Ever since I spent about six hours on screencaps last weekend, I’ve been ruminating about L. Like Mirror Mask, its framing story involves an unhappy family. I asked myself how Sarah’s unhappy family affects her journey through the Labyrinth. Possible answer: It makes Jareth a parental substitute.
Note: Poor Jareth is doing double, triple, even quadruple duty in this movie. Rock star, fashion icon, pin-up boy, Byronic hero, antagonist, DAD?!!?! L is a freakin’ thematic goulash. Hmmmm, you could probably make an argument for Jareth as floating signifier, but that might mess up the entire pretense of the Realm… Anyway, click below for more.
“Practically broke down the door!”: Sarah’s unhappy family and Jareth’s alternative
You know there’s only about two seconds in Labyrinth when the entire family – Sarah, Toby, Sarah’s stepmom and Sarah’s dad – are in the frame together? After pouting at her stepmom, Sarah runs upstairs to the haven of her room. Exasperated stepmom watches her go as dad appears on the landing holding Toby. They’re not even looking at each other! No one’s happy in this family, and Sarah wants out. Where’s she gonna go?
Well, we know Sarah’s miserable. In the story that she tells Toby, she says that “her wicked stepmother always made her take care of the baby. And the baby was a spoiled child who wanted everything for himself.” In this snippet, Sarah’s anger at her stepmother comes through clearly; she dislikes stepmom because stepmom is trying to make Sarah behave live a normal, civilized older sister, e.g., one that occasionally babysits. Sarah also obviously dislikes the sheer fact of Toby’s existence; she calls him “spoiled” not because he is [he doesn’t seem to be] but because he gets comparatively more attention than she does. She resents her stepmom and dad’s focus on Toby. Finally, though Sarah’s dad is never spoken of, you can be sure she doesn’t think too highly of him either; after all, he’s the traitor who is no longer with Sarah’s birth mom, and he’s actively making Toby “spoiled” by paying attention to Toby. I’ve devoted an entire essay to the dissolution of Sarah’s parents’ marriage and its effects on Sarah, but suffice to say that the protagonist wants something different than what she’s got.
Sarah’s stepmom is not happy either because she can’t measure up to Sarah’s birth mom. First off, she looks nothing like Sarah’s mom. Sarah’s mom looked like an older version of Sarah: a glamorous, dreamy figure with long brown hair. Stepmom, with her brittle beauty – short frosted hair, drawn face, frown lines – looks more like a real person than Sarah’s mom the actor. Second, stepmom acts nothing like birth mom. Birth mom loved Merlin the dog [note family photo of Sarah, parents and dog on her mirror], while stepmom won’t let him in [“NOT THE DOG!”]. In her physical appearance and her character, stepmom is harsher, more realistic and a tougher disciplinarian than birth mom.
Stepmom works hard at being a good mom. She goes out frequently with Sarah’s dad [probably not “every weekend,” as Sarah claims, but often enough to keep the spark alive], but also spends time with her children. Toby’s getting along fine, but stepmom worries about Sarah. Is she socially and emotionally on track? Stepmom doubts it: “I’d like it if you had dates at your age!” she exclaims to Sarah. Sarah responds by throwing a fit and storming upstairs. While particularly concerned about her stepdaughter, stepmom doesn’t know how to communicate with her and tell Sarah that she does, in fact, love her. Stepmom’s comment to dad – “She treats me like a wicked stepmother in a fairy story no matter what I say!” – summarizes stepmom’s hurt, frustration…and probably some of her broken heart that she can’t get through to Sarah.
Sarah’s dad seems rather unhappy too, but it’s difficult to tell. The guy has about four lines, mostly delivered from behind doors. That in and of itself should tell you something about him. He addresses the pissed-off Sarah through the door because he feels threatened by her fits. He also feels awkward around her overheated imaginative life – notice how he won’t cross the threshold into her room – but has no clue about how to address his worries with Sarah. The door provides protection for dad against any outbursts from Sarah, while it also conceals his embarrassment. Sarah’s dad’s unobtrusive, clueless, self-effacing style hides a man who sees his daughter grieving and his new wife hurting [viz. previous paragraphs] and who chooses to withdraw, rather than deal with these familial problems directly.
At the center of a family wrapped up in its own troubles, Sarah longs for a substitute family, a better one. Is Jareth an alternative parental figure? In some ways, he contrasts favorably with Sarah’s dad. He likes the baby [I’ve got a whole essay about that]; he pays attention to Sarah [note Hoggle’s remark: “The Cleaners, the Bog of Stench: you sure got his attention!”], while Sarah’s dad seems aloof and flustered. Jareth promotes Sarah’s fantasies [with drugged peaches] while Sarah’s dad puts the door between himself and Sarah’s imaginary worlds. Finally, Jareth wields power over life, death and time, which is highly attractive for a girl whose dad never actually does anything. Jareth may be an erotic figure, a representation of Sarah’s ambivalence over adolescent sexuality, but he also provides a model of pervertedly paternalistic involvement that Sarah may wish for, given her unhappy home life in the real world.