So, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about positive role models for girls. I can say with a fair degree of accuracy that this has come about thanks to my daughter, Madelyn, who is just about two years old now and completely awesome. This is a toddler who, from a shelf of at least forty movies or so, selected Back to the Future, insisted we watch it, and loves it – nuff said.
She also likes a wide variety of princess-y movies, Muppet-based properties, and Disney animated films, which we tend to watch slightly more often than I’d like. My wife and I try to shake it up by hiding certain over-watched films on the shelf and removing others as ‘suggestions’ to see if they’ll pass the Madelyn Watchability Test. This is how I came about watching Labyrinth two or three times over the past week. The good news is she likes it and the even better news is that it is an excellent film for a young girl to watch, and that I don’t mind her watching it from now until whenever. Indeed, I sincerely hope she still likes it by the time she’s in her preteen years, because I think it will be important for her.
Let’s face it: most female characters in fairy-tale stories are disappointing at best and downright offensive at worst. Even
the ones that seem positive really aren’t when subjected to mild amounts of critical scrutiny. Belle from Beauty and the Beast, for instance, might seem like a spunky, independent woman who lusts for adventure, but then consider this: she settles down with the first rich man she meets who (1) treats her like crap for the first few days she knows him, (2) holds both her and her father hostage, and (3) doesn’t offer her anything more exciting than a domestic life in a big castle as opposed to a small provincial house. If I were Belle’s father, I’d be pissed at my daughter’s poor judgement.
Belle, of course, is nothing compared with this generation’s worst offender for weak female masquerading as strong:
Twilight’s Bella Swan. Here’s a girl that falls for a guy who essentially stalks her, who orders her around, who is obviously bad for him (she is his food, for crying out loud!), and yet she marries him (while ridiculously young) and the stated and understood condition of that marriage is that she is no longer a member of the human race. Jesus H Christ! Were I Bella’s dad, I’d have a stake through that fucker’s heart before he knew what was happening. I’d even do it if it meant she’d never speak to me – better that than watch her become a monster for some moody asshole.
Now, getting back to Labyrinth. I realize that, as a 30-something year old man, my ethos for discussing what is good/not good for girls is somewhat weak, but I do have a pair of eyes, fairly sound judgement, and am no slouch at reading between the lines, and I think that the character of Sarah in Labyrinth is the polar opposite of what characters like Bella Swan represent. On a metaphorical level, Labyrinth is a basic coming-of-age story as a young teenage girl is forced to learn responsibility and selflessness to save her baby brother from the Goblin King (played by a simply spectacular David Bowie). There is more to this coming-of-age story, however, than simply Sarah learning how to think of others before herself. There’s a lot more, in fact – so much so that I would argue that this isn’t the point of the film at all.
Labyrinth is a film about a girl just about to enter the world of dating, boys, romance, and sexual awareness. Sarah’s journey is a quest to define her own needs and wants in a potential companion and, furthermore, to establish herself as a strong, independent, confident woman. Each of the characters she meets throughout her journey are male (with the exception of the hag/garbage woman, who potentially represents a woman who has sworn off companionship in favor of childish attachment to material objects, but I digress…), and each of these characters represents a different kind of suitor.
The first and most important of these suitors is Jareth, the Goblin King. As if David Bowie’s representation of this character didn’t make it clear enough, the dialogue between Sarah and Jareth cement the idea that they are mutually attracted to one another. Jareth routinely references Sarah’s beauty, he is holding a baby hostage (use your imagination there), he attempts to seduce her after giving her the poison peach, he sings to her, and, at the very end, he essentially begs her to stay with him in what can only be described as a dominant romantic relationship. The thing is, though, that Sarah knows he’s bad for her. She rebuffs him at every encounter, despite being consistently tempted. Like Belle in Beauty and the Beast, she seems to recognize the ‘prince’ within Jareth somehow but, unlike Belle, isn’t won over by pretty words and grand gestures. In the end, she essentially breaks his heart with the line ‘you have no power over me’, a line which she hadn’t grasped the significance of until that final moment.
As for the rest, we are left with a who’s-who of well-meaning but not altogether desirable boyfriends. Hoggle the dwarf is the on-again, off-again sort-of jerk who a girl dates because he’s there and he’s fun or friendly, but not because of any significant romantic attachment. Their relationship might continue in a positive direction if they become simply friends, but otherwise won’t end well for either of them. Ludo is the big, strong, sweet dummy who, while adorable and charming in his way, cannot challenge Sarah intellectually and forces her into the role of mother or caretaker, which she rightly rejects as a healthy model for a long-term relationship. Sir Didimus, the dog-knight, is the man who sets the woman up on an unrealistic pedestal, boxing her into the role of ‘Lady Sarah’ which, likewise, she recognizes as not right for her. Then there are the Goblins, who, in addition to being the main antagonists, we might also think of as the seething mass of assholes that any girl has to wade through to find the handful of halfway decent guys with which to pursue relationships.
None of the characters (aside from Jareth) are actually bad for Sarah. They are good people whom Sarah decides to maintain as friends at the conclusion of the film. None of them, though, are her ‘knight in shining armor’, nor are they able to secure her hand in marriage at the end for ‘saving’ her. She saves herself (and Toby) and, at the conclusion of the film, pointedly orders her companions to stay behind as she faces Jareth alone. At the end, Sarah is an independent woman who knows her own mind and is able to stand up for herself. This is a show of independence, bravery, and self-esteem that we don’t often see from the fairy tale/fantasy genre, as it isn’t coupled with overly aggressive or angry statements or actions by Sarah. She isn’t weak, but nor is she violent or shrewish; she is simply confident in herself.
This, I feel, is exactly what every father should hope his daughter will become – brave, kind, confident, and willing to say ‘no’ to trouble, no matter how stuffed their codpiece might be.