Welcome to the coming out party. Here, we talk about Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
Cold Open: Two-camera setup. Black and white on a DSLR, full color on the green screen. Joe sings Wig in a Box.
Pank, ponk, shing.
Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls, children of all ages, hats, cats, and… other folk, welcome to Sofa Justice Warriors. I’m… Joe? Maybe? And tonight’s movie is, well… *gestures to self.*
Today’s episode of Sofa Justice Warriors is entitled: Hedwig, gender, and death of the author: You can inspire me without meaning to.
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Yes, yes, I know. Something’s different. And of course that difference is that my fishnets are running, and fuck you, I don’t care. I don’t care! (I super care.)
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is ostensibly a movie about a band. Except it’s not. It’s ostensibly a movie about a performer. Except it’s not. It’s ostensibly a movie about a genitally mutilated person of indeterminate gender whose lackluster career is inexorably linked with a mainstream rock star’s career via a sex scandal and plagiarism, but it’s not that either. At least not to me.
It may be these things to creator John Cameron MItchell, but to me it meant something else.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is, to me, a movie about loss, grief, denial, and, spoilers abound, coming to terms with one’s self.
We begin, as navel-gazing introspective treatises do, in a bar.
Hedwig is a performer.
A would-be rockstar relegated to restaurants and buffets and small clubs whose former creative partner, Tommy Gnosis, has ascended to the #1 spot on MTV using material she wrote without giving her credit.
She is a bitter, terrible person whose resentment has eaten her up inside, and with good reason.
Hedwig used to be, using her own term, a young girlyboy named Hansel, raised on the wrong side of the Berlin wall. Like so many before her, she turns to Rock and Roll for an escape. Except, y’know… in an oven, which is just… *kisses fingers*. Woof. *shivver*
Also, her mom throws tomatoes at her, which is kind of the universal sign for “I don’t approve of your art,” and just… there’s so much going on here.
A man falls for her, and promises to take her away from her terrible life. He wants to marry her. Unfortunately, marriage, in germany at the time, on this side of the Berlin wall, requires a physical examination. On Hedwig’s mother’s recommendation, she undergoes gender reassignment surgery… and it gets botched.
And here, our angry inch.
She has, temporarily, enough of a vagina to pass the medical tests and marry her pedophile husband, (and if you bring up ephebophilia, so help me,) and move to America. But her vagina soon heals, leaving her with a physical and emotional scar that renders her true gender and sex very questionable and up in the air.
Is a one-inch penis a big clit, or a little dick? Does her vagina count, now that it’s healed up and is just a scar? Well, what you have goin’ on in your underwear isn’t your gender anyway, but the message being played with here is that she doesn’t get to be comfortable in herself, or her body, and that’s what’s important. Hedwig’s gender and sex are, no point in this story, her choice.
Writer/director/star John Cameron Mitchell describes Hedwig’s gender as “a gender of one… accidentally so beautiful.” Which is, yeah, pretty beautiful both as a tragedy and a place with which she as a character draws both loneliness and strength.
Hansel takes her mother’s name, Hedwig, as her own so she can more easily forge a passport, and begins identifying as a woman.
A year later, now living in a trailer park in Kansas, her husband leaves her for a young boy. Worse yet, this happens the day the Berlin wall fell. Hedwig mutilating her body to escape her fate? If she’d have waited a year, she could’ve just left on her own terms. She could’ve left without being forced, prematurely or unnecessarily, into a botched reassignment surgery.
Hedwig’s reaction to this is to glam out. And in this picture’s signature musical number, she goes full punk rock star of stage and screen.
With this film, however, it is exceptionally tough to figure out where the text ends and the subtext begins. Metaphor and fact are played rather interchangeably.
As a viewer, and even one with a lifetime of film under my belt, this can get a little off-putting. I’m not a fan of David Lynch as filmmaker, though I am a big fan of him as a person. I like my weird, artsy-fartsy crap to take place underneath a simpler narrative. I like my postmodernism accessible, but optional. In other words?
I love The Matrix, and it’s a shame they never made any sequels.
All this aside, Wig in a Box is, stand-alone, movie baggage aside, a part of what makes me who I am, and muddied cinematic reality aside, stood on its own as an anthem for all kinds of queerfolk.
And here, we have to talk about gender.
Title card: Gender stuff
I’m gonna’ define some stuff here that a lot of us already know, and if you already do? Awesome. Maybe you can nod along and make sure I get it right.
Firstly, all of the terminology used herein is going to change, eventually. Science and sociology and society at large are catching up, rapidly, to concepts both previously accepted but rejected by Western Colonial thinking, and new concepts entirely.
Secondly, sex and gender are different things. Your sex is the parts you’re born with. Gender, on the other hand, is largely a social construct. “Girls do this.” “Boys do this.” And to many, these precepts are just “HOW IT IS.”
Thirdly, we gotta’ differentiate between different kinds of gender, and split off into a new list:
Cisgender: Cisgender means you are the same gender as your sex. You were assigned male or female at birth, and you are that, and you remain that, and you are comfortable with that. Some super huge assholes are trying to paint this as a slur, and basically, that’s about the same thing as acting as if “hetero” is a slur akin to “homo.” Don’t buy it. That’s just culture jamming.
Drag: A drag queen/king is a man or woman who performs as a woman or man. They remain, however, their own gender. This performance often takes place on stage, but doesn’t have to. But the defining characteristic here is that it is a performance. They are their own gender, and perform another.
Intersex: Previously called Hermaphrodites, this is somebody with reproductive characteristics of both sexes. But again, what’s in your pants doesn’t determine your gender, and intersex people can be any gender. As said, gender isn’t what your parts are.
Transgender: Transgender people are those whose sex don’t match their gender. Assigned man, am woman. Assigned woman, am man.
Next, we have <cough> Nonbinary people. The genderqueer.
Modern scientific language speaks of gender just as it has been speaking of sexuality for decades now. Not in a binary yes or no, but on a spectrum.
Where before, one was man or woman, straight or gay, modern science has caught up and now speaks of sexuality and gender as more fluid concepts.
And speaking with, *cough* some authority, for nonbinary people, some can move within this spectrum at will. Some have limited control over it. And some, I can report with some authority, wake up every day and have to figure out who they are that day.
Only relatively recently have the distinctions started reached pop consciousness. Previously, and yes, still, in most circles, a man in a dress was a man in a dress. Now, said man could be a man in drag, a transgender person, or a nonbinary person.
This language will continue to change as we define and categorize things that’ve been around forever, but we’ve never named, or haven’t named accurately yet. I’m just learning about Agender people, for instance, and maybe that’ll stick and maybe it won’t. Maybe it’ll be categorized differently later. Maybe we all will. We’re still learning, and that’s good.
Back to the movie.
Next, Tommy Gnosis.
Tommy Gnosis is a super-popular, to the tune of being number one on MTV’s countdown back when that meant something, musical artist.
In the world of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and probably as was intended, though not how I read it — more on that later — Tommy Gnosis is a “former lover of Hedwig’s.”
He’s a younger man, gross, who was fascinated by Hedwig and became her lover and creative partner, but rejected her once he discovered her aforementioned “angry inch.”
In Hedwig’s words, he was in love “only with the back of her.”
Given the way the movie the movie treats Gnosis, it’s pretty obvious that Hedwig views him as her “other half.”
And if you’re looking for your “other half,” maybe you should spend some time learning to love yourself.
Anyway, Gnosis is a mainstream rock star whose sense of love and sex was developed with a genderqueer person and was raised religious in a way that didn’t allow such a thing, who wanted to explore, but ran when the going got tough.
And that’s the movie. Hedwig is super butt-hurt about that, is following Tommy Gnosis around America, and playing buffets near large venues he’s selling out.
The resentment is palpable. You could spread it on toast.
Then we reach New York.
Hedwig and Gnosis reunite in a limo as he picks her up as she tricks next to a giant metaphor:
Later, they drive said limo, singing songs they co-wrote. Songs Gnosis became famous singing and only Hedwig truly understands.
<The car crashes into a news truck.>
Gnosis has to deny knowing or being in love with Hedwig yet again. And, sadly… does so.
Next, our closing musical number.
And this is where things get truly weird.
In earlier drafts of Hedwig, Tommy Gnosis was the main character, based on John Cameron Mitchell. He is, as was Hedwig, the son of an American Soldier in Germany. And had, as Gnosis did, a german Nanny who worked as a prostitute.
These two characters are amalgams of pieces of writer/director John Cameron MItchell’s life.
And so it’s no surprise that, spoiler alert, I thought they were supposed to be the same person.
I have watched this movie tens of times now, starting when I was a teenager. My reading on it now is not what my reading on it was when I was young.
Let’s talk about The Origin of Love.
I didn’t know, when I first watched this movie, that this was a real myth. But a lynchpin song in Hedwig and the Angry Inch is about the origin of love, derived from Aristophanes’ speech in Plato’s symposium about how angry gods split humans into two. A lot of the themes I read into this movie didn’t account for that, because I just didn’t know. And a lot of the themes of this movie are about finding your other half.
And, at the end of the movie, Hedwig rips her womanhood off of herself and walks to Gnosis’ gig, and stares at him as he apologizes, via song, for all he took from her. It’s cathartic. She flashes back to her gig, which now looks entirely different, and she is Tommy Gnosis.
They are comfortable in themselves. In their body.
We have to take a quick aside for a moment to catch up on a plot I’ve largely ignored, because, frankly, the movie largely ignores it too. It’s more prevalent in the stage show, from what I understand.
Hedwig has, what first appears to be just a band-mate. A man played by a woman, and it’s never explained if this is a woman she is forcing to be a trans man or if that’s just a creative casting choice.
But this somewhat underdeveloped character, in the movie at least, is named Yitzhak.
At the start of the movie, they appear to be would-be lovers who’ve never sealed the deal. Yitzhak appears to want to be a woman.
Again, it’s never explained if she’s a trans or CIS woman, but what does become clear is that Hedwig is forcing her to live as a man. And, like Gnosis did with Hedwig, the only sexual interaction we see between the two, which is also our first revealing look into the fact that they’re not just band-mates? Hedwig only loves the back of her, and even then, only under covers.
It’s later revealed that they’re married.
And as Yitzhak secretly tries out for, and succeeds in being cast in, Rent, we’re shown that she wants out and isn’t happy here, and while it would’ve been nice to know more about this person, that does tell us enough.
This is an abusive relationship. And all of that is on Hedwig, who, upon hearing Yitzhak has been cast, rips up their passport, denying them the opportunity.
Hedwig’s manager and band abandon her in New York, and she starts tricking to get by, prostituting herself once again. And this is when Gnosis finds her and they reconnect.
So back to the last musical number.
Hedwig becomes Tommy Gnosis, gives her wig to Yitzhak, who transforms into the woman she ostensibly always wanted to be, and, for some reason beyond even my essayist grasp, the Hedwig/Gnosis hybrid walks out of the venue into the alley naked. Movie over.
Now, I can’t tell you what John Cameron Mitchell meant when he did this. But I can guess. I think the story about finding your other half is the story he was telling, and this ending was about that. How, exactly? I’m flummoxed, but I think that’s what he meant, with this. I think becoming whole was the story he was telling.Hedwig has returned to their origin, naked and whole (two halves of one being) and without resentment, fear, or confusion, the three primary emotions driving Hedwig and Gnosis.
That’s probably what this story meant to MItchell.
But let me tell you what this story meant to me.
I was a young, vaguely queer, confused person watching this movie with another young, vaguely queer, confused person. At the time, I thought I was a CIS straight guy who sometimes liked other guys. She was a lesbian who had sex with me that night for some reason neither of us properly understood. We’re about fifteen years later, now, and “she” is a he, and I’m… <cut> and we’ve both talked about it, and probably what was happening is that we both identified, in each other, some… gender stuff.
Even as I identified as a CIS man, I was intimate with my fair share of lesbians, because they probably saw the genderqueerness I hadn’t yet figured out. And the same goes the other way. As it turns out, none of us had our gender or sexuality figured out, but we did find each other. And we did like things like Rocky Horror and Hedwig, because we saw ourselves in it somewhere.
We didn’t know our place in the world, but we did identify with these few pieces of art that dealt with themes of gender and seeking out your place in the world.
And what this story meant to me, at the time, was, drumroll please:
Hedwig and Tommy Gnosis were the same person.
My interpretation is that Hedwig wasn’t real. Hedwig is a character Gnosis invented while masturbating in the tub one day who she really wished she could be, as a performer, but she was raised religious, and thus never pulled the trigger. Her true gender identity, left to atrophy, became a bitter old wash-out never-was while the lie she sold the world became an unsatisfied success, draping themselves in a wrong gender and religious imagery to fit in with the masses and satisfy her father.
And the end of the movie, where Hedwig becomes Tommy Gnosis, was my evidence.
While I no longer think that’s what John Cameron Mitchell intended, and that Hedwig and Gnosis are, within the fiction, two separate people, that narrative still helped me. It has taken me decades to uncover who I am. I only learned the term nonbinary roughly three years ago, and I only came out this last Christmas.
I spent many a Saturday night in high school attending Rocky Horror in fishnets and enjoying feeling pretty. The full context of that wasn’t made clear to me until pretty recently. Us baby queers know this as multiple puberties. This becomes even more literal in terms of trans folks transitioning.
And I don’t know where I’ll wind up, but I know what I feel now, and that I’m a lot of things.
But having a piece of art wherein I read that a person denied their own identity as it was presented to them? Where they could be something outside the norms, and that it was okay? That was a very helpful part of me becoming me, whether the artist intended it or not.
It was undeniably queer, and that gave me a lot of space to work with. And for me, and Sam, and Kelly, thank you, John.
For Sofa Justice Warriors, I’m Joe, for now, and maybe forever. Thank you, everybody, goodnight.