“So I believe that dreams – day dreams, you know, with your eyes wide open and your brain-machinery whizzing – are likely to lead to the betterment of the world.”
—L. Frank Baum
There is a young girl in a beautiful ball gown, hovering on the outskirts of a masquerade. She’s wide-eyed and breathless, her white dress a perfect compliment to the gauzy scene that surrounds her.
The king—mysterious, even after he removes his mask—flits in and out of frame. He dances with everyone but her. He is letting her come to him.
When they meet on the dance floor, he takes her in his arms, and he swings her around, and they spin, and he sings her a love song.
This romantic encounter is everything the girl has dreamed of. But this is not a romance. Between his allure, and her demure disposition, this fact is hard to remember, but she is not here to be wooed, she is here to conquer him. This is a battle, and she is the hero of this tale.
In the years since its 1986 release, Labyrinth has become a cult classic. Check any corner of the internet, and you’ll find a fierce and devoted fan base that celebrates every second of Jim Henson’s wonderfully weird, disjointed last film.
Much of what you’ll see in terms of fan or critical reflection on the film’s creation, meaning and legacy, focuses on two schools. The first is a consistent theme of analysis that recasts the film as an allegory for teenage sexual awakening. The rest, in large part, pays homage to David Bowie’s truly unforgettable performance as Jareth, the glittering, singing, dark Goblin King with enticingly tight pants.
Very little of the content that’s sprung up in celebration of Labyrinth, though, focuses on its central character, Sarah Williams—or Jennifer Connelly, the actress who portrayed her. But despite the lack of emphasis on the film’s main character, Labyrinth is indisputably her story, and it’s a conventional hero’s journey as well.
In terms of its plot structure, it’s no different than any other fantasy or adventure film of its era, except in one key way. While many of our favorite films follow characters that seem like unlikely candidates for heroics, so few of them focus on women. It’s more rare still to see a film that lets a teenage girl follow the hero’s path. Labyrinth’s Sarah may not be the most heroic character we’ve ever seen on screen, but the sheer fact that her particular journey is so rare in narrative makes it fascinating nonetheless.
When we first meet Sarah Williams, she is lost in her own imagination. Dressed like a medieval princess, she traipses through a public park, either not aware or not in the business of caring about the fact that she’s likely a bit too old to be playing make believe. She clings to a worn out copy of a beloved adventure story, aptly titled The Labyrinth.
“Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered,” she recites with a dramatic flair, “I have fought my way here to the castle beyond the Goblin City to take back the child that you have stolen. For my will is as strong as yours, and my kingdom is as great.”
But, she can’t remember the last line, the clincher, the moment of epiphany. She has to check in with her source material to verify what, exactly, it is that will seal her character’s victory over her unnamed foe.
“You have no power over me.”
In that short sequence, Labyrinth establishes the core theme at the center of its story: a young girl realizing and acting on her tremendous inner strength. It takes Sarah a while to catch up with the character she’s play-acting, though.
In the scenes that follow, we learn that Sarah isn’t just a girl with a passion for fantasy. She’s a petulant teenager, stubborn, highly emotional, and reluctant to engage with her real world responsibilities, minimal though they may be.
From the onset it seems unlikely that Sarah will be able to complete the task that lies ahead of her. It doesn’t help that in many ways, the hardships she faces as the film progresses are of her own doing.
In the throes of boredom and frustration one stormy night, she fantasizes about another life in which Jareth, the Goblin King from her fairytale story comes to whisk her away from the horrible fate of babysitting her little brother, Toby. Unbeknownst to her, he is real, and she has the power to call on him—and when she does, he kidnaps Toby as a means of toying with her.
After Jareth hides the baby away in his otherworldly castle, he gives Sarah just 13 hours to navigate the treacherous labyrinth that shields his home from unwanted visitors. If she makes it, she’ll be able to save her brother and return them both to their ordinary lives. If she doesn’t, he’ll be transformed into a goblin.
She has craved an adventure, without understanding the consequences involved, and now she will have to partake in one, whether she is ready or not.
There are two parts to Labyrinth’s Sarah, both equally at war over her perception and ability to succeed. Jareth recognizes only one of them—that she is prone to impatience, and operates with a self-centered immaturity that he is sure will lead to her defeat. He doesn’t believe that Sarah is capable of maneuvering through his puzzling masterpiece. He toys with her insecurities, and taunts her, telling her to stick with her toys and her costumes and give up before she’s begun.
But what he doesn’t recognize is that she is strong—more so than she even knows. In an early signal of her heroic potential, she barely hesitates before diving into the task at hand. Still, while she puts on a confident front, she is, at heart, uncertain about everything in her life—from her relationship with her father and his new wife to her ability to navigate her Goblin King’s impenetrable maze.
Sarah feels, in almost every way, like a 20th-century incarnation of Alice, of Wonderland fame, and The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy Gale. So it’s no wonder that those characters decorate her bedroom alongside endless other fantastical posters and figurines.
These characters are all prone to whimsy and imaginative flight, energized and perpetually distracted by sentimental ideals of some fantasy world where they can relish in something extraordinary.
They’re, likewise, unsure of themselves and their potential once they realize the fantastical worlds they’ve dreamt of are, in reality, a little darker and more grim than they’d hoped.
Indeed, that brand of female character is not entirely unordinary. We’ve seen her, some version of that girl, in dozens of adventure and fantasy stories. If you step further outside of those genres, you’ll encounter even more—from Anne Shirley and Amélie to the more maligned manic-pixie incarnations we’ve seen in films like Garden State and 500 Days of Summer.
Because of these films, for better or for worse, those of us that grew up before Y2K learned, to some degree, that stoic emotional resilience was not mandatory, not synonymous with bravery or heroism.
We also learned a great deal from the dearth of female heroines at the forefront of our films. We learned women should and often will be the sidekicks, the love interests, the collateral damage of adventurers, if they will be on their radar at all. We celebrated their victories, however small. We recognized, with Leia, with Hermione Granger, that sometimes the most valuable heroes in the story will have their contributions downplayed, if only because they are not male.
Sarah Williams, like the whimsical characters before her, was and still is an exception to that rule. That’s what initially makes the later turn toward some modicum of female-focused heroism in other films feel long overdue.
There is plenty to admire about 21st-century heroines, rare though they may be. We have Katniss, and Furiosa; we have Evey Hammond and Rey. These women battle injustice and systemic violence. They march up to the very oppressive figures that would seek to shut them down and they outwit them, and outfight them. They stare down the male gaze. They are heroes, and they are female, and they are essential to our cultural understanding of just how nuanced and far-reaching a women’s strength can be.
They are also a product of a world that women know all too well. They have to be brilliant, gifted beyond measure. They have to be composed, with an inner resolve that has room to crack but once or twice, and only for a moment or two. They have to be tough—physically, mentally, spiritually—or they will have absolutely no chance of surviving.
This is, of course, the nature of their realities. Their power emerges despite all attempts to tamp it down. They are deliberate, battle-worn, world-weary, but somehow not entirely broken in spite of all they face.
In film, this stoic brand of female bravery has become the standard, to varying degrees, especially where cinema and adventure stories have intersected in the last ten years. These heroines serve a clear and essential purpose, because they illustrate and assert a truth that it seems we, as a general populous, have been reticent to learn: the world works hard to break women down, and that the ones who rise up are every bit as admirable, as compelling, and as brave as our most celebrated male heroes.
But they are also, all too often, women that keep their emotions so closely guarded that any sense of their wanting is limited, or worse yet, invisible. What they crave, beyond basic survival or victory, is so rarely considered because their entire existence is boiled down to their seemingly limitless resilience.
They are quintessentially heroic, undeniably so, and their heroism is rooted in the expectation that the world is an unfair, cruel, and sometimes horrifying place. Quite frankly, they don’t have room for anything else—even themselves.
So rarely do heroic figures come from a place that is far more ordinary, or take on adventure for adventure’s sake. That could be, in part, why women like Sarah are harder to place in a heroic narrative. They remind us of the parts of ourselves that we don’t necessarily want on display — when we feel like giving up, when we turn on those we love, when we let our frustration show.
What we can see in Sarah is something that likely feels familiar: the emotional highs and lows of being a teenage girl. Her tendencies—unpracticed, unfiltered, unprepared for adversity—seem to preclude a heroic orientation, but they ultimately cannot get in the way of her bravery.
On the surface, Labyrinth’s protagonist has it easy, despite her dramatic and unsubstantiated insistence that her life has reached near-tragic levels of unfairness. She has a safe home, parents that care about her well-being, and the freedom to wander through life in an imaginative daze. So, in comparing her to some of her more modern heroic counterparts, there is plenty to find grating or frustrating in her idyllic existence. Her privilege is so great, her reality so smooth, that she has to conjure up her own conflicts to keep herself entertained.
Sarah finds plenty to be conflicted about, too, both before and during her subsequent adventure. She hates her mundane life, her parents who don’t understand her, the baby brother and duties that come with caring for him, and how cruelly they interrupt her flights of fancy. She’s disgruntled, in equal measure, by the myriad tribulations she faces as she makes her way through the maze.
As a result, she can be difficult to like, sometimes hard to relate to because of her acute and incessant need to express her displeasure, her discomfort, her fears. And they stand in stark contrast to her adversary, who is unyieldingly cool and collected, even when faced with possible defeat.
The sequences between Sarah and Jareth serve as the pivotal moments in the heroine’s journey toward transformation. Each time she meets him, she’s forced to reckon with the parts of herself—reckless, insecure, incapable of taking responsibility—that put her and her brother in this situation in the first place.
But there’s an added layer to their interactions. It’s not an overly romantic dynamic, but one that hints at what her idea of romance may be. Jareth is flirtatious because he knows she’s wanted for something that feels like love and longing. But even their most intimate encounter, in that dreamlike masquerade ball, serves more to propel her toward her true purpose.
The fact that, despite her inclination toward escapism, her stubbornness, and the general feeling that she’s in over her head, Sarah emerges victorious. She does so, not by transforming herself into something she is not, but by harnessing her instinctual, if sometimes over-the-top, emotional response to the challenges she faces and using them to keep her going.
Sarah proves herself to be a worthy opponent to Jareth. Because she is so prone to fantasy, she is so rarely shocked at the strange creatures and dark secrets within his labyrinth. In that way, a lifetime of imagination gave her an advantage, because she is so willing to topple headfirst into his strange and dangerous world. For all her complaining and frustration, she’s been waiting her whole life for this.
She uses her wits and her strength to solve complex riddles, and outrun the deadly, bladed cleaners. Her gut reaction works in her favor, too, as she befriends Hoggle, Ludo, and Sir Didymus, essential allies all. She faces down isolation and near-constant setbacks to the point where her adversary begins to realize that she may be much more capable than he originally imagined.
So he drugs her, and fills her mind with the dreamlike hallucination of a luscious ballroom masquerade. Early in the film, she expressed a deep-seated yearning for the Goblin King to take her away to his castle and make her his queen. He dangles the thrilling possibility of a dream realized right in front of her, uses her own desires against her in an attempt to gain the upper hand.
But in this way her tendency toward escapism benefits her, because she quickly realizes something isn’t right in this dream. She sees the sinister quality behind the party’s cackling, mad guests and their insistence on keeping her distracted. She sees the ticking clock in the corner of the room and remembers the true purpose of her quest—and that she’s running out of time. Most importantly, she chooses to return to her quest, the one that leads her to rescue her brother, in spite of the temptation to give into her fantasies.
So much of the attention paid to Labyrinth has surrounded its frequent undercurrent of sexual energy. But in truth, at a narrative level, it’s much more about a baseline desire for the tantalizing promise of excitement, and mystery, and romance. To ignore Sarah’s literal experience and progress in the film diminishes the power that comes in telling this particular type of heroine’s tale.
She undergoes a fundamental change as she learns how to trust her emotions, which are so often close to out of control, and use them to her advantage. Throughout most of the film, the Goblin King overpowers her—wows her, belittles her, and bewitches her with little effort. Despite his exceptional magical skills, Sarah manages to obliterate him with a single sentence when she finally faces him down inside the castle. As they face off at the edge of Jareth’s disorienting house of stares, she looks him right in the eye and says the words she struggled to remember before she knew them to be true: “You have no power over me.”
Sarah also realizes that she doesn’t need the fantasies she’s used to avoid facing the far more mundane and ordinary world that awaits her at home. But she also realizes that it’s still okay to want those fantasies from time to time.
Her journey also allows us a glimpse of something that we so very rarely see, even when we do get the chance to witness female heroism in action. It’s the invigorating power that comes from dreaming, even if it’s of something that doesn’t seem to be even remotely possible. Not because you think it will come to pass, but because you enjoy the very idea of it.
There is no question that Sarah’s tribulations pale in comparison, relatively speaking, to many of her fictional counterparts. Take, for example, Ofelia in Pan’s Labyrinth—also still a child, also caught in the hazy place between her imagination and the world around her. The realities she faces—of war, and illness, and hateful adults that will gladly do her harm—are grim and frightening, and as a result, even her forays into fantasy are tinged with horror.
Sarah’s life is far simpler—she lives devoid of terror, of oppression, and any serious threat to her existence. All the same, she faces every hardship and every temptation she encounters, tame as they may seem, with a bravery that is entirely heroic, in its own self-contained way.
And Sarah’s call to action, while self-inflicted, is worthy of admiration, too. Because it’s easy to dismiss girls like Sarah, to write them out of adventures because they don’t seem strong enough, or brave enough, or smart enough to fight for something bigger than themselves.
But Labyrinth reminds us that even the girls who aren’t destined for some heroic calling can, and will, fight like hell if the need arises.
My youngest daughter is 8-years-old, and much to my relief she is a warrior in her own right. She is offended by injustice, stands up to bullies without hesitation. Today, she wants to be a video game designer. Last year, she wanted to be the mayor. The thought hasn’t crossed her mind that any of these ideas are improbable.
My oldest daughter is almost 10-years-old. And, much to my relief, she’s still flush with an unyielding imaginative power. I watch her play sometimes, dancing, and spinning, and singing, and I can almost see her in the magical world she’s dreamed up in her mind. I wish she could hold onto the fantasy forever.
There is some part of them both that still believes anything is possible—from creating a world that is truly just and fair, to the characters and daydreams in their imagination.
They are both strong, and smart, and capable. Every day, they leave our home and enter into a world that doesn’t mesh with their ideal—because it stands in opposition to her quest for justice, to her longing for magic. They are so incredibly brave for doing this, and they don’t even know it yet.
I have to believe there is room enough out there for the both of them.