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Nothing New Under The Sun - "I ask for so little--"
(the ARX acta diurna)
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"I ask for so little--"
"--just let me rule you, and I will be your slave!"
aka
Labyrinth (1986) as narrative and as metaphor - and lasting success, or,
Why DC was so extraordinarily stupid to engage Jodi Picoult to write Wonder Woman this past year


So I finally rewatched Labyrinth for the first time since I saw it in its theatrical release, and found it mostly as I recalled it, for good and bad, but I understand now both why I found it so disappointing, and why it has remained so popular, in a quiet but passionate audience of (mainly) younger women, even more passionately embraced than Princess Bride from what I can tell.

For the explanation of my own historical issues with it, it is necessary to revisit that time frame (tho' I would rather not, all in all) and what longtime readers may know and/or recall, which is that my mother was then in the throes of a long illness, which would eventually (after repeat misdiagnosis due to yes, sexism - hey, you're a woman who's had a lot of babies, of course your guts aren't going to work right any more!) be diagnosed too late as cancer, and I as the oldest had been increasingly (as I had all my life since age seven) taking care of the multitude of younger siblings and increasingly of all the housework, until within about a year I would (for a short time) be managing nearly everything, after my father put himself out of action with a stubbornness-exacerbated back injury. Haul wood from the woodpiile, drive kids to soccer, cook food for half-a-dozen or more almost every day, wash half-a-dozen loads of clothes, change diapers, do night feedings, mop the floors, and try to be cheerful and patient and comforting and giving all ways, all the time - and failing at it, of course, in ways I am still discovering as those siblings open up about that era - but always with the expectation that this was the bare minimum, this was my Christian and filial duty and nothing, nothing above-and-beyond, at all--

At the time of the film's release - it was one of a very few films I was allowed to go and see in the theatre when I was in high school, and it took some pushing to get even that much freedom - I hadn't taken over all the loco parentis duties, but I was doing a lot, and getting a lot of flak for not being cheerful and unselfish enough, and for being "moody" and "unambitious" as well; I was also (tho' I did not know it at the time) and had been for years, clinically depressed and an expert stealth cutter (no, I don't by a single stigmata story: I know far too well how easy it is to wound one's self with blade or pin or heat in plain sight by people watching one like a hawk for signs of sexual or drug activity, and never be caught) and was coping with sexual harassment at school - and the uselessness of my elders in re it - by (in addition to the self-harming use of pain-as-painkiller) by willful, skillful Dissociative and studying massive amounts of (mostly) early 20th-century history - via first-hand source materials speed-read in library archives.

It was, in fact, really damn hard for me to sympathize with Sarah, since what she was flipping out over was something that was a relaxing boon to me - my word, to be able to have five whole HOURS to one's self, with only a sleeping/fussing baby to attend? In which to read, without being attacked for being "lazy" or for neglecting some other chore (and there were always other chores) or (gasp!) watch a movie without being mocked for one's taste, or to just sit there on the sofa and pet the cat and imagine my own inner fantasies of female starpilots and adventuring paladins, or to just stare at the ceiling like a statue, reveling in the lack of hostile stimulation and doing my damnedest to avoid thinking about the fact the clock was ticking down till midnight when this blessed freedom would end...

So it being kind of like being asked as a millhand to get exercised over the plight of a wealthy aristocrat in a drawing-room comedy was the first, and biggest strike against Labyrinth; there was also the problem that it felt strongly derivative, as well, and not in the way of invoking and sharing resonances, but in the borrowed-and-rehashed sense, because I had for a number of years had a great familiarity with a certain, obscure and (of course) creepy little picture book by Maurice Sendak, Outside Over There (first published in 1981) in which an older sister left to mind her baby sibling while her father is off at sea and her mother is pining, does so but is lax in her duties and so the goblins steal her sister away to be a goblin's bride, and the older girl rushes off to rescue the tot (and eventually succeeds by her cleverness and courage) - does this sound in the least familiar?

It certainly sounded to me like unowned inspiration, and that combined with the jarring modernisms (no, Knight's Tale didn't really agree with me, either) and the endless (if timid) fart/poop jokes on top of the problematic parallels to my own contemporary reality and the to-me very unsympathetic heroine just made it a movie that I found a deep disappointment, on more levels than I could possibly analyze at the time: having since had some formal critical theory training since, and more study of medieval lit and Otherworld narratives as important in its own way as having discovered the DSM-IV almost ten years ago, and vice versa.

Labyrinth, thus, was for me a dim memory of a frustrating disappointment, more frustrating still because of the greater potential I saw in it (being a fan of Henson's Storyteller series as well as The Dark Crystal as well as owner of a great many quality illustrated fairy and folk tales, with ambitions of someday being the next Kinuko Craft or Trina Schart Hyman (alas) in those days) that was not met by the reality of the film. --Though not, to be sure, as great a disappointment as the grotesque animated version of MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblin of a few years back. (DON'T Netflix it, there is not enough Bleeprin in the world.) --Also, an occasional random snatch of "You Remind Me Of The Babe" interjecting itself into my mental tape track shuffle.)

And thus it remained until a couple of years and jobs ago, when it suddenly was revealed to me that despite the widespread media impression of it as a basically unknown and unloved film, one that had been disappointing for the studio as well, after the unexpected critical praise and cult status of Dark Crystal, it had a strong and dedicated and above all, young cult following - and they were all twenty-something girls, who had become rabid David Bowie fans, who could (and did) quote lines from the film and "do the voices" too, when appropriate, the way that most of my fellow Gen-Xers and the Gen-Yers of my acquaintance would break into either Star Wars, Holy Grail, or (belatedly) Princess Bride repertoire at the drop of a hat (or an unladen swallow.)

This piqued my curiosity - clearly there was something there, after all - but not enough for me to go buy a copy of Labyrinth or to try to figure it out. Of the three younger women in the office who were all votaries, one was a Sandman-collecting fellow geek whose SO was also hardcore fannish geek, one was a sort of demi-geek, a little bit into skiffy but mostly into horror, and the third was not fen at all that I ever discovered. They were just all old enough to have not only seen it but to have imprinted on it when it was released on video, and to have worn out their video tapes of it - that seemed to me to be the common factor.

As far as I was concerned, the explanation was simple (if a bit cynical): David Bowie in quasi-Regency Beau Brummel jacket and skin-tight pants with top-boots - enough to make the younger Bennett sisters swoon, and why should humanity have changed in essentials in a mere 180 years? I didn't believe that it had, myself. This explanation/dismissal was facilitated by the fact that "Mmmm, David Bowie! Leather! Mmmm!" tended to be all the explanation that these younger fangirls were able to give, themselves, mind you - I didn't have much to work with besides, besides my own unenthusiastic recollections of the film.

Then the first Tiffany Aching book came out and I had that sense of deja-vu again, only this time it wasn't so annoying: it felt like a proper remake of Labyrinth as best I recalled it, and one that didn't make me want to slap the heroine upside the head - either my present self, or the increasingly-noisy ghost of my teenage self. Tiffany was just selfish and put-upon enough AND Pratchett gave her the dignity of making mistakes, owning her mistakes and flaws, SOLVING her mistakes and also of having her character flaws NOT be just flaws, in the typical simplistic morality tale format so common to children's books, and waaaaay too many adult novels and films, too - the reason why "Heartwarming!" especially in conjunction with "Coming-of-Age Story" so often mean "Here, toss out the ipecac and replace it with this Afterschool Special!"

Tiffany isn't a spoiled child of wealth who gets to spend hours off by herself daydreaming (instead of having to do her daydreaming whilst changing the diapers, or rinsing the diapers out in the toilet, or hanging them out on the line, or checking out customers at her after-school-job which is her only refuge, mental and physical, from the separate hells of school and home) but a farm girl who has gotten the short straw of the big-poor-family situation and who has not yet seen Paree (or only through books) but wants something more from life, dammit! and at the same time still wants the Good Parts that there are in her current life, and some way to reconcile all this together with her sense of identity and self-worth and personal need to Make A Difference in the world ("you'll grow out of it," they told me, and I almost did - into an early suicide's grave) and the problem of reconciling the fact that someone needs to take care of the sticky ungrateful toddlers but nobody actually respects the people who take care of the sticky ungrateful (biting!) toddlers (women's work!) and - well, when I was that age I was starting to wring myself against the dull cage, and by the time I was fourteen I had (outwardly) reconciled myself to it being my Xtian duty as an XX person to live behind those bars, exchanging parents' rule and care of sticky siblings for either husband's rule and care of sticky offspring or abbess' rule and care of sticky orphans-always Unselfishly™, of course!

(Inwardly, I was fantasizing about possessing Big Bertha and the coordinates for range and height and altitude to shell everything from my house and its neighborhood to my school and its neighborhood and all between, or a Mark IV the size of a city block to lay waste to the world, starting with my hometown, or a Death Star. But I never let those fantasies out from behind my teeth, so nobody ever guessed that I wasn't the meek, demure, dutiful-if-rather-lazy Good Catholic Girl with nary a thought in my head besides being a Good Catholic Mother or maybe a sister in a teaching or charitable order. Oh, and on the fantastic side? Damn right I wanted the Deplorable Word, or even just the power to manipulate plate tectonics, even if I externalized all these unacceptable desires onto the villains and villainesses of my Dissociative escapes--)

The kicker in the Tiffany saga is the problem of choosing, when the choices are all good and bad in mixed ways, and there aren't any easy answers, except for to let someone/someones else make your choice for you and pretend you're choosing it freely and that it doesn't hurt - which was what I had been doing in my years of Good Catholic Anti-Feminist indoctrination (and yes, there is a certain bovine comfort in just cooking and cleaning and getting six kids out the door clothed and fed and not having to make any decisions harder than which brand of cheese is cheaper when bought in which quanitity, especially when a crumb of praise gets tossed your way by the Man of the House now and then, but it's a sad comedown for someone who wanted to be a Jedi Knight when she was seven...)

So it was with very mixed feelings that I first read The Wee Free Men, envying Tiffany and also wishing that dammit, why couldn't this book have been written twenty years ago, when I REALLY needed it??!? like Molly Grue shouting at the Unicorn - but there was also the formally-theoretically-trained critic chewing at it, and going "here are the points of congruence with Labyrinth (and other stories of similar affairs) and here are the inversions/subversions/variances, and what consequences do they have for the story, and for the ethos, respectively?

One thing being of course the change of antagonist from Goblin King to Fairy Queen - something which raises questions of Good Woman vs Bad Woman tropes in narrative, but which is not itself imo a necessarily bad or sexist thing (the "Apocalypse Queen" archetype is something I want to think about and then write some on later), and which is also echoed in Coraline - but which must inevitably change the dynamic of the character interplay, which is both erotic and as fans have remarked in comments, curiously non-sexualized - something paradoxical but real, and which deserves an entire essay of its own (how can David Bowie in skin-tight breeches leaving nothing to the imagination and menacing a pubescent heroine with untold horrors in a situation which has been described from the start as a love affair, nevertheless read as a non-sexual conflict? Curiouser and curiouser, is the word I believe--)

Briefly, when Janet/Tiffany/Coraline must face the Faerie Queen, it becomes a question of internal struggles over the definition of Womanliness - not a "catfight" as superficial analysis [sic] would have it - and it's interesting to me that in all three there is (unexplicitly in the older story, more overtly in the newer ones) the idea of a good sort of "Selfishness" and a simultaneous playing-off of the idea of the Good Girl being the one who just gives and obeys and never rebels, and this itself being a fatal trap that the Wise Daughter must see through on her Hero's Journey to Self-Knowledge and Virtue.

--Labyrinth pretty much fails the Bechdel Standard, alas - the only clearly female goblin is the one who both visually and narratively echoes the Wicked Queen's witch form in the Disney Snow White, and who serves the age-old role of the Temptress Who Tries To Lure The Hero Away From The Quest, and Sarah's stepmother is a brittle, smug, Stepford sort of whom it's hard to believe ever unbent enough to concieve and drop Toby, a lifeless caricature who hardly has any more presence than Sarah's dead, actress mother.

I have alluded to how I think that Labyrinth has a great deal in common with Tam Lin; but I want to now deal with that (briefly and haphazardly) in the wider context of narratives of people being taken by the fay both as adults and as child changelings (leaving aside for the moment, although a full treatment would require it, the question to which such stories reflect real societal excuses for SIDS and failure-to-thrive, and/or parallel alien abduction memes, as being beyond both the scope of this essay and my own current state of research) starting with "Childe Rowland" - one of my childhood favorites of Joseph Jacobs' collection of English fairy tales, right along of "Binnorie" - and also the source of a long tradition of fantastic obreffing (where do you think the whole Dark Tower thing came from, eh?)

One of the more disturbing things which crops up through the whole Celtic tradition of Otherworld visits is the Beheading Game, which may well reflect the documented and historic fact that our ancient ancestors in Britain and Brettony and Eire were headhunters: the most famous in lit being of course Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but there are lots of them, and one which is played not as game but deadly earnest is found in "Childe Rowland," whose hero while going to rescue his sister from the Elf King's castle is advised by the Wise Old Guide figure - who in this story is Merlin himself - to decapitate anyone he speaks to, no matter what they say or how helpful they are, and this is never questioned ethically or explained. (Reminiscent of typical old-style dungeon games, a bit!)

"Well, my son," said the Warlock Merlin, "there are but two things, simple they may seem, but hard they are to do. One thing to do, and one thing not to do. And the thing to do is this: after you have entered the land of Fairy, whoever speaks to you, till you meet the Burd Ellen, you must out with your father’s brand and off with their head..."


But it is after (very traditionally) the elder two brothers have gone off on the Quest and never returned, for presumably having neglected to obey either this or the other crucial bit of advice:

"...And what you’ve not to do is this: bite no bit, and drink no drop, however hungry or thirsty you be; drink a drop, or bite a bit, while in Elfland you be and never will you see Middle Earth again."


If this story of Childe Rowland seems oddly familiar to lit geeks, that's probably twofold: it's an awful lot like Sir Orfeo, which is in turn a westernized/modernized version of the Greek myth, given a happy ending just like Tam Lin.

Now, in Labyrinth we see both of these elements: the cankered peach which is the guised orb of dreams that entraps Sarah, and a Beheading Game which she must escape by beheading her adversaries first so they not behead her, for having innocently blundered into their circle. I'd forgotten that part, after twenty years, and this time round my scholar's instincts started twitching and I had to force myself to not hit the "pause" button and start grabbing my copies of Celtic myths off the shelf and start digging.

But I had also noticed this time thru that the screenplay was attributed to Terry Jones, and this time I had associations for it, because I had bought some of his kids' books like Erik the Viking and knew him for a Python writer, so much of the richer non-visual allusions were now explained (Brian Froud, of course, did the visuals, so the Venetian Carnival-as-designed-by-H.Bosch part was obvious.)

There's so much going on it would take a much longer article, or articles, to encompass, but one main thing I want to touch on is how Labyrinth both follows, and breaks, the much stronger and more common mythic tradition of such Quest narratives, which is the one about giving and receiving help to the chance-met by the way, especially the least likely. In the old Russian tales (and many other lands' too) the older, stronger, better-equipped brothers all fail as they set out to rescue the princesses from the dragon because they are arrogant and aren't polite to the old man gathering wood or the old woman at the well, don't help the fallen nestlings, the trapped ants, the starving wolf; Boots the youngest Prince, the Cinderella brother in all the traditions, is the one who shares his lunch with the old beggar, saves the birds, the bugs, the varmints of all kinds, out of decency, and is given in turn the unasked-for, unexpected gifts that are the only hope of winning through the dangers of the Quest.

In Labyrinth Sarah starts out arrogant as the Elder Brothers always are, and like them meets obstacles beyond her power to transcend; only when she begins to transcend her pride and "stoops" to listen, and to ask for help, first from a mere Worm, and then from Hoggle (who is, ironically, miscalled "Hogwart" once in the running gag) and then like Boots to stop on her Quest (despite deadlines) and rescue the monstrous beast who is being tormented, without being certain that it will not turn on her when freed, and then to be merciful and generous as well as clever, in dealing with her motley allies and, ultimately, friends.

Labyrinth, for me, failed, and fails still, as a bildungsroman - that is to say, there is an unevenness in the portrayal of the Heroine's Journey of Spiritual Growth which breaks both the moral promise of the bildungsroman genre (which is not a universal requirement, what is requisite in a Hero's Journey is not mandated in a slice-of-life, or a satire, but the reverse: there is room on the shelves for tales of redemption and The Talented Mr. Ripley) and also of the fairy-tale world, because typically, no matter how bizarre, quirky, surreal and backwards to the sunlit world the customs may be, still the rules of justice are adamant in Faerie. Pledges bind, promises are broken at peril, deeds must be balanced with deeds for good or ill.

And this is forgotten, or ignored, with Sarah's attempt to extort aid from Hoggle - and her justification of it as yet another example of Life's Essential Unfairness, in which she is achieving a powerup stage by being willing to stoop to the same excuse that the adults (both mortal and elfish) use against her. She should have simply held Hoggle to his word - and perhaps justified holding his treasures as guarantee of it, after catching him in betrayal after charging her in advance, and this attempt at showing her growing sophistication and lack of helplessness cheesed me off severely at the time, and grated on me no less now, after twenty-one years. (Thus, also, the fatal narrative flaw in the seventh HP book, imo, comes when Harry & Co. decide to cheat their goblin ally, for the sake of expediency and in full knowledge of their wrongdoing, and pay no fatal price for it in consequence.)

In retrospect and remembrance, I was so irredeemably annoyed by the time the climax rolled around, just waiting for it to be over and to get out of there, that I completely missed the grand resonances of the conclusion (weakened in the final moments, badly, to be sure) which I have used to entitle this essay, and which I transcribe here in full:

[Sarah has finally given up trying to solve the Escher stairs by mundane means and made her Leap of Faith down to where she last saw Toby, but when she lands - safely - he is not there, and as she looks around in bewilderment Jareth fades in from the dark, dressed in white raiment now, smiling confidently. Sarah immediately and without hesitation begins the necessary incantation.]

Sarah: "Give me the child--"

Jareth: [breaking in, conversational, warning]
--Sarah, beware: I have been generous, up until now, but I can be cruel.

Sarah: [departing from the script, incredulous] --Generous! What have you done that's generous?

Jareth: [intense] Everything--! Everything that you wanted I have done. You asked that the child be taken: I took him. You cowered before me: I was frightening. I have reordered Time; I have turned the world upside down, and I have done it all for you. --I am exhausted from living up to your expectations. Isn't that generous?

Sarah: [resuming the incantation as though he had not spoken] "...through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered, I have fought my way here to the Castle beyond the Goblin City and my will is as strong as yours, and my--"

Jareth: [urgent, no longer jeeringly confident] --Stop! Wait! Look, Sarah, look what I am offering: your dreams--

[holds forth a vision]

Sarah: [quiet but intense] "--and my kingdom as great--"

[she advances on him, and he retreats backwards before her]

Jareth: [pleading] I ask for so little: just let me rule you, and you can have everything that you want!

[pause - she turns away, her eyes wide, faltering]

Sarah: "--my kingdom as great--"

[he advances now, offering the orb of dreams]

Sarah: Damn! I can never remember that line--!

Jareth: [gentle entreating] Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave!

[she looks up at him for a moment and then down again]

Sarah: [whispering, trying to recue her memory] "...my kingdom as great..." [fierce] "--my kingdom as great--"

[She looks up at him again as he watches her, waiting for her answer, and her eyes suddenly widen and she smiles]

Sarah: [wonderingly] "--you have no power over me!"

[Jareth grimaces and flings the orb up into the night, never looking away from her face, expression of mingled exasperation and admiration on his own, and as it falls back into his hand it pops like a soap bubble and his robes dissolve into the wings of the owl, and Sarah is standing in the entryway (!) of her own house.]


--Okay. I see what the heart of the glamour was, now.


Part II. Lesson One For Winning An Audience - Don't Pander

This will seem like a change of subject for a bit, perhaps, but as usual it isn't. The case of the wretched failure of Jodi Picoult's run on Wonder Woman has been held up here and there by fanboys around the fannish blogosphere as an example of why genre media producers shouldn't try to win a larger female audience, when in fact it is an example of why ignorant and clueless male chauvinists shouldn't try to market something they don't like themselves to women as if we were an undifferentiated lump!

Let me put it this way: I didn't recognize Picoult's name.

Let me repeat: I didn't recognize the name "Jodi Picoult," at all.

Now, superfically, that's but one data point, and can be dismissed. But I read a lot. I also read about the field, so I tend to know about authors who I haven't got round to, because we all here on LJ and elsewhere talk about books all the time, and in the circles I hang out in, it's mostly SFF that we read and hence rec. I am a woman who has owned more books than I have been able to count since I was eight years old. I am a woman who has been reading genre since I was five. I am not anomalous in this, either. I worked for three years in libraries and three years in bookstores, and I've been there at Last Call in Borders and Barnes & Nobles so often the past twelve years that that's one of the reasons they hired me for my stint at one of the Big Chain Bookstores. I have enough graphic novels on my shelf to make me wince when I total up the amount of money invested there, and even more in genre videos and my collection is PATHETIC compared to most of my flist, because of my pauperhood, it's NOTHING compared to what I would buy (let alone the tie-in media, I had a combo squee/conniption fit in Newbury Comics a few months ago when I found a sparkly plush 3-headed Ghidra that I couldn't afford or justify!)

In short, I'm one of the people that all the genre publishers ought to be trying to appeal to, or find out what appeals to me, because I'm the target audience for the stuff they sell. I just happen to come equipped with mammaries and a uterus and a whole bunch of social baggage loaded onto me since I was born, most of it starting at age 10 when my chest started itching like hell, and none of which I asked for but was given all the same by guys like those running Time-Warner etc and the craven female lackeys who enforce their status quo.

And "Jodi Picoult" rang no bells for me, good or bad - for all she was touted as this popular female author who was sure to bring in the ladies (and our $$$) to the Wonder Woman fold.

Because I don't read chick-lit.

I don't read ANY non-genre contemporary fiction, unless it comes highly recommended by someone I trust, and even then I've been scarred. I have no more interest in reading about whiny bourgie white girls from the suburbs of Middle America who have no interests in their heads other than catching a husband, than I did when I was fourteen (and compulsively reading everything I could find about the Great War and its lead-up and aftermath in hopes of making sense of the world today and escaping from my bleak, fluorescent-lit Village both) in the "Problem Novels" about whiny bourgie white girls from the suburbs who had no interests in their heads other than catching a boyfriend, pressed on me by classmates and elders because "these are girls' books, you will surely like them, since you like to read so much."

--No, I liked The Woman Who Rides Like A Man, even if it wigged me out at the time by talking so bluntly about menstruation/contraception - and swords; I liked Rosemary Sutcliffe; I liked Susan Cooper; I liked anything well-written with a Quest and better yet a Heroine on it, but those were hard to find together.

And contrary to popular opinion at the time, I never grew up/out of it, never settled down to the white picket fence lifestyle, or the mindset that goes with it. I never had the resources to "follow my dreams" but I never stopped dreaming, even when living in my parents' basement working the night shift to pay off my student loans - and pulling an all-nighter to read Paula Volsky's Illusion, which I had bought rather than dinner the previous night, on the strength of Michael Whelan's steampunk interpretation of the ancien regime.

--Someday, I'll be able to afford to sew my Jedi cloak at last. Maybe even in the coming year (ever the optimist, I!)

And I had no mental associations with Jodi Picoult.

So giving them the benefit of the doubt, I assumed she must just be someone in SF I'd never heard of (because the field is vast and always has been, there was never a time you could keep up with it, not even in the mid-eighties when I was working in the library and hoarding the new SF that came in to be entered into the system in my locker so I could read all thru lunch break), that she must be someone newish, or out of print for a long time, because it never occurred to me that they'd hire someone to write a run of a comic who had no genre experience whatsoever, let alone no familiarity with the series and 'verse canon.

I mean, when LucasArts decided to follow up the success of Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire trilogy with the Extended Universe series of novels, who did they pick to lead off? Kathy Tyers, whose previous sf novels I'd read, and so bought Truce at Bakura which was recognizably a Tyers novel, full of angst and duty and some banter and races against time and romance and squicky internal parasites. And it was apparently a winning strategy, financially, because they kept on going with the EU, didn't they? Likewise, in the process of stocking the shelves in the Star Trek tie-in sections, I made my selections of the ones I wanted to read based on the authors I already knew - like Diane Duane and Barbara Hambly. Or - even tho' I'd never seen an ep of Lois & Clark (no TV) - I still read and enjoyed immensely the tie-in novel that came out...because it was written by C.J. Cherryh. (It was, of course, an interesting, slightly-angsty-but-not-bogging-down look at what it would be like, Being Superman, from inside.) There's a Diane Duane Spiderman novel on my bedstead right now - it's got MJ making command decisions re her career and doing research and reading Russian novels to take her mind off their troubles, rock ON!

So what did DC do to get the likes of me to give them money? They picked the equivalent of the scriptwriters of In Her Shoes* to tell the saga of the Amazon Princess in Man's World, and foisted the results off on us like discounted Gucci** bags, and wondered why we femfans didn't bite.

See, I finally figured out who Jodi Picoult was - and as it happens, she lives in my state oddly enough; eventually after much mulling I remembered having heard a thing on NHPR about the scandal of her writing a "problem novel" about a school shooting and it being controversial as well as inspired by a going-postal event (the event, I should say) in the north country, and having tuned it out because I was paying attention to traffic and had no interest in modern non-genre fic. (Sorry, but unless it's highly recced by trustworthy sources, I'll stick to non-fiction for this sort of thing.)

This didn't click until after I was at B&N a while back, when I still had a little bit of money and was feeling bold because I'd had what felt like a really good interview earlier that day, and scoped out all the new SF titles and the mystery titles and then wandered through the shelves to see what I'd missed in the older titles and after grabbing a couple few to check out (okay, eight or ten) and make a selection from, I went up to the coffee shop to stake out my table and grab some chai, and while standing in line next to the Godiva tower I saw the name "Jodi Picoult" on the book dump beside the chocolates and went "Hunh?"

I mean, they said Girls' Guide To Hunting & Fishing all over the cover design! (Yes, that's another of my psychic scars of bookish disappointment - it could have been such a Wodehousian hilarity with that concept, too.) They didn't say The Sunne in Splendour or Kristen Lavrensdatter or In the Company of Courtesans or The House of Niccolo or any of the other novels, late or soon, that could be called "chick-lit" if you were being very careless and sloppy with your distinctions***, but which have that basis of worldbuilding and historical resonances and complicated, densely-woven interpersonal relationships in a setting of danger and intrigue of which romance is just one facet--

In short, there was absolutely no earthly reason that a genre junkie like me would ever buy a Wonder Woman graphic novel based on the name of this author, any more than I would be interested in offers of knock-off Gucci (or is it Louis Vutton these days, or Prada?) as I got off the bus in NYC, heading for Forbidden Planet with my hard-earned denarii.

And I know that - among the subset not of All The Random Women Out There Wandering Through Bookstores At Any Given Moment but of the Venn intersection People Who Spend Lots Of Time/Money In Bookstores, People Who Have Been Known To Spend Lots Of Time/Money In Comic Book Stores, People Who Self-Identify As SF Fans, and Self-Identified SF Fans Who Are XX Not XY - I'm not really all that rara an avis. "What, you too!? --Who else do you read?" is the Cry Heard Round The World since the days of Usenet, along with the perennial baaaaah of "How come women don't like SF? I think it's because their brains are shaped funny--Hey! Stop hitting me!"

So the question is, What on earth (or Krypton) were DC thinking? and the answer is unfortunately either a) They Weren't, or slightly less snarkily and longer, b) they were thinking like the reader who CS Lewis talks about in one of his articles on the writing process, who thought he had writing For The Kiddies all figured out. You may remember the essay and where it is, but I just recall the content off the top of my head; at any rate, this guy comes up to CSL and says to him something like, "I know why you have so much about home-cooked meals and people eating at parties in your Narnia books - it must be that this is where you'd have characters having sex in an adult novel, but of course you can't do that in a kids' book, so you thought 'what do the little blighters like? Oh, I know, kids love to eat!' so you put in passages about food instead, very clever!"

And Lewis says that this was kind of mind boggling, because the very idea of Extruded Literary Product was so alien to him, and he was just putting it in not as a cynical replacement for the Obligatory Sex Scene, but because he himself liked good food, enjoyed eating home-cooked meals and so forth, and so wrote it in.**** The idea that paint-by-numbers kidlit was something a) worth doing, b) workable, really, was so wrongheaded.

And that's what DC did: "What do the little blighters like? Oh, we know - shoes! and shopping! and choklits! That Bridget Jones thing did really well, and so does Sex in the City, after all. Agents! Find us a Bestselling Lady Novelist and have her write Wonder Woman going shoe-shopping and being a bumbling-waifish sort who has to get a Real Man to pump her gas for her, that'll bring the chicks in! Oh, hey, this one actually mentions comics and does some kind of comicky insert in her latest novel, even better!"

And for some incomprehensible reason this cunning strategy didn't get all the Venn Set of women like me, or the even-more-ideal demographic of XX-Bookbuyers who also religiously watched Lynda Carter on TV as young girls, or the potential and ideal demographic of the younger XX-bookbuying Manga Fans, either.

Now, Picoult may be a perfectly good writer, and her novels may be perfectly meaty and moving tales of contemporary life. But nothing on the fronts, the backs, or any promotional materials for them has ever done anything to make this former playground Lost In Space-LARPer want to pick them up and find out. As I said in my previous post on Wonder Woman, I am the target audience for the Big Two, and their challenge (which they have not cared to accept to date, except with the 1602 books) has been to make me an offer, or rather, promise to tell me a story, that I cannot refuse.

Labyrinth wasn't that story for me. But it was for a horde of other femfans, and if the PTB of the media had two brain cells to rub together between them, they'd be trying to figure out why (and also why there are so many female Sandman fans for all that series' problems, instead of just shrugging, flinging up their hands, and writing it off to the Mysteries of the Female Brain™) and also why Sabriel has such a cult following, so that they could reliably know what would make these successes more duplicatable, in so far as it's possible.

Pandering doesn't always mean Fail, btw. The Goosebumps, Babysitters' Club books, all those sorts of series - the American Girls and all the knock-offs of them - are all formulaic, just like the Nancy Drew books, and they have been notably successful among readers. Part of it's that people are just hungry for stuff to read that hits even some of their marks, the way if you're starving you'll eat stale saltine crackers dry, and wish there were more.

Part of it is that there is, regardless of formula, still something there no matter how it was ground out - much of what's considered "great art" today was anything but - classical statuary was mostly mass produced in marble factories, often prefab and sometimes with interchangeable heads etc. "Commercial" and "art" are not the absolute categories we are trained to think of them. But of course, the more the creators are simply going through the motions, filling in blanks in a book of Mad Libs, the more it's going to be just blah and glurgy, which is why the best and most lasting successes in book or film or music are always frustratingly sui generis - telling readers "It's the next Lord of the Rings!" or "the new Aerosmith!" doesn't make it so.

And trying to have it both ways - to have it duplicate whatever the je ne sais quois of some cult classic but at the same time to be bland enough to not threaten the squared-off corporate heads and to reassure MBAs in their triangulations - is usually a very good recipe for Fail.

So, for instance, there is a "manga" sequel out now to Labyrinth, which I haven't seen on shelves physically, but which had a beautiful cover art reminiscent of Amano's work (Gatchaman/Final Fantasy/Sandman) and some impressive sounding creator interviews, but which according to the reader reviews I've seen of it to date, is Made of Fail on two counts - the interior art doesn't match up to the exterior, not at all, so fans of Rumiko Takahashi et al are disappointed and not going to buy it just because it's "manga-esque"; and worse yet, apparently the author totally missed the appeal of the original story. Sarah and friends are off center stage, it's all about Jareth and Teen!Toby now.

I don't say it's because Jake Forbes labors under the disadvantage of a Y-chromosome (see above re Tiffany, Coraline, Sabriel) - that is, it's neither necessary nor sufficient; but I am fairly certain that making it All About The Menz, and turning Sarah into a pallid mundane nonentity (as reported by multiple reader reviewers) and adding in some Stock Wicked Queens out of Fairy Tale Central Casting is not entirely unrelated to Mr. Forbes' inborn social status.

Grownup!Sarah going back into Otherwhere and contending with - or rescuing! - Jareth, could have been creepy, funny, romantic and challenging...if it was written by someone who demonstrably can write about the collision of the Hollow Hills and contemporary "civilization," like, oh, Josepha Sherman, or Mercedes Lackey, or Charles de Lint, or a lot of other authors who have written that sort of tale, not excluding either the wonder or the grotesquerie of the old fairy-AND-goblin tales.

And it would have had a chance of appealing to those who were caught, and held, by what there was in Labyrinth itself, and what more was implicit in it, too - some of whom went on and grew up to become avid anime and manga fangirls, and hence the exact pre-existing target audience for it. Instead the PTB chose to sweep it all aside, going "Okay, girls, but let's talk about ME instead!" (and then, as always, wonder why they're still single for all their wealth no one's biting.)

No, the nearest thing to a true sequel Labyrinth has - aside from the aforementioned Tiffany Aching books - is the bestselling and otherwise sui generis Jonathan Norrell and Mr. Strange by Susannah Clark. --For where, d'you think, have we seen that gentleman with the thistledown hair before? Or that capricious, whimsical, cruel or generous, etherial or grotesque by turns, realm of Faerie which he rules and shapes and is in turned ruled and shaped by our own imaginings and expectations as well as commands and demands, which we make at our own peril?

But alas, there is no true counterpart to Sarah in it, although the female characters are not quite mere cyphers; Labyrinth itself stands rather alone, because even Jane Eyre durst not face down the ruler of the realm, but must flee to preserve her soul and self, and wait for his doom to fall upon him in its own fullness of time, nor dares Amalthea to face down Haggard and beard him before sealing her fate - Sarah, like Young Skywalker, almost alone of film heroines that I know of, gets the Hero's Climax of walking into the enemy seat of power, striking the bell and biding the danger, smiting the shield on the gate and setting her lance against the Lord of the Dark Tower--

--to win the day against a Faerie Prince who is bound to answer to her expectations, who must be as monstrous as she anticipates, as handsome, as frustrating, as fearsome, and who can only tempt her with her own longings, only offer her fatal gifts of her own invention, and whose greatest danger is in embodying the promise of the Romance Trap: Prince Charming who is also the Demon Lover, controlling, abusive, remote, unavailable and thus infinitely pursuable and protean, subject to the fantastic invention of the feminine imagination, eternal Griselda, the promise of the Traditional Gender Role, of Bluebeard - submit to me, and I will really be your slave--

Where else has this story been told, to girls, before or since?

No, wait: Hiyao Miyazaki also told a story like this, upon a time, in Spirited Away, of a callow and feckless Heroine who must grow in order to save the boy she loves from mystical forces...but again, that was Dark Mother against Bright Daughter, wasn't it? The old story of Jack My Hedgehog/East of the Sun/Cupid & Psyche, in the end. No, the Refusal To Buy Of The Ancient Story of the Handsome Prince/Demon Lover who will sweep us off our feet and offer us every desire of our heart - so long as we obey him - is a potent incantation that only Labyrinth however imperfectly has dared to cast...


* The only way Hollywood will ever get me to voluntarily watch In Her Shoes all the way through - or Steel Magnolias, or pretty much anything described as a "chick flick" (I still have the soul-scars from being dragged to see The Wedding Planner) is if they pay me to MST3K it. It just ain't worth it, otherwise.

** Real conversation between Young!P@L circa 1985 and a classmate from the posh side of town:
"What's a goochie-bag and why would you want one?"
"Hahaha, that's a good one!"
"No, really, what IS a goochie-bag? It sounds kinda gross to me, why is it so great you got one cheap in NYC?" (I was saving up for a WWII canvas bag at the surplus store, myself.)
"You're so funny, [Redacted]!"
"Sigh - okay, BE that way!"

*** I mean, does anyone call Much Ado About Nothing "chick-lit"--?

**** That he was not unique in this, at least among fen may be seen by the number of posts and threads jokingly referred to as "foodporn" going back, again, to the earliest days of Usenet. Then again, when I worked at the bookstore I sold lots of cookbooks full of pretty pictures of food to people who were clearly never going to cook all the recipies in a single lifetime...

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Comments
lotesseflower From: lotesseflower Date: November 17th, 2007 01:31 am (UTC) (Link)
Jesus god, woman, this is one of the most brilliant pieces of analysis I've ever seen. I've actually grown into Labyrinth - as a kid it was fun but I liked Dark Crystal better. It wasn't until I learned my feminism that I got what you've pinpointed here, that Jareth is the classic Petrarchan lover/slave, and that Sarah figures out that trap. Now I love it like crzy. Bowie, also, does not hurt.

(I'm in love with your brain right now, just thought you should know)
bellatrys From: bellatrys Date: November 17th, 2007 02:19 am (UTC) (Link)

Join the crowd!

(smacks self - Bad P@L! No Biscuit!)

Ahem - yeah, like everyone has been saying, there are layers and layers (to any halfway decent story) and they all say different things to different people, or to the same people at different times, and I got interested in checking out Labyrinth again seriously when I was looking for subversive versions of Bonnie Tyler's "Hero" on YouTube, and there were several and a lot more with other songs on Labyrinth, and some of them were simplistic 'shippy Jareth/Sarah, and then there was the Vienna Teng one, and wow, between the eyes there, in the context of the ongoing and late 'netwide argument over female heroes in genre it was especially important that I go out and snag a copy and review it pretty soon.

The lack of film Heroines, of Heroines getting the face-off/showdown with the Big Bad, of the Blaze of Glory (victory or death, it doesn't really matter, in heroic fantasy they're the same when it comes to *Heroes*) is part of all this reverie: Sarah gets to do what Luke does, and Leia *should* have, to walk into the lion's den and face down the Big Bad and break the spell! - how come we can only find this in books now? like Jack of Kinrowan or Alanna or Abhorsen - but another part of it, which I didn't really get to, is how the story is stronger in the refusal to go the film version of Oz, and make it "all a dream" and thus to validate the fake-bildungsroman aspect, "little kids need to grow up and enter the Mundane Realm and just reconcile yourselves to it" - which imo is paradoxically broken by the Muppet finale where they all come and party in her bedroom - WTF? Is this supposed to indicate the Letting In Of Elfland a la the finale of King of Elfland's Daughter in a rather crass and silly way, or is Sarah's bedroom somehow immune from earthly rules now, and no one even in the house will notice? or did they just not think thru the implications in the insistence on having a stereotypical Muppety kiddie-show happy ending with everyone Having Fun--? and in any case it raises more questions than it answers, and can be considered (for the sake of artistic integrity) an Interpolation, a Coda Added By Another Hand--

jonquil From: jonquil Date: November 17th, 2007 01:33 am (UTC) (Link)
A lovely essay, and I need to read it several times to properly respond. (By the way, I'm forty-eight, and when I first saw Labyrinth, I cried "Where WAS this movie when I was young?!?!?!")

And yes, I tell that last bit to myself over and over again. The moment when the camera swings around on the viewer and says Here. Here is the story you are telling yourself. And here is the canker at the heart of it. And do you *really* want to live that story?
jonquil From: jonquil Date: November 17th, 2007 01:37 am (UTC) (Link)
Oh;. You've lost a bit of a sentence.

why I found it so disappointing, and why it
bellatrys From: bellatrys Date: November 17th, 2007 01:51 am (UTC) (Link)

ach, thanks for the catch

this does happen with my damnéd non-linear writing style, which usually involves several different text-editors, aside from LJ, *and* some scraps of pocket-paper, which all have to be integrated into the final post (or reconstructed, if the pocket-scraps went thru the wash before transcribing!)
tekanji From: tekanji Date: November 17th, 2007 02:04 am (UTC) (Link)
Wow.

Just... wow. *goes off to think about what you've said*
goldjadeocean From: goldjadeocean Date: November 17th, 2007 05:26 am (UTC) (Link)
Ditto; and now I want to write, so badly.
violaswamp From: violaswamp Date: November 17th, 2007 02:33 am (UTC) (Link)
I'm unfamiliar with Labyrinth, but this:

Sarah, like Young Skywalker, almost alone of film heroines that I know of, gets the Hero's Climax of walking into the enemy seat of power, striking the bell and biding the danger, smiting the shield on the gate and setting her lance against the Lord of the Dark Tower--

really struck a chord with me. Because, dammit, we all need that hero's journey to identify with, and it's really hard to do when almost every single story out there deliberately stacks the deck so you really can't.

I think this is why a part of me is highly unsympathetic to feminist takes on sf/fantasy that reject the hero's journey and adventures as somehow quintessentially masculine or patriarchal and maintain that feminist fantasy must be about housework and collaboration and quiet drudgery, as that reflects the reality of many women's lives. Let's face it--housework is boring. Necessary, but boring.

subject to the fantastic invention of the feminine imagination, eternal Griselda, the promise of the Traditional Gender Role, of Bluebeard - submit to me, and I will really be your slave--

Yeah, the Big Lie--be good enough, obey enough, and the world will be yours. Bad men will become good for you and treat you like a queen.
wombat1138 From: wombat1138 Date: November 17th, 2007 07:35 am (UTC) (Link)
Because, dammit, we all need that hero's journey to identify with, and it's really hard to do when almost every single story out there deliberately stacks the deck so you really can't.

It's been long enough since I saw the original movie of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that I don't remember exactly how her confrontation with Rutger Hauer's character played out, but I do remember reading a comment from Whedon that the director had botched the action-sequence part of it. There may also be some conclusion eluding my brain cell about Carrie and Firestarter, because my only thematic summary of them at the moment is to quote Lakoff's book title Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things.

Despite some valiant attempts at tokenism (e.g. Inanna), imho Campbell constructed his monomyth structure as an essentially Oedipal cycle, with women mainly tacked on as plot mechanisms (witchy crones to be consulted or placated, Grail-like maidens to be sought and won, maybe occasionally a seductive temptress to resist) around the boys' swashbuckling phallocentrism. I don't know whether anyone has successfully established a different model that's tailored more closely to women (cf. the delayed second half of Ursula LeGuin's "Earthsea" series), or for that matter a truly gender-neutral one, but Campbell bugs the hell out of me. (Probably because of some fans' delayed hagiography of "Star Wars" as always having been Ineffable Monomyth inscribed on stone tablets by the sainted George Lucas as direct dictation from Our Lord Joseph Campbell, when GL isn't known to've ever said *anything* about Campbellian influence until the mid-80s during the hiatus after ROTJ, but I digress :b )

I think Jareth's character also draws somewhat on the template of the Gothic hero a la Edward Rochester and Maxim de Winter, older and more powerful than the young POV ingenue, although Toby's captivity isn't quite on the same order as having secretly disposed of a sultry first wife in an unsavory manner and all the other Electra-complexish appurtenances thereof (rivalry with the older Dark Lady and her previous claim on the father-figure's affections)-- hey, wait a moment, that element *is* there but displaced/negated almost from the start, once Sarah's conflict with her stepmother is converted into the quest to recapture Toby. (Hmm. Absent-minded mumbling, distracted away from invoking Eve/Adam/Lilith as the primordial Gothic love triangle, complete with disclaimers about the true origins of the Lilith legendarium.)

Which reminds me of certain elements in shoujo sentai anime/manga (or at least in Sailor Moon, Magic Knight Rayearth, and Card Captor Sakura, which are the main ones I'm semi-familiar with), wherein the magical girl(s) may go forth and kick ass, but rather a lot of those asskicked enemies take the form of fully mature adult women.

Yeah, the Big Lie--be good enough, obey enough, and the world will be yours. Bad men will become good for you and treat you like a queen.

Or its "Beauty and the Beast" counterpart: no matter how monstrous, a man can be made human by the love of a good woman-- which means of course that if your man remains a monster, it's your fault for not loving him enough, for not being good enough to save his soul.
nenya_kanadka From: nenya_kanadka Date: November 17th, 2007 03:45 am (UTC) (Link)
Ooh, this is good. Now I need to re-rent Labyrinth from the video store sometime when I have the cash, don't I? Saw it late one night, possibly with bad sound, but did pick up most of it. Couldn't figure out why my friends were so crazy about it...but that last scene! Yowza.

Veeerry interesting to see it compared to Tiffany Aching, too. Hmm.
megpie71 From: megpie71 Date: November 17th, 2007 06:19 am (UTC) (Link)
I have to admit, I'm very fond of the Tiffany Aching stories. I think I'm fondest of them for the fact that they're about choice. Tiffany learns through the three books (so far - I think there's another one due out next year) where she's heading if she sticks with witchcraft. She can see it: Granny Weatherwax is right there in front of her as an example of the cost of being female, intelligent and powerful in a rural society. Granny Weatherwax is respected and feared - she isn't liked. She's a lonely old lady who nobody willingly goes and sees out of friendship (there's a strong implication even the visits of the other witches are done more out of obligation than friendship), and if she wasn't the most powerful witch in the district, she'd be dead. Tiffany can see all of that, and knows what happened to the only witch in her area, but she's willing to make the choice and take on the duty.

There's a beautiful section in "Wintersmith", where Tiffany is psyching herself up to do some major magic (as in actual magic, not headology) and she recites the following: "This I choose to do. If there is a price, this I choose to pay. If it is my death, then I choose to die. Where this takes me, there I choose to go. I choose. This I choose to do." And this, I think, is the core of what Tiffany's stories are about: the power of choice, and the role of choice in the lives of people who have power. Tiffany could have become just like her sisters - a farm wife, who cooked, cleaned, made cheese, dealt with the dairy, bore the children, and didn't see anything outside the bounds of her home farm. She chose not to, and she chose it knowing what she'd let herself in for as well.

I love Pratchett's work for the heroines. He does tend to write female characters who are complex, intelligent, and more likely to cut the strings binding them than wind up caught in tricky situations. I've often said to my partner that when I grow up, I want to be Granny Weatherwax (even though I look more like Nanny Ogg).
violaswamp From: violaswamp Date: November 17th, 2007 03:55 pm (UTC) (Link)
She's a lonely old lady who nobody willingly goes and sees out of friendship (there's a strong implication even the visits of the other witches are done more out of obligation than friendship)

But...but...Nanny Ogg likes her! And so does Magrat!

Not that this takes away from your central point, but reading your comment I just had to feel bad for Granny. And I, too, want to be her when I get old.
cucumberseed From: cucumberseed Date: November 17th, 2007 06:29 am (UTC) (Link)
You are made of solid win.
I need to come back and re-read this when I've had sleep so I can take more from it.
From: anna_wing Date: November 17th, 2007 08:46 am (UTC) (Link)
Yes, yes, yes to your analysis of "Labyrinth" (though at the age at which I first saw it, David Bowie probably did play a much more significant part in why I liked it than the psychological elements, which I was far too young to notice or comprehend explicitly.) I wonder if there's a lot of Steerpike fic about...

What I like about Pratchett's witches is that he is generous with possibilities. There are a lot of different kinds of witch that Tiffany could be, for instance; she isn't always faced with either/or choices.

The first thought that I had after reading "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" was "dammit, it should have been a girl!". I'm told by a fan more learned in Potter-fic than I that she has never come across fic with Harry as a girl. This negative datum interests me rather, because it seemed to me such an obvious possibility (and then you get the fun Buffy/Spike dynamic with Draco Malfoy too...). If you have any thoughts on this I'd be very interested.

Mostly when the Heroine faces the Villain, the Villain is a straightforward villain (I think here, for instance, of Robin Mckinley's books, which are pretty good about allowing the heroine the Big COnfrontation And Victory at the end). Bluebeard is a much rarer myth to find retold in modern fantasy, though a lot of Tanith Lee's fiction pirouettes around the Demon Lover trope. And there (most obviously in her Flat Earth sequence) the only way to win the Demon Lover and survive with one's soul intact is not just to refuse him - because at least one character tries that and comes to a very nasty end, the demon lover being in fact a demon - but to love only on one's own terms and to stick to those terms no matter what. This being Lee of course, occasionally survival of the soul is the best case outcome; having a demon lover being an Extreme Sport, with concomitant risks to life and limb.

If you'd like to do Adult-Sarah/Jareth as you outlined it, I'd read it like a shot.
evilstorm From: evilstorm Date: November 17th, 2007 02:02 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm told by a fan more learned in Potter-fic than I that she has never come across fic with Harry as a girl.

Oh, it exists, it exists, but trust me you do not want to read it.
blueinkedpalm From: blueinkedpalm Date: November 17th, 2007 10:10 am (UTC) (Link)
Like everyone above says, this is an absolutely wonderful analysis. I need to thank you for writing it.

Sarah, like Young Skywalker, almost alone of film heroines that I know of, gets the Hero's Climax of walking into the enemy seat of power, striking the bell and biding the danger, smiting the shield on the gate and setting her lance against the Lord of the Dark Tower--

The woman who's a Hero. I love the way you voice it here. This is silly, but I've tried my hand at writing AU fanfiction where the male hero gets replaced by his underappreciated female sidekick, and that's maybe the urge for a lot of Mary-Sues as well: wanting it to be a heroine who's the one standing alone and unarmed and past all other aid, unafraid in the darkness, or afraid but knowingly travelling onward nonetheless to smite the darkness still, courage that won't give up--

And the feminism in refusing obedience to the Dark Prince is something I didn't pick up from the film, but you're so right I can't believe I couldn't realise. It reverses the gender tropes of female hotness and the convention of yielding-woman. The bit you quoted is powerful.

Sarah's stepmother is a brittle, smug, Stepford sort of whom it's hard to believe ever unbent enough to concieve and drop Toby, a lifeless caricature who hardly has any more presence than Sarah's dead, actress mother.

I saw it once only, but I thought (and saw on fanficrants, oh most reliable source of sources!) that Sarah's stepmother was and was meant to be a nice enough woman, the conflict between her and Sarah mostly personality differences, the circumstance of stepparenting and Sarah.

I thought Sarah was an utter brat at first as well, and I don't do half the housework you did. I think that was also intentional on the part of the filmmakers--although being expected to root for a character one greatly dislikes on their quest for adventure and personal development doesn't always make for a pleasant viewing experience.
troubleinchina From: troubleinchina Date: November 17th, 2007 11:56 am (UTC) (Link)
I really think you've hit on the reasons behind Mary Sues. It's hard to find a place for a strong kick-ass woman or girl who gets the guy and looks good doing it, while handing out quips like they're candy. And yet, I can use that description for any number of movies, television shows or books if I change the genders around.

Bellatrys, this is an amazing essay, it totally sucked me in. You say so many great things in it. I didn't know your past.
unlikely2 From: unlikely2 Date: November 17th, 2007 01:49 pm (UTC) (Link)
My own untutored reading of the film was this:
Sara's mother was an actress: a woman who painted her face and dressed as others demanded and then went out and spoke words put into her mouth by someone else: a role player: a woman who was not herself for a living.
Sara doesn't want to leave her privileged childhood. She doesn't want the sort of life she is being offered as a woman and would like, at least, to be able to choose her own role. If she can't remain a child, she wants to act the hero.
At this point her chosen antagonist, the Goblin King, arrives.
Jareth is also living a role and it is one for which he has been stolen as a baby. He does do everything that Sara demands of him. Aided by her own dreams she faces his challenges and succeeds, finally to realise that 'the hero of the labyrinth' is still only a role. It is a role that she has gained insight from playing but it is limiting.
Hence her words to Jareth:'You have no power over me.' She has broken the paradigm.
Sara has (as far as humans are ever able) to become herself.
Thus the muppet ending. A child must grow up but she doesn't have to abandon her own dreams and ideas. She doesn't have to accept opinions of who she should be decided by others.
And perhaps, by understanding and transcending the limitations of narratives (including gender roles), she not only frees herself but also sows the seeds of Jareth's liberation.
evilstorm From: evilstorm Date: November 17th, 2007 02:08 pm (UTC) (Link)
Dittoing what everyone else has said, with the addendum that this is made even more interesting by the fact that I'm only familiar with that last scene as an example of what a dysfunctional, co-dependent, messed up relationship would be (Labyrinth was also popular in one of my old fandoms, Phantom of the Opera, and the reasons are obvious). Thanks again.

And oh my god, Jodi Picoult pinged something in the back of my head, because sometimes you can't avoid seeing the romance titles as you skim past to find the scifi, but I didn't realize where it came from until you mentioned chick lit. Jesus god.
david_wisdom From: david_wisdom Date: November 17th, 2007 04:05 pm (UTC) (Link)

Bravo!

As everyone else has said, I loved it. Read it last night, still processing. Unfortunately, I'm not very familiar with the film - I know I've seen it, but just once when I was young.

One stray thought - many of the AU takes on Star Wars I've seen tend to assume Leia would have made a better hero than Luke (I don't disagree).

Where else has this story been told, to girls, before or since?

How does this compare, then? (Good Prime, I'm shameless)
sajia From: sajia Date: November 17th, 2007 05:40 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Bravo!

It's beautiful. (And you still owe me a webcomic.)
hrafn From: hrafn Date: November 17th, 2007 04:55 pm (UTC) (Link)
I first saw the film when it came out; I was 10 or 11. Bowie as Jareth didn't do anything for me (still doesn't, though I always dug that he turned into an owl - I was just disappointed Jareth wasn't as beautiful as the owl), I loathed the musical numbers, and I disliked most - if not all - of the characters and dialogue. (I -loved- the goblin city, though; I've always been a sucker for weird fantasy worlds/creatures.) But that scene, what should have been the penultimate scene (ditch the singing/dancing finale, blech) if not the last one, made it worth sitting through. Without that showdown, I'd have written it off as dreck, and probably forgotten it for the most part.

I've only seen it once as an adult, and I felt much the same way about it as I did when I was a kid. It's been on my mind recently to rewatch it, just for that bit. Because it is /that good/. I've found that kind of experience in books, but I can't think of any other movie remotely like it.
From: deiseach Date: November 17th, 2007 07:29 pm (UTC) (Link)

*jaw and penny drop simultaneously*

Jodi Picoult for Wonder Woman? *That* Jodi Picoult? That Jodi Picoult whose novels piled on the tabletops in the bookshop I have ignored as I made my way to the SF/Fantasy/Horror shelves because I'd rather read the sides of cornflakes packets than chick-lit?

Good freakin' grief!

Oh, the essay? Yes. Of course, yes :-)
bellatrys From: bellatrys Date: November 17th, 2007 07:37 pm (UTC) (Link)

yes, it's a thunderbolt sort of penny, innit?

I'm reminded a bit (by this, and by the Great Ten 'diversity' thing) of when little kids bring you a mudpie, and want you to *really* eat it, not just pretend ritually to do so - only there's some excuse for a toddler, and none for a bunch of 30+ year olds trying to foist off mudpies with pyrocanthus berries on top and then bursting into tears - "Why don't you like the nice pie we made for you? WAAAAH! I'll never make you another pie again!" (stomp, stomp, stomp) --Dude, it's a *mud* pie! With poison sprinkles on top!

(PS: I am writing you a slash short story. That is to say, you will like it (I think) and also you are partly to blame for having reminded me once upon a time of the slashiness of Kidnapped, which is all I am saying for the moment...yes, be *very* afraid!)
From: deiseach Date: November 18th, 2007 02:15 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Badly-matched writers and traditions

I was (indeed, I still am) so flabbergasted about Jodi Picoult being asked to write "Wonder Woman" that I was flailing around for comparisons, and then I realised:

This could turn into a competition!

Name *your* suggestion for the most unlikely pairings!

As I said, I was going "Jodi Picoult? That's like - like - like Henry James's "Batman"!"

But why not? (Okay, apart from Henry James being dead...)

After all, he's done genre fiction before ("The Turn of the Screw" being a ghost story, besides other short stories) and he certainly knows all about high-toned New England society, so he'd be great on the Bruce Wayne, millionaire socialite secret identity thing!

Wouldn't we all rush out to buy Armistead Maupin's "The Punisher"? (Actually, I'd pay money for that, seeing as how I loathe the concept for the Punisher with a depth and passion of utter loathing).

Bobert James Waller ("The Bridges of Madison County") gives us his take on "Spiderman"?

John Grisham's "Ultimate X-Men"!

Tom Clancy's "Superman"! ("Superman flew towards the location of the bank robbery faster than a speeding bullet. Since the velocity of rifle bullets varies between 600 and 5000 feet (180 and 1500 meters) per second, and some bullets can hit targets as far away as 6000 yards (5000 meters), this meant he travelled at a speed somewhere between 180 - 1500 m/s - not allowing for wind assistance, air resistance, or the necessity to move between the tall buildings, of course.")

Yes, there actually is a webpage that calculated exactly (more or less) how fast a speeding bullet is...

http://hypertextbook.com/facts/1999/MariaPereyra.shtml

So - who would you suggest for the inappropriate matchup between author and superhero(es)?





smurasaki From: smurasaki Date: November 18th, 2007 02:26 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Badly-matched writers and traditions

Man, Robert James Waller is hard to top. *think think* Ah.

Nicholas Sparks or Jacquelyn Mitchard writing...oh...any superhero, ever.
My god, if they teamed up, they might create a book so bad it would become a spontaneous black hole and destroy the solar system. O.O
From: deiseach Date: November 18th, 2007 06:59 pm (UTC) (Link)

*slaps forehead and goes "Oh, boy!"*

I was thinking we've got to get H.P. Lovecraft in here somehow, but what would be appropriate?

And then it hit me:

H.P. Lovecraft's "The Origin of Species".

Oh, yeah.

"WHEN on board H.M.S. Beagle as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the organic beings inhabiting South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. These facts, as will be seen in the latter chapters of this volume, seemed to throw some light on the origin of species- that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers.

I am forced into speech because men of science have refused to follow my advice without knowing why. It is altogether against my will that I tell my reasons for opposing this contemplated invasion of the Antarctic - with its vast fossil hunt and its wholesale boring and melting of the ancient ice caps. And I am the more reluctant because my warning may be in vain.

Doubt of the real facts, as I must reveal them, is inevitable; yet, if I suppressed what will seem extravagant and incredible, there would be nothing left. The hitherto withheld photographs, both ordinary and aerial, will count in my favor, for they are damnably vivid and graphic. Still, they will be doubted because of the great lengths to which clever fakery can be carried. The ink drawings, of course, will be jeered at as obvious impostures, notwithstanding a strangeness of technique which art experts ought to remark and puzzle over.

In the end I must rely on the judgment and standing of the few scientific leaders who have, on the one hand, sufficient independence of thought to weigh my data on its own hideously convincing merits or in the light of certain primordial and highly baffling myth cycles; and on the other hand, sufficient influence to deter the exploring world in general from any rash and over-ambitious program in the region of those mountains of madness. It is an unfortunate fact that relatively obscure men like myself and my associates, connected only with a small university, have little chance of making an impression where matters of a wildly bizarre or highly controversial nature are concerned."
evilstorm From: evilstorm Date: November 19th, 2007 07:28 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: *slaps forehead and goes "Oh, boy!"*

W-what oh jesus yes
voxwoman From: voxwoman Date: November 19th, 2007 02:32 am (UTC) (Link)

coming in late, as usual

(been at a 'con all weekend)...

Would you be willing to review some of Jones' other films? Like "Erik the Viking" and "Time Bandits"? (true, they don't have heroines in them, but, there are also layers upon layers in them that I don't have enough background material in my head to work them out like you do). (And I had No Idea that Terry Jones did the screenplay. Now, I'm saying "Duh!" to myself)

You certainly give the gears in my own head some grease and a good push.
the-willow.insanejournal.com From: the-willow.insanejournal.com Date: November 27th, 2007 09:28 am (UTC) (Link)
Finally catching up on my backlog and I get to this post.

It mentions the trials of being the eldest daughter and looking after the siblings and exhaustion and how you just can't buy a whiny, rich, white heroine bitching about babysitting one kid who's asleep! or whatever.

It also mentions the exact thought process I had about Jodi effing Picolut. That she had to be some genre writer I hadn't come across as yet.

Aside: You can't imagine my delight when I realized as an adult that my favourite ST: TNG novels had been written by one of my fav sf authors; Diane Duane. Circumstances in my life having been so that I paid author names and singer names no real attention.


And when I heard what was happening with WW under JP I was flabbergasted and confused because it wasn't WW. And I thought for the first instance, at the first round of wtf, that something truly horrific had happened in the reset that I'd been previously unaware of if WW can't order coffee, pump gas, or be the competent confident woman of the modern ages high ambassador/diplomat/ruling body she'd been.

But then it turned out that this was how that woman thought the Princess of the Amazons, The Warrior Ambassador, The Champion of Women, would actually behave. She'd boggle at gas pumps despite hanging out in the Watchtower and having access to technology both alien and human and Themysciran!(sp?) And she'd drop an injured man for admitting to fantasizing. Bumble, bumble, boggle, fumble as if Wonder Woman were in the middle of 'The Princess Diaries' and a clueless, unsophisticated teenager.

Why am I still het up about this? Because Gail Simone is now on WW. And yes it's thrilling. But I liked GS on Birds of Prey. I'd just started following the group with her writing. And now because of fumbled by DC's PTB, they decided to appease with a writer they know gets the goods, and BOP is now under someone else. That is, there is no new female blood in the writing pool. They shifted assets, they didn't add to them.

*breathes*

You also mention Sabriel of which I can only go 'I like you bellatrys, I like you so much'. For Garth Nix spun gold in that series.
From: ravenveil Date: November 28th, 2007 08:51 pm (UTC) (Link)
Have you ever seen 10th Kingdom? The female heroine confronts the Evil Queen at the end by herself. Has some funny moments and I have to say that the Big Bad Wolf was darn sexy.
sabonasi From: sabonasi Date: January 16th, 2008 05:32 am (UTC) (Link)
Excellent article! *saves to favorites*

--to win the day against a Faerie Prince who is bound to answer to her expectations, who must be as monstrous as she anticipates, as handsome, as frustrating, as fearsome, ... Prince Charming who is also the Demon Lover, controlling, abusive, remote, unavailable and thus infinitely pursuable and protean, subject to the fantastic invention of the feminine imagination, eternal Griselda, the promise of the Traditional Gender Role, of Bluebeard - submit to me, and I will really be your slave--

Where else has this story been told, to girls, before or since?


I've seen it in a couple of stories. If you haven't discovered them already, I'd recommend Revolutionary Girl Utena, A Gift for a Gift by Maeve Henry, and Basara.

Revolutionary Girl Utena is a manga (which I've read) and an anime series (which I've just started watching on youtube) and a movie (which I'm not familiar with) all of which tell the same story, only not exactly. Constant in all its incarnations, though, is a deconstruction of the hero archtype, of princes and princess and witches and gender roles.

Utena, as a young girl, is saved by a prince, who tells her never to lose her noble heart and they will meet again. Utena is so impressed by the prince that she decides to be a prince herself and save princesses.

I've only just started the anime, but to give you an idea, the third episode involves a ball, where Utena wears a dress given to her by Touga, whom she believes may be her prince. Utena only goes to the ball (wearing the dress) because she wants Anthy, whom she is engaged to, to meet new people. Anthy ends up being humiliated in a prank, so Utena, much to Touga's disappointment, casts off her dress (revealing underneathe the usual boys uniform she wears) and sweeps Anthy off her feet, ending the humiliation and then asking her for a dance.

Like I said, just the third episode. I really wish the manga volumes I have weren't boxed up, since it's been a while since I read them, so I can't recall specific details. But I remember enough to know that there's the idea - and I do believe this shows up in the anime, too - of Utena having to reject her prince (as Touga, as Akio) in order to be a prince herself. That is, her prince is not a particularly princely prince after all, no matter how you slice it, so Utena must be the prince.

A Gift for a Gift is a short novel, and Fran's relationship with Michael reminds me a lot of Sarah's relationship with Jareth. The same promies of dreams in exchange for 'let me rule you', although with Michael in comes in the form of 'stay with me'. There's also the same simutaneously sexual and non-sexual, which really is curious. And, of course, choices and temptation and a great final confronation. Anyway, it's out of print, but if you ever come across it in a library somewhere (where I first discovered it), it's a great read.

Basara is a manga series by Yumi Tamura. I just finished volume 12 today. (I believe there are 27 volumes in all.) It's a kick-ass series in general, but one component of it is that Sarasa who is also Tatara falls in love with Shuri who is also the Red King, who falls in love back. Tatara & the Red King hate each other with a fiery passion, but Sarasa & Shuri have not [yet, where I'm at] figured out the other's alternative identity. So Shuri can never be the 'right man whom Our Heroine only has to love enough', since Shuri & the Red King are inescapably one in the same. And the series has emphasized at a couple of points that Sarasa/Tatara can't just let Shuri save her. He proposes fairly early on, but Sarasa rejects him. She doesn't know the full extent of what she is rejecting (queendom), but she does so because she has a journey to complete. Similarly, at several points, she has to solve her own problems and make her own way because she is Tatara. The message is that Sarasa who is Tatara must be the Hero of the story, with all that that entails. Put it this way: if they'd gotten Yumi Tamura to write (and draw!) Return to Labyrinth, I'd be all over that sucker.
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