David Bowie died this week. I read the news on Facebook, as I strangely discover most major headlines these days. Checking my feed before bed I read the words “No, no, no,” then “RIP,” then saw a picture of Ziggy Stardust. Didn’t take long to put the story together.
I’ll admit this one knocked the wind out of my sails. Legends die. We all do in fact. The death of Robin Williams last year was intensely tragic. Natalie Cole’s passing a couple of weeks ago had me waxing nostalgic about the times my best friend and I would drive around Sacramento belting Orange-Colored Sky at the top of our lungs. They were both taken too soon. But Bowie. Damn. A world without David Bowie is just WAY less bright, right?
David Bowie is many things to many people—which perhaps is the mark of a truly great artist. The ability to get in deep under the skin of your audience in a personal and individual way, all the while reaching across the globe. (Let’s be real, Bowie reached to the stars). Because of Bowie I finally felt cool at age sixteen, driving around in my orange BMW 2002 blasting Hunky Dory and Space Oddity. He had me thinking early on about what it meant to transform, adapt, and recreate as an artist. He made me want to do just that.
But I won’t lie to you. More than the rock n roll, the performance art, the gender bending, the rule defying, the musician. More than any of those things, David Bowie was The Goblin King. David Bowie was my sexual awakening.
Don’t lie! I’m not alone! There are memes about this people. It’s a common joke that his character in Labyrinth was responsible for the turning on of millions of adolescents everywhere. But it wasn’t until he passed yesterday that I stopped to think critically about that movie and the role it played in my life. Those tight pants were no accident.
The mark of a great fable is a message masked so well in metaphor that the audience may not even realize the message exists without further intellectual excavation. This is especially true in children’s stories. Children hear stories on the first available frequency. Metaphors make their way into children’s heads, but are filed in a cabinet that remains locked until needed. The emotional impact a great story has on a child is the key that allows them to unlock that cabinet later in life and discover the complex layers of their favorite stories. Whereas an adult may read Alice in Wonderland and be able to pick out the commentary on Victorian society that Carroll was making while having his protagonist confront chaos, at the same time as simply enjoying the story, a child just jumps all the way into Wonderland. So it’s not my fault that I didn’t realize Labyrinth was a metaphor for the sexual awakening of young people. I simply watched the story feeling confused and interested in my attraction to this magical man at the heart of it.
I thought about Labyrinth a lot yesterday. With my love and nostalgia for the movie I finally unlocked the cabinet of metaphors after 20 years. The first file I uncovered contained my complicated feelings toward David Bowie’s Goblin King . All at once I realized—this story was bold.
Labyrinth is about sex. You could take the safer umbrella approach and say it’s about “growing up,” but no, no no. It is quite specifically about the discovery and development of a young lady’s sexuality. In our culture we don’t like to talk openly about burgeoning sexuality in young women (or men, for that matter), which is probably why we end up fetishizing it. We really should allow ourselves to address the sexuality of young people in a more honest way. Unlike literary metaphors, sexual development is not a thing that should be locked in a cabinet until adults feel more comfortable. But I digress. Here’s the deal with Labyrinth:
The baby Toby is not just a baby, he’s Sarah’s innocence and childhood. The Goblin King is sex embodied. The Labyrinth is puberty. That’s the framework. Just as The Goblin King’s castle lies at the heart of the Labyrinth, sex and all its mysteries lie at the heart of puberty. If you lay those metaphors over the devices in this film it plays out beautifully.
Sarah feels the tedium of childhood dragging down her blossoming independence. In an adolescent fit she wishes it away completely. Enter sex. Sexuality, aka Jareth, steals her childish innocence, aka the baby, and hides it deep in a maze filled with temptations and tricks which she must navigate successfully before it’s lost forever.
You remember how the movie goes. Helping hands, talking worms, oubliette. Lets skip to the next act.
Just when she almost gets to the heart of the maze she is tempted by two things. She bites into a peach (not an apple by the way, a peach, think on it) and hallucinates her most romantic fantasy. She is the queen and paramour of a seriously sexy hero in a mask. If she just gives in she can live forever entrapped in this fairytale of dancing and swooning.
This is the ultimate trap of our burgeoning sexuality isn’t it? We are drawn helplessly to the romances that play out in our heads—peppered more and more with adult content with each passing day of puberty. How many of you were pissed at Sarah for not staying trapped in that crystal ball with Jareth?
I wanted what I saw on the screen. But I also felt shame that I wanted it. I knew it was wrong to have romantic feelings toward this character because, well, he was a grown man, but also because he was the villain of the story. Through Sarah’s hesitation I discovered the shame that lingers so dangerously close to sex. I knew I shouldn’t want what I saw but I did. I wanted the movie to end there and stay lost in the reverie of princess gowns and mystery men and palace love-making. I VERY reluctantly followed Sarah out of the fantasy.
Our hero is strong. She knows something is missing from the masquerade and breaks free of the hallucination. So The Goblin King tries another tactic of the opposite ilk. He drops her back into her childhood room—filled with teddy bears, toys, blankets, and all the comforts of innocence. If she doesn’t want to be a slave to her fantasies then perhaps he can get her to regress into her childhood and control her that way.
Jareth’s second attempt at entrapping our hero fails. She is drawn to the comfort of her own innocence but she knows almost immediately that something is wrong. You can never go back. She bursts through the artifice that is a preserved childhood and journeys on to the heart of her sexuality. Brilliant.
And what happens when she gets there? She plays a cat and mouse game with The Goblin King as he serenades her seductively. She sees the baby, her elusive childhood, always just out of reach. No matter. The baby was bait for her to confront what was really going on. And what’s really going on? I’ll tell you what’s really going on. David Bowie in Freudian bulge pants is what is going on.
At the heart of the maze and the top of the castle there’s nowhere else to go. It’s just our hero and sex. And what does sex say?
“I ask for so little. Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave.”
Bold words for a grown man in bulge pants to utter to a 15 year old girl, right? Let me control you, he says. Despite his offer our hero discovers the only truth that could at once save her childhood and free her from the madness of puberty.
“You have no power over me.”
It’s so good, right? I especially love Jareth’s face when she says it. He’s not angry and screechy, Wicked Witch of the West style, like Oh no! You won! What a world! He just looks disappointed, yet knowing. Like he hasn’t been conquered, but relegated to a supporting role in Sarah’s story, to appear at a later date.
I watched this movie when I was younger than Jennifer Connelly, so from my childish perspective she was older and thus an adult, so she and Bowie seemed about the same age to me. It wasn’t until I revisited Labyrinth as an adult myself that my jaw dropped as I discovered, holy crap she was a child!
This story titillated 14 year old feelings toward a 39 year old man. Bold! It allowed us to explore that complexity, then showed us the way out. Important. It went there, you guys. You can’t deny it. It went there. It showed us that puberty is a thing that happens to you, it’s not a thing that defines you. It’s messy, and it’s tricky, but you drive. This movie held our hand and said it’s okay to feel sexual feelings in the same season of life that you might still be clinging to your teddy bear. We know it’s confusing. It’s okay.
Her proclamation of control frees Sarah from the Labyrinth and she’s instantly dropped back in her room. Her baby brother, released from his metaphorical duties, is safe in his crib. She is now confident enough in her own growing up that she can let go of her teddy bear and pass it along to the next generation.
Back in her room she finds her Labyrinth friends, remnants of her journey, in the mirror. The aids we discover in the maze of growing up are always there in our reflection… should we need them.
I love this movie. I mean. I LOVE. This. Movie. Of the Legends, The Dark Crystals, the NeverEnding Stories, I choose Labyrinth every time. I mean don’t get me wrong I loved and continue to love all the epic childhood fantasies the 1980s produced, but Labyrinth stood out among the rest. My devotion is 25% Jim Henson’s puppetry, 10% Sir Didimus, 5% “I’m just a worm,” and at least 60% David Bowie. At least.
And so, dear David Bowie, Jareth, Goblin King, God of Sex, you really did a lot for me. Listening to bad-ass rock n roll while my peers were hooked on Britney Spears was great. (Who am I kidding? I also listened to Britney Spears). But that wasn’t your greatest contribution to my life. To me, you will always be the mystery at the heart of sexuality. The tempter, the hero, the villain, the prince. All of it.
Rest in peace, my Goblin King.