Dressed in a flowing, powder blue dress and with a crown of pink and white flowers intertwined atop her dark hair, a young girl tries to remember the one line that she has forgotten from her rehearsal of a fairy-tale. This is the opening scene of the 1986 film Labyrinth, starring Jennifer Connelly as Sarah and singing legend David Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King.
With his mesmerising voice and eccentric appearance, I was enthralled by Bowie’s Goblin King. The character’s powerful allure was captivating, if not flirtatious, and I’m sure a fair percentage of the female – and male – audience who first viewed the film upon its release had fancied him at some point. However, resisting the charms of such a man is the very message that the film is trying to convey.
To most viewers, and certainly upon first watch, this film is simply about Sarah: a bold teenager brimming with childish woes. She navigates through a maze to rescue her baby brother Toby, who has been taken by the goblin king upon Sarah’s request and whisked away to his castle. However, this film is also full of hidden messages and lessons and the labyrinth acts as a simple metaphor for Sarah’s challenging journey through womanhood, encountering struggles and obstacles on her way.
She learns, grows and evolves until at the end of the film she becomes a young woman, putting away childish things and cherishing friendship, loyalty, and courage; characteristics that take form in the physical embodiment of bizarre companions Hoggle, Ludo and Didymus (of which I wanted Ludo as a pet, and Hoggle detained for his cringey and freakish appearance). But most of all, Sarah learns to treasure her innocence and purity as a woman; the features of which take the physical form of baby Toby.
Released in the 80’s, a time strife with sexism and inequality, the film explores the perilous relationship between a teenage girl and older man. Jareth the Goblin King takes on the role of a man who pressures Sarah to relinquish her innocence to him: he offers Sarah promises and gifts – things that she’s always wanted – and even tries to seduce her with a date-rape drug, which in the film is represented by a poisoned peach. Jareth goes to great lengths to discourage Sarah from rescuing her innocence, but she appears undeterred and continues to journey through the labyrinth of ‘womanhood’ to take her virtue back after offering it prematurely. The offering of baby Toby at the beginning of the film represents Sarah’s frustrations of remaining a single woman – the offering symbolising Sarah’s desperation to lose her ‘innocence’ for the preference of becoming a companion. Baby Toby’s presence remains not just as a physical embodiment of Sarah’s innocence but as a symbol of what the relationship would have entailed – Sarah becoming a Mother.
However, Sarah learns that she can become a strong and independent woman without being at the whim of a man; a concept that was being addressed by the second-wave feminism that graced the decade of the 80’s. It broadened the debate of gender inequality in terms of gender norms and roles within society. Women, who believed that they needed a man as a breadwinner to guide and support them, were suddenly beginning to stand on their own two feet. Within the film we see this as Sarah is struck with the notion that she does not need a man to survive; wrestling with the archaic belief throughout her adventure. She overcomes each impediment not with the company of a man by her side but with friendship, loyalty and courage – Hoggle, Ludo and Didymus.
Sarah conquers each setback that she encounters on her journey and takes a new life lesson away with her every time. She eventually comes to learn that things “aren’t fair” and “that’s the way it is”, losing the childish insight that she once had on life. In another life lesson, Sarah learns that someone is always going to lie to you and someone is always going to be honest with you, thanks to the pair of two headed creatures who guard two doors; of which one leads to the castle and the other lead to her “certain death”. Upon asking which is which, Sarah realises that she’ll have to decide who to trust just as she must decide whether to travel up or down in the scene with the ‘helping hands.’
The film is made up of choices and directions that Sarah must decide, not just in the case of the maze, but in the case of her life and as stated by the Wiseman and the hat: “It seems like we’re not getting anywhere, but we are”.
The labyrinth acts as a literal metaphor of womanhood and life; you choose which direction to travel in and although you’ll encounter obstacles, you’ll reach your goal in the end. The film constantly enforces this message, implying that although you must make decisions for yourself, you’ll never travel through life on your own – just as Sarah had help from Hoggle, Ludo and Didymus to reach the castle of the Goblin King.
It is here that the film comes to its climax as Sarah fights to recover her innocence: chasing Toby around twisting and gravity-defying staircases before facing Jareth, who declares: “just let me woo you and you can have everything that you want”. It is at this point that Sarah realises that life is not a fairy-tale and she remembers the one line that she had forgotten at the beginning – “you have no power over me”. Now a mature young woman, Sarah learns that there is much more to life and womanhood than she first thought, the important lesson being that there is nothing wrong with cherishing your innocence and purity until you are ready to offer it, and no man can convince you otherwise.
Written by Sophie Chapman
Sophie Chapman is in her final year of University in Norfolk, and has completed introductory courses in screenwriting and children’s visual culture, with the hope of becoming an entertainment journalist. Sophie often finds herself analysing the behaviour of others thanks to her love of crime dramas and television writer, Jed Mercurio. She can also be found fangirling over Keeley Hawes and wishing she was a stunt car driver.