I didn’t know who Ziggy Stardust, or Iman, or even David Bowie himself was when my parents first brought home the VHS tape for Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. I couldn’t have been more than 10-years-old. Given the cartoon-ish cover art of the film, I’m sure they did not expect the stars of that movie to be Bowie and the comically large bulge protruding from his lycra leggings, respectively.
But like any young person who’s ever momentarily hated a sibling, been bored in their small hometown, or just can’t for the life of them remember the relatively simple dialogue to a school play, Labyrinth was transfixing. Unlike the puppets from Sesame Street or the Muppets, Henson’s other brainchildren, these plush, animated goblins were both cute and cringe-worthy, adorable and dark. The familiar, child-like elements Henson brought to the movie made me feel safe. And then there was Jareth, the Goblin King himself played by Bowie, who made me feel vulnerable, nervous, and completely enchanted.
For those of you whose childhood’s were deprived of this iconically weird movie, the plot hinges around a mystical and bizarre premise. Sarah, a teenager living in Nowhereville Suburbia, USA, hates her little brother, and prays for someone to take him away. When Jareth does, she realizes her parents might be upset by the fact that she just banished her brother into oblivion, so she must journey through a labyrinth to retrieve him from Goblin City, a city inhabited entirely by muppets.
Other films that came out in 1986 (Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) offered up male protagonists that fueled momentary, fleeting crushes. Who doesn’t love Ferris’ enterprising confidence, or Duckie’s devotion? I could see how my life would play out with Ferris or even Cameron: we’d go steady, frequenting diners and football games, then attend the same college, then get married while I stayed home with the kids and he made a name for himself in investment banking. But in a sea of high school boys, David Bowie was a man. In the character of Jareth, he offered something different, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on: the uncertain allure of a future undecided, full of magic and pleasure I was too young to define.
It did not matter that on paper, most of his qualities make him wholly unfit for attraction. He is indisputably the villain, and he’s old enough to be my father. But he had hair that defied gravity. He was tall, attractive, brooding, and a manipulator of space and time, not to mention the dark overlord of an entire goblin kingdom. And his magnetic persona likely set in motion a pattern wherein I sought out men dead set on playing conniving mind games who spent way too much time on their appearance — a pattern I couldn’t break until well into my late 20s. But really, what can you expect when your childhood sex icon is a man who arguably resorts to injecting a peach with date rape drugs to prevent a woman from succeeding against his will?
When I mention to friends in casual conversation that seeing Bowie’s performance in Labyrinth is the first time I can remember feeling turned on, I’m met with near unanimous agreement from anyone who’s seen the film. Some cite the inexplicable ballroom orgy, with Bowie decked out in formal wear charming the naive and whiny Sarah, as the first moment they felt...something. Others couldn’t even pinpoint their attraction that specifically: "I saw it when I was 4, and I had a huge crush on him, even though I didn't understand I was looking at the outline of his penis,” one woman told me.
And even those who might not have wanted to take puffy-shirt wearing dictator to bed admit there was an undeniable appeal: “I don't know if I was attracted to him, but I did consider saying the right words and never looking back. His offer of ‘Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave’ seemed fairly enticing,” a friend said.
Wearing more eyeliner than my mother and with a seemingly infinite collection of crystal balls, he became an alternative sex symbol for millennial women coming of age, who saw something they wanted but knew they shouldn’t have. For the women who were already jaded with the 80s and 90s on-screen jocks who dominated the heartthrob scene, there was David Bowie.
Labyrinth expertly melded the innocence and profanity, the dark and light, that lurk below the surface in all of us. It granted acceptance for embracing your basest desires, and absolution if you could first find that power within yourself. David Bowie taught me what it was to yearn for something. He brought magic into my life.
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Ali Drucker is a writer and editor living in New York City. She covers sex, dating, and culture. Follow her on Twitter at @ali_drucker.