“You Have No Power Over Me” : Why the movie Labyrinth matters

I was a kid of the 1980s.  I was a SF/Fantasy loving kid who ate up movies and books with the full glee of a kid creating their pop culture references for the first time.  I was there to watch Elliot lay a trail of Reeses Pieces for E.T.   I was there to sob as Artax was swallowed in the pits of Despair (quick edit!  It’s actually the Swamps of Sadness as a commenter pointed out–the Pits of Despair is indeed from the Princess Bride).   It was Inigo Montoya I invoked whenever I picked up a toy sword.  I watched The Navigator, Explorers, Legend, the Dark Crystal, Ghostbusters . . . the list goes on.   And then there was Labyrinth (1986).

Labyrinth was the first movie I ever saw in the theaters without an adult.  My best friend and I went to see it for my birthday and dined on huge tubs of popcorn, gigantic cups of Cherry Coke and nachos with hot cheese. (movie food was cheaper back then).   It’s remained an unforgettable experience. We oohed and ahhed at the Henson puppetry and Froud artistry.  We delighted in David Bowie’s pop songs and his crazy wardrobe choices.  We watched and cheered for the the heroine to solve the Labyrinth and bring her brother home even with everything set against her.  If I had to pick a highlight of that year, that’d be near the top.  My best friend and I loved the movie so much that it became a tradition.  Every year on my birthday,  we’d rent it from the video store and settle down with bacon burgers and more Cherry Coke and chocolate ice cream to enjoy it again.  I’ve had copies of the music on cassette and CD.  I’ve owned a copy of the movie since I got my own apartment.

Thing is, this isn’t a movie that won a lot of acclaim or attention when it first came out.  It was a box office disappointment for Henson, and the last feature film he ever made.  That didn’t matter much to me as a kid, and as an adult I still enjoy the movie.  No matter how many people may see it as just a silly fantasy movie.  Labyrinth has achieved a “cult” following since the 80s, oftenregarded warmly but with a certain feeling of having to defend that regard and justify it.   I mean, there are a lot of things to criticize about the movie, David Bowie’s err . . . pants, the lack of other female characters, some rather dated special effects.

As neat as it was, the rock battle really didn’t quite feel convincing.

But lately I was thinking about the SF/F movies I watched from that time.

E.T.,  Legend, The Princess Bride, Explorers, Goonies, The Navigator, The Neverending Story, The Last Starfighter, Star Trek Movies, even Star Wars,  . . .

None of them have a female character as the main protagonist.

Out of all the live-action SF/Fantasy movies for kids in the 1980s,  only one movie I’ve found decided to feature a female character as the main heroic lead.

Labyrinth.

Suddenly it seems a bit more than a lightweight 80s fantasy.

Other than Labyrinth, if you look at most of the female characters in these movies, we have roles like the Childlike Empress, the broken-hearted  Buttercup, The romantic interest, the cute kid sister, the trouble maker, the tag-along friend, the clueless mother, or the on of many princesses in need of rescue.  They’re not all bad roles, and some of them are quite entertaining, but there wasn’t an option to be something else. (There are some exceptions, mind you, but none of them are the heroes of their story.)

(Spoiler warning)

In Labyrinth we meet Sarah, a conflicted and selfish teenager who would rather live in daydreams and her toy-filled childhood than really mature. She resents her baby brother and dislikes babysitting him.  She’s also going to be the hero of this movie. But she’s not ready to be the hero yet.

Sarah is a character with agency.  It’s her choices and her words that create the crisis in this movie.  At this point Sarah has no notion how powerful her words can be.  She wishes the goblins take away her brother–and they do.  Wish granted.

When the Goblin King, the mysterious and splendiferous spectacle that is David Bowie as Jareth, appears in the nursery, Sarah doesn’t cower  or cry.  She asks for her brother back. Jareth offers her attractive bribes and dark threats of magic to try and deter her, but she refuses to be corrupted or cowed. she’s determined to go on a quest to win her brother back.  It’s the hero’s quest of course, and Sarah takes it on without a question that it’s hers to do–she doesn’t look around for someone else to do it for her.

Sarah is not a fully formed hero–she’s still feeling sorry for herself, using false bravado and not asking the right questions.  But she’ll get there.

Our hero, like so many on these quests, collects a motley crew of characters to travel with her.  Many will help her, some will betray her.  Sarah grows and learns through her quest.  It’s a true coming of age story.

The villain tries to thwart her again and again– going so far as to capture her in dreams of a masquerade ball in which she is the beautiful “princess” in a fantastical dress and he is the mysterious suitor who has eyes only for her.  All this glitz and glamour and fairy-tale enchantment reflects Sarah’s own dreams and fantasies.  It’s meant to be a very pretty trap.  But Sarah doesn’t fall for it.   She rejects the magic and glamor. And she rejects Jareth as handsome suitor.

By the time we reach the final confrontations, she has lost interest in feeling sorry for herself and is confident, determined and ready to do whatever it takes to reach the castle.  She’s intent on her goal, all the way to the point where she WILL FACE THE VILLAIN ALONE.

The villain’s final ploy is that he confronts her, tries to intimidate her and then promises her anything she wants–if she’ll just let him win.  “I ask for so little. Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave. ”  Our trickster thinks he’s offering a tempting prize, but Sarah has had the words with her all along break this final enchantment:”You have no power over me.”

“YOU HAVE NO POWER OVER ME.”

This.

This is why I love this movie despite it’s flaws.  Sarah’s story was one I could grab hold of.   I could be the hero for real.

You have no power over me.

I can be the hero who takes responsibility and goes on the quest and survives all the challenges.

I can say these words in my own life, my real life.

You have no power over me.

 

I can’t see this movie as silly or unimportant ever again. Jim Henson did groundbreaking work in so many ways, and this is just one more brilliant example.

Folks, if you can find a kids SF/F movie from the 1980s that has a main female protagonist, please let me know.  Because other than Labyrinth, the only two I can think of  are animated movies.  The Secret of NIMH ( Mrs. Frisby is a a widowed mouse and a mother who is on a quest to save her family.) and The Last Unicorn (The unicorn, sometimes human woman, is questing to find the other unicorns).  I’m very happy to know if there are others I simply forgot to consider.

 

Other fans of Labyrinth out there, what do you think?  Comments welcome!

 

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About Stephanie Whelan

I'm a children's librarian with a life-long love of all things science fiction and fantasy.

Posted on December 18, 2015, in General Posts and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 125 Comments.

  1. Sigourney Weaver – Aliens

    • I thought of that too along with Sarah Connor, but the article was about KIDS sci fi/fantasy movies, and she asks us to name another kids movie. I’m not sure aliens fits that bill….

  2. I agree with EVERYTHING you’ve said here.

    Did you consider The Legend of Billie Jean? Or Adventures in Babysitting? Both movies have female protagonists who overcome adversity and problems caused by men.

    • I didn’t know there were any SF/Fantasy elements in Billie Jean. Adventures in Babysitting plays with urban fantasy myths a bit, so it’s definitely a better fit. I just find the comparisons of the main character to a playboy spread to be rather disturbing in the story. My fave character in that is the little sister–she’s all kinds of awesome.

      • I’m sorry, there aren’t. I’m tired and not paying as much attention as I should. XD But it is a pretty empowering story.

  3. There is an absolutely wonderful live-action children’s fantasy film from 1984 called Ronja Rövardotter (Ronja the Robber’s Daughter) that features a strong female protagonist — hardly surprising, given that the film is based on a book by Astrid Lindgren, creator of Pippi Longstocking. It’s a Swedish film, however, and hard to come by in an English-subtitled version. Worth the hunt, though! Very reminiscent of the works of Hayao Miyazaki, who was a big Lindgren fan (his son recently adapted Ronja as an anime series).

    Come to think of it, Miyazaki gave us Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind in 1984! Animated and, again, not American (though there was a wretched English-language recut) … but there’s no denying it’s a sci-fi/fantasy film from the eighties with a female lead. He also gave us My Neighbor Totoro (1988) and Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989), both with fantasy elements and relatable female protagonists.

    P.S. Disney’s The Little Mermaid (1989) is technically an eighties fantasy film! Though her suitability as a role model for young girls has been … let’s say debated. 🙂

    • I’m familiar with the book, but hadn’t realized there was a movie! I’ve had a few people bring up Nausicaa and it definitely deserves mention. I’ve seen nearly everything created by Miyazaki, though I didn’t discover any of it until after Spirited Away, sad to say. I don’t quite see Ariel reaching hero status in her movie–Eric kills the villain and her father provides the happy ever after solution. ^_^ I will have to find Ronja however . . .

  4. Spot on. I love the movie I truly do! There is a bunch of cool trivia about it also! …♡♡♡

  5. I absolutely agree with your analysis of this movie & the others in its era. Fabulous. “You remind me of the babe…”

  6. Nausicaa of the valley of the wind, was a great female lead sci fi.

  7. I suspect that Labyrinth was just a little too ‘cute’ in places for it’s target audience to really embrace it in public, but we had a tape of it that my teenage nephews, nieces and cousins practically wore out in the privacy of our TV room. Henson created characters of felt and fake fur who were just as human, just as worthy of our attention and respect as anyone else. I do like that Sarah is a strong, intelligent character who shows genuine growth, but to me the real strength of Labyrinth is in the visuals: it’s a veritable feast for the eyes, a dim sum dinner where wonder follows wonder so fast you can scarcely appreciate it all.

  8. This!!! You nailed it.

    This movie has always been my favorite and I took it for granted until reading this piece that it was because I saw myself as Sarah. Role-model in a poet shirt!

    Thank you for this! Labyrinth gave me a lot to hold onto this year after I was raped. I could choose to whither and not live my full life or stand up to the man that hurt me. This read has sealed the year for me. I know where I’ve come and where I’m going. I have a lot to credit that to, Labyrinth has helped me remember my power.

  9. I absolutely loved the1980s Labyrinth and Legend movies and watched my copies of the two until they were just about worn out.
    Both Sarah and Lily were immature and self absorbed in the beginning, but gained wisdom as they saw through the beguiling tempters who would have given them their heart’s desires as they enslaved them. They threw the offers into the beguilers’ faces and took the difficult paths to accomplish the only acceptable outcomes possible. For Lily it was not only difficult, but downright dangerous as she sought to outsmart evil incarnate himself to do the right thing.
    Sarah had the sound bite, “You have no power over me” and Lily’s movie had such beautiful, truly exquisitely, beautiful scenes in it to thoroughly quench the soul’s yearnings for such to make them, in my mind at least, very powerful movies.
    Lily’s beloved hero was played by an actor who’s later behavior stripped him, in my view, of ever being a hero again; anyone who’ll throw someone else under the bus for selfish desires can never again be a hero in my book, which strengthened my opinion that Lily was a strong protagonist in Legend… Don’t depend on your hero to save you, you can only, truly, depend on yourself is what I took from these two movies.
    And my favourite Jim Henson character in Labyrinth was Sir Didymus whose personality reminded me so strongly of Arthur, our Yorkshire Terrier. That gung-ho, size-doesn’t-matter, fearless personality was pure Yorkie in nature.

  10. Wonderful post! This movie has been one of my all time favorites ever since I first saw it in the theater when I was probably a little older than you were. I was completely captivated by the combined magic of Henson and the Frouds, and, of course, David Bowie, but I could completely identify with Sarah. And, even though I didn’t realize it at the time, part of that identification was because she was her own savior. Well, hers and Toby’s and Hoggle’s. 🙂 I’ve made sure that all of the kids I’ve come into contact with over the years (mine, nieces, nephews, daycare kiddos) all got a chance to experience the magic of Labyrinth, too.

    Also, Adventures in Babysitting is another good example of a female hero in an 80s movie, but I still think that Sarah is the best. 🙂 Thanks for an awesome post.

  11. Gail Kellogg Hope

    I think you nailed exactly why I love this movie. Bravo!
    The only other female leads or supporting actresses I can think of from sci/fi 80’s kids’ movies are Pippy Longstocking, Lily from Legend (supporting character) and Kira from Dark Crystal (supporting character). I vaguely remember not liking Pippy from the movie as much as I liked Pippy from the 60’s t-v show reruns.

  12. Miranda J. Miller

    I’m in total agreement. This movie was so incredibly cathartic for me in my angst teen years. Before I never could put my finger on why I could relate so much to it, but you put it into elegant script that had escaped me for decades. As my own personal quest, in the 90’s I began to track down merchandise. If you haven’t yet, the art work of Faust is a must see; the characters sketched in the music book, the story book and the Marvel comic adaption is beautifully illustrated.

  13. I’ve adored this movie since it came out when I was 7, and my kids love it too. The legend will live on. 🙂

  14. My contribution is Aliens 1986. Great lead, though may perhaps fall more in the horror/SF realm.

    • Quite a few have mentioned Ripley and she’s an excellent lead . . .just much more for the adult crowd. But it’s an excellent addition to the discussion. All these movies people are mentioning are worth adding to a list of things to be watched!

  15. The 80s cult classics just can’t be beat. Labyrinth is very dark for a traditional kids movie, but it draws you in. We all fall in love with the characters and are happy when Sarah stops being so pouty and wins the day. It’s a brilliant, underappreciated movie that I agree, stands up to the testament of time. I’ve seen the movie more times than I care to admit, but it never gets old.

    I never really thought about how few 80s movies have a lead female that evolves as much as Sarah does. She’s not a damsel in distress, which we can still appreciate today. She gets herself into trouble and gets herself out of it by facing her fears, using her mind, making new, unusual friends and not giving into temptation. It’s actually quite brilliant.

    Disney movies try to use these themes by dumbing it down and hoping that the pathetic excuse for banter will help drill in the message. Instead it doesn’t challenge the next generation to wonder what they would do of the goblins took away a dreaded sibling, bully, step mother, etc. Would you be willing to risk it all to get them back?

  16. Great piece. I think you’ve put a finger on why so many cherish this film.

    As far as others, there was Valerian in Dragonslayer, but she wasn’t the lead, and she gets sidelined about halfway through the film. She’s pretty great before then.

    I guess there’s Red Sonja, but I can’t remember anything about that film.

    And as someone pointed out, there was Nausicaa.

    But yeah, slim pickings. I think this is why I responded so strongly to Furiosa in Fury Road and Rey in The Force Awakens, seeing women front and center in reimaginings of key films from my childhood.

  17. Wonderful! So very true! Thought you’d appreciate this bit of trivia: a 15 year old Helena Bonham Carter was also actually up for the role of Sarah. Brian Froud wanted to go with her, but Jim Henson chose Jennifer Connolly instead. Would have made for SUCH a different female hero!

  18. It’s certainly no labyrinth, but little Fairuza Balk made a pretty brave and heroic Dorothy Gale in Return To Oz in 1985!

  19. It’s certainly no labyrinth, but little Fairuza Balk made a pretty brave hero with her Dorothy Gale in 1985’s “Return to Oz”

  20. Reblogged this on A.D.Trosper and commented:
    A great post well worth reading

  21. Not SF/Fantasy, but I loved the Journey of Natty Gann which had a very strong female heroine.

  22. Reblogged this on The Fringes of Reality and commented:
    One of my favorite movies! There are some important thoughts on Labyrinth in this post.

  23. Hi SM Lowry,

    Vincent Lowry here. 🙂

    I enjoyed your article on Labyrinth, and it came right as I showed the movie to my son for the first time. He greatly enjoyed the puppetry.

    Years ago, at a Hollywood pitchfest, I tried selling producers a script I wrote that had a female lead in a major sci-fi space saga. I cannot tell you the number of times that I heard the same line over and over again: films with female leads in science fiction/fantasy do far worse business than male leads in the same genre. It made me frustrated, but there was also little I could do about it since only a handful of films at that time had disproved that opinion (Alien being one of them).

    Then Gravity and Star Wars VII came out, and all I could do was just laugh at what I’d been told. Strong female protagonists can carry a film. It is silly to reject a story just because it has the wrong gender as the hero, for a strong plot is really what makes a movie tick.

    Perhaps it’s time to dust off that old script…

  24. Fairuza Balk as Dorothy Gail in Return to Oz. wonderful movie!

  25. I loved this movie too and you’ve described it very eloquently. It’d be a perfect essay paper for a class I took in college about archetypes in mythology way back when. Have you ever taken a class like that? It sounds like you have. And now I feel like watching Labyrinth again, this time with my grand-daughter. She’s 7. I bet she’d love it.

    • Not specifically, but I did a paper on Irish fairytales and how those stories characterized interactions between women and the the devil. (hint: the men would get tangled up in the devil’s trickery, but the woman could outsmart, out wit or just hold her own every time!)

  26. Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle – Hayao Miyazaki

  27. I’m not sure if it’s SciFi enough to count, but what about Bridget from the Hugga Bunch movie??

  28. My ex-husband likes to threaten me and has always treated me badly. In a confrontstion about 6 months ago I finally told him “You have no power over me.” I’ve had a lot more strength to stand up to him ever since. I feel the same as you about this movie. Great post!

  29. CJ Visser=Johnston

    always been a favourite of mine thank you

  30. And now we say goodbye. Thank you for the movies and music. Forever and ever.

  31. Hi! Love this piece and agree with everything. A beautiful sci-fi/fantasy film with an INCREDIBLE pre-teen female lead is Paperhouse from 1988. You have to check it out if you haven’t seen it. The lead actress (who I don’t think ever filmed anything again) geniously portrays all of the anger, confusion, curiosity and bravery that girls that age possess. I only recently discovered the movie and it’s one of my absolute favorites now. Here’s the trailer:

  32. Not English and at 1991 a little late but a fantastic Italian fairytale, Fantaghiro, the Cave of the Golden Rose. A princess dresses like a man to go on a quest and meets her handsome prince who questions his sexuality since he finds young “sir” Fantaghiro so attractive. Yes, it’s for children. Fantaghiro saves the day. Sigh.

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