That David Bowie Movie Was Fiction: The Labyrinth of Choice

I spent a decent portion of my teenage years watching two movies on repeat: Labyrinth, that ridiculously 1980s Jim Henson + David Bowie concoction (complete with fan theories written about at Mad Art Lab), and Fight Club. I’ll leave it up to you to figure out what that says about me. What I wanted to focus on was what the movie says about consciousness and reality.

Spoiler Alert for a movie that’s older than I am: Sarah, the protagonist, brings down the Goblin King’s entire concocted kingdom by simply and confidently declaring to him, “You have no power over me.”

It’s an appealing message, to be sure, especially since she says what she does as a very young woman to an obviously, fantastically powerful older man. Taking charge, being independent, kicking butt and taking names — all empowering-seeming messages. Sisters are doing it for themselves and all.

After high school, I expanded my movie tastes and didn’t think much about Labyrinth, let alone its ending, until I started hearing variations on the message coming from rather curious sources in specific circumstances. Namely, when I post about assholes leaving misogynistic comments, or a fellow blogger talks about gender-based discrimination, or a friend posts about experiences with racism, a certain type of person will rush to tell her some variation of the line.


The sort of person to claim that power can only be given and never taken, that you only receive what you ask for, that nothing can be done to you without your consent is, all too often, white, as well as usually male. I mention this not to preclude members of other ethnicities and/or genders from guilt (as they are capable of it, too), but to point out that those speaking the loudest about agency are those who face the least in the way of the more inescapable forms of structural inequality. In other words, they are the types who are capable of exercising the most agency and often seem to not understand that others do not have that freedom.

The parallels to the line in Labyrinth struck me recently because someone on a friend’s thread insisted, in a response to a post about racism, that “I have no power over you, unless you give it me.”

Did I “give power” to those who called 14-year-old headscarved me “fucking Arab murderer terrorist” and spat at me on the street during those terrifying weeks following 9-11? Or those drunk, armed-to-the-teeth men who followed my cousin’s best friend on the freeway, and, upon arrest, claimed that they were fighting terrorism? Years later, did I “give power” to the multiple employers who denied me employment or fired me due to my “exotic” name, larger body, and textured hair?

All along, has it been marginalized groups’ fault for “giving the power” to people who didn’t even need to speak to us before discriminating against us in a way that made our lives worse? I think we know the answer to that. No, no, and no. The Secret is bullshit, and this kind of thinking is a version of it.

Those who face institutionalized, widespread forms of oppression don’t get to choose for bigotry to not have power over them. It does. Right now. Full-stop. It harms them every day. We are born in a world with structural and cultural inequality built into it. Statements from alleged non-bigots that are so obsessed with the romantic idea that equality already exists that they ignore reality don’t help. Insisting that individuals have the power to stop such treatment using sheer force of will excuses those who perpetuate oppression.

Why speak of oppression if it opens the door to the bigot support system that is the well-meaning denialist? Though I can’t give or take certain forms of power within society, I do have the power to speak of oppression. As for those people who insist to me that I somehow courted it? Your platitudes have no power over me.

That David Bowie Movie Was Fiction: The Labyrinth of Choice

7 thoughts on “That David Bowie Movie Was Fiction: The Labyrinth of Choice

  1. 1

    The only people I’ve seen talking about Labyrinth as empowering, are the folks who specifically use it as an example of a young girl telling an older man no and not giving in to his seduction, no matter how he coerced or how hot he might be. I find it weird people would extrapolate it to situations other than that very specific situation. Not that anyone should take this as a reason to blame young girls/women who don’t feel they can say no. Because life isn’t a movie.

    But I’ve seen the attitude you’ve mentioned. Whether the quote is ascribed to Eleanor Roosevelt: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.,” or Ghandi “Nobody can hurt me without my permission.” While it’s a nice idea that you can hurt proof yourself, it’s ultimately false and it doesn’t make you weak. Particularly when there is physical violence involved. Fists don’t hurt less if the person hitting you is wrong, and really, neither do insults. And no one is weak if they are hurt by any of those things.

    I really hate the culture of “If you were strong you could…” Fuck that.

  2. 2

    Sure, in a world in which all else is equal, there is no such thing as systemic injustice and only cases of individual mistreatment, there is a reclaiming power, a shift of righteous balance in the declaration that “you have no power over me.” If only that was the world we were born with, rather than this one.

    Can someone look at their abuser after a beating and declare them to be powerless? Not without a safe distance between them, IME. Can a person stand before the committee which denied their promotion for no good reason thereby rendering them unadvanceable in their field and declare that they have no power over them? Um, okay. Sometimes what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger, sure. But sometimes what it does instead is leave me a gibbering mess and deplete whatever resources I had to begin with, making life all the harder. This idea that all we have to do is build more and more walls around our inner selves, to insulate and isolate ourselves, and no matter how bad it gets nothing will affect us any more, it’s toxic.

    Sure, the declaration of one’s own power can be powerful, but it’s relative to the power one has available to grasp. It is rare that one’s humanity and autonomy can be wrenched back from those hands which hold it without those hands letting go at least a little, and rarer still that systemic forces are successfully conquered by isolated individuals. Considering that in Labyrinth, it was the Goblin King who had little backing of deeply ingrained social structure (at least, not willing accomplices, but fearful ones) whereas it was Sarah who at least had the sympathy of others to keep fueling her journey forward. (IIRC. It’s been a while.) That’s… not actually how systemic injustice works.

  3. 4

    In my experience, people often phrase this as being about “the universe”, and how “the universe” won’t send you things that you aren’t energizing it to send, or that you desire on some level or feel you deserve. Psychologically, I think it reasonable to acknowledge that we do have a modest tendency to attract return feedback from society on the same vibe that we put out; people who are helpful and friendly TEND to have more helpful friends than people who walk around cutting strangers and urinating on doorsteps. And certainly, our own self-talk and expectations (“everyone always thinks my blog comments are brilliant”) tends to act as a bit of a filter on what we choose to emphasize in our perceptual streams. (If I get one nice comment and one ‘you’re a dumbass’, I am going to remember the nice one; that’s how I roll.) The idea that this pair of very modest feedback mechanism somehow cohere into an ironclad universal law is simply baffling, at least until we remember that people can be really dumb.

    And – though I demur, because Violence Is Wrong – I am always, always, always tempted to take the “the universe is sending you what you send it” person’s arm, force them to smack themselves on the face repeatedly, and holler “why are you making the universe hit yourself? why are you making the universe hit yourself? why are you making the universe hit yourself?” until they achieve enlightenment.

    OK, mostly I demure because Violence Is Wrong, but also because I know it would take a long time for the enlightenment to get through the protective layer of dumb, and my arm would get tired way before that.

  4. 5

    It seems to me that in the rare situations where this (“You can’t hurt me without my consent”) is true, it’s either because they were powerless all along, and were bluffing, or because you’ve already defeated them. At least another meme regarding bullying (which is way to mild a term to describe a vicious assault on someone’s freedom and agency), “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me”, acknowledges the powerlessness of denialism in the face of physical attack, but names can and do hurt, even when the target knows how unjustified and unfair they are, and are even worse if the target has been conditioned to believe they might be somehow at fault.

    Also, comparing a one-on-one situation (the girl in the movie vs. the Goblin King) to an institutionalized form of oppression, the institutionalize form is far more pernicious. It takes more than just recognizing it and declining to participate (when you notice it’s going on), but active opposition. So congratulations to both you and Shannon Gibney (in today’s quickies) for fighting on.

  5. 6

    People who cite “you have no power over me” as a life philosophy, a response to sexism, or any form of victim-blaming forget the line that immediately precedes it: “For my will is as strong as yours, and my kingdom is as great.”

    There are three factors at work here, and the denial of power is the *third* and *last*.

    Will: Why don’t abused partners declare that their abusers have no power, and simply leave? Everyone knows there are shelters, and there’s always at least one friend who’d help if you asked, so why not use them? Because the first thing an abuser breaks, before your jaw or your arm, is your will. Many people simply don’t have the will to seek and grasp empowerment. That doesn’t mean they’re ‘weak’ or ‘flawed’. It means they haven’t had enough opportunities to build the tools that allow you to even reach out for that power. Will’s a hard thing to build, and when your opponent’s will to hate and destroy you is boundless, holding up against it is exhausting.

    Kingdom: Resources, specifically. Whether it’s people on your side, money to aid your cause, rhetoric to sway listeners, physical prowess, or some other set of resources, they’re not distributed equally and that distribution matters. If you’d been bigger and stronger than those men who chased you, if you’d had more money or a country where you could expect the cops to stand up for you instead of abetting your abusers, you could have resisted them. If you had employment law that *really* protected you, then you could have denied your employers the power to mistreat you; if you had an expectation that your abusive employers weren’t the norm, you could simply have walked away fully expecting to find a better situation immediately. But so long as the abusers and the oppressors make the rules *and* the bigger paychecks, we can’t effectively stop them.

    Denial: People, especially when they’re victim-blaming, assign overmuch power to what can be denied. I cannot deny you the power to punch me in the face. I can deny you the power to make me hate you for punching me. I can deny you the power to make me fear you. I can deny you the power to escape consequences, by punching you back. If people confined ‘you have no power over me’ to ‘you can hurt me, but never own me’ then I could accept it more. Those who’ve hurt and abused me, I couldn’t have *stopped*. But I can deny them the power they wanted, which was to break my spirit and make me conform to ‘right’ behaviour. However, I couldn’t even do that much, if I wasn’t making up for the difference in our resources with a surfeit of will.

    You can do that sometimes, use resources to overcome a lack of will, and will to overcome resource disparity, and a strong enough denial to overcome a minor imbalance in *one* area, but any two-year-old will tell you that just standing up and yelling ‘no!’ doesn’t work very well.

  6. 7

    The reason the line works in Labyrinth is that Jareth is implicitly just a figment of Sarah’s imagination. The whole film is about growing up. Sarah learns over the course of the film that her attachments to all her stuff and her rather twee view of life is immature. She has to learn courage and independence and accept that the world isn’t fair.

    I haven’t watched the film for years but the clip made me think of Twilight and how many teenage girls are in thrall to the idea that to be loved by a powerful and dominating magical man is romantic. The point is that Sarah rejects that romanticised idea of the world.

    Applying the “you have no power” to situations where the other person manifestly does have power is, as you say, daft.

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