The Psychological Arcs of Women in Pan’s Labyrinth
Updated: Sep 24
What's that, you say? You're looking for a deconstructive/ psychological/ symbolic/ feminist reading of Pan's Labyrinth that's weird and kind of hard to explain? That's… bizarrely specific... But look no further! Here we go: The women of Pan's Labyrinth - Ofelia, Mercedes, and Carmen - are three aspects of a psychic-thematic apparatus, in the spirit of Freud's model of the human psyche. These three aspects unify thematically, during a process of Jungian individuation, and ultimately seize character agency in defiance of the available patriarchal narrative roles. Okay, I know that was a lot, all at once. Don't panic; we'll break it down a bit.
First, some definitions:
Character agency: A character's ability to make decisions that impact the narrative. This is a frequent deficiency in cinematic depictions of women. For a recent example, consider last year's Star Wars : Rogue One, in which an ostensibly strong female lead spends two hours doing whatever a parade of random dudes tells her to do. That's just lazy storytelling, no matter how awesomely satisfying that one scene may have been. (You know the one.)
Individuation: Founder of analytical psychology and psychotic mystic Carl Jung defined this as the process by which aspects of the psyche integrate into a unified “Self.” Imagine your psyche is a puzzle (you complicated, mysterious person, you). Individuation is putting the pieces together, and Self is when you finally finish, look at the completed Monet painting (or whatever) and think “...eh.”
Psychic-Thematic Apparatus: In between cocaine binges (or perhaps during one), Sigmund Freud outlined a model of the psyche made up of the Id, Ego, and Superego. We could study Ofelia, Mercedes, and Carmen in a strictly Freudian context, but that would be too easy. Instead, let's apply the general concept of the psychic apparatus to thematic development, as well. Think of the three women as three parts of a single mechanism designed to deconstruct its own story.
Having fun yet? Next, we'll divide the plot of Pan's Labyrinth into two narrative worlds, both dominated by masculine Masters of Ceremony: The mill, ruled by Captain Vidal, and the fairy tale, presided over by The Faun. The demands on the women of the film are the same for both worlds: obedience without question. The women, however, have a different idea. As the film opens, Ofelia and her mother, Carmen, arrive in the domain of the (cleverly gender-reversed) evil stepfather, whose son Carmen is carrying. In Captain Vidal’s world, this baby is not Carmen’s, nor theirs, but his. Women are only vehicles for his priorities. Meanwhile, in the magical world of the Faun, Ofelia is offered a tempting alternative narrative: A fairy tale, with the role of “princess” waiting. This offer comes with an insidious condition: Ofelia must suppress her sexual awakening, remaining perpetually, and non-threateningly, prepubescent. This is a common way to undermine female narrative power; audiences are more comfortable with strong, female protagonists when they're of the Little Orphan Annie variety than with, say, a female equivalent of James Bond.
By entering the labyrinth, which symbolizes the pathways of the psyche, Ofelia engages herself and, by extension, Mercedes and Carmen in a shared process of individuation. At this point, the first of three major symbolic markers is introduced: the fig tree. If you've watched Pan's Labyrinth with an eye for symbolism, you probably know we have to acknowledge something about the fig tree right off the bat: it's a womb. This symbolism is reinforced in many ways, but just look at that tree; it has ovaries. Are we on the same page, here? Good. Ofelia, who has been called upon to assume a maternal role towards her physically and narratively weakening mother, must confront her ambivalence about the pregnancy. This ambivalence towards her brother is realized as a monstrous toad, which Ofelia must face. Meanwhile, Mercedes receives the opportunity to give the anti-Fascist guerrillas (among them her brother) access to a locked storeroom filled with valuable supplies.
Ofelia and Mercedes have arrived at a key turning point, literally. Their key turning point is a key-turning point. It's keys, is what I'm saying, here. This is the second symbolic marker. Mercedes passes the storeroom key to the guerrillas, and Ofelia ventures into the subterranean hall of the Pale Man, a nightmarish reflection of Vidal’s above-ground dominion. Here, Ofelia disobeys twice. First, she chooses to unlock the next symbolic marker, the knife, and then eats the “forbidden fruit” of puberty, which is symbolized by, well… forbidden fruit. Some of this is pretty self-explanatory, I’ll be honest. As a result of her disobedience, she is rejected from The Faun’s narrative, and a mandrake root which had been used to improve Carmen's condition becomes useless. For Ofelia, magic is gone. For Mercedes, the safety of her housemaid facade is about to crumble. For both, the moment to seize narrative control is at hand.
What about Carmen? She's been the passive, uncertain aspect of the psychic-thematic apparatus, so now that Ofelia and Mercedes are becoming more self-possessed, how does Carmen fit in? Well, she doesn't. She dies.
In turn, Mercedes and Ofelia face and wound Vidal, by mutilation and medication, respectively. However, to fully unify the aspects of the apparatus into a single thematic “Self,” one more trip into the psychic labyrinth is required. There, Ofelia confronts both Vidal and the Faun, directly and at the same time. Strengthened by newfound character agency, Ofelia rejects both narratives, refusing to obey either man. Her death, while tragic, completes the puzzle of “Self.” All elements are now unified in Mercedes, who overthrows the patriarchal expectations, seizes control of the narrative, and claims her own agency within it.
There are many ways to view this richly-complex film, but as Hollywood, at long last, takes faltering, uncertain, often incompetent steps towards improved depictions of female characters, let the women of Pan's Labyrinth serve as a new archetype: a princess who writes her own fairytale, according to her own rules.
(Sometimes) a theatrical director/actor/producer and writer, and (mostly) a bartender and New Beaconite often found in semi-aimless wander.