Sunday, March 13, 2016

Pan’s Labyrinth and the Empowerment of Denying Female Sexuality

**This is an essay I wrote a few weeks ago. I love Pan's Labyrinth to pieces, but that doesn't mean it should be off limits when it comes to critical analysis. Obviously this essay isn't on animation, however my thoughts on Pan's Labyrinth/ live action film definitely crossover to my views of animated media. It's interesting to see how in today's media culture, we are encouraged to yell "Girl Power!" but never "Women Power!"

    Despite its violence, gore and scary creatures, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) is still considered a dark fantasy. One of the reasons the film does not traverse too much into the horror genre is because Ophelia does not grow up or become aware of her own sexuality at any point of the film. She does not confront our culture’s fear of female sexuality but instead side steps it and rejoins her magical immortal family in another realm when she dies. Fantasy films have allowed pre-pubescent girls to become empowered, have agency, and their own fantastical powers, however this strength and positive relation to a powerful female can only exist because their sexuality has yet to become a threat to society. Prepubescent girls such as Matilda, Pippi Longstocking, Alice (in Wonderland) and Merida from Pixar’s Brave are all empowered in their stories because they have yet to be defined as true women in our society. Because "to be empowered, ...heroines must remain perpetually young, fixed forever in their prepubescent state within the reels of their films. Once our heroines become sexual teens, their power is overwhelmingly defined by their sexuality, and/or their worth is determined by their body’s objectification“ (Rodriguez).
    The fantasy genre's powerful girls soon become monsters and victims in the horror genre once they allow sex into their life. Unlike the virginal ‘Final Girls’, most women that partake in sex or are deemed sexual in horror films are usually demeaned and killed. And girls who become sexually awakened during the film are especially demonized for it. Films such as Teeth (2007), Ginger Snaps (2000) and Carrie (1976) all play on the fear of females having fantastical powers and control over their sexuality. And an uncontrolled powerful women is seen as a nightmare for any patriarchal society. 
   For example, Carrie is not about “liberation from sexual repression, but about the failure of repression to contain the monstrous feminine. Audiences are not supposed to identify with Carrie whilst she becomes the monster, instead they are supposed to be scared of her ability and destructive potential. Carrie is purposely portrayed in this manner because she demonstrates what happens when women gain power and are no longer repressed." (Lindsey). Carrie can not escape the sexual aspect of her being, as the film starts with her first menstruation. Her sexuality brings about her new powers and those powers act to amplify the threat of her maturity. Carrie is never able to move beyond being a powerful sexual threat and in turn becomes the villain, a fate that she can never reverse, as her sexuality is now a concrete aspect of her persona. Pan’s Labyrinth is well aware of the fantasy/horror ground that it treads and chooses to eliminate all aspects of sex either by not including it or chastising Ophelia for trying to include it in order to keep Ophelia a heroine in the eyes of the audience. Other characters in the film, such as the Faun, teach Ophelia that there is nothing to be gained in sexuality for her, only lost.
    Throughout Pan’s Labyrinth, the tasks Ophelia must complete and language surrounding them portray her budding sexuality as a curse, one she must avoid at all costs in order to become the new Princess in the Underworld and rejoin her father. Immediately after meeting the Faun for the first time, he makes it clear to her that the purpose of the challenges that she is to participate in, is to “make sure that [her] essence is intact, that [she has] not become a mortal” (Del Toro 24). Ophelia’s “essence” refers to her virginity, her innocence. The faun’s fear of the girl becoming a mortal mirrors the fall of Adam and Eve, that once she is tainted with the Forbidden Fruit of sexual pleasure, she will no longer be clean enough to enter the promised land of the Underworld. If she is deemed a mortal then she will be unable to be reunited with her father (or in this metaphor, the Father, referring to God) and will quickly forget about the faun and his magic for the rest of her life. Her situation mirrors Adam and Eve’s banishment from Eden and their separation from the magical/spiritual presence of God. 
    This metaphor continues throughout the film especially seen when Ophelia eats two grapes from the forbidden banquet in the Pale Man’s dining room. Ophelia gets punished severely by the faun after her disobedience. He abandons her temporarily (although Ophelia does not know that in the moment) and only comes back after she loses her mother. The eating of the Forbidden Fruit in western culture has come to be associated with the budding of sexuality and the temptations of the flesh. Chastising Ophelia when she reflects the behavior of Eve makes it clear to the audience that Ophelia’s power and worth is in her virginity and innocence. This theme is also reiterated with the girl’s relationships with the other two women in the film, her mother Carmen and the rebel spy Mercedes. Both deny the existence of magic in their middle age. Mercedes commenting that she believed only when she was a child. By having both older women denying magic, it creates a theme that magic and maturity cannot be together. Growing up will destroy Ophelia’s innocence and naiveté. Which in turn means that her budding sexuality and the power/control of her imagination cannot coexist either. Sexuality is portrayed as a main threat to her personality, that growing up slowly erodes the person she is rather than building on it. The only way for Ophelia to reach her true potential is to run away from her sexuality. Feminine sexuality is seen as a weakness or a curse that she will have to inherit once she matures. So to prevent this, the three challenges help guide her away from her femininity and growing up.
     By punishing Ophelia when she eats the forbidden fruit like Eve, to when she takes off the dress her mother made for her in order to collect a key from a giant toad, the girl is encouraged to believe that her maturity equates with the loss of independence, control and creativity. In the director’s commentary of Pan’s Labyrinth, Del Toro lamented that the English title of the film (the Spanish originally being, El Laberinto del Fauno) was translated to Pan’s Labyrinth because he felt the mythical character of Pan was too sexual, too dark to be interacting with a 8-year-old girl (which was the initial age of the character he had written, although he had ended up choosing a 10-year-old actress). This piece of commentary shows how disassociated Del Toro wanted Ophelia and the Underworld to be from sexuality. Again, this lack of sex on the protagonist’s part helps keep this film in the dark fantasy genre, instead of allowing it to become horror. By eliminating any sort of sexual tensions or counterparts, the story helps Ophelia remain a child by making all the males she encounters as father figures. The only control she ends up having is who she chooses to pledge allegiance to, be it to either her stepfather Vidal, the Faun, or eventually her father the deceased tailor/ Underworld King. Although she is not a passive character, Ophelia is constantly being guided by the different father figures in her life. Though she may disobey at times, she never becomes fully independent.
    Ophelia’s death allows her to remain empowered while escaping the future horrors of feminine sexuality both inside and outside the film. By dying, Ophelia retains her power and strength which are things that she prized. However her death also allows her to keep her youth and innocence, which are things even more important to preserve in our culture’s eyes. In the film, her final challenge ends with her protecting her brother from Vidal and the Faun, and ends up getting shot by Vidal. She refuses to sacrifice her half-brother to open the portal to the Underworld (it can only be opened using ‘blood of the innocent’) and ends up using her own blood to open it as she dies. Her death and dramatic self-sacrifice helps strengthened the audience idealization of Ophelia. By dying she ultimately wins in out culture’s perspective. She not only becomes a princess, but also remains young, innocent and beautiful forever. She will no longer pose a threat to her society in reality and instead can be heralded as the peak of perfection after she dies and live on idealized in people’s minds. 
    An example of the film assuring the audience that Ophelia is a contained female character, is by having her death bookend the film. By having her death be the first shot of the film, Del Toro is telling the audience that this will not be a coming-of-age story. The story will be about just a girl, not a growing young woman but a girl, therefore sexual development will play no part in the film. This opening shot allows the audience to indulge in their fascination with young beauty, without dealing with Ophelia’s own awareness or control of her femininity. Throughout the narrative’s history many authors have considered the “most fruitful subject in literature [to be]... ‘the death… of a beautiful woman’… But while dead women [are] fascinating, dying girl-children [are] even more enthralling [because] in one way or another, woman must be ‘killed’ into passivity for her to acquiesce ... her duty of self-abnegation ‘relative to men” (Gilbert Gubar). Ophelia’s death and bittersweet ending is an example of our culture’s fascination with beauty that lacks agency. There is a glorification of this young girl’s death being her escape from all the war and anguish around her. To the audience, a young girl like that should not be subjugated to any impurities or harsh realities of life. Ophelia’s death can be seen as a form of protection rather than a destruction of her being. However, the audience is left with no qualms about leaving her half brother on Earth because he is male. In the future his sexuality will not overshadow his power or control. The brother will succeed when he grows up, unlike his sister who cannot maintain her agency as her pubescent state approaches. 
    Ophelia succeeds but not in this world, she is killed and sent to the Underworld where she is able to reign as a powerful princess. This ending allows the individual heroine to win while still dissociating her success with other women. She is able to escape the curse of feminine sexuality while still leaving the patriarchal society of Earth unchanged.The film is not about hope for all women to become empowered beings at any age, it is about a special case young girl who had already been chosen beforehand as the one to succeed. Because she is more powerful than a normal human girl, Ophelia does not belong on Earth, nor does she choose to fight for it. Del Toro could have made her more relatable to women by allowing her to survive Vidal’s gunshots. She could have been allowed to grow up and contribute to life more by helping Mercedes with fighting the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil war or she could have become a published author writing down and sharing her storytelling abilities with a wider audience. Instead, Ophelia dies, leaving Mercedes in great agony, her half-brother without a family, and makes a small flower on the tree (which she saved in the First Challenge by killing the toad inside of it) the sole reminder of her existence on Earth.
     Pan’s Labyrinth is not a female coming of age story. By containing the feminist streak in the film, Del Toro prevents his dark fantasy from turning into a horror film by society’s standards when it comes to women with powerful abilities. Ophelia empowerment comes from her ability to escape reality and her own approaching sexuality. Throughout the film, Ophelia is guided by the Faun’s challenges and the magic around her to shy away from investigating her femininity, which in turn helps keep her likable to the audience and prevents her from being a threat to the patriarchal figures around her. 


Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The   
                Tradition in English. New York: W.W. Norton, 1985. Print.
Kolb, Leigh. "The Terror of Little Girls: Social Anxiety About Women in Horrifying Girlhood."
                Bitch Flicks. N.p., 24 Nov. 2014. Web. 18 Feb. 2016.
Lindsey, Shelley Stamp. "Horror, femininity, and Carrie's Monstrous Puberty." Journal of Film and  
                Video (1991): 33-44.
Rodriguez, Amanda. "'Brave' and the Legacy of Female Prepubescent
                 Power Fantasies." Bitch Flicks. N.p., 27 Dec. 2013. Web. 18 Feb. 2016.
Pan's Labyrinth. Dir. Guillermo Del Toro. Perf. Sergi López, Maribel Verdú, and Ivana     Baquero.  
                 Picturehouse, 2006. DVD.
Del Toro, Guillermo. Pan’s Labyrinth Script (English Translation)

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