Almost everyone I know was affected emotionally in some way or other by David Bowie’s passing two months ago. My colleague, Dr. James Penner, had an article published by the LA Review of Books on January 2nd in which he reviewed two books that I understand were released around the same time. You can read it here: David Bowie and the 1970s: Testing the Limits of the Gendered Body
He organized the event (for which the flyer on the left was for), in which he and 3 other professors (myself included) opened a conversation with the public by giving our personal and academic perspectives. This took place at the Richardson Seminar Room, in the College of Humanities, UPR RP.
After thinking it over and over, I decided to talk about Labyrinth, having learned by asking around that it wasn’t as popular with everyone as I imagined. Perhaps I was misled by most of my friends and the entire internet. In this decade, there’s Buzzfeed posts like this one, tumblrs such as Labyrinth Confessions, tumblr theories like this one, along with other virtual shrines across decades, if you dig. It’s not difficult. Because Jareth still constantly pops up in my life, I thought this was true for almost everyone. Well, guess what I found out? It’s not. It’s only so important to a certain group of people (the ones who give a little jump or widen their eyes when you mention it) – the ones who watched it as children and discovered David Bowie first, as Jareth.
Go beyond the Looking-Glass only if you’re not uncomfortable with getting into Freudian topics. You’ve been warned.
Before I continue, I want to make a disclaimer in the form of a list:
- I’m posting the paper in its entirety, so please, if you go through it all, consider that I’m addressing a crowd. It’s not so much a “paper” as much as something meant to be heard in a span of 15 to 20 minutes while playing video samples as background.
- I skipped some lines and elaborated in between, so if you attended, it’s not exactly the same.
- I will use gifs whenever possible, even if unnecessary.
- There are summaries of scenes because I do not take for granted that everyone has watched the film.
Seduced by the Goblin King: How we fell in love with David Bowie
Labyrinth is a fantasy film for children directed by Jim Henson released in 1986 which, in its time, was considered a flop. However, for many people of my generation, Labyrinth was how David Bowie, already a prolific super star with a respectable repertoire, was injected into our psyches. I chose to talk about this film because, recalling the many conversations I’ve had throughout my lifetime, it seems that Bowie as the Goblin King Jareth, is the only one of his artistic personas that seduced some of us as little children. Also recalling conversations I’ve been having since my teens, Bowie was the rock star crush that we never really got over. I think this is why some of us were inconsolable the morning we found out. Our childhood crush had left us. On January 12th, the online magazine Fusion published an article by Nona Willis Aronowitz titled “David Bowie’s sexy goblin king in ‘Labyrinth’ taught us about lust.” In it, Willis quotes several people she had interviewed on the subject, confirming that the phenomenon of a generation of children becoming infatuated with a magical, somewhat evil (yet impossibly charming Bowie) with big hair is widespread. The Goblin King was, for many of us, an object of desire in our childhoods before we even understood what any of it meant.
For some, watching Labyrinth over and over led to our fandom in later years, so that we would discover one of the greatest artists still alive in our time. Others would not, but would remember him as that strange character with “the pants” in that movie with the puppets. Either way, Jareth and David Bowie are inseparable by association. Had Jareth been played by anyone else, the Goblin King would not have had such a profound appeal, an appeal to which his original songs contribute immensely. The music is by Trevor Jones, but the songs with vocals were written and performed by David Bowie. The characters’ dialogue is simple enough for a child. Bowie’s lyrics, however, were perplexing, recalling it from a child’s perspective. Whenever David Bowie was singing, it seemed like the scene was a moment of truth, which I could not entirely figure out, but felt like I could almost touch it. For example, when the opening credits begin and Bowie’s “Underground” plays. There was a shift in perception then:
No one can blame you (Phew! He understands.)
For walking away (Why would anyone, though…)
Too much rejection (But she’s fine…)
No love injection (Oh, come on…)
But down in the Underground (Uh huh…)
You’ll find someone true (Man, I wish I had a baby brother so David Bowie would come in through my window…)
If you’ve watched the film before, you know what those lines are all about, and it’s dangerously exciting. The Goblin King will be summoned by 15 year-old Sarah, played by Jennifer Conelly. She will pronounce an enchantment she learned from a storybook, hoping, not knowing that Jareth would materialize in her room and that the act would bind her to a pact: by pronouncing a line in the correct order: “I wish the goblins would come take you away; right now,” Sarah has made her wishes become real.
Jareth’s goblin lackeys snatch the baby, she immediately regrets what she has done, and the adventure begins. The only way to recover baby Toby is by defeating Jareth, making her way through his very difficult and trap-laden Labyrinth, and into his court, while he tries to seduce her into staying with him. But she does not. That, I realized watching the film when I was older, was one of the reasons why I watched it so many times. I always hoped for an ending where she would stay with Jareth, because, why not?
In the middle of that dirty castle with not much to do and a bunch of ugly, funny, little goblins (presumably other baby siblings since “only forever”), was David Bowie, the Goblin King, in all his glittering glory.
Willis Aronowitz comments in her article that “Labyrinth and Bowie achieved something unusual: They respected the existence of children’s sexuality if not on a conscious then on an elemental level.”
What I will analyze, which Willis Aronowitz did not explore, is first, why appealing to children’s sexuality is something only David Bowie could pull off, and second, how it happens.
Willis talks about her own experience: “David Bowie was almost 40 by then, but to me, Jareth was ageless, genderless, species-less; he was free from real-world dynamics that may have made his toxic love for 15-year-old Sarah creepy or abusive. He was sex and power distilled to its purest form, and not in a macho, Prince Charming sort of way.” I asked one of my friends to sum up her feelings about David Bowie in Labyrinth; she responded that her interest in his music came when she was older, but that at 10 years old, Jareth was “the unreachable epitome of the bad guy without being crass or gross.” Like my friend Diana says, he was not crass, but often childish, and not gross, just odd.
I found an informal article on someone’s personal Angelfire website (woah) called “Through the Labyrinth, And What Sarah Found There” by an author with the alias Freya Lorelei, which is a sequence of analyses of mostly sexual symbolism in the film. In the last section, she talks about Jareth as paradox, a godly being with limited powers that may be Sarah’s “own invention” as a result of an Electra complex:
Since she is so young, her fantasy man is tinged with hints of androgyny. Possessing a feminine build, ruffly costumes and lots of eye makeup, Jareth is threatening, yet not overly so. He is sinister, but ultimately unable to back up his threats. “You have no power over me.” Most very young girls tend to like men that are slight and delicate in build, because they themselves resemble girls, which is familiar and comforting. Sarah, being emotionally immature, conjures up this sort of man. However, due to the aforementioned Electra complex […] he is far older than her, and clearly sexually mature.
Jareth’s physical traits as described by Freya Lorelei also describe David Bowie; even if by the late 80s his then-current image was less flamboyant than a decade earlier, androgynous or outright feminine-looking Bowie were in the collective consciousness and part of pop culture. Electra/Oedipus complexes aside, for a very young person, being infatuated with a pop star is as safe as Sarah’s dream. Electra/Oedipus complexes considered, being older has a Freudian allure. David Bowie is easily anyone’s fantasy man.
But how did David Bowie crawl into our little-kid dreams, making a permanent home in them? In many ways, Sarah’s trials in the Labyrinth resemble the way Lewis Carroll’s Alice own struggles in the Underground and the world through the Looking-Glass, stories many children came to know through several film adaptations before reading the books. The Alice books are still universally liked 150 years later, and one reason is because even though for most it appears to fantasy, it plays on the familiar (dream content – the characters and images are all distorted part of real Alice’s waking world) and the mysterious workings of the unconscious. It’s also very fun. If we appreciate Labyrinth in that same light, it might explain why some children (now grown) love Labyrinth.
Alice and Sarah aren’t the most likable heroines at first, being stubborn and sometimes arrogant. But both characters awaken from their fantasies a little wiser.
In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud says the language of poetry is the language of dreams. Like poems we read and discover something new when we read them years later, something that resonates inside us that we may or may not pinpoint, so do Alice and Labyrinth. They are full of imagery and symbolism that can be reread and rediscovered time and again.
What’s at stake in both Alice and Labyrinth is the main characters’ power and reassertion of self in a world that is all their own (notice all the images in Sarah’s room, like the Escher poster, the toys, even her dog, Merlin, who in the dream is Sir Didymus, another dog’s, “steed”). The Labyrinth and the creatures there are not foreign to Sarah, she knows them all, even if she does not seem to recognize them. Taking this into consideration, we can conclude that the adventure is an elaborate dream. Sarah does have a photograph of her real mother in her room next to a man who happens to be David Bowie, after all…
By the end of their trials, Alice and Sarah are “the babe with the power.” Alice and Labyrinth are about a child’s darker, more selfish nature, something which many childhood films and fairy tales don’t address; for this reason, some of us were enthralled. Add David Bowie’s otherworldly looks, smooth voice and catchy synthpop songs, and I think that’s the formula.
On the darker side of childhood, Alice’s two adventures in each dream world are anxious, always bordering on becoming a nightmare; she has lost nothing material, only sometimes her memory, identity, patience, temper and finally, her breaking point, when she loses control. By the end of each dream, it’s the nightmare’s climax, where she very nearly realizes she is only dreaming by recognizing and thus regaining her power. She awakes from Wonderland shouting “you’re nothing but a pack of cards!” and from Looking-Glass, grabbing the small Red Queen, a game piece, yelling, “I’ll shake you into a kitten, I will!”
Sarah has two similar almost-waking states during which she regains power: the first, after she dances with Jareth at the masquerade ball, enthralled, but then drifting from him as he watches in disappointment and with longing, unable to communicate.
She breaks through the ballroom mirror and walks into a wasteland where an old hag opens a door for her, into her own bedroom. She falls into her bed and hugs her teddy bear, sighing “it was just a dream!” Shortly after, she opens the door thinking she’s home, but she finds the same dream-wasteland as before, recalling her purpose, which is to rescue her brother (her prime object of desire). Sarah manages to enter the castle, where Jareth tests her in an Escheresque scene, passive-aggressively begging her to love him. “Everything I’ve done, I’ve done for you. I move the stars for no one.“
In this instance, again she is lucid. She begins to remember and recite lines from the story she knows, finally yelling “You have no power over me!” In that instant, Jareth becomes an owl and the scene transforms into Sara’s living room. She finds that baby Toby is safe and sound.
One way in which the Labyrinth dream world differs from Alice’s is how the ruler of the kingdom and antagonist is an equally attractive and repulsive, alluring and intimidating, male of whom she is object of desire (and vice versa).
Sarah’s own object is her goal: to recover her brother. The drive may be her feelings of guilt, having condemned Toby when she enunciated the charm; it may also be the fear of being responsible for losing her brother, thus losing her father’s trust and possibly, love. In the same manner that the Alice stories manifest a little girl’s unconscious working out anxieties and making sense (or non-sense) of her waking world, Labyrinth deals with a teenage girl, still a child, whose unconscious is sorting out more mature, emotional issues that develop when growing up:
- social responsibility. While Sarah bonds with creatures in the Labyrinth, Alice does not truly befriend Wonderland and Looking-Glass creatures. Sarah, on the other hand, keeps the same close friends throughout the dream-story and is loyal to them.
- sexual impulse. Sarah may or may not have a crush on her mother’s boyfriend, but in the dream, she must constantly refuse Jareth and reaffirm that he is the villain. She cares for her little brother, after all, and wishes not for him to become another one of the king’s goblins. She chooses Toby every time, in spite of Jareth’s overwhelming, frustrated, entitled and threatening promises of love.
In other words, it’s a young girl’s sex dream without there being explicit images of sex.
In her article, Freya Lorelei lists a thorough catalog of imagery in the context of Sarah’s reality throughout the entire film that reveal sex everywhere.
Some of the most obvious are Jareth/David Bowie’s very tight pants; the crystal balls he carries, rolls or throws in front of Sarah; and the cane he waves about in “Dance, Magic.”
This traces a power play in matters of desire, a real desire Sarah might secretly have, but wishes not to address.
Another possibility is not denial, but being unaware. Dreams are funny that way. Whichever it may be, the dream reveals a selfish, somewhat ugly aspect of human desire, if we look at it under a magnifying glass. In “The Function and Field of Speech in Psychoanalysis,” Lacan says the following:
Man’s freedom is entirely circumscribed within the constitutive triangle of the following: the renunciation he imposes on the other’s desire by threatening to kill the other in order to enjoy the fruits of the other’s serfdom, the sacrifice of his life that he agrees to for the reasons that give human life its measure, and the suicidal abnegation of the vanquished party that deprives the master of his victory and leaves him to his inhuman solitude.
All of the above are represented in the dynamics between Sarah and Jareth, both to the other, and are therefore a reflection of one another. They are both other to one another so, as for the first point of the triangle, both impose renunciation on the other’s desire. Both are martyrs in a figurative way: Sarah for her brother, and Jareth for Sarah, apparently. Finally, both are vanquished, although it seems that Sarah is the victor. Sarah has escaped the labyrinth alive with her brother intact, giving up what we can only assume is a mortal lifetime with Jareth that she may have been tempted to choose as an option. Jareth appears after her return as an owl in her window, and flies away in abnegation. It seems that Jareth is the serf, but it also seems like roles could be reversed easily. They are both a threat to one another, impose their own desire upon the other, and renounce the other’s desire while each being both subject and object of desire. However, it’s a mirror-reflection in a looking-glass world, as Jareth is Sarah with her mother’s boyfriend’s face.
Willis ends her article with, “In death, essential but tiny corners of a celebrity’s life often become bathed in a spotlight they’ve never known before. To us, that corner is the goblin king’s castle.”
To the other “us,” we never waited for his death to spotlight him as Jareth. We never waited at all, as we hoped he’d live forever.