I wrote this little ditty for my Feminist Literature class in college (because DUH) and I’ve been wanting to share it so here we go! Contains spoilers.
The musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, written by John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask, explores the themes of sexuality, gender, and the body in a way that is very rarely seen in media. The story is told in monologue form, focusing entirely on the life of German rock star Hedwig and her band “The Angry Inch”. Hedwig offers a perfect example of a queer character that challenges the definitions of supposedly understood concepts, such as sex and gender. The way Mitchell presents the complex character of Hedwig invites discussions and conversations about how we perceive what society deems normal about identity politics. Hedwig and the Angry Inch offers a brand new dynamic of exploring sex, gender, and the body by encouraging ideas of multiplicity and how we construct identity.
Multiplicity and the Rejection of the Norm
After escaping communist East Berlin by getting a sex change operation and marrying a United States lieutenant, Hedwig is forced to navigate her life in a new body, a new country, and with a completely new identity. Hedwig uses she/her pronouns throughout the play, but also describes herself as a “girlyboy from communist East Berlin” so there is a question of how exactly she identifies in terms of gender. Her sex change was motivated by her desire to leave Berlin, so she did not actively set out to transition based on her identity. However, with wigs, makeup, and clothing, she presents extremely female and takes ownership of her femininity through her overall appearance. With Hedwig comes multiplicity; while some may label her as trans or genderfluid, it seems that Hedwig doesn’t feel the need to associate herself with a label at all.
There is an excerpt from the song “Tear Me Down” that discusses this tension that exists within Hedwig. Her husband sings the words that compare her to the Berlin wall, claiming that Hedwig lives “in the divide between East and West, slavery and freedom, man and woman…” This struggle to classify Hedwig’s identity is discussed multiple times throughout the play. There are many parallels found between physical borders – like her inability to leave Berlin – and borders of sex and gender that exist in terms of her identity. Rather than conforming to one particular label, Hedwig explores herself through the creation of her own unique identity. She does not decide between being a man or a woman, and she does not explicitly identify with either her German or American identity. Instead, she rejects the idea that she needs to fit into these predetermined boxes, and decides she would rather live as someone completely new.
In a song about Hedwig, her former boyfriend Tommy sings “you were so much more than any God could ever plan, more than a woman or a man”, exploring the ways in which she introduced him to a new way of thinking about identity. Tommy is described as a “Jesus freak”, and he had been taught since he was little that the most valued qualities of identity could be found in the Bible. But after meeting Hedwig, this concrete, binary-driven ideology that Tommy learned from Catholicism is suddenly destroyed. He realizes, unlike his parents, that he can choose how to construct his own identity without any guidance from the Bible. Hedwig helps Tommy to create his stage persona of Tommy Gnosis, who unlike Tommy Speck, does not care about authority or rules, and rather focuses on the intrigue of uncertainty. But with this resistance against the norm comes tension, which can be seen through Hedwig’s relationship with Tommy.
At Tommy’s hesitance to take their relationship to the next level, Hedwig asks him “What are you afraid of?” Without a clear answer, it is obvious that Tommy is not ready to understand the ways in which Hedwig challenges the norms of sex and gender. Even with his own experience of rebellion against his parents, Hedwig’s rejection of what people expect from her instills a sense of fear. There is an essential fear of the unknown that people must confront when they are introduced to Hedwig. Therefore, Hedwig is forced to come to terms with continuing to face this struggle unless she fully embraces the multiplicity of her identity. She must further construct what it means to be Hedwig, her individual self, rather than what it means to be a man or a woman or any other label that may be assumed about her. By creating an identity surrounded by ambiguity and queerness, Hedwig works to make this new space and ultimately find acceptance within herself.
Not only does Hedwig refuse to follow any of society’s expectations about what it means to be a woman, or genderqueer, or any other label, but she also does so loudly. With her exaggerated use of feminine and glamorous aesthetics, as well as the conservation of a strong and dominating attitude, Hedwig lives honestly and without gender boundaries. She forces herself into the spotlight. She wants people to know who she is, ambiguity and all.
Drag culture is another tool the show uses to discuss identity. Once Hedwig starts her new life in the United States, she must make the abrupt transition from Hansel Schmidt to Hedwig Robinson, and she turns her persona into a performance. She uses makeup and a variety of wigs to create different versions of herself, until she settles on the “punk rock star of stage and screen”. While this is perceived to be a very feminine way of presenting, the fact that Hedwig draws from over exaggerated drag and glam-punk styles of expression suggests that there is still no clear assumption one can make about her identity.
Once Hedwig meets her husband Yitzhak – who also has a passion for drag culture – her constructed identity becomes threatened. Because of their similar styles, Hedwig feels like the space she has created for her own personal identity is being replicated, therefore it may no longer be unique. Yitzhak’s stage identity, Crystal, is something he considers to be an important part of his identity. There is a part of him that connects closely to it, as shown through his jealousy of Hedwig’s role of lead vocalist in the Angry Inch. But while Yitzhak longs to explore this part of his identity, Hedwig prohibits it in order to maintain her own spotlight and validation. If Yitzhak were to play around with gender in the ways Hedwig does, would his uniqueness undermine Hedwig’s, therefore making it less special? Rather than risk this, Hedwig forbids him from performing in drag. She forces him to give up a part of his identity in order to maintain her own unique ambiguity.
The dynamics of Hedwig’s marriage also demonstrate how she and her husband do not prescribe to the assumed gender norms created by society. In traditional straight marriages, the man is the dominant one, often times dismissing the woman in the relationship in order to maintain power. But it quickly becomes clear that Hedwig and Yitzhak complicate these roles. For example, Hedwig controls Yitzhak’s every move and every decision. She dictates the role he plays in the band, and he very often is shown taking care of Hedwig – brushing her wigs, getting her drinks, and constantly waiting on her hand and foot. He has no power in the relationship. Hedwig created these skewed power dynamics between the two of them by erasing the expectations that the wife had to be submissive and passive; though Yitzhak would label her as his wife, this term could be used loosely, as it is identifying Hedwig ultimately as female.
Sexuality and the Body
Throughout the play, there are a lot of references to Hedwig’s biology rather than how exactly she identifies in terms of gender. There is an entire song called “Angry Inch” that discusses the messy results of her “sex change operation” (Side note: this term is no longer acceptable and has been replaced with the more accurate “gender affirming surgery”). Along with her ambiguous gender identity, her perceived sex is also impossible to define, as she uses the words “where my penis used to be, where my vagina never was” to describe what is now an “angry inch”.
The theme of the body in Hedwig ultimately works to deconstruct the binary. For example, along with her gender presentation, Hedwig refuses to prescribe to any certain expectation about her sexuality. On her journey to constructing her unique identity, Hedwig struggles to navigate how her own life story will compare to the story of Plato’s Symposium. This famous work, which is heavily discussed in the play, explores the story of the children of the sun, the Earth, and the moon – humans who were once combined respectively as two men, two women, and a man and a woman. When Hedwig’s mother tells her this story, she seeks its truth in her own life. She spends the majority of the play longing for her other half. While contemplating whether or not two people are actually meant to become one again – which Plato’s work suggests is the ultimate paradise – she wonders “is [my other half] a he or a she?” Along with these thoughts Hedwig also considers if sex is the physical way people themselves back together after being separated by the Gods.
But by the end of the show, Hedwig realizes that this duplicity can come from within. Once again, Hedwig must come to terms with the fact that rather than picking a side or finding the person who physically completes her and signifies the binary of her identity, she can continue to allow the multiplicity that exists within her to grow and develop. In doing so, she allows her body and her identity to live in a state of ambiguity – she is neither man nor woman, and she is not one half of a person looking for another to complete her. She is whole.
There are many tools Mitchell uses throughout the play to offer new ideas about sex, gender, and the body, such as deconstructed notions of the body, drag culture, multiplicity, and rejections of the binary. Hedwig’s character is essentially queer in the ways she refuses to prescribe to society’s expectations of what it means to be a woman, or any gender at all. Hedwig struggles with the conflicts that are born from her preferred ambiguity, but she ultimately comes to terms with the fact that it is her difference that defines her honest identity. Hedwig learns how to construct her own unique identity both through her appearance and her behaviors, all which are applicable to the notion of identity as a construction and performance. Hedwig explores the ways in which sex, gender, and the body can be used as tools for people to construct their own brand of identity and express themselves through genuine authenticity, despite what society may deem “normal”.