When I was 14, when my siblings were trying to get me into bands like Echo and the Bunnymen and Rush, I was already cultivating my own deep obsession for David Bowie. Well, really for Jareth the Goblin King in the weird, wonderful ’80s fantasy epic Labyrinth.
Labyrinth was a massive commercial failure when it came out. Not only had the production been incredibly labored and difficult, spanning more than five months of shooting, but the reviews were also scathing. It was only later that it was celebrated as the cult classic it is today. But my dad was a fantasy junkie. Dune and The Belgariad were plopped in front of me as soon as I grew out of Dr. Seuss. There was no question I was on a collision course with this movie. But I doubt my Dad knew what he was bringing into my life when he took that VHS home from the rental store: here was something truly mysterious, something immediate and intense.
I know I’m one voice in the millions of girls who grew up in that era, but I have a feeling this might resonate with a few: I started seeking my own Jareth the Goblin King — my challenge, my foe — in every boy I could find. I wanted someone who could sweep me away to a dark mysterious unknown land of fear and frantic action (sounded pretty much like sex to me!). My first Jareth clone was a year older than me, with a ’70s haircut (this was 1997) and a penchant (how perfect!) for reciting Bowie lyrics at random. He snuck into my room at nights at my suggestion. He broke my heart. And then I kept looking. And so on I went, defined, I felt, by my search for magic and men, in that order.
As compelling as Jareth was, it was Sarah, the heroine, who truly fascinated me, because she is, to outsiders (her parents), defined by her faults. She’s daydreamy and forgetful, her priorities are out of order because of her dedication to drama. She’s all the things a steroetypical female would be. Except, as Labyrinth plays out, it’s those same things that come to her rescue. Her ability to think creatively, to empathize, comes to her rescue again and again.
In the end, it’s her realization that the things others see as flaws — her “over”emotional approach to things, her “over”dramatic response to situations — are actually her power. Yet she’s also a bundle of contradictions; her naiveté in trusting the denizens of the Labyrinth gets her to eat a poison peach at one point.
And I understood Sarah, contradictions and all. I was raised in the girl power era, screaming lyrics to Jagged Little Pill, and refusing to ever hold my opinion back in front of men. And yet there I was, actively seeking out guys who could capture me, poison me, trap me in mazes.
When I think of that Bowie, I wonder if what brought him to Labyrinth was a kinship, not with his own character, but with Sarah. With the young girls out there who were sometimes a stereotype, running after boys and trusting the wrong people, and sometimes an enigma, running into the forests and looking for elves. He was drawn to its perverse fairy tale twists: “The script itself was terribly amusing without being vicious or spiteful or bloody, and it had a lot more heart in it than many other special effects movies,” Bowie said about the film.
But I like to think Bowie, who seemed to love to inspire evolution, probably embraced the idea that in the end, all the trauma his towering, sexually powered villain puts Sarah through is worthless. His patriarchal rule, quite literally, is defeated by a young girl, who is confused and twisted in her own right, declaring that at the least “you have no power over me.”
We’re not always our best selves. We’re not even always our average selves. In a world of dichotomies, we hide away the fringe dark elements, the red-band versions of ourselves.
But it’s only when we own all of those selves — when we are at once the villain, the hero, the adolescent, and the person who doesn’t matter to anyone — that we can even begin to say to others that our flaws are our power, and our weirdnesses our weapons.
I still look for ways out of the Labyrinth. I’ll bet Bowie did, too.
(Image via Lucasfilm/Jim Henson Company)