Reality, Flights of Fancy, and Fairy Stories: A Discussion of Gender in “Pan’s Labyrinth” – by Clint Westbrook

Forested settings and mythical creatures propel one through the world of 1944’s post-civil war Spain in Pan’s Labyrinth (2006, del Toro) but compelling storytelling comes from his use of specific tonal homages, set design, and performances depict the separation of gender and balance through the character work. This is a theme he used previously in The Devil’s Backbone (2001, del Toro) but has taken prominence in his third Spanish film, a film that broke his name into the American mainstream. Much could be said of this modern fairy tale but the most fascinating questions address not only the battle between male and female but also the parallels; what makes them mirror and stand apart from one another is a favored theme of del Toro’s work that becomes more prominent in this film than any other in his body of work.


Whether it be in the trees, in the labyrinth, or in the horns of the Faun himself (Doug Jones, a regular in del Toro films) the symbol of the spiral is one that constantly appears in the film and is associated highly with Ofelia. We first see her as a princess in a gray underworld, racing up the spiral staircase and into the light of the earth above only to spill blood down a similar symbol near the film’s conclusion, the blood dripping down to the large (and rather blunt) phallic symbol beneath to openly suggest menstruation. Tied to her first and final appearances we see her rise and fall through it, the symbol of femininity closely related to Celtic fairy tales and symbology brought to life in not only her end points but her interactions with the environment along the way.

Blatant meaning can come from many of the images in the film but some of the most blatant examples are the connections between the magic tree, the horns of the faun, and the blood spirals in the magic book given to her by said faun. Each of these reveals more and more about the fairy world’s ties to Ofelia and the distance it maintains from her antagonist, the stiff and rigid Captain Vidal. As we look at the Faun we see the horns and we, as an audience, get a sense of familiarity in them. Presented in the tree is the same sense of an image we have come across before. It is not until the book bleeds, until the ovaries become clearly visible and tie to those of Ofelia’s mother Carmen that we begin to fully connect the dots and see the gender specific line between Ofelia, who can see this world and interact with it, and her vicious stepfather Vidal, who can see minor evidence of the fairy world but cannot grasp it.


Within the film we get two characters that could be designated as our “leads” against all other performances in Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) and Captain Vidal (Sergi López), but we get many supporting characters to build them up as well; the performances of the actors drive home the separation and parallels between male and female themes in the context of the story.

Much has been made of Vidal’s obsession with clockwork, of order, but one of the most ignored aspects of the film is his penchant for greed and gluttony. Vidal has impregnated Ofelia’s mother Carmen with his obsessive need for a son and is slowly killing her through it. She is suffering complications and pain from the pregnancy and Vidal, desperate to keep her alive long enough to give him his son, fights to keep her alive. In doing this he relies on a doctor who is untrustworthy, a man who sides with the rebels that plague Vidal. As The Captain comes to realize what is happening he murders the only man who could have kept his wife alive. Both fight to keep Carmen going in their own way, but Vidal’s methods are goal-oriented rather than emotional or out of any sense of love for his wife.

Ofelia, however, turns to magic and blatant disobedience to save her beloved mother. We see a frightened girl turning to something she understands in context of her readings – fairies. As Ofelia stands before the faun asking for help even he seems preoccupied with matters more important than the trivial impending death of a human and must be coerced into helping with the mandrake root. His dismissive attitude (and later his aggressive one) both have similar ties to that of Vidal, but there is a much less blatant danger about him. His ties to the world of magic put Ofelia at ease and allow her to be more bold with the him.

As Ofelia meets the faun the scene is intercut with Vidal’s interrogation of two locals who were caught in the forest. After brutally murdering them he discovers that they are merely hunters rather than rebels, and coldly tells his soldiers to search people more thoroughly before dragging him into it. This vicious behavior and cold attitude are cut with Ofelia’s tentative delight and excitement at the prospect of real magic in the world. The girl, who learns that the caretaker Mercedes outgrew a belief in fairies, plunges ahead into her adventure ready to become the princess she feels she may have always been.

Vidal’s adult realism and patterned male aggression in context with the defiant and childlike manner of Ofelia lead to the main conflicts between the two characters, with him requesting that she not “fuck with him” and his asking of her mother why she still reads fairy tales, the text of the film bluntly displaying his viciousness and her defiance. Ofelia begins to take stabs back at the tyrant in the world of fairy.

The two lie in contrast to other characters, both of whom are in some way a parallel and mirror image to these: Carmen and Dr. Ferreiro both embody similar traits in their gendered counterparts.

Carmen, a woman who believes in the myth of her new savior husband, knowingly places herself in the grasp of a man who is violent and dangerous while convincing herself that he is a kind person who pulled her and Ofelia out of the grip of poverty and struggle to rise up and into a more comfortable existence. Staunch belief drives her forward even as she sees the cold and vicious individual she has shackled herself to.

On the other hand we have Ferreiro, a man of realistic expectations and belief. Carrying around the knowledge of his own impending death as though just another tool in his bag of medicine, we watch as he injects a captured soldier and kills him to preserve the secret of where the rebels are hiding in the woods. This act is his sacrificial moment, the crux of his character. The Doctor knows that this will get him killed and he does not hesitate, embodying the most blatant theme of the film. His realism, as well as his status as a man, ties him to Vidal but his willing sacrifice mirrors Ofelia’s own as she takes a bullet for her brother after refusing to sacrifice him to the Faun.

In an article for Film Comment in 2007 Michael Atkinson discussed the theme of self-sacrifice.

“Of course, self-sacrifice is the key; for all of its pagan ingredients, del Toro’s film has the stark structure of a saintly passion. “ (Atkinson, 2007)

Through this theme we see the tie, the blending, between the two genders in that all make personal sacrifices of some sort for cause. Vidal for his legacy, Ofelia for royalty and family, Carmen for livelihood, Fereirro and Mercedes for their cause and those they love. The performances are blunt and direct, with Vidal being labelled by many as cartoonish in his villainy (Nicholson, The Canon), but the overt themes of the film come through in the most personal character moments. The spectacles of the magic and action serve as vehicles for these performances that essentially dictate the major themes of the film alongside much of the art design.


Every del Toro film has iconic and distinct set/creature design, from the live bomb in The Devil’s Backbone and the gothic house in Crimson Peak (2016, del Toro) to the Angel of Death in Hellboy (2003, del Toro), but little is as renowned as the Tree and the lair of the Pale Man (not to mention the creature himself) in Pan’s Labyrinth. These two symbols are also tied, heavily, with the themes of gender and corruption within the film.

The Tree is a vagina. It is a very blatant and overt stand-in for the female anatomy, from its’ ovarian branches to the cave-like opening in the trunk between them. Within them we find the toad and this is where the tie gets interesting because this giant male is living a gluttonous lifestyle within the roots beneath this ancient, beautiful tree. An article by Mike Perschon draws attention to the importance of this.

“The connection between the Tree and Ofelia’s mother is overt, and intentional, on del Toro’s part. These images are symbolic markers for the sexual union between Ofelia’s mother and Vidal. Vidal is the giant toad, who has entered the tree out of lustful appetites, slowly killing the tree through its “insatiable appetite” for the pill bugs within.” (Perschon, 2011)

Ofelia, thinking quickly, tricks the toad into eating a piece of magic contained in a rock by disguising it with pill bugs, thus feeding on the creature’s inability to ever get enough and turning it inside out. Her usage of the magic as the faun gave it to her connects the girl further into that world and away from the reality of Vidal, of the war, and the brutality going on around her.

Further displaying the darkness as personification of Vidal’s masculine violence is the character of the Pale Man, a slender yet saggy creature whose eyes are embedded in its’ hands as-needed and who hungers for flesh. Flesh hangs from bone as the viewer sees that the monster was once much larger and plump on previous prey. The creature’s cavern is set up in an exact parody of Vidal’s dining room, with all of the food one could ever want at the table. The design of the room mixed with the symbolism of the Pale Man all point to Vidal. Again turning to Perschon, this is discussed further.

“Like the Pale Man, Vidal also dines on the blood of innocents. He cuts the people’s rations, supposedly to hurt the rebels, but eats very well himself; in many scenes he savors his hoarded tobacco with almost sexual ecstasy; but this is not a man with sexual appetites.” (Perschon, 2011)

The Pale Man’s dining room contains a peculiar object – a pile of old, discarded children’s shoes. Footwear of former feasts is a facinorous display of what the creature has been doing with his victims, the warning from the faun not to steal from the table lest a terrible fate befall echoing that of the rebel who is captured after daring to steal from Vidal.

Ofelia escapes the Pale Man, but few escape from the clutches of the Captain for most of the film. Mercedes barely escapes with her life, Carmen dies delivering his baby, and he murders Doctor Ferreiro in anger. This last one, coupled with Vidal’s brutal murder of the father and his son earlier in the film, brings his link to the Pale Man more clarity as these were those who dared to steal from his table, to hunt food that is supposed to be his, and who The Captain himself “feasted on.”

The creatures, interestingly enough, both fully embody Vidal’s male aggression. Their violation, the aggressive and greedy nature of the monsters, are eerily reflective of del Toro’s view on humanity and gender and serve as wonderful imagery to drive home the point of his original fairy tale and drive home the crux of the film’s point. In essence, we see the mirror from the character to the creatures and are immersed in his villainy when held up against the more heroic figures.


Guillermo del Toro has always had an interest in gender identifiers in film and, indeed, I would theorize that his films may even be like the writings of Neil Gaiman.

“Books have sexes; or to be more precise, books have genders. They do in my head, anyway. Or at least, the ones that I write do. And these are genders that have something, but not everything, to do with the gender of the main character of the story.” (Gaiman)

The identifiers in Guillermo del Toro’s film portray stark contrasts but, I believe, skew female.The ties between the creatures and Vidal versus the environment and the mythic sacrifices of the women (not to mention Fereirro) display not only the importance of gender but the separations and parallels between man and woman in the context of a fairy tale: the director walks us from the intro as we see Ofelia embrace the fairy creatures she meets to the conclusion as she bleeds into the labyrinth with pieces of gender-tied imagery and storytelling, taking influence from history as well as classic fairy tale genre.

Works Cited

  1. Dolor, L.I. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit, sed diam nonummy nibh. New York: Columbia UP, 1998. Print.
  2. Atkinson, Michael. “Moral Horrors: In Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, The Supernatural Realm Mirrors Man’s Inhumanity to Man.” Film Comment 43.1 (2007): 50-53. Web.
  3. Perschon, Mike Embracing the Darkness, Sorrow, and Brutality in Pan’s Labyrinth
  5. Nicholson, Amy. “46 Pan’s Labyrinth.” Audio blog post. The Canon. Wolfpop, October 12th 2015. Web.

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