In the Hands of the Goblin King

Just fear me, love me, do as I say, and I will be your slave.

I may have thought about this offer a bit over the years. Yes, yes, all right: I’ve spent hours of my life on it. I know from talking to other women who first saw Labyrinth in their mid–teens that I’m not alone.

Sarah, on the other hand, didn’t think about it at all. She didn’t even listen, reciting her memorized lines instead. I couldn’t forgive her for that. It’s been nearly 30 years since I first heard those words, and I’m still angry, though no longer at her.

With the benefit of some growing up and some time spent writing fiction, I realize it isn’t really her fault. The movie was never set up to let her consider the question. Jareth’s love was never going to be more than the framing story, the necessary element to set the plot in motion, the final obstacle for Sarah to conquer. That doesn’t make me any less angry that the offer was made and thrown away.

Let me say right now that I don’t think she should have accepted the bargain—probably. Even without goblins, there’s a lot to consider in that statement. What kind of fear are we talking about? Does it have to be real, or does everyone have their roles to play? What do you want me to do, and what are you willing to do for me?

When I was Sarah’s age, I’d have given a lot for a movie that took my sexuality as seriously as it took my escapism and my fear. I’d had sex before watching Labyrinth, and I’d been grappling with desire and figuring out what I wanted in a partner for years before that. I was slightly precocious, but I wasn’t alone by any means. Where were the movies for teenaged girls like me?

It wasn’t that there was no media aimed at my adolescent sexuality. I was part of MTV’s target market, and no one really blinked an eye when I saw Prince’s Purple Rain concert shortly after turning 13, even though it was decided I needed a chaperon. Eighties pop was delightfully full of “unusual” options for sexualized performers and lyrics, presented with a variety of levels of awareness that some of the pretty candy was poisoned. Not to mention all the “romantic” male singers of the 70s who had been guest performers on my children’s shows even earlier.

There were a handful of books as well, but the ones with protagonists near my age talking frankly about sex were mostly “issue” books. “Oh! Look at the trouble that comes when this young teenaged girl feels and expresses and maybe even follows through on her desire!” No. Just no.

Movies were slightly better, to the extent girls my age were represented in them at all. If you were a character played by Molly Ringwald, you could experience a polite modicum of embarrassed lust. If you were played by Brooke Shields, you could even do something about it. We just weren’t supposed to watch it.

Then there was this movie that put David Bowie in a wig and makeup and tights. Those tights. Then it gave him pining songs to sing in his best feelings voice and orbs to twirl so he looked delightfully dexterous. And he just kept offering himself to us our through our protagonist proxy, both in abstract form and in his own person.

Then we didn’t get to think about what any of that meant and make up our own minds.

Read the rest of this essay over at Uncanny Magazine. And for a very different perspective, read Sarah Monette’s essay on Labyrinth as well.

In the Hands of the Goblin King

One thought on “In the Hands of the Goblin King

  1. 1

    I was about the same age Sarah was in the film the first time I saw Labyrinth and I also thought “You have no power over me” was the wrong answer. It doesn’t even really make sense in the context. But even then I think I knew that a blind ‘yes’ was the wrong answer too, no matter how much I wanted to say it. There’s not a lot romance in negotiation, which I think is probably a problem with the way we have constructed the idea of romance…

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