For those of you that don’t know, Sarah Williams is the main character of the 1986 cult classic, Labyrinth. The film follows Sarah’s attempts to get her baby step-brother back from the evil Goblin King – played by David Bowie in a whirl of glitter-mullets and eyeliner – by solving his labyrinth, which is entirely populated by muppets. While the film wasn’t an initial success, over the years it has become a cult classic, largely thanks to the glitter-mullet and several pairs of extremely tight trousers. Sarah herself has become a fan favourite – an iconic character that shaped the childhoods of millions.
But does she live up to her reputation? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
It’s very easy to look at Sarah as a very passive character. She spends most of the film running through the Goblin King’s labyrinth, careening from trap to trap – these don’t look like the actions of somebody who’s in control of their own destiny. Most of her time in the labyrinth is spent reacting to the various obstacles that are put in her path, and acquiring various adorable muppet-friends.
But to assume this is to do her a disservice. Sarah does shape the plot of the film in a very significant way: she wishes her baby brother away, and then tries to get him back from the Goblin King. On a larger scale, she is very much in control of her own destiny, regardless of the obstacles that are placed in her path. Throughout the film, she actively tries to change the world around her to make her own life better, even if she is reacting to a situation she has no control over. I’ll be generous and give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 1
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
Sarah’s hobbies are very well established. She likes reading fantasy novels, acting, and hasn’t quite grown out of her childhood toys. From what I can tell, she’s also into something that looks a bit like solo-LARPing.
Her goals and beliefs are less clearly defined, however. We don’t know much about her beliefs at all, but her goals are another matter. It’s established that she wants to get her brother back from the Goblin King very early on in the film, but this isn’t something she wanted before the story starts: it comes about as a result of the Goblin King granting her request when she wishes her brother away. In short, her goals come about as the direct result of another character’s actions, which kind of undercuts her motivations as a character. It’s not enough to fail her completely, but it’s not enough for a total pass, either.
SCORE SO FAR: 1.5
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
Much like Dorothy, Sarah functions as a kind of ‘Everyman’. As a character who’s thrust into a strange and magical world, a lot of the time she’s defined by her interactions with the other characters and the world around her, rather than her own personality traits. At times, Sarah’s personality tends towards the generic: she’s brave, kind and a little naïve, and doesn’t express many opinions or quirks that are uniquely hers. However, she does have some defining characteristics that stop her from being a blank slate – she’s petulant, immature, resourceful and can be pretty rash. As far as her skills go, they’re largely consistent: although she makes remarkable progress through the labyrinth, at the beginning of the film it’s established that she’s familiar with the story, and the puzzles she faces aren’t necessarily things that a teenage girl couldn’t think her way out of. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt.
SCORE SO FAR: 2.5
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
An immature young girl wishes her baby brother away, and must use every resource she has to get him back.
SCORE SO FAR: 3.5
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
Sarah’s love life has been the subject of endless fanfiction, but none of this has much of a basis in the film. While a significant portion of the fandom would dearly love to see her get together with the King of the Cheekbones, this isn’t actually something that’s supported by the movie. While Jareth puts the moves on her in a vaguely trippy dream sequence, displaying a clear interest in the teenage Sarah –
– it’s pretty one-sided. She doesn’t show any affection towards him apart from when she’s hallucinating, and we all know that doesn’t count. In fact, she outright rejects his offer to be her supernatural boyfriend in the climax of the film, ultimately placing familial love over David Bowie’s cheekbones.
SCORE SO FAR: 4.5
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
On the surface, Sarah appears to develop over the course of the film. She starts off hating her step-family and acting very immature, behaving petulantly and valuing childish toys over more important things. By the end of the film, she has rescued her step-brother and goes through a token coming-of-age rejection of childhood when she’s trapped in a symbolic junkyard.
However, I don’t think that this journey holds much weight. Sarah goes to great lengths to rescue her brother from the beginning of the film, realising what she’s done the second she wishes him away. She doesn’t exactly learn to appreciate or value her brother as the film goes along, because if she didn’t already love him she wouldn’t have gone to rescue him in the first place. Similarly, when she’s in the scrapheap of symbolism and rejects her childhood toys, it’s implied that she’s also closing herself off from the Labyrinth and all the friends she’s made. This is completely undercut when she returns to the real world and decides that she does need her magical friends after all.
In short, a lot of Sarah’s development is only surface-level. We don’t see her work on stuff, or struggle with her own flaws, or try to build a relationship with her step-family. If the film were a little longer this might be addressed, as we would be able to see how her time in the Labyrinth has affected her behaviour – but it isn’t. By the end of the film, the most Sarah has learned is that ‘life isn’t fair’, but she essentially remains unchanged by her experiences.
SCORE SO FAR: 4.5
- Does she have a weakness?
Sarah does have some very well-established weaknesses. She’s self-centred, rash, petulant, makes no effort to understand other people and is fully capable of pushing other characters around to get what she wants. They’re all believable weaknesses that affect her journey through the story, so I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 5.5
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
Sarah does get captured a few times over the course of the movie – usually when she ends up walking into one of David Bowie’s traps. But this isn’t the only thing she does that affects the film’s plot: she rescues other characters, she makes new friends, she solves the Labyrinth’s puzzles – and, as I already mentioned, it’s her decisions that put her in the Labyrinth in the first place.
SCORE SO FAR: 6.5
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
Sarah relates to gender stereotypes in a pretty interesting way. When you’re describing her character, it doesn’t sound like the kind of personality traits that are usually associated with teenage girls: she’s resourceful, kind, determined, brave, and doesn’t let the possibility of romance distract her from her original goals. However, this all changes when you start to look at her flaws. She’s petulant, self-centred, immature, doesn’t think through the consequences of her actions and doesn’t try to understand what other people are going through. These are all flaws commonly ascribed to teenage girls – much more so than any other social demographic.
This is loaded with unfortunate implications: all the good sides to her personality are gender-neutral traits, but all her flaws are the kind of things that are much more commonly associated with the behaviour of stereotypical teenage girls. The audience is very much aware of this: when Sarah acts like a stereotypical Valley girl the most is when she’s at her most annoying and unlikeable. This effectively acts as a tacit condemnation of teenage behaviour. When she acts like a stereotypical teenage girl, it’s universally presented as a bad thing: it’s something she must leave behind in order to achieve her goals. This can, of course, be interpreted as a fairly standard coming-of-age trope, but given the gendered associations that come with it, I’m not so sure that’s all there is to it.
SCORE SO FAR: 6.5
- How does she relate to other female characters?
There aren’t many other female characters in Labyrinth. The only one we see Sarah interacting with is her stepmother, who has about three lines. Their relationship is tense at the start of the film, but unfortunately, as we don’t get to see it develop it doesn’t really feel fleshed-out.
FINAL SCORE: 6.5/10
Sarah is a pretty consistent character who’s in control of her own destiny and has a real impact on the plot, but she hasn’t passed my test. Her weaknesses are almost exclusively ascribed to teenage girls, she doesn’t really develop over the course of the film and she has miniscule interaction with other female characters.
But does this mean that she isn’t a worthwhile character? I don’t think so. She’s always presented as a very capable teenage girl, and ultimately chooses to place family and responsibility over the chance to have a sparkly supernatural boyfriend.
She might not have passed my test, but she’s by no means an utterly irredeemable character. She’s had a real impact on people’s childhoods, as Labyrinth is seen as a classic by people all over the world, and ultimately the message she conveys is a healthy one that isn’t always seen in media aimed at teenage girls. And, for what it’s worth, I still really enjoy the film.
Next week, I’ll be looking at Once Upon a Time. Emma Swan, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.