Sometimes I think the one of the hardest things about becoming well-versed in feminist media literacy is that it has become really frakking hard to simply enjoy such pleasures as Daniel Craig’s swimsuit and Caterina Murino’s pink dress in Casino Royale without having to analyze the entire canon of James Bond and how it fits with my feminist ideals.
But there are still a few movies that I would still be willing to introduce to my theoretical preteen daugher without hesitation. Labyrinth is one of them.
Now, it’s not perfect. Obviously. It’s mostly a vehicle for some fabulous muppets and David Bowie’s even more fabulous codpiece. It never really addresses *why* Jareth is in the baby-stealing business. It also portrays a strangely domestic pseudo-motherhood as the alternative to the Goblin Kingdom.
So, it’s not perfect, but that’s where the internet comes in. Remix culture is a beautiful thing. It allows you to play with worlds beyond the stories that focus groups and marketing firms have approved. It lets you write the stories you want to see, and the stories you feel are missing from the screen and page, rooted in the worlds you love so much. I adore the way fans rework canon worlds. I learned how to be a writer by participating in fan fiction communities. So, when a new fan theory popped up that purports to answer the question of Jareth’s motivation, I eagerly read it.
You should too, if you haven’t yet. It’s over at glamdamnit’s tumblr. This theory is interesting, and does nicely answer that question. However, in reading it, I was bothered. On the first read-through, I shrugged my shoulders and closed it, assuming I wouldn’t ever see it again. However, it popped up again and again on my Facebook feed, and slowly I figured out what was rubbing me the wrong way.
It bothers me because, in Labyrinth, Jareth’s motivations just don’t matter.
You see, here’s the thing about Labyrinth. It’s a fairy tale. It’s a modern fairy tale, but it’s a fairy tale nonetheless. It is the story of a hero, going off on a quest. It’s an analogy to coming of age, told through the lens of slaying dragons, fighting evil witches and rescuing princesses.
You don’t ask for the motivations of the princess in the castle. You don’t ask for the motivations of the evil witch, or of the dragon. In a fairy tale, the motivation which matters is the hero’s, the man’s. In this case, the motivation which matters is Sarah’s motivation. Sarah is struggling with growing up, and struggling with the transition from girl to woman, with having responsibilities, and with dealing with the repercussions of her choices.
To re-center the story on Jareth’s motivations takes the agency away from Sarah. Instead of the story of a young woman taking initiative (even if flawed initiative, as is so often the case with the start of a hero’s quest), it becomes the story of yet another lustful prince, and the princess is reduced to set dressing, once again. In this case, she is reduced, quite literally, to an archetype. She is interchangeable with any number of young women. The story of Sarah becomes a tale of the object of the hero’s quest, rather than that of the questor herself. It takes away the interest we have in her as an individual hero, and particularly, the interest she holds as one of the few women who rejects the overtures of the handsome king.
Sarah has agency in the movie. She *chooses* to have the Goblin King to take Toby, in the beginning. She *chooses* to rescue her brother in the middle. And, in the end, she struggles with her interest in Jareth vs. her responsibility to what she knows is right.
This is the story of a young woman growing up in the 80s, in the 90s and even now. It’s the story of a woman struggling with sexuality vs. morality. With desire vs. duty. With family vs. adventure. With fairness and hardship. It’s not perfect, but neither are those of us who identified with it.
The real question isn’t whether it’s a dream, as started glamdamnit’s theory. Even if it is a dream, it’s not a sleeping one. It’s a daydream. A lucid dream. A dream of Sarah’s, in which she is the hero, and where she can defeat the dragons and complete her quest.
Yes, glamdamnit’s theory makes Jareth a more well-rounded character. It gives him more dimension, but what it gives to him, it takes away from Sarah. This theory shouldn’t “blow your mind”, as is touted on some of the less-reputable aggregator sites, rather it is more of the ho-hum, every day focus on the guy’s motivation. What should blow your mind is that there is a movie, one precious, shining movie, where the teen girl gets to be the hero. And where she gets to make the choices. And where she gets to choose to leave the prince in his tower, surrounded by the dragons that are part of himself. And she walks away, back to the life she has chosen herself, having seen her options and fought for the one she wanted.
And they all live happily ever after.
And then a large chunk of the internet wanders off to write fan fiction that takes place ten years later where she chooses to spend some time with the Goblin King once she’s not quite so young and it’s not quite so pedophile-riffic. Because, well, I might be a feminist, but I’m a feminist who grew up learning about relationships on fanfiction.net.
I haven’t read the theory you’re rejecting yet, but this was awesome, Emily.
Also? “I’m a feminist who grew up learning about relationships on fanfiction.net.” Ayup.
I wasn’t buying into the theory as I read it, but I liked the idea of someone actually taking the time to make a back story. Then the ending of that theory made me roll my eyes and dismiss it entirely. “They were all Sarah.” Really!? That last line bothered me because it feeds into the idea that women are interchangeable dolls for men to play with and discard when they get bored. That was my dismissive conclusion until I read this take on it, which is awesome and really gets to the core of the issue. Thank you, Emily!
Knowing Jareth’s back story doesn’t diminish Sarah’s heroics or agency. This Sarah, and all of the other Sarahs in this fan fiction, chose their heroic course and battled their way through the maze. If anything, this fan fiction creates thousands of strong and heroic Sarahs.
It’s [still] the story of a woman struggling with sexuality vs. morality. With desire vs. duty. With family vs. adventure. With fairness and hardship.
@ Emily Dietle It also creates thousands of Sarahs who fail to rescue the infants associated with them as evidenced by the number of goblins our Sarah (the Sarah of the film) encounters since the theory postulates that each of those goblins is a baby who was not rescued.
I think Pika-la-Cynique (the artist behind Girls Next Door a fancomic which often centers on Sarah and Jareth) makes a good point about the theory’s lack of mind-blowingness as well: http://www.deviantart.com/journal/This-one-amazing-fan-theory-390276560
I don’t view failure as a problem, the Sarahs (in this fanfic) all tried & that is noble. The story is still all about this Sarah, but now the gaps are filled in nicely, and -without fawning over him- we have a richer background to the antagonist, Jareth. Sarah stands on her own, and her story is not one that can be easily overshadowed, not even by Bowie.
It also does not mesh with the novel that was written for the film ACH Smith with makes it clear it is about Sarah going from girl to woman and all the complications within involving her mother(not the step but her real mom) and other darker things. While the internet Sarah myth theory was interesting it definitely does not have anything to do with the actual plot of the film/novel.
Having never seen the Labyrinth before, today I watch it for the first time (along with my four daughters) because of this post. It’s something I’ve been wanting to see, so now was just as good of time as any. We all loved it.