This week, Stevi Costa takes on Hedwig and the Angry Inch and contemplates queer performance art and the many ways she thought incorrectly about this film upon her first viewing.
I actually don’t remember my first encounter with Hedwig and the Angry Inch at all. As Marcus and I sat down to watch this film (after an emotionally draining morning watching the final installment of Harry Potter, followed by some uplifting estate sale shopping), I realized that I had no idea how I’d found Hedwig, but somehow, during the summer of 2001, this transgendered glam rock wet dream from communist East Berlin found her way into my life and stayed there. I’ve thought about Hedwig a lot in the past decade, whether it was because I was attempting to adapt it for drama competitions in high school or because I was showing it to people in undergrad or because the music is just so fucking good, but for as much as I had thought about it, I realized in this viewing that I had always thought about the film incorrectly.
Let me explain.
As a teenager, I identified with queer culture in as much as I thought of myself as bisexual (and still do, even though I pass very well for straight in my committed, heterosexually oriented marriage) and spent a lot of time in the theatre, which meant that I was constantly surrounded by people on the verge of coming out or being shepherded by folks who had been out for a long time. Even at what I now consider to be a pretty progressive and feminist-leaning Catholic school, it’s not an easy place to identify as anything non-normative – unless you’re into theatre. Being all about performance and play, theatre is a space that allows you to feel like it’s okay to perform in whatever way you want to. But for as progressive and inclusive as that might make you, your knowledge of what it means to be queer or to be a performer is still very limited and identitarian. You know about gay, straight, bi, and trans and you are comfortable with those labels. You know the difference between transvestitism and drag, just as you know the difference between a musical and a drama. These things are very clear and easy to define when you’re young. So when I saw this film at 16, I read Hedwig’s experience as trans experience and I have never thought about Hedwig and the Angry Inch as anything other than a transgender narrative until now.
The most crucial thing I realized in this viewing of Hedwig is how much I was misreading John Cameron Mitchell’s work to call this a transgender narrative – or even to think of it at all under any label but queer. Mitchell’s protagonist may have had a sex change operation, but the idea that Hedwig’s sex change was botched leaving her with “a Barbie doll crotch” is what’s critical here. Hedwig lives on the divide between “East and West, man and woman, slavery and freedom” as Yitzhak sings during the bridge of “Tear Me Down,” and it’s the idea of inhabiting that divide that I’ve been miscategorizing for years. Part of Mitchell’s point with Hedwig, it seems, is to create a queer icon that inhabits the precarious space between binaries. It’s been important for me to recognize with this viewing that to label Hedwig as a trans character not only misunderstands Mitchell’s film, but also misunderstands transgender experience. Hedwig, as Mitchell constructs her, never provides any indication that she wanted to become a woman. It was only a necessity for her to be able to marry Luther, escape communism, and live in the United States. “To be free,” her mother tells Hansel, “one must give up a little part of one’s self.” It’s a gender identity that’s forced upon her, but one she ultimately chooses to inhabit – which is why I’ll continue to refer to Hedwig with feminine pronouns and Hansel with masculine ones.
I wish to understand Hedwig as a queer film for similar reasons. Because for Hedwig “there ain’t much of a difference / between a bridge and a wall,” I think it would be incorrect to want to label Hedwig as a gay film. Mitchell’s script goes out of its way to avoid identitarian labels for its character’s sexualities, though they all exist in opposition to the heteronormative. Luther, certainly, would never call himself gay. His attraction to Hansel is couched in the fact that he “can’t believe [Hansel’s] not a girl.” Likewise, I don’t think that Tommy, with all his Adam-and-Eve rhetoric, would categorize his relationship with Hedwig as gay, but considering Hedwig’s borderland status, it’s hardly straight either. Because Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a narrative about bridging divides, it is also about rethinking binary oppositions like man/woman or gay/straight, which I think fits more comfortably and more accurately under the queer umbrella.
But aside from the film’s depiction of genders and sexual relationships, what really strikes me as queer about Hedwig and the Angry Inch is the way it functions as queer performance art, but does so by co-opting a largely mainstream (re: straight) medium. During this viewing, I kept thinking about theorist Ann Cvetkovich’s argument about the way in which performance art enables queer artists to narrate the trauma of queer experience in the register of the everyday. Cvetkovich cites artist Lisa Kron’s work, which juxtaposes a visit to Auschwitz with a family visit to an amusement park where she introduced her girlfriend to her parents for the first time. By shuttling back and forth between these narratives, Cvetkovich argues, Kron’s work foregrounds that what is thought of as trauma on the grand scale (the historical traumas that haunt subalterns), becomes the lived experience of the everyday for queer communities. I’m less convinced of Cvetkovich’s particular focus on performance art as the critical genre for this work because she tells us little about what the genre is, means, or allows. But I’m going to run with it here, because I think Hedwig and the Angry Inch functions by using performance art techniques within a mainstream medium.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch was an off-Broadway show before John Cameron Mitchell adapted it into his first feature film. I read the stage script long ago when I was trying to adapt it into a 10 minute monologue for drama competitions (care to imagine how well that one went over?), but I don’t remember too many critical differences. Thus, I think it’s fair to say that the performance art feel that inhabits the original stage production is the backbone of this film. To begin, performance art occurs in spaces that may not be traditionally theatrical (although they can be), and queer performance art seems to be particularly marginalized out of most even semi-traditional theatrical spaces. Queer culture and queer performance, then, becomes underground, the antithesis of the mainstream. In Hedwig, this is reflected in the spaces Hedwig must occupy on her tour. Yes, she’s shadowing Tommy Gnosis out of spite/love/fear/pity/anger as he tours large areas across the country, forcing her by the sheer machinations of her own plot to perform in a run-down chain of seafood restaurants known as Bilgewaters, but this relegation of Hedwig’s performance spaces makes her performance take place not in the sanctioned stage of the arena, but in the realm of the everyday. The line, then, between her performance and herself is very thin, and at any point the everyday and the performance can blend together and breakdown. In fact, it does during “Angry Inch,” which turns a Bilgewaters restaurant into its own kind of punk rock Stonewall when a patron calls Hedwig a fag and Yitzhak tackles the man. Chaos ensues. The rest of the band starts beating up patrons. A chef chops the shit out of fish carcasses. A waitress headbangs with a lobster. Here, the weight of the performance disrupts and transforms the everyday into a surrealist fistfight, which Hedwig stage dives into and then floats over in mock Spike Lee-style.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch also situates Hedwig’s own queer trauma within the context of the fall of the Berlin Wall. On the day the wall is torn down, Hedwig sits alone in her trailer in Junction City, Kansas, while Luther tells her that he is leaving her for some anonymous twink. Mitchell’s camera cuts from Hedwig’s stunned reaction to being jilted to the television airing news footage of the Berlin Wall’s destruction. On the level of narrative, this scene clearly communicates the heartbreaking irony of Hedwig’s situation: in fact, to be free, Hansel never would have had to give up a part of himself. He would have just had to wait a few more years and he could have remained comfortable in a stable bodily identity, sunbathing nude in the rubble of churches, and eating gummi baren to his heart’s content. But as the wall falls down in East Berlin, Hedwig sits in Junction City, living on the divide between man and woman. On another level, this scene illustrates the ways in which queer trauma exists in the register of the everyday – especially as Hedwig beings to sing “Wig in a Box.” For Hedwig, even the “strangest things seem suddenly routine” because her traumas exist in lived experience: working at the military base PX, living in a trailer, being abandoned by the man she gave up her known world and her flesh for. But the solution Hedwig seems to reach for coping with trauma, with her situation in the world, seems to be to turn the everyday into a performance, to fully inhabit living on the divide as best she can. Each wig she dons during the song allows her to perform a different historical or contemporary moment: Miss Beehive 1963, Miss Midwest Midnight Checkout Queen, or Miss Farrah Fawcett from TV. And with all of these wigs, she is able to shuttle between that performative realm and her everyday world, often seamlessly blending the two. It’s fitting that this song is the moment in the film where she really makes the decision to become Hedwig, to transform her lived experience into something performative. I think my favorite moment in this anthem is actually where Hedwig invites the audience to do the same, by presenting one of the song’s latter courses as a sing-a-long, complete with a bouncing animated wig to help you follow along. This moment occurs just before she breaks down the (literal) fourth wall of her trailer and turns it into a stage upon which she and the Angry Inch perform the song’s final crescendo.
I think the way that Mitchell’s film blends performance and the everyday as a method of presenting queer trauma and queer experience is one of the reasons the film’s ending is so difficult to read. The narrative structure of Hedwig shadowing Tommy’s tour because he stole her songs and didn’t credit her for them speaks to a larger issue in which queer voices have been largely silenced within mainstream culture. (Think back to 2001 and try to count queer characters in television and film, other than those on Will & Grace. It will be a much lower number than it is now, and now it’s still a pretty low number.) In fact, Hedwig’s story only enters Tommy’s mainstream narrative as a tabloid headline. Note that the issue presented in these headlines isn’t so much that Hedwig was wronged, but that Tommy was caught with a “woman” or that a claim was alleged against Tommy. Even in the little press Hedwig gets, Tommy remains the dominant narrative. So in one sense, I want to read the ending where Hedwig strips off her Hedwig gear and performs as Tommy Gnosis as a queer voice entering into and co-opting the dominant narrative. (This is also a reading I would project onto the film in general, because Mitchell here transmits queer performance art through the mainstream narrative device of cinema.) But then I also want to think of this ending as Hedwig finding her other half by becoming Tommy Gnosis – the idea of which she created, only to see it performed by someone else. Thus, in becoming Tommy Gnosis, Hedwig is whole because she was always the thing she was searching for. She can perform both halves of herself at will, which ultimately allows her to walk away as something different, real, and unperformed as she, stripped of gender, artifice, and performance, wanders into the alley in the night.
Because I spent a lot of time during this re-viewing thinking about performance and the everyday, I ended up paying a lot of attention to Miriam Shor’s performance as Yitzhak. The first time I saw this film, and perhaps a couple of times thereafter, I was definitely not keyed in to the gender of the performer playing Yitzhak. I thought he was a man with a great falsetto, rather than a woman in what I still think is very convincing drag. The difference between Shor’s Yitzhak and Mitchell’s Hedwig is the way they choose to perform their reversed genders. Mitchell’s Hedwig is obviously not born female, but that’s only because Hedwig blends the visual codes of drag performance into her everyday experience. She’s always highlighting her performance. Shor’s Yitzhak, on the other hand, isn’t kinging. We are given no indication that Yitzhak should be read as anything other than born male. She’s just playing a scruffy guy from the Eastern Bloc who dreams of playing Angel in Broadway Cruises tours of Rent. To that end, I really appreciated the subtlety of Shor’s performance this time around, although her actual gender was very obvious to me (and that’s perhaps because she was now obvious to me as I really admired her work on CBS’s short-lived but totally awesome summer drama, Swingtown). She conveys so much of Yitzhak’s longing and desires through casual glances, and through the careful way he grooms Hedwig’s many wigs. It’s clear that he wants to perform the way Hedwig does, which is resignified by his desire to play one of Broadway’s most famous and fabulous musical theatre drag queens. And so Yitzhak’s arc is a little heartbreaking when Hedwig rips up his passport, but then joyous when Hedwig tosses her wig off to become Tommy Gnosis and Shor gets to transform Yitzhak into a shorter version of Hedwig and revel in the warmth of the crowd as she surfs over them.
There’s still much that I would like to try to articulate about Hedwig and the Angry Inch that is interesting, engaging, and critically significant, but I’m not certain I can do that in this space because the way I think of and about this film has shifted so dramatically in the past decade. I liked this film, even loved it, ten years ago, but I can’t say I really understood it. There are still things about it that I don’t understand now, but it has left me with a lot to process and ponder. (Which is good, because this film is on my exam list, so if I weren’t processing and pondering, I’d be doing something way wrong.) And for that, I think Hedwig has only gotten better with time.
Hedwig dresses in a lot of things I hate: denim dresses, rompers. But her versions of these items are so fantastically weird that it makes me think I actually like them. Her denim dress during “Tear Me Down” is pretty much the best use of denim-on-denim I’ve ever seen. No ProjRun Levi’s challenge ever produced anything that good. (Sorry, Nick Varios!) I feel similarly about the peach terry cloth romper during “Wig in a Box.” Rompers infantilize women. Rompers are garments meant for toddlers. But that peach one is so beautiful on Mitchell’s skin, and I think that Hedwig is infantilized by her sugar daddy, Luther. That terry cloth romper carries a lot of weight here, in addition to creating a nice trailer park 1970s atmosphere.
When I read Plato’s “Origin of Love” in a queer lit class in undergrad, it blew my fucking mind because I finally understood the basis for that amazing song and animation sequence in Hedwig.
Is it bad to admit that when I saw Thor the other day, I kept playing part of “Origin of Love” over and over in my head?
I one day hope to deliver a lecture with a title as kitschy-cool as this: “You, Kant, Always Get What You Want.”
Hedwig’s punk-rock USO homage during “Sugar Daddy” is pretty much my favorite outfit of the film. I am a sucker for victory rolls and a fringe skirt. “It’s a carwash, ladies and gentlemen!”
To this day, I still call gummy bears “gummi baren.” (Even though Hansel insists they’re different.) I also like that gummy bears are a metaphor for multiculturalism!
Good band name from a Hedwig song: Tits of Clay. Not sure if they would be a lesbian punk band, or simply cover and parody Jars of Clay songs.
The scene and Menses Fair, where Hedwig and the Angry Inch has to perform next to the port-a-janes to an audience of one adorable little genderqueer goth, reminds me of Michelle Tea’s investigative critique of the Michigan Women’s Music Festival and their anti-trans policy.
“Eve just wanted to know shit.” I mean, truth, Tommy. Truth.
I’m really glad they went with Tommy Gnosis. Tommy Taint would have been a brutally bad choice.
“There’s no god called Cyrus.” I dunno, Hedwig. You should chat with Eddie Izzard. I bet there is a god called Cyrus. I bet he’s the god of liner notes and hangs out with Simon the god of hairdos.
Line I think about literally every time I do laundry: “How many times do I have to tell you? You don’t put a bra in a dryer! It warps!”
I really love the Italian title: Hedwig: La Diva con Qualcosa in Píu, which translates to “Hedwig: The Diva with a Little Something Extra.”