So . . . last December I wrote a small piece on a movie from my childhood. Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. It went viral, which I never expected. Between the news of David Bowie’s death (stop it 2016–really) and the 30th anniversary celebration with the movie back in theaters, it has stayed on my mind. So I’m reposting it, with a few proofreading fixes. And a bit more added on at the end. I hope you will enjoy this trip back in time to the 1980s, and remember the power that stories can have for us all.
“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 commentator 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, often regarded 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.
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 one 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.)
Let’s take a look at what happens in this movie:
(Spoiler warning, discussing the plot below!)
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 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.
Looking back at this post, I’m still very happy with it. But I decided to write a bit more about it
I love the fact that despite this being a movie with a female heroine, it plays with concepts that we’d consider “girly” and outright rejects putting Sarah in some kind of sparkly pink magic rainbow world. Sarah’s quest is magical, but it is also dark and creepy and fantastic. Viewers catch on mighty quick that Sarah’s journey isn’t going to be light and fluffy. Consider the fairies outside the Labyrinth. In true Froud fashion they are lovely, and ethereal . . . and they bite, hard. Fairies aren’t wish granters in this story, they’re pests. Oubliettes. A machine full of metal blades. “Oh but wait!” you might say. “There’s a costume ball!” There is indeed. One that not only screams TRAP! very loudly, but despite it’s attempt at beauty is very, very creepy. Sarah may be suddenly sparkly and in a dress out of a fantasy, but it feels wrong, overblown, unnatural. The Goblin King may be doing what he can to distract her and enchant her, but Sarah isn’t looking for escape now–and she doesn’t want the little girl dreams, she wants agency.
The second part of the trap is really a demonstration of how far Sarah has come. She lands in the junkyard where she’s lured to a room where everything is just as it is in her own bedroom. All her things. All the stuff she’d clung to. The trick is to bind her completely to her pile of possessions, making her one of the junkyard denizens with all of her possessions weighing her down. Instead, with only a slight reminder, she realizes the truth. That her possessions mean nothing next to her brother, next to the thing she’s fighting for. She violently refuses to be bound by them. The hurling of her music box at the wall is a sudden and satisfying bit of violence. She’s no longer chained by past memories and the escape they offer. She’s ready and willing to fight.
From this point on, no matter what he does, the Goblin King has already lost. Every act he takes is desperate, and mirrored against Sarah’s newfound maturity he seems smaller, and more petulant. Which brings me back again to the words.
“You have no power over me.”
They are words to remember, to savor and use. They are the words of a hero and a person with agency. And yes, they come from a 1980s fantasy movie.
So this Sunday, I’m back in the theater. With my best friend. We’re a little–okay a lot–older. Life’s shaken us up more than once. We’ve got silver in our hair and children of our own. But our eleven-year-old selves will be sitting in that theater with us and sharing our popcorn. And we’ll keep that movie in our hearts, and keep those words with us through our years ahead. For everyone needs some magic in their lives. And stories are the best kind of magic.