BY SARA CAMPBELL
1987. I am 11 years old and I am already an inveterate babysitter on a Saturday night gig. Fourth in the line of nine children, I am the oldest girl in the middle of six brothers (my sisters are much younger) and I have been changing butts since I had the motor skills to do it. I don’t remember the first time my parents left me alone with younger siblings, but my first paid job happened when I was eight – I hung out at a house a few doors down so the mom could run errands while her toddler napped. I passed the time by playing with the baby’s Fisher Price record player.
At the time we lived in Centerville, Ohio, a suburb of Dayton, which is about as generically American as a place can possibly be. The dad picked me up in a minivan and we weaved through a sea of split level houses to their neighborhood a few miles away. The parents were going out to dinner and I would be feeding the five and seven-year-old and putting them to bed. Easy enough – an hour or two of actual babysitting, tops, followed by watching TV and fridge raiding.
That night I stumbled upon the movie Labyrinth, which had been released the year prior. The premise—a 16-year-old girl named Sarah, frustrated at being stuck watching her baby brother, wishes for him to be taken away by goblins and gets her wish granted, plunging her into an odyssey to get him back—appealed to me for obvious reasons. But it was the child’s strange and hypnotic kidnapper, Jareth the Goblin King, played by David Bowie, who pulled me in.
Jareth…made me feel things I’d read about but never felt before. A pulsing, prickly heatwave that swept through my body. It was like, OH. This. And I was confused about why. With heavily made up eyes, spiked blonde hair and skintight leggings, he looked nothing like the heartthrobs I’d been conditioned to want. At the time, I had a poster of Kirk Cameron, who was at the height of his Tiger Beat popularity in “Growing Pains,” on my bedroom wall. Jareth was nothing like Kirk Cameron. Jareth was also nothing like Mel Gibson or Eddie Murphy or Tom Cruise, the reigning kings of the ‘80s box office. Jareth wasn’t even anything like Judd Nelson’s teen bad boy character in “The Breakfast Club.” Jareth was old (Bowie was nearly 40 at the time) and weird and looked more like a woman than a man. He was pretty and dirty and frightening; I couldn’t take my eyes off him.
I knew of Bowie by then, but the Bowie I knew was the Bowie of early MTV —“China Girl” and “Let’s Dance.” Heavily padded shoulders and bombastic pop songs I didn’t even particularly care for. This Bowie was all menace and, unmistakably, sex. His Jareth wanted Sarah — yes, in that way. In a dream scene after she has eaten a poisoned peach (symbolism!) that the king gives her to stupefy her into failing on her mission to rescue the boy, the two of them are wandering through a ballroom amid masked revelers, and he only has eyes for her. The scene is pure pursuit and seduction, predator and prey, and it’s dripping in frilly clothes and gauzy lighting straight out of a teen fantasy. For an eleven-year-old girl, the idea that there was a world out there where you could be singled out by someone so magnetic and sexually charged, so completely foreign in desires and appearance, was utterly intoxicating.
And taboo, of course. I was turned on but I never said a word about it to anyone, girl or boy. I knew of guys who liked guys and girls who liked girls, but girls who liked guys who looked more like girls who presented a clear and present danger to small children? What the hell was that? It was like Bowie had opened a direct channel to my body through this outrageous caricature of a character, asking me, who are you? What do you like? Who might you become? It was terrifying--but I liked it.
Which made sense. My childhood was hyper male-dominated. My family moved out of state three times in the five years between when I was seven and 12, which meant that our social microcosm consisted of just us more often than not, and I was outnumbered in the gender department. The main topics of conversation around my house were things like Schwarzenegger movies, basketball and who was better than who at, well, anything. Boys did cool stuff and girls did girly stuff. I felt the opposite of seen – instead I hid in books and music and I plotted my escape. When I did eventually get into Bowie the recording artist, I was awed by his originality, his unabashed, unconventional sexuality, and his utter lack of shame at wanting what he wanted and making it abundantly clear to anyone who cared to listen, which was basically everyone. He was a pioneer in the true sense of the word.
I’d like to say this fascination with Bowie portended a more adventurous love life for me, but I grew older and doodled my name in notebooks with the last names of the (mostly pretty normal) boys I liked just like most girls. I never did lose that desire for the strange and otherworldly though—I was always game for any experience outside of my traditional domestic conditioning. I moved out of suburbia after high school and never returned, and my pleasures became adult pleasures, my pursuits adult pursuits – art, literature, relationships, sex, work. I’ve yet to become a wife or a mother, and I don’t know if I ever will. I wonder about all that, but my thoughts turn to what Bowie might say. Here I’ll quote Jareth the Goblin King, talking to the ordinary Sarah, the hapless babysitter. “I have turned the world upside down, and I have done it all for you.”
Sara Campbell is an LA-based writer, lover of cake, music and dogs, and a ruthless, unrepentant dreamer. Her essays have appeared in outlets including Salon.com, The Hairpin and The Oxford American, but she makes a living doing public relations for digital media companies. You can find her shouting into the chasm at www.twitter.com/janedonuts.