Growing up Mormon in the 1980s, I didn’t experience much pop culture beyond Rainbow Brite and E.T. But in 1988, I saw Labyrinth and was introduced to the cosmic force that was Planet Earth’s David Bowie. Both frightened and utterly bewitched at age seven, I fell in love.
In my white bread, fiercely heteronormative suburb, I didn’t fit in. Part of this was because I had dressed up as the Karate Kid the Halloween the year before David Bowie entered my life. A little pink princess trotted up and informed me I couldn’t dress like that. “Oh, yeah?” I shouted. “Try and stop me.” Terrified by my outrage, she screamed and raced away from me and never bothered me again. I had discovered the power I had over anyone who dictates other people’s identities–just by refusing to apologize for who I am. It’s still one of the proudest moments of my life. And that unapologetic individuality is something Bowie modeled for me when it got harder as I grew up.
For most of my childhood and into adolescence, I insisted that I wasn’t a girl. But the more boys I hung out around, I knew I wasn’t one of them, either. Crashing dump trucks into a pile of dirt is just as boring as playing dress-up with a gaggle of bubble-headed dolls. Gender, as defined in the strict tradition of heterosexuality, is boring.
Enter David Bowie.
First off, he didn’t dress the way men in the 1980s did. As Jareth in Labyrinth, Bowie dressed more as a Paris gentleman circa 1800, which in 20th-century America could have been judged as effeminate. Except for Bowie’s ferocity. The way he wore tights and open blouses showed us that form-fitting, revealing clothes could be powerful. And as a musician, he modeled how blocky, angular fashions could be seductive and alluring.
Part of the challenge of Bowie is that, even cast as the Goblin King who kidnaps an infant and threatens a young Jennifer Connelly with damnation, he isn’t really a villain. He’s too charismatic and enigmatic and, well, Bowie. Sure, there’s the bundle of virility in his tights, and that’s part of it. But his sexuality crackles in a way that isn’t gender or orientation-specific. In addition to the tights and heeled boots, there’s the glamour of his eye shadow, the feathers and ruffles fringing his costumes. He was neither male nor female. Or perhaps he was both. Searching the internet for fan adaptations of his costumes in the film, I found as many men as women giving his look a go for themselves. And they look fabulous.
This is what I loved about David Bowie. Not only did he terrify my parents, but he liberated me. The more I followed his career, the more I saw how he twisted and spliced and welded gender into an identity that was sculptural and whole and uniquely Bowie. He did his own thing because he was his own thing. And that helped me become braver in wearing my own identity–by cutting off my hair and wearing men’s vests and tugging on my Italian driving cap. But I still wanted my big earrings and a bit of makeup. Especially thick eyeliner. In Bowie’s universe, there was room for all of it. I could pick and choose from the menu of gender, and Bowie showed me how.
Finally, in college, I encountered the concept of “androgynous.” Suddenly, I had a word for Bowie and for my own relationship with gender. I could be neither/both all at once. We all could be, and probably are.
It seems to me that Bowie was born that way. And he owned the strength, the honesty, and the steel in the soul that empowered him to be a glorious, fearless androgyn, from first to last. This is what I had encountered and fallen hard for nearly 30 years ago in Labyrinth. Every performance of his was a clarion call to selfhood and self-knowledge, and he offered awakenings to those who followed him. Like Connelly’s character, it isn’t so much Bowie we all fell in love with, but the vision he gave us, of the kind of human it is possible to be–transcendent, beyond gender binaries and assigned roles, outside good and evil, powerfully generative, and simply, purely, electrically alive.