To be honest, I’m not cool enough or musically intelligent enough to memorialize the weirdest, best musician recently lost to us. This is the best I can do.
“Labyrinth” came out in 1986, so that means I was 8 years old. I don’t remember seeing “Labyrinth” for the first time; I don’t even remember how I wound up with a VHS copy, but I do remember endless hours of watching the movie. I memorized every line of dialogue. I fantasized about being Sarah (and making drastically different choices than she did). Whenever I encounter adults that don’t like “Labyrinth,” I’m confused.
Like. I get that many movies from the ‘80s don’t hold up now; “Neverending Story,” I’m looking squarely at you here. Someone told me they think “Labyrinth” is in the same category, and I’m still scandalized.
“Labyrinth” is the perfect coming of age story. It isn’t about a girl lost in a weird maze looking for her little brother. It’s a sparkling, delightful metaphor for the sexuality of young girls and what happens to them as they grow past their youth and start to become women. It’s about the predation of men. It’s about the strong and weird desires many of us experience as our hormones click from off to on full blast.
Think about it—Sarah encounters an enigmatic, hella sexy older man who embodies everything she’s not. He’s grown up. He’s glamorous. He’s magical but not the kind of magical that lives in Disney-esque fairy tales. He’s the old kind of magic, the kind that steals your children and is in no way kidding about keeping you forever. He’s her budding sexuality and adulthood wrapped up in a beautiful and hauntingly weird package.
Heh heh. Package.
I cannot think of a better actor to portray that complicated mix of heady sexual temptation and fear of our own sexual power than David Bowie. I sort of think his entire career explored these concepts (and many more). He doesn’t just embody Sarah’s desires and adulthood; he also embodies a dangerous archetype—the man who will love you, certainly, but at the expense of who you are. The partner who overwhelms and consumes your personality until you are only a reflection of who he wants you to be. He tells her over and over he’ll fulfill her every desire, as long as she does things his way. He has traits that often appear in people who are controlling—charming, quick to anger, blaming, dangerous. Tempting.
She goes after him and the child he stole from her (not subtle). She knows she’s responsible for her own coming of age and can’t allow this man to overpower her. She collects friends, but not the ones a child in a fairy story might. She grabs a goblin who is into pretty jewelry but deeply cynical about humanity who has to befriend her for his own personal gain. She encounters a white knight, whose blind devotion to being morally correct gets him into trouble more often than it helps anyone (but he’s still loveable as heck). He puts himself in danger assuming she needs rescuing just because she’s female. She doesn’t; she needs help, not a savior.
She finds herself lost in a forest full of muppety frat boy rapists. (Look, if you can tell me those freaks are something besides a metaphor for men who will take advantage of weakened women, you let me know). Her safest companion is a giant who doesn’t talk much and has no friends and is genuinely only interested in Sarah for her companionship. All—literally all—of her companions are male. The only woman she meets is a trash-collecting goblin who tries to keep her trapped in her childhood fantasies.
The Goblin King gives her a peach (not subtle) that transports her into a fantasy where she is far more mature and can hold her own with the adults. As a young girl, I was entranced by the fantasy of being an adult, being courted by a man as sexually powerful as David Bowie’s character. She turns away, though, because she knows it’s just a fantasy.
This movie taught me more about navigating the world of sex with men better than any romance story ever did.
I love that, in the end, it’s her childhood that saves her. In effect, the way she escapes the Goblin King’s influence is by dropping back into the story of her pretend games in the park. She seems to choose to stay a kid a little while longer, although I think the end of the movie makes it clear that she knows she’s on her way to growing up whether she likes it or not. She’s aware that she’s on the cusp of embracing her own sexual power, but she turns away from the (truly compelling) offer of the Goblin King. She won’t do it in a way that compromises her integrity. Her will is as strong as her desires, and her kingdom is as great.
This was a strongly feminist, sexually empowered movie. There is nothing to match it that I can think of for kids now. Everything for children is stripped of sexual innuendo and made as candy-bright as possible. “Labyrinth” is dark, frightening and full of symbolism. (When she meets the Goblin King, Sarah is offered a gift, a toy that will show her her wildest dreams. When she refuses, it turns into a snake. Biblical much?) Then again, so many Henson works are this way—”Dark Crystal,” “Fraggle Rock,” and “‘The Muppets” are also full of dark humor, fear, and the real experiences of children moving toward adulthood.
My Twitter timeline today is full up with people thanking David Bowie for being weird, being different and acting as a representative for every weird kid out there. I know that once I saw “Labyrinth,” my sexual identity became cemented in its weird glamor sparkle. Without that performance, I might be an entirely different (probably less weird) person now.
So thanks, David Bowie and Jim Henson. You did some weird shit in the ‘80s and helped a baby weirdo get her wings. I hope you guys are hanging with Freddy Mercury in the coolest, glitteriest afterlife ever.