female fantasies, female fantasies
Before I begin, an explanation of what this essay is. It is an exploration of a certain narrative technique that I’ve noticed in certain pieces of media, and which reflects the way that I’ve heard people, mostly women, represent their desires and fantasy in real life. It hinges on an analysis of the film ‘Labyrinth’, and ends with a point about audience/media interaction, sort of like the stuff I used to write when I first started writing this blog.
As this is a more in-depth analysis of a specific piece of media than what I usually do, I’m not sure how well it fits here, and in the future if I do something like this I might find a way to mark it as separate from my usual, shorter content.
I watched the film Labyrinth, with David Bowie and the puppets. This film is interesting to me for two reasons: first, because of the comprehensive depiction of female fantasy that it contains; second, because of the reactions that it inspires.
I’ve seen a lot of people, especially women, characterize this as a deeply problematic film which features a much older man pursuing a teenage girl. An equally large (if not larger) cohort of women admit that this film was something of a ‘sexual awakening’. More than once, I’ve seen the rather specific reading of, ‘I was obsessed with Labyrinth as a child, but as an adult, I realize it’s kind of creepy’. As someone who did, in fact, enjoy this movie as a child, and who has only now revisited it as an adult, I am a bit confused by this particular reaction. To me, it is apparent that the film was about the physical manifestation of the main character Sarah’s fantasies, both positive and negative, and that Jareth the Goblin King, in all of his uncomfortably seductive glory, is simply another one of these fantasies. His allure comes from Sarah, as does his cruelty and his threatening aspect. He admits it himself; at the very end, telling Sarah in frustration that he has thus far done everything she expected of him. When Sarah tells him that he has no power over her, she is able to return to reality, because she has recognized her fantasy as part of herself instead of something that overwhelms and predates upon her. If Jareth is slightly terrifying; it is because Sarah wants him to be; if he is cruel, it is because Sarah wants him to be; if he is, yes, predatory, it is because Sarah wants him to be. As adult women, we want to protect Sarah, whom we perceive as a child – never mind what our own fantasies likely looked like when we were her age.
I think something that we do not want to discuss about the world of fantasy is that it is deeply ugly and embarrassing and disgusting. Perhaps this is taken as fact for men (although they are too often shamed for it); for women, I don’t think a satisfactory articulation of the female fantasy realm really exists, at least not in popular discourse. When I think of popular notions of female fantasy, I think of the idea of the ‘male gaze’, an academic notion which has percolated pretty far into the culture and been twisted nearly beyond the recognizable. The vernacular ‘male gaze’ manifests as the idea that, living under patriarchy, women form their fantasy lives and self-image under the imagined eye of some Man who dictates what she should want, how she should act, how she should see herself. Thus, according to this framework, inherent in fantasy is a deep depersonalization, a kind of cleaving of the self. A friend also brought up the, to my mind, utterly suspicious figure of the ‘himbo’, who has emerged of late as, apparently, the ultimate in fantasy for many women. The himbo is characterized by the fact that he’s totally defanged – he’s not quite as smart as his girlfriend, he would never hurt a soul, he can be objectified as a body, as a man would objectify a woman. I am not at all sure that women are really fantasizing about himbos. In fact, I think both the ‘male gaze’ discourse and the ‘himbo’ stereotype seem like a rather neat way to explain away certain uncomfortable facts. One of them is that an adolescent girl might dream up a character like Jareth the Goblin King, or (as in Sarah’s case, although I would be remiss to take Labyrinth too literally, as it has all the logic of a fever dream) she might elaborate obsessively on a magnetic, dangerous character that she has found in a book. Or a film. Or an anime. Whatever.
I’m hesitant to write about Labyrinth, first because it is a movie that generates discourse, but also because it’s a children’s movie and some parts of it are very silly. Despite this, one of the things about Labyrinth that makes it so deeply strange is that it combines scenes that are quite juvenile with scenes that are very frightening and meaning laden. The point of this isn’t to write one of those, ‘look, this kid’s movie has heavy themes!’ articles, because one of the things that both grips and alienates viewers of Labyrinth is the fact that the tonal dissonance in the movie is so jarring. It’s actually very difficult to figure out who this movie is for. This is one of the movie’s many flaws.
However, one of the interesting things about a cult classic is that it typically generates an audience that was not anticipated by the original creators of the film. After its initial failure at the box office, Labyrinth gained a rather dedicated following. Based on my experience, most die-hard Labyrinth fans are women who had their most significant encounters with the movie on the cusp of adolescence. It’s interesting to examine this movie for two reasons, the first being that its plot is such a neat demonstration of the female-fantasy-as-internal-narrative paradigm that I will discuss below, but also because I think it resonated with its eventual audience for a reason related to this use of narrative, a reason that goes far deeper than ‘David Bowie is attractive’. Thus, it’s an example of an audience actively creating the meaning of a text, which is something I’m always interested in.
So, if we take seriously that the world of Labyrinth is Sarah’s fantasy world, and that the image of Jareth, marked as it is by overt sexuality and cruel power, is a manifestation of Sarah’s desires, then the next step is to ask: what is Sarah doing? What kind of world does her desire shape, what are its narrative conventions, and why is it such a stellar example of a female fantasy world?
In the mundane, non-fictional world, what I’m calling ‘female fantasy’ is a way of experiencing desire that focuses not only on the object of affection, but also the circumstances and landscape surrounding them, to the point where the ‘story’ of desire can even eclipse its object. In short, it’s an enchantment of the world that stems from desire. It constitutes; rather than an objectification of the beloved, a narrativization that encapsulates the lover and the beloved. Within the female fantasy paradigm, desire inspires storytelling before anything else. What’s interesting about this is that the beloved does not have to be real – I think that female fantasy can be just as intense when centered on a fictional character (or even a concept) as a real person, because, at its core, it is about storytelling.
Obviously, men can do this kind of thing too, but I think it is less common and less extreme, and when they do it, it is coded as feminine in media and understood as feminine in real life by peers. I’m not trying to make a gender essentialist point here, and say that all women do this, but I think that it’s interesting to ask why so many women do this, and why this kind of thinking is considered to be feminine. A lot of it, to my mind, is cultural, and has to do with the ways that women learn to communicate with each other. But this is beside my point – suffice to say that I’ve observed enough women doing this, and enough media directed at women reinforcing it, that it seems worth articulating as a phenomenon.
When this kind of fantasy appears in media, it constitutes a kind of interior narrative which has its own rules and logic that do not necessarily apply to the frame plot. Thus it is marked as an ‘other space’ within the pre-existing fictional space. The rules of this other space can differ from the rules of the frame plot morally (as in the case of the character Morgan’s fantasy construction of herself and her lover in Iris Murdoch’s novel, A Fairly Honourable Defeat), symbolically (see the courtship between Bathsheba and Sergeant Troy in Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd) or, in extreme cases, they can posit a different spatio-temporal realm, so totalizing that it bends physical rules alongside the symbolic and moral. This is the case in Labyrinth. Often, writers who work with these female fantasy worlds generate tension by showing what happens when they bleed into the real worlds of the characters.
So, if we are to read Labyrinth as a fantasy (or internal narrative) that has broken into the mundane life of the fantasizer, we should first understand that Sarah first encounters Jareth in a script for a play about a Goblin King who has stolen a child from an undefined female character. This, however, tells us very little about the Goblin King, or the play itself – in fact, all that we have from the piece is a single monologue that Sarah performs at the beginning of the movie. Considering the fact that the inhabitants of the movie’s Labyrinth are first represented as Sarah’s toys, which we see in a shot of her bedroom, it’s not too much to assume that the play is not the entirety of, but instead just a small part of Sarah’s fantasy world, which she has constructed from a number of different sources.
Sarah’s first appearance is as a girl embroiled in fantasy, as she reads the aforementioned monologue, stalking around the park in a long white dress and flower crown. When she rushes home to babysit her infant brother, the image is not of the fantasy world encroaching upon the real, but instead the real encroaching upon the fantasy – it is clear that, from Sarah’s perspective, her quite reasonable stepmother and stepfather fit cruel fairytale stereotypes, and that her baby brother, Toby, is worthy of little but contempt. In Sarah’s head, we learn throughout her first scenes, there are goblins, and fairies, and crude stereotypes that replace people. When she asks for the Goblin King to come take her brother away, she is clearly playacting again, reacting against the drudgery of responsibility and reality, because that is what she always does. To her own alarm, however, the Jareth the Goblin King, in the form of Bowie, actually fulfills her wish. He tells her that she has a certain number of hours to retrieve her brother from the castle at the centaur of his labyrinth before disappearing and leaving Sarah in a sepia-toned alternate universe, where the titular labyrinth stretches off into the distance. The frame plot has fallen away, and the viewer has entered the world of fantasy.
I won’t write about every encounter that Sarah has in the Labyrinth. Suffice to say that lots of its inhabitants are Sarah’s toys brought to life, but that Jareth, the object of her desire and fear, is at its center. This is the realm of Sarah’s fantasy. It has broken through its frame plot (this being, ‘Sarah is compelled by parents that she resents to babysit her brother’) and reordered space, time, and all kinds of other rules that typically function in the real world (for example, no baby in the real world is turning into a goblin at the stroke of a clock). Its implications, if we take the movie seriously, are absolutely real. Sarah’s fantasy life has put her brother in danger. Facing this stark reality, Sarah resolves to save him.
The ‘frame’ enumerated above is not itself a narrative because there is no narrator. The aggressively neutral lens of the movie’s beginning presents the world as objective reality. However, I’m referring to the fantasy sections of the movie as ‘narrative’ not because they are literally told by someone, but because their entire setting is built on Sarah’s subjective experience of the world, and because the most important question about this fantasy is who is telling the story. These are two (often) important components of female fantasy narratives – 1) they diverge from the frame plot due to their subjectivity and in a way which transcends simple point of view and includes heavy elaboration on real objects and events 2) they often bring up questions of agency and responsibility (aforementioned Morgan in AFHD justifies her actions throughout the story by imagining that her love for the charismatic but manipulative Julius puts her ‘in the hands of the gods’). In the case of Labyrinth, the overwhelming and immediate answer to that question of ‘who tells/controls this?’ is that Jareth does. He is the agent. He controls the setting – he can appear wherever he wants and mess with the Labyrinth in order to place obstacles in Sarah’s path; he sets the time frame of the conflict and, in one notable case, causes the clock to jump ahead several hours. And he is always watching – at no point is Sarah hidden from his gaze. In fact, at the beginning of the movie, if we were not watching closely, we would be tempted to believe that this is his fantasy world, not her own. After all, he is its king.
But one of the many weird things about this movie is that Sarah continues to advance despite the fact that her opponent is omniscient and omnipotent. Her arrival at the castle, and the failure of his omnipotence, is what problematizes this question of control. At the end of the movie, Jareth appears weak, able to manipulate time and space but not to prevent Sarah’s continual advance. His dialogue is strangely emotional and even wounded – as I have mentioned, he tells Sarah that he has only lived up to her desires, that he has appeared frightening because she has cowered, that he has taken her brother because she asked. (rather petulant line from Jareth: i am exhausted from living up to your expectations of me). Finally, with a pleading air, he delivers the following lines:
Look what i’m offering you- your dreams.
Just let me rule you, and you can have everything you want.
Fear me, love me, do as i say, and i will be your slave.
(also, in the lyrics of his final song: ‘i can’t live within you’.)
Sarah counters with:
My will is as strong as yours, my kingdom as great. You have no power over me.
This last line is apparently all she needs; the labyrinth collapses, Jareth turns into an owl, and Sarah and Toby are back in their suburban home.
This is a very ambiguous movie, but to me, the final scene begs the question: whose narrative is this? So far we’ve been watching Jareth control every detail, but when Sarah finally confronts him, he points out that he’s enacting her own desires. I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that Jareth is being manipulative here – if what he were saying did not present a moral dilemma for Sarah, there would be no dramatic tension in the scene. The fact that all that Sarah has to do for his mastery of his surroundings to collapse is affirm her own agency, combined with Jareth’s invocation of her own desires, is indicative of Jareth’s status as a fantasy. If Jareth is Sarah’s fantasy, a manifestation of her desires, then she is telling the story. If Sarah is telling the story, then Toby is safe, because it’s Sarah who has the power to close the narrative thread. In the end, Jareth is fundamentally passive, and it is Sarah who must make the choice to stay with him or regain the real world, because it is on Sarah that the entire world of the Labyrinth depends.
To recap the basic structure of the internal narrative that is the female fantasy: A character enchants the world, creating a symbolic matrix which has at its center the object of desire. Through the vector of this character, the subjective fantasy narrative interacts with the frame plot and has real consequences for its actors. Often this kind of structure is used as a way for the vector character to explore questions of agency (authorship?).
Now, returning to Labyrinth’s cult audience. I’ve mentioned that this movie is not very legible. However, I think that there is one type of person to whom it is almost transparent, and that’s a certain type of pre-teen girl. I think this is because this movie encapsulates a certain very private threshold, which is the moment when the sex object breaks into the fantasy world. This is a common theme, I think, for young women – the idea of desiring another human being first emerges and is explored in the same space that generated childhood creativity and play. Adolescent ‘crushes’ are fictional characters even when they’re real people. I remember being twelve years old quite distinctly: my friends and I had elaborate, coded lexicons with which to talk about our crushes, we interacted with them rarely, we didn’t even use their real names. I think the guy I had a so-called crush on in 7th grade existed in the same space in my mind as, for example, Legolas from Lord of the Rings. Both the real boys and the fictional characters didn’t push me to action, but instead generated stories – imagined dialogues, even fantastical adventures. To see how common this is, one only has to look at the behavior of young girls in fandom spaces. Fanfic, often sexually explicit, is just another way of expanding the personal fantasy world to include desire.
Jareth is a jarring character for an adult because he exists among the trappings of childhood – in many cases, Sarah’s actual toys. Toys are the vectors of a child’s fantasy world, as they allow for imaginative play. But now the object of desire is there; in fact, he is the center. Sarah is very frightened of him, and I think that this part is also realistic. Desire is often shameful, frightening, and overpowering. That which is irresistible is often in some way also objectionable. It also first emerges in the landscape of childhood fantasy – a landscape which was once familiar, but which is reordered entirely by the presence of the beloved. That is why, I think, the Jareth character became a sex object to the girls who watched the film: because he exists in juxtaposition with Sarah’s old toys, because he is a part of her private world. The strange structure of labyrinth, which was specifically the narrative structure of an adolescent female fantasy, allowed them to inhabit the movie’s world in a very intimate way. And, furthermore, the film’s theme of Sarah’s agency provides them with a lens through which to interrogate their own agency vis-a-vis fantasy, at a time when the narrative impulse is so strong that one can often feel mired in it.
Following the idea that audience response shapes what a piece of media becomes, the response to Labyrinth from its cult audience turns the movie into a kind of tool that reflects and articulates their own coming of age. It gives a visual and symbolic language to the dual experience of desire and being desired, of watching an object of fantasy (Sarah first encounters the character of Jareth in a play) and then the destabilizing experience of being watched back. I think that this is why it often repulses adult women – because it so strongly recalls that embarrassing moment of terror and naivete, but also because their context has changed. They no longer have to grapple with the landscapes of their lives being warped and transformed by unfamiliar desire.
Obviously Labyrinth is a rather specific example of the female fantasy narrative convention, but it’s a very complete one and a good starting point. I may write more on this in the future using other examples.