dynamic. I'm already uncomfortable. Let's move on, shall we?
Hoggle the choad lowers a rope to help Sarah escape the “fireys” and she plants a kiss on his face condemning them both to The Bog of Eternal Stigma…I mean Stench. For some reason, they land right on Ludo who was spirited away and returned purely for plot advancing purposes. This is where they meet Sir Didymus and I can't help but recall that the epididymis is a part of the testicle. Will the penis business ever end? Ever? Sure, we hear that the labyrinth is “full of openings” and that oubliettes are dark holes you put people in to forget about them but it's about 1000 dick metaphors to every cunt reference. The merry band of travelers wander through the low rent district of the labyrinth until they make friends with Sir Testicle Valve, Ludo demonstrates the rock-moving resonance of his roar, and the story continues forward.
Sarah's choad offers her a peach that Jareth put him up to giving her. It induces sleep and Sarah is carried away in a drug induced stupor for a dance with Jareth. She manages to come to and break her way out of the situation and winds up with the only relatively feminine character in a junk yard. The “junk lady” is obsessed with material goods and is trapped under a mountain of her own worthless junk. Is this the capitalist ‘women's interest' marketing woman? She makes it clear that all of Sarah's confusion, sadness, and unfulfilled mission can be satiated with another thing. She revisits her room and finally realizes that her prized possessions aren't the times and people she's loved but actually objects that she doesn't need.
Before her final confrontation with Jareth, she offers forgiveness to her choad and having been “truly seen and cared for” by a woman helps him stand strong and brave for the first time in the film. Ludo is empowered by having friends and Sir Didymus experiences no developmental growth because he's a humorous stock character as the unobservant and overly machismo fox of a man. They've all gathered around her first and foremost because she was a pretty young girl but they stay because of the emotional support she lends them. At the end of the day, the most helpful of the bunch is Ludo the gentle giant that Sarah rescued from the rapid pro-life protesters with the angry fanged fetuses they wave around on sticks. (Also of note: why are so many of the guards in the film playing on “Orientalist” tropes? I noticed a lot of Asian, Middle Eastern, and Northern African costumes on the goblin guards.) Aside from road company and Ludo's rock summoning talents, her crew really doesn't do a whole lot on her behalf but she emotionally supports all of them.
Sarah finally makes it to the center of the Labyrinth and we get to be dazzled by the Escher brought to life room of the final confrontation. David Bowie is dressed in owl drag that is stupendous enough to die for and a cod piece so pronounced you might even assume that it's just a barn owl roosting in his pubes. The whole point of everything is for Sarah to experience the paradigm shift that this man has no power of her. Sure, he has trans-dimensional magic, panopticon prowess, stench bogs, guards in culturally appropriate garb, and more dicks than I have in my bedroom for filming pornography. He has no power of her…except the power to have made this whole experience happen.
I do understand that philosophical perspective shift because it's all about Sarah realizing that she can step to his shit. She has to recognize the power deep within herself and this recognition will empower her to go back to her world and be a successful Oscar winning actress on a host of “world's most beautiful women” lists. If you're a white, thin, able bodied female and you learn how to adapt to the whims of the patriarchy your kingdom can indeed be great. In that instant, she is transported back home and her step-brother is safe. She has totally gotten over the rhyme and reason why her mother isn't around and her father's new relationship with her stepmother and their baby. She passes her prized teddy bear off to him with a perfect maternal love and begin packing her “little girl” things up in boxes. That's a powerful vision!
That's my long winded, very grown up and mature post-collegiate analysis of The Labyrinth. Do you disagree? Watch it yourself and tell me all about it!
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