Sunday, January 4, 2015

Sexual awakening and privilege allegories in Labyrinth

Having several loads of laundry to fold and a pile of clothes waiting to be ironed, I settled in with a childhood favorite to watch as I worked: Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. It was a big part of my formative years. My sister and I used to sing along with our cassette tape (yes, really!) of songs from the film, and friends and I used to watch it at sleepovers and crack jokes about Jareth’s pants. As a geeky Lord of the Rings fan, its opening scene, dressing up in medieval garb to recite favorite lines, felt intimately familiar to me, and even today the film remains eminently quotable (though depressingly, my husband never catches the references).

I haven’t watched it in a while, though, and since the last time, my skills at analysis have improved and my attention has turned to feminist concerns. I noticed something I’d never caught before. When Sarah returns home late for her babysitting obligation, allowing her parents to go out on their weekly date, her stepmother says in exasperation,

“I’d like it if you had a date; you should have dates at your age.”

Sarah’s father walks in from another room and changes the subject while Sarah storms upstairs, and this line seems like a throwaway…but it’s not. It sets up one of the fundamental points of the plot: Sarah’s sexual awakening as a means of coming-of-age. The narrative agrees with Sarah’s “wicked” stepmother: Sarah should have dates at her age. She wastes her time in fantastical dreaming when she could be out on a date; entrance to adulthood requires the advent of one's own sexuality.

But even while living out this normative script, Sarah does it on her own terms, not her stepmother’s and by extension, society’s. Initially enjoying her disorienting dance with Jareth, she rejects the illusion and later the Goblin King himself, even when he pleads for her to "just fear me, love me, and I will be your slave." By the end of the movie, Sarah has become aware of desire and of masculine power in sexual encounters, but she asserts power of her own in the final confrontation at the castle by refusing Jareth and in the movie's final moments chooses  – for now – to focus her attention on friends rather than romantic relationships.

I had an even more startling revelation about halfway through. One of the most repeated phrases is Sarah’s complaint, “It’s not fair!” Throughout the movie, she has to come to terms with that fact. When she steals Hoggle’s jewels in order to force him to continue helping her, Hoggle makes the same complaint, and with a look of dawning understanding, Sarah retorts, “No, it isn’t, but that’s the way it is.”

It’s a privilege allegory.

Labyrinth does many things, but one of them is call attention to privilege. Or more specifically, to the lack thereof, to the people for whom life is eternally “not fair,” and who are constantly told, outright or through microagressions and cultural narratives and assumptions, that they should just come to terms with that fact, grin, and bear it. “It’s not fair…but that’s the way it is.”

And just as I had this realization, we got to this scene:

Here we have two door knockers, whose rings interfere with their ability to hold conversation. One cannot speak and one cannot hear. One cannot make his voice and words audible and the other is unable to listen to them. In order to ask how to move forward in her quest through the labyrinth, Sarah removes the ring from the silenced knocker’s mouth:

With audible sighs of relief, the knocker thanks her: “It is so good to get that thing out.” But even once he can speak, the other is still unable to hear him. “Mumble, mumble, mumble,” the deaf knocker says. “You’re a wonderful conversational companion.” The freed knocker retorts, “You can talk, all you do is moan!” but the deaf knocker continues to be unable (unwilling?) to understand, answering snidely, “No good, can’t hear you.”

Sarah, meanwhile, gets the answers she needed and forces the ring back into the freed knocker’s mouth, even as he complains, “I don’t want that thing back in my mouth!” This white protagonist violently forces him back into shackled silence, holding his nose until he must open his mouth to breathe, when she shoves the ring back in his mouth.

“Sorry,” she says with a smile afterwards. “That’s all right, I’m used to it,” the knocker answers, and Sarah continues blithely on her way.

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