The 1986 movie Labyrinth has always been my comfort movie. I don’t know what it is about it, but watching it puts me at ease. Knowing that the main character, Sarah, is able to save the day herself has always felt empowering and safe to me. As I’ve grown up and watched the movie a bit more, I never realized how similar her labyrinth is to the one I call my life. The movie has taught me a few feminist lessons that I wanted to share. If you haven’t seen the movie, I urge you to watch it and analyze it in your own way. Potential spoilers ahead!
1) Being romantically independent is normal
Towards the beginning of the Labyrinth, Sarah is unhappy that she has to stay home and watch her baby brother. While Sarah, the female protagonist, is already assuming a childcare role (an older societal standard), the way her stepmother communicates with her is abysmal. As Sarah protests her forcible Saturday night plans, her stepmother acknowledges the fact she could have plans of her own by suggesting, “you should have dates at your age.”
This is a horrible thing for a parent to say to their child. There is absolutely no specific age at which you should be dating. Provided everyone is of legal age, there is no time you have to start at. Sarah thankfully proves her romantic independence has nothing to do with her worth throughout the movie. She is not forced to reciprocate love in order to be saved – she does the whole damn thing with her own brain. The trope of a dangerous situation being resolved by true love or even resulting in love isn’t at play at all. Romantic love is not the answer. If anything, the only love she has is in platonic nature for her newfound friends.
2) Asking for help is never wrong
Through the film, Sarah meets numerous friends on the quest to defeat the Goblin King. The Goblin King (yes… David Bowie), a ruler named Jareth, has taken away her baby brother after hearing her complaints. To win her brother, Toby, back, Sarah must complete the labyrinthian maze before time runs out. After a whimsical shot of the winding and twisting paths of the labyrinth, it is utterly clear that this would be quite the challenge. Immediately upon beginning, our heroine meets Hoggle: a shiny object obsessed dwarf.
Hoggle, a character whose loyalties shift throughout the movie, inevitably helps Sarah through different parts of the labyrinth. Without his help, Sarah would have never made it through the labyrinth. What differs with this relationship is that Sarah never falls into the “damsel” role that the film industry relies on. Instead of expecting Hoggle to help, she asks him and makes trades with her shiny jewelry. She demonstrates that men (or anyone in general) are not obligated to help, but that asking is never wrong. There is no shame in teamwork.
3) Women can be effective leaders
Another notable trait of Sarah is the leadership skills she possesses. After meeting Hoggle, she begins to assemble a team of companions without realizing it. My personal favorite team member is Ludo, a friendly and innocent giant covered in fur. Ludo was facing his own danger prior to meeting Sarah, but she saves and befriends him. While Ludo might be large, he definitely lacks communicative skills and common sense. Nevertheless, Sarah sees the value in him and his niche skills, making sure he is a part of the team. She even calls on him when he can participate. But, most importantly, she never leaves her members behind, if she can help it.
Sarah is a wonderful depiction of a female team leader. Her voice is never drowned out by her peers, but she also makes sure they are heard. Sarah proves that women can lead their own life. Whether it is leading yourself to the castle, or delegating tasks to get your team to their destination. Sarah proves that gender has nothing to do with your skills.
4) People might doubt you
One thing that upsets me the most about this movie, was how much doubt is cast on Sarah. As a little kid, I was always so frustrated for her sake. Many of the scenes cut to Jareth, twisting his magic orb around his fingers as he cursed her for progressing in his labyrinth. Even when challenging her initially, he suggests she will never make it and to give up before it begins. The goblins of Jareth’s kingdom are consistently portrayed as agreeing with the king, even without meeting Sarah. It can be assumed that the only thing they know about Sarah is her name. So why are they discounting her just because she is a woman?
Thankfully, Sarah begins to learn her worth… and it pays off. Sarah proves that the opinions of others (especially men) have nothing to do with her capabilities. Yet, this continues to bring light to this phenomenon. No matter what we do as women, there is always a man out there doubting us. Sarah is a fantastic reminder that the beliefs of others will never define the potential actions we are able to succeed in.
5) Things aren’t fair
“This isn’t fair” is a phrase constantly exclaimed by Sarah throughout the movie. It doesn’t seem to matter what she does or says; Jareth is constantly throwing new obstacles at her that weren’t initially defined in their challenge. One of their interactions, in which Sarah tells Jareth the labyrinth is “a piece of cake” to hide her fear, results in her time limit being shrunk.
After a few more cases of things being “not fair”, she finds herself on the side benefiting from the inequity. Finally, she makes her discovery. “No, it isn’t [fair]. But, that’s the way it is.” After this point, she isn’t held back by her verbal protesting of fairness. She realizes that actions are what make the difference. Now, she knows she can use her time to save herself instead… which she does.
Thankfully, this is the easiest lesson Labyrinth has to offer: things aren’t fair, but they don’t have to hold you back. In a perfect world, things will be fair. In the meantime, why stop trying when we can start doing?
6) Women are unfairly sexualized
Now, something that is definitely “unfair” and downright wrong is the sexualization of Sarah throughout the movie. Sarah, a minor, constantly interacts with Jareth, wearing flamboyant clothes that accentuate his genital region. While there is nothing wrong with dressing in something you like, the first red flag is the age difference between the two of them. Secondly, as the movie proceeds, it is clear Hoggle begins to crush on Sarah. Sarah is the only female, so the fact that Hoggle originally only sticks around for her beauty contradicts with so many other Labyrinth messages. To be totally honest, I could go on for hours about the weird, sexually-charged treatment of Sarah by Jareth, but the worst doesn’t even come from him.
While walking the forest, Sarah comes across the fireys, a gang of singing, dancing, and sometimes headless creatures. Without introduction, they immediately begin to heckle her and sing a song about letting her inhibition go and to “chilly down with fire.” The lyrics continue to suggest that she have sexual relations with them instead of completing her tasks. When she declines, they continue to catcall her as she runs away.
While there is absolutely nothing wrong with exploring and proudly displaying your sexuality as a woman, there are hundreds of things wrong with trying to get with a woman who says no. The movie demonstrates the harsh reality of being a woman: people treat you like an object. I am, however, eternally proud of how Sarah handles it. She stands her ground and says no. While the addition of her sexualization to this movie isn’t something I appreciate, I admire Sarah’s firmness. There is nothing wrong with saying no. The problem lies with the people who believe we don’t have a choice as women and objectify us anyway.
7) Men in powerful positions can play games
The worst but most truthful reality shock of this movie is what Jareth depicts. The Goblin King portrays this man in power who tries to “save” Sarah but eliminates the burden of babysitting. However, it is clear that this is all a game to him. Since the dawn of time, older men have preyed upon younger women in situations where power is unequal. Jareth views Sarah as intellectually inferior, but a visual prize to his kingdom. He creates this game in his favor, with the expectation that she will lose. Throughout the movie, he gaslights her, causes obstacles, and uses his power for evil. In the penultimate scene, he comes to her after she tries to save her brother and pleads for her to give up. Jareth says that he has been “generous up until now,” and that he “can be cruel,” in an attempt to scare her.
Sarah remains defiant, not wanting to play his game anymore. Even worse, Jareth continues to psychologically manipulate her by attempting to guilt her: “I’m exhausted from living up to your expectations.”
Excuse me… What!? Hopefully, it is obvious what I’m getting at. People in powerful positions can be corrupt. They see a young woman and feel possessive. I am assuredly not saying that everyone is like Jareth, but this lesson reminds me to be wary of toxic traits and to see red flags early. Another very important lesson from this film is something Sarah learns and stands true to: know your worth. You don’t have to play these games. Stand up for yourself and what you believe in. You will be victorious.
“You have no power over me”
The best plotpoint of the entire movie draws back to the earliest scene where Sarah is reading lines from a play.
“Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered I have fought my way here to the castle beyond the Goblin City to take back the child you have stolen, for my will is as strong as yours and my kingdom as great…”
Sarah continues to quote this throughout the movie but frequently ponders over the last line that she can’t remember. Thankfully, in the final battle scene, it clicks.
“You have no power over me.”
This is arguably the lesson I hope that everyone takes from this movie. No matter what life throws at you or how worthy you feel, know that you are the only person who has control. It doesn’t matter what another man says to you or tries to make you feel. You are the boss. They have no power over you. As a popular song from the movie would say, you are “the babe with the power.”
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