Hedwig and the Angry Inch: Trans Icon or Problematic Disaster?
Rockstars are some of the most captivating and larger than life personalities we’ve ever seen, and we love to love them. Even if the idea of “rockstars” as we once knew them are all but extinct, we can supplement them with influencers and celebrities as a whole. The obsession with visible individuals is as intense it’s even been. In the current era of social media, now more than ever, the need to control one’s public image is paramount at risk of having their career ruined.
But what if your career is already in shambles? What if your career never really took off in the first place? If you’re already in the position where you’ve got nothing left to lose, there is no added damage to your rockstar “mystique” by doing things like drunkenly airing out ALL of your dirty laundry for the world to see (because you can’t put a bra in the dryer). In fact, being visibly talented albeit disastrous could become exactly how you define yourself.
This is how the titular Hedwig of Hedwig and the Angry Inch operates.
Just as captivating on stage and horrifically messy like many of the rockstars that inspire her, Hedwig is a longstanding yet controversial character in the pantheon of trans representation in fiction. Those that love her or hate her all have completely justified opinions and perspectives, but the conversation surrounding Hedwig is complicated, and is often missing the absolutely necessary nuance required.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the stage musical, originated off-Broadway in 1998 and was created by and starring John Cameron Mitchell with music and lyrics by Stephen Trask. The show was successful enough that it would be adapted to film in 2001, with Mitchell reprising the lead role as well as writing the screenplay and directing. For the sake of uniformity among all of the stage productions (and because the film has a more fleshed out story shown through flashbacks and not just recounting verbal stories), that’s what most of this analysis will be focused on. Fortunately Hedwig’s characterization is consistent in most versions.
Born as Hansel Schmidt and growing up poor and unhappy with his mother in East Berlin in the 1970s and 80s, the future Hedwig found comfort and inspiration in early punk and glam rock music. As a young adult, Hansel falls for an American sergeant stationed in Berlin named Luther, who leaves the young man a trail of sweets (ala Hansel and Gretel), making Luther a literal sugar daddy.
Luther wishes to leave Germany with Hansel, but that is only possible through marriage. Given that gay marriage was absolutely not a thing, a marriage between the two would require a full medical examination. At his mother’s behest and with Luther’s pleading (since he finds Hansel the most attractive when he looks like a woman), Hansel takes on his mother’s name and passport and decides to get a gender reassignment operation. Unfortunately, Hansel, now Hedwig, suffered complications and the new vagina healed shut, leaving behind a scarred, unformed mound of flesh…the titular “Angry Inch” she would later name her backing band after.
One year after moving to America and settling down in Kansas, Luther leaves Hedwig on their anniversary for a new, younger twink. That same day, the Berlin wall is torn down and Hedwig realizes that everything she did to escape was for nothing, her life has fallen apart, and she is alone.
Deciding to keep living as a woman despite her divorce, Hedwig starts babysitting to make ends meet. Enter Tommy Speck. The two are instantly interested in each other, despite Tommy being underage and Hedwig being in a position of power as his babysitter. He goes to see Hedwig’s new band, made up of Asian army wives, as they subject people at a small restaurant to songs they are not at all interested in listening to. Hedwig decides to teach Tommy about music and even gives him the stage name Tommy Gnosis. The two seem very in love… that is until Tommy learns about the nature of Hedwig’s genitals and rejects her.
Tommy goes on to steal all of Hedwig’s songs and become a music superstar. Meanwhile, Hedwig is left behind to play for a handful of actual fans and crowds of uninterested patrons of whatever diner she and her band are playing in while they follow Tommy’s tour across the country. Once again, her life has fallen apart and she copes with this by drinking heavily, bitterly telling stories to anyone who won’t run away from her, and emotionally controlling her bandmate and “lover” Yitzhak, who yearns to be a drag queen.
After Yitzhak gets the part of Angel in a foreign production of Rent, Hedwig destroys his passport so that he can’t leave. At rock bottom, Hedwig takes up sex work on the streets to make money when she once again encounters Tommy. While singing, reconnecting, and fighting, the two get into a car accident and the ensuing scandal gets attention on Hedwig so she can properly expose Tommy for stealing her songs and get her the recognition she always wanted.
At what should be her coming out party, Hedwig aggressively removes her clothes and wig and destroys everything she had been for years in front of her new fans. In a moment of clarity through a dream sequence, Tommy apologizes to Hedwig because he was young and didn’t realize how much he had hurt her and she seems to forgive him as well. As the setting of the concert changes from darkness to all white, Hedwig, now nearly naked and seemingly presenting as male, performs the final song of the film (and my favorite) “Midnight Radio” and gives the iconic blonde wig to Yitzhak so he can be unrestrained and free.
In the closing shot of the film, we see that Hedwig’s half moon tattoo is now full, implying that she completed herself and didn’t need anyone to feel whole after all. And that folx is how “some slip of a girly boy” from communist East Berlin went from the internationally ignored song stylist barely standing before you to one of the most recognizable trans figures in pop culture.
With all of the context behind us, I ask again; is Hedwig good representation?
As an individual, Hedwig is a selfish and emotionally abusive person. So, no. she is not a good representation. Perhaps more important than good representation, however, is that Hedwig is sincere representation…but not as a trans character, as a character in a story about trauma.
At her core, Hedwig is a middle link in a chain of abuse. She was coerced into changing her sex through an irreversible operation by an older man, which she really did not want to do, and that set up her to hurt others down the line. Similarly to Angela Baker from Sleepaway Camp (which I defended in my last write up) Hedwig was living as a gender that was not hers and handled it very poorly (but less murdery than Angela). This does not excuse her actions, but it does provide context for them and context in king.
She has figurative and literal scars from being physically and emotionally exploited throughout her entire life and every facet of her identity is defined by it. On top of everything else that’s predatory and unsettling with Luther, it is also heavily implied in the film that Hedwig was sexually assaulted as a child by her father.
A character’s arc is defined by specific events that impact their further decisions and actions. This is true to life, particularly amongst those with trauma. It is a safety precaution and one cannot be expected to be an upstanding beacon of morality if they have unaddressed trauma and emotional issues when the best they know is how to just survive. Hedwig growing up poor, in communist controlled Berlin never gave her the tools to address her problems, especially since something as simple as seeking therapy was never common or fiscally possible for her at any point.
Unfortunately, the Hedwig that we as viewers are privy to is the worst version of her. Those flashbacks and stories tell us who she used to be, but at the present time of Hedwig and the Angry Inch’s story, she is already at rock bottom and at her most detestable. By the climax of the film where Hedwig is name dropping similarly tragic or divisive women like Nico, Yoko Ono, and Tina Turner in “Midnight Radio,” we only get a glimpse of a positive character change for her. Whether that is enough for her to actually heal and be better is up in the air, but as is the case with Hedwig telling us any story as our narrator, we just have to take it as gospel that she feels complete now. I believe in restorative justice so I want to trust she is happier and will be better in the next chapter of her life.
But that all is how Hedwig the character reads within her own narrative. What about how she exists as a character to our viewing world in 2020, particularly as a trans character?
Let’s start by putting one glaring problem to bed by saying that Hedwig is not a trans woman. It’s obvious watching the film that she is not and this has even been confirmed by John Cameron Mitchell.
There definitely would have been some sort of gender fuckery in all scenarios of how her life could have been, but had she not seen it as a necessary means to a different end at the time, I sincerely doubt Hedwig would have transitioned. She lived as a woman because she was working with the hand she was dealt and because she felt her identity was taken from her by the men in her life. She might have even returned to a life as Hansel past what we can see. Who can say? That is the beautiful thing about gender expression. Hedwig can be anyone she wants to be and that even extends to who plays the character.
John Cameron Mitchell and Neil Patrick Harris are probably the best known people to have donned the blonde wigs of Hedwig, but the role does not belong exclusively to cis white men. Some notable others to play Hedwig include Taye Diggs, a cis black man, Ally Sheedy, a cis woman, and Jinkx Monsoon, a non binary drag queen. As far as lead roles go, few other human characters have the same options in casting because Hedwig is a character that exists outside of time and rules. She is simply just Hedwig.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is not a story about being transitioning and if people misinterpret it that way then that is their problem. So many queer films are made with accessibility to straight audiences in mind and the fact that Hedwig covers so many complexities of gender without over explaining or tying everything up in a neat, little bow is fantastic.
This is a movie made for the queer community because it doesn’t pander or talk down to them. Hedwig’s mission is not to educate you or tell you things you already know about yourself. At most, she is there to entertain or maybe inspire but those can exist outside of morality. That’s how the notion of “death of the author” works. It is possible to appreciate someone’s creative work but not support them as an individual, but labeling Hedwig as “problematic” is an oversimplification. She is an ungraceful person and the tragedy in that makes her so much more compelling.
We all fuck up, especially when we are figuring out who we are and healing from our own metaphorical “angry inches” that others have saddled us with. What makes Hedwig such a strong individual is that she is not afraid to acknowledge every shitty moment of her life and with the ever looming threat of being “canceled” these days, that is an intense and beautifully sincere thing to see.
All in all, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is about personal identity. What Hedwig wants above all else is to feel seen for who she is. Not as the person others made her be, both physically and emotionally, but for who SHE wants to be. In that respect, Hedwig’s story is one of the best in the overarching trans community because deep down, isn’t that what we all want?
Trans woman or not, Hedwig is a unclassy masterclass in gender expression, perseverance, and identity, and deserves the spot she has earned in the hall of fame for trans characters.