Could We Handle ‘Labyrinth’ in 2016?

It’s already been lost in the outrage cycle, but over the weekend, the Internet went bonkers briefly over a “report” that the Jim Henson Company was making a rebooted version of the 1986 film Labyrinth. It turned out that the company is doing no such thing, and then Kristen Stewart either did or didn’t say something stupid, and the Internet got mad about that, and Labyrinth was forgotten. But if you’ll indulge us for a second, it’s interesting to think about how the film might go over if it was released, or remade, today.

Labyrinth is, as Fusion’s Nona Willis Aronowitz recently noted, “all about sex, and not just because of Bowie’s prominent bulge and piercing stare.” She’s right — Jareth the Goblin King’s legendary bulge certainly, ahem, commands one’s attention, but the film is as much about Jennifer Connelly’s character Sarah’s exploration of her own nascent sexuality as it is about her search for her baby brother.

It’s also about the discovery of the power that sexuality gives her over a man who is older and more experienced than her — along with the limits of that power, and the danger of overestimating it. Jareth’s declaration to her near the film’s end — “Fear me, love me, do as I say, and I will be your slave” — gets to the heart of this, capturing both the influence that Jareth’s love for Sara gives her over him, and the more fundamental impotence that underpins the relationship. At the end of the day, the relationship still involves a young, inexperienced girl and a significantly older man who also happens to be a supernaturally gifted, baby-snatching Goblin King.

More reductively still, it’s a narrative about a man who kidnaps a baby and then attempts to seduce the baby’s teenage sister when she tries to rescue it. This is objectively #problematic, no? Especially in light of Bowie’s own real-life history in the 1970s with the then-15-year-old Lori Maddox?

I’m not going to delve too deeply into that topic here, save to say that we should probably listen to people when they tell us whether they consider themselves victims or not — sometime Flavorwire contributor Jes Skolnik’s excellent piece on Medium and Scott Timberg’s interview with Carol Queen for Salon both address the subject better than I could. But it’s worth noting that as a culture — and, indeed, as a human race, because this isn’t a problem confined to American or “Western” culture — we’re not particularly great at discussing teen sexuality, and especially female teen sexuality.

Historically, the sexuality of teenage girls has been simultaneously erased and fetishized. For the former, we can look at the majority of depictions of teens in popular culture, still — and for the latter, one need look no further than pretty much any porn site, where you’ll no doubt be presented with an entire category of “Teens” or “Barely Legal” or “Amateurs” or etc. Much of the commentary around Bowie and Maddox echoes, in its own way, the Madonna/whore binary, in that it leaves no room for any conclusions beyond two polarities: either Maddox was a victim and Bowie an “abuser,” or the whole thing was totally fine and a product of another era and everyone should stop worrying about it. Clearly, the truth lies somewhere in between — casting Maddox as a victim when she herself doesn’t identify as any such thing is both wrongheaded and disrespectful, but suggesting that the 1970s were a sort of idealized era of unfettered sexuality risks glossing over all the deeply fucked-up stuff that happened during that era.

Curiously enough, for all that it’s a children’s movie populated by puppets and goblins, Labyrinth is the rare piece of art that manages to go beyond the simple erasure/fetishization binary, depicting a relationship that’s as three-dimensional as it is questionable. Too often these days, commentators tend to conflate the depiction of something with an endorsement of that thing, and it’s all too easy to imagine the flood of condemnatory thinkpieces about the nature of the relationship depicted in Labyrinth.

Shades of gray are difficult, and to some extent risky, but they’re also necessary if we want our discussions to reflect reality. On the Internet, particularly, it’s easy and safe to choose one extreme or the other and argue it to death. Our best art, however — and our best criticism — is rooted in the fact that life is never that simple. I’m not sure Labyrinth qualifies as “our best art,” and it’s worth noting that many of the good things it does, it perhaps does by accident, but it’s also testament to the fact that taking a non-didactic view of relationships makes for compelling narratives.