I just got a chance to read the whole chapter, thanks to some creative messing around with Amazon’s “Search Inside the Book!” feature. See below for a summary.
Basically the author argues the Labyrinth is a feminist movie. Sarah begins the film coveting her status as “Daddy’s little girl,” a treasured child who lives in her fantastical dreams. She sees her stepmom as a competitor for her father’s affections: the rival woman. [No wonder stepmom remarks that Sarah treats her as “wicked stepmother in a fairy story!”] Sarah also sees Toby as proof of her dad and stepmom’s relationship; she resents him because she thinks he will end Sarah’s days of being an only child. Sarah wants to have her dad all to herself, but the reality of her stepmom and her stepbrother complicate matters.
But, continues the author, once Sarah goes into the Labyrinth, she slowly leaves the mentality of spoiled, irresponsible daddy’s girl behind. The Labyrinth constantly seduces her with patriarchal oppression [in my fave quote, the author notes that the Labyrinth’s characters are “99.999% male”], encouraging her to remain in her childish, pre-feminist fairy tales. The classic example of Labyrinth’s patriarchal oppression comes from Jareth’s “fear/love/do as I say” speech at the end. The author interprets this speech as Jareth, a male character and therefore a representative of threatening patriarchal power, telling Sarah to stay submissive to immature fantasy. If she does as Jareth says and remains within her fairy tale dreams [as exemplified by the ballroom in a bubble], she will remain a beautiful but vapid girl in a froofy dress with her mouth permanently hanging open. In other words, she will remain a stereotypically feminine, fairy-tale princess; she will not mature. Yet Sarah explicitly declares her proto-feminist independence from the patriarchy by saying to Jareth, “You have no power for me.” How empowering.
With this interpretation of Labyrinth in mind, the author turns to online fans of the movie. She characterizes the most vocal of them correctly as young heterosexual women in their teens and 20s. She notes that almost all of them have huge crushes on Jareth and rewrite the ending to the movie so that Sarah stays with Jareth. Thus Jareth turns from an oppressive patriarch and a symbol of childish fantasies to, in fans’ eyes, Sarah’s perfect match and dream prince.
The online fans’ revisionist tendencies upset the author to no end. She thinks that J/S fan fiction misses the whole point of the movie: viz., that the male character [Jareth] is destructive and overbearing and that Sarah needs to reject him in order to be a good little feminist. She also argues that lots of fan fiction improves Jareth’s character, making him less petulant, vain and evil and more lonely, misunderstood and in need of a woman’s love, a la Beast from Beauty and the Beast. At the same time, however, she notes that the X-rated fan fiction often puts a sadomasochistic cast on Jareth and Sarah’s relationship. The feminist in her finds both developments — the lovey-dovey and the brutal — sad and disgusting because it’s clearly not what Jim Henson intended for his film.
Anyway, if you have any interest in the film or online fandoms and how they work, I recommend this chapter. I’m thinking of somehow making excerpts of it available at the Realm. Heh heh heh…
In response to this chapter, I have to say I’m not convinced that Labyrinth is as feminist a text as this author thinks. I like her interpretation of “You have no power over me!” as a classic example of feminist self-assertion, but I don’t believe it’s that empowering a movie. Sarah has NO female help whatsoever throughout the movie; she forms NO friendships or relationships of support with any female characters, which leaves her as a lone figure against the patriarchy in both the beginning and the end. She has no role models either except for her absent mom, a romanticized actor, and her stepmom, an exasperated perfectionistic housewife. Sarah clearly rejects the absent mother when she accepts responsibility for Toby, so what does this mean? Will she fall in line with her stepmom and whip the next generation’s over-imaginative brood into shape? “Grow up, kid. Take care of the baby and turn into a little housewife and smile till your gums hurt!” Because Sarah’s quest is formulated in terms of Toby, who is a kid, who needs to be taken care of, i.e., mothered, Sarah does end up like a surrogate mother, and thus it’s possible to see her becoming like her stepmom. That’s not very empowering, folks.
In fact, I think you could make the argument that the entire film is actively hostile to female characters. Sarah’s mom is dismissed as a rosy dream. Sarah’s stepmom appears as a screechy disciplinarian. Hoggle sprays the female fairies by the gate, and they die. The Helping Hands grope Sarah and throw her into a pit. Jareth tries to kill her with the Cleaners. Then he feeds her a hallucinogenic peach which turns her into a beautiful, stupid princess. Afterward, the Junk Lady shows up, but Sarah rejects her and all her junk as…well, junk. At the end, Jareth shows just how little he thinks of female agency when he offers Sarah a position not as his queen or partner, but as his “slave.” Time and time again, Labyrinth illustrates a) that female characters are nasty [stepmom], bite you [fairies] or are just plain ugly [Junk Lady]. B) Labyrinth also emphasizes that Sarah, as an adolescent with a sexually awakening body, is ready to be abused by the male characters of the Labyrinth, whether it’s the Helping Hands or Jareth. The way in which Sarah is treated suggests that Sarah’s sexuality is threatening to the entire mind set of the Labyrinth and she must be silenced [put in an oubliette and forgotten] or made passive [drugged by the peach] so that she can be dealt with.
Okay, so, if the entire film is hostile to female characters, I don’t see how it’s very empowering to female characters and viewers. Put it this way — in the real world, Sarah has no female support or role models. To work out her Mommy Complex, Sarah goes into an imaginary world where all women are evil and all men [meaning the entire Labyrinth] find her sexuality threatening. She spends most of her time in the Labyrinth narrowly escaping sexual assault. Finally she defends herself with the line, “You have no power over me!” which puts her back in the real world, which still doesn’t have any hope for positive female development. How is this an enlightening and wonderful experience for female viewers? It’s analogous to a princess trapped in a tower, isolated, without friends. She has nightmares about being raped until she finally learns to fight off her attacker. She kicks her dream attacker in the nuts, but that still doesn’t change the fact that, when she wakes up, she’s in a rather bleak, patriarchally dominated world with no visible ties to any other female characters and any help in general. Sorry — that’s just not inspiring.
There’s definitely an essay here. In fact, I think I might have just written the core of it.
Regarding the fan fiction, the author correctly observes that Jareth is a partially sympathetic character of the “demon lover” variety: evil, yet charismatic and sexually attractive. At the same time, she doesn’t seem to get the whole concept of fan fiction. She identifies the romantic subtype as wish fulfillment [she should also have identified the sadomasochistic subtype in the same way], but she objects to the whole idea of revisionist wish fulfillment because she thinks it’s anti-feminist to put Jareth and Sarah together.
Demon lovers, such as Jareth, in her view, are anti-feminist because they oppress women, like Sarah.
I object to the author’s simplistic view of the demon lover. I am not saying the demon lovers are just misunderstood angsty guys who need a little love; I am just saying that the author’s view of them as completely deleterious doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the character.
To use just one example for rebuttal, the demon lover character may be a useful formulation for some women who want to gain access to the powerful, assertive aspects of themselves that they are alienated from. The demon lover character’s dangerous aspects embody the fear that these women have over certain parts of themselves. But the character’s charisma and magical mastery shows that there are desireable aspects to the character that women can incorporate into themselves to feel more confident and empowered and feminist. There is a whole book about the use of this character for women in an explicitly Jungian context: In Search of Women’s Passionate Soul: Freeing the Daimon Lover Within by Caitlin Matthews. It describes the experiences of women who imagine demon lover characters in order to help themselves in their artistic, religious and sexual lives. If you want to skip the weird mooshy Jungian overtones and go to another example of another person’s use of the demon lover character — in this case, Jareth — go to me discussing my use of the Goblin King for my own imaginary purposes.