With David Bowie’s passing, I noticed on Facebook that many of my female contemporaries mourned the loss of The Goblin King. Bowie reinvented himself dozens of times, from Ziggy Stardust to The Thin White Duke to Blue Jean, through his years with Tin Machine, into the 90s with albums such as Outside and Earthling that continued to push boundaries, before finishing his amazing life with Blackstar, released just last Friday.
So why The Goblin King? Why a single character from among his entire pantheon, born of a film with dancing Jim Henson creations?
My answer is this: sexual awakening. The following is a post I wrote in 2009 after watching Labyrinth for the first time in at least a decade.
This isn’t a full review—more like observations on a very subversive film, and how my daughters
I probably saw Labyrinth at age 11, because we didn’t go to the theater but we had HBO. I remember seeing it repeatedly. Eleven years old is an interesting age for a girl. I love this pic from “The Simpsons” where Lisa is reading Non-Threatening Boys magazine. (The Coreys prove how long the show has been on!)
But it’s true: pre-pubescent girls tend to dig guys who are a little androgynous, a little pretty-faced. They’re not as scary as grown men, especially when the most prominent examples of full-fledged masculinity in their daily lives are authority figures such as fathers and teachers. Evolutionarily speaking, it’s probably a defense mechanism against under-developed girls desiring what they should avoid, namely adult dudes with active sperm.
Eighties rockers like Bon Jovi probably helped many a girl bridge that gap. He had the moves and aggression of a man, but he also wore make-up and had hair bigger than gals in Texas. Robert Pattinson and the Twilight phenom might have served the same purpose. One day, the girls who love/loved him will look back on their crushes, scratch their heads, and wonder what the hell they’d been smoking—even though part of them will still enjoy that remembered fondness.
No wonder, then, that David Bowie in Labyrinth confused me in the pants.
He was 38 when he filmed this movie, compared to Jennifer Connelly’s tender-yet-stacked 15 years. A man in every sense, particularly in the region of his tightly-fitting breeches, he commanded his scenes with a wicked intensity. Although silly goblins and cringe-worthy tunes occasionally blunted his potency, his androgynous lace, hair, and make-up kept him from coming across as a frightening masculine figure. Instead he was intriguing, intoxicating, and focused in a way no 11-yo could articulate, but was never a turn off like, ew, he could be my dad.
But wasn’t that always his appeal? Bowie lingered between overtly masculine (his performances, his posturing) and accessibly feminine (his soft-spoken voice, his thin, graceful build). I’m going to hazard a guess that many a girl in Britain has experienced the same thing with David Tennant and Matt Smith’s portrayals of The Doctor.
That’s where Labyrinth is subversive. Ostensibly, it’s about a girl coming to terms with growing up, assuming responsibility, and making sure the fantasies of youth are kept in perspective. On a deeper level, it’s also about Sarah accepting the loss of her mother, although the nature of their separation is never discussed. Sarah keeps a collection of newspaper clippings about her actress mother, suggesting that she either died or left to seek movie fame. The crux, either way, is abandonment grief. Many of the themes played out with her imaginary friends in the labyrinth have to do with loyalty, friendship, sticking together—overcoming obstacles through trust, and accepting the inherent unfairness of life.
Even deeper, Labyrinth is the narrative of a girl’s cautious approach toward womanhood. Her retreat into childhood fantasy suggests a fear of the real: men, sex, and the burdens that come with grown-up trials. She’s also competing with her step-mother for the attention of her father, which means she’s in need of male companionship, possibly a substitute Daddy. Even Jennifer Connelly’s figure, which is very womanly yet camouflaged by loose-fitting clothes, contrasts with her dew-eyed expressions and breathy voice. She’s on the edge of becoming aware of herself as a woman.
Consider the Goblin King’s final attempt to coerce/seduce Sarah:
Everything that you wanted I have done. You asked that the child be taken. I took him. You cowered before me, I was frightening. I have reordered time. I have turned the world upside down, and I have done it all for you! I am exhausted from living up to your expectations of me. Isn’t that generous? I ask so little. Just let me rule you, and you can have everything that you want. Just fear me, love me, do as I say, and I will be your slave.
It’s a psychological field day! It’s the most insane, seductive stalker-lover proclamation of all time! He is the voice of her dreams. If she refuses responsibility and continues to live in a dream world, she could be happily numb—contentedly owned by a magnetic older man who can take away all her cares. Part of her wants an androgynous rock star goblin boyfriend who will do any and all things for her, yet she understands, intuitively, that to give herself to him is not possible. It would conflate the last crutches of girlish fantasy with the first stirrings of womanly need. His words are an articulation of sexual desire, while reflecting her idealization of romantic passion.
Sarah rejects the Goblin King and accepts responsibility for her little brother. Her rejection is a means of re-ordering her expectations and returning to the realm of a teenager, unwilling to become a woman just yet. Her previous refusal to stay trapped with him at the masked ball—the only time they touch, the only time she’s dressed as a complete-with-cleavage woman—affirms this.
In the end, Sarah returns to the real world, accepts her brother with a symbolic teddy bear hand-over, and finds an outlet for her imagination by dancing in her room with the various Muppet friends. She puts away several items: the doll in the ball gown from her fantasy dance, the book of Labyrinth, and pictures of her mother. She’s ready to end some childhood fixations. Interestingly, although the owl version of the Goblin King flies away, she leaves an owl figurine on her dresser. That decision—sexuality—is still up in the air.
I got a kick out of all the subtext, while the girls were alternately thrilled and scared by the whole ordeal. Overall they found the filmmaker’s “let’s disguise the subversive stuff” with pratfalls and puppetry very entertaining. I’ll have to see how they react to it in four or five years, but by then, they’ll have their own David Bowie figure to cause pre-teen confusion.
As comedian Simon Pegg tweeted this morning:
If you’re sad today, just remember the world is over 4 billion years old and you somehow managed to exist at the same time as David Bowie.
Rest well, our Goblin King.
Carrie Lofty is the author of historical romances such as Starlight and His Very Own Girl, and the young adult romance, Blue Notes. She co-writes award-winning erotic romance as Katie Porter, and penned the RITA-nominated paranormal romance, Caged Warrior, under the pseudonym Lindsey Piper. Her latest is Hunted Warrior, the third and final installment of her “Dragon Kings” series. With a Masters in history, Carrie also enjoys choir singing and kickboxing. She lives and writes just north of Chicago.