Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth and its Feminist Characteristics
Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) is a Spanish film written and directed by Guillermo del Toro. The film is set in Spain during the Fascist Civil War and talks of a mythical world of long-forgotten ruins of a stone labyrinth in our main character’s new home. The story is that Ofelia, the main protagonist, is a reincarnated princess of the underworld. This princess had dreamt of being a part of the human world, containing blue skies, soft breeze, and sunshine. One day, the princess escaped, traveling to this world of promise, but once in this new land, finds herself suffering from cold, sickness, and pain. Her memory was erased and no longer knew who she was or where she had come from. She eventually died and returns to the underworld through Ofelia’s body. A mysterious mythical faun guides Ofelia in her quests to accomplish three tasks to get her back into her rightful place from so long-ago, where her father, the king, awaits her return. Some argue that Ofelia possesses feminist qualities with her take charge and sometimes rebellious attitude, while others will argue that she is tricked by the faun in her journey to this underworld kingdom. I find myself on the side that she is indeed making these decisions on her own and embodies the qualities of a true feminist character.
In the article, “Menstruation as Heroine’s Journey in Pan’s Labyrinth”, by Richard Lindsay, he refers to the imagery of a uterus, blood, and ovaries that are used to symbolize the female transition into adulthood as a seemingly immediate transformation from child to adult. Laura Hubner describes a similar explanation of transitional phases in her article “Pan’s Labyrinth, Fear and the Fairy Tale”, where she recognizes Ofelia as a young female hero who is stuck in a liminal space and is “capable of subverting mythologies of femininity and biology” (Hubner 45).
Ofelia’s character is almost immediately shown as being one prone to curiosity and adventure upon her arrival to her newly appointed stepfather’s outpost, as well as her new home. She shows these qualities by dropping her books and running after a praying mantis, that leads her to the labyrinth. Already showing signs of disobedience as her mother had instructed her to greet captain Vidal as “father” of whom, she does not. This is a small detail, but not even five minutes into the film the audience is finding out so much about her rebellious personality. Also, on the way to the house in the caravan, her mother Carmen tells her that she is “getting a bit old to fill her head with such nonsense” (Pan’s Labyrinth 2006) as she sees that Ofelia is holding books about fairy tales. Later that night, the praying mantis comes back and wakes Ofelia to reveal its true form as a fairy. The fairy once again guides her to the labyrinth where she is introduced to the faun. The faun tells her that she is a princess who belongs in the underworld and that she needs to perform three tasks before the moon is full. The full moon can be seen as a representation of the start of a menstrual cycle where her innocence will then be lost and will transform into a woman. This can be seen as the first instance of del Toro’s symbolism, as well as the faun’s horns being shapely to that of ovaries. Blood and female reproductive organs are constantly, yet subtly, used throughout the film to portray the transition Ofelia faces as she becomes a woman along-side her quest into the underworld. This imagery also comes with the introduction of the faun’s character as he comes across very creepy and vague with his description of exactly who he is and why he is so seemingly forward in his personal desire for her to be the princess. Which then leads some people to believe Ofelia is being manipulated by the faun instead of making decisions on her own. Despite the faun’s unsavory demeanor she accepts the quest to complete the three tasks and takes the “Book of Crossroads” from him, the first tool on her journey into the underworld kingdom.
“Hero’s journeys are often tales of initiation…where the threshold between childhood and adulthood is not as easily divided” (Lindsay 35). However, Ofelia seems to have a pretty clear path as to when the crossover will begin as all she must do is follow the book’s instruction and become a princess. In a sense, the crossover is her rite of passage as she will become an adult by completing the tasks, and her coming of age. This also represents the natural transition from childhood to adulthood from the female perspective, as this crossover can be related to the beginning of menstruation. The next day, Ofelia talks to Mercedes (the captain’s handmaiden and a motherly figure to Ofelia during the film) about what happened the night before. She tells Mercedes about the fairies she encountered as well as the faun, of which Mercedes informs Ofelia that her mother had once told her to be wary of fauns. This is another contribution to the skepticism of the faun’s intentions that gives the audience more reason to think that she is being tricked. Ofelia then goes into the woods as she reads the book the faun gave her, seeing what her first task will be. It tells her a story about a dying fig tree that will come back to life if she kills the toad inside it by feeding it three magic stones. The toad will then die and she will be able to retrieve a golden key from its stomach. More symbolism is used in this scene as Ofelia must disrobe, as going into the tree would certainly ruin her beautiful dress that her mother made for her. In many ways this can be seen as a power move, with her throwing away material to then take action on this knowingly mucky journey. With the dress being a symbol of childhood, and her making the conscious decision to leave it behind and complete her task, resembling adulthood.
Later that night after completing her first task, Ofelia is in the bathtub, ridding herself from the grime collected on her quest. She is once again greeted by a fairy, she informs the fairy that she has retrieved the golden key and wants to return to the labyrinth. Still being fearless and staying true to her belief in a more wondrous world. The real world can be very mundane, and with the promise of a greater life, what child would not want to reach out for something greater? Laura Hubner touches on the topic of “Gothic Elements”, talking about how “The faun’s ambiguous and duplicitous characteristics…and it is never finally clear whether the choices she makes are morally right” (Hubner 55). Hubner quotes one Lisa Hopkins “Gothic tends to create polarities: extreme good is opposed to extreme evil…”. This once again generates more skepticism about the faun’s intentions, with Ofelia being the good, and the faun being the evil. The faun then gives Ofelia a stick of chalk for her next task and speaks promise of walking through “seven circular gardens of her palace” to which Ofelia replies with question of how she can trust what he says to be true. She does not carry out the task the next day and is then visited by the faun in her room. He questions her negligence and she tells him her mother is sick. The faun then gives her a mandrake root to put under her mother’s bed in a bowl of milk, and to give it two drops of blood each morning, more symbolism of blood being tied to life. This makes her trust the faun a bit more as the remedy begins to work. The faun gives her his three fairies to help her on the next task and tells her to avoid eating anything in the room when she arrives at her task location. Using the chalk she was given, draws a doorway on the wall to enter this alternate world to begin the next step in her quest. The doorwayy being more symbolism of her transition. Ofelia arrives in the room where she is to open a lock and obtain her next quest item. She is presented with a monstrous pale man sitting at the table in front of the feast of fruits as well as paintings on the wall of the monster feeding on babies. This frightens her as Ofelia becomes short of breath and turns away. The fairies fly to the wall with three small doors and instruct her to open the middle door with her golden key, however, she makes the decision to disobey and unlocks another door. She retrieves a dagger from the door, what the other doors contain is left unknown and ties back into her making her own decisions and driving the plot forward. She is disobedient yet again when she reaches for a grape on the table and the fairies try to stop her from eating the fruit. She then consumes the grape, awaking the monster. The monster then gruesomely bites the heads off two of the fairies and chases Ofelia out of this demonic room. This scene depicts the multifaceted complexity of Ofelia’s character. Throughout the movie, insubordination has been her greatest strength and weakness. A true feminist character makes her own decisions that will sometimes benefit her, like her being able to obtain the dagger, but sometimes she will have to deal with the consequences, like the loss of her fairy friends. Ofelia’s determination to critically think for herself, even if the consequences are negative, illustrates a feminist narrative that makes her character more complex. Her disobedience to the faun also exemplifies that she is not just a supporting character, but an individual who has the control of her own fate.
Ofelia’s next encounter with the faun does not go so well as she confesses her act of disobedience and he replies that she will never return to her rightful place in the underworld kingdom. “Your spirit shall forever remain among the humans, you shall age like them, you shall die like them” (Pan’s Labyrinth 2006). Now faced with the consequences of her actions, she is lost, much like a young adult in our society. She checks on the mandrake root that is aiding her mother, and the captain catches her doing so. He acts with rage and yelling, awaking Carmen, Ofelia cries to her mother asking to “leave this place” and her mother replies “you are getting older, soon you’ll see that life isn’t like your fairy tales” (Pan’s Labyrinth 2006). Telling her that the world is dark and cruel and that she needs to accept it for what it is and get over it. This is just one more scenario trying to suppress Ofelia’s hopes and dreams. Carmen then throws the mandrake root into the fire. The root screams and Carmen feels a sharp pain and begins going into labor, she then dies after giving birth, more symbolism of life and death, transition amongst worlds.
Whilst all of this is going on, Mercedes had been helping her brother, a rebel and enemy to captain Vidal. She had stolen some medical kits from the storage at the outpost to give to her brother. When Mercedes is discovered, The Captain ties her up in the storeroom, preparing to torture her. He insists all his guards leave him to the task, sneering, “For God’s sake, she’s just a woman” (Pan’s Labyrinth 2006). Subtly, Mercedes warns him of his grave underestimation of her, “That’s what you always thought. That’s why I was able to get away with it. I was invisible to you.” The Captain continues to disregard her, and before he realizes it, she’s escaped using her dull kitchen knife to cut the ropes and to stab him repeatedly. When he is at her mercy, she says, “I’m not some old man! I’m not some wounded prisoner! Motherfucker! Don’t you dare touch the girl! You won’t be the first pig I’ve gutted!” She slices his mouth open, permanently disfiguring his face. This pivotal scene shows Mercedes as full of strength, compassion, and unshakable resolve. She asserts her power as a woman, defying not only the gender binary that subjugates women but defying her class and the military state authoritarian structure as well. She tells The Captain that women aren’t weak like old men or wounded prisoners, and she even cites the power her trade as a kitchen maid has given her before viscerally showing him that power. Even in the height of her rage, Mercedes is still thinking of the welfare of Ofelia, who is her friend, surrogate child, and ally. Feminism is strongly portrayed here and even so through Ofelia, as the two are doppelgangers. “Ofelia and Mercedes represent adult and child versions of the same struggle…” (Lindsay 214).
Through all the turmoil taking place in the film at this point, Ofelia is visited again by the fairy and the faun. The faun tells her she will be given one last chance and asks her “Do you promise to do what I say? Will you do everything I tell you, without question?” (Pan’s Labyrinth 2006). Of course, in desperation, Ofelia nods yes to both questions with haste. She is instructed to bring her newly born brother to the labyrinth. She steals her brother from the captain’s quarters and Vidal chases her to the labyrinth but is lead to a dead end, giving Ofelia time to talk with the faun. The faun orders Ofelia to hand her brother over to him because the portal to her underworld kingdom will only open if it receives “blood from an innocent, this is the final task” (Pan’s Labyrinth 2006). She refuses to give up her brother to the faun, once again making her own decision. By this time, captain Vidal has found Ofelia, he proceeds to take the baby and shoots her dead. Ofelia did, in fact, however, offer the blood of an innocent to the portal. Her own blood, still innocent as she never reached menstruation (the full moon to come), opened the portal and she was able to join her parents in the underworld. She claims her throne as princess aside her dead mother and father. You see her mentally transition from child to adult as she makes her way into the underworld. She smiles as she takes her last breath in the physical world. Mercedes discovers Ofelia’s dead body after she and the rebels find and kill captain Vidal.
The way Mercedes wields her power is contrasted with the way in which the patriarchal figure of the captain wields his. Though Ofelia is only a lost child caught between harsh reality and dark fantasy, even she recognizes the imperative of morality and self-sacrifice when faced with the choice: do evil to gain a reward or do good and lose everything. Both Mercedes and Ofelia are flawed, multifaceted characterizations of unique women in a situation made terrible by an oppressive patriarchal force represented by captain Vidal. Though they could be rigidly interpreted as mother/maiden and child, their individual depth coupled with their oftentimes unexpected strength and clarity give them value in a feminist viewing of Pan’s Labyrinth.