Dichotomies, Gender, and Sexuality in ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’

This topic has probably been analyzed and over-analyzed since the first production of John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch premiered off-off-Broadway a couple of decades ago. But as a writer who’s a stickler for character arcs, I find there is always something new to discover in Hedwig each time I listen to the music. Here are just some thoughts I can’t get out of my head since my inauguration as a “Hedhead.”

I had the privilege of seeing the play for the first time during its revival run in July 2015, starring the inimitable Darren Criss as Hedwig. I’m a huge fan of Broadway musicals, so you’d think I’d have prepared myself for what I was about to see. But this was the first play I’d ever gone into completely blind–and I’m glad for it. What an experience! And what resonated with me most (and still does) was Hedwig’s character development. The show is really all about her discovery of herself, through a combination of reverting back to her roots and accepting who she’s become. JCM establishes this journey through song lyrics that showcase really effective storytelling and illuminate contemporary struggles of gender identity.

The idea of dichotomies in Hedwig permeates the story and characters, in some ways more overtly than others. The opening song, “Tear Me Down,” sets us up for this motif right away:

I was born on the other side of a town ripped in two
I made it over a great divide…

So we learn Hedwig grew up in East Berlin amongst the turmoil of the Cold War and the Berlin Wall. Her sidekick/husband Yitzhak further establishes this in his dialogue in the song:

Ladies and gentlemen, Hedwig is like that [Berlin] Wall! Standing before you in the divide between East and West, Slavery and Freedom, Man and Woman, Top and Bottom!

Yitzhak even gives you a convenient little list there of opposites, dichotomies, comparisons to be made throughout the play. Hedwig, or so her image intends to portray, is an extension of those dichotomies and the divide of the Cold War.

So what makes Hedwig that symbol? She describes herself as a “girly-boy” (another dichotomy) and, as we learn in the song “Angry Inch,” undergoes a botched sex change operation that results in her physically standing between the male and female sexes. She is both “man” and “woman.” But I believe it goes even deeper than that. I believe the real dichotomy in Hedwig’s character is who she is versus the person she was convinced (by herself or others) to be. And what does that say about the creation of gender identity in American society? Let’s unpack the more subtle references.

This may be kind of obvious, but let’s look at the nomenclature here. Before her transition, Hedwig is called “Hansel”–her male birth name. In the “after,” she becomes her Hedwig persona. Both are two-syllable names, and both begin with “h.” A simple reading might conclude that Hansel represents Hedwig’s “male” side, while Hedwig is the corresponding female. But again, I think there’s more to the dichotomy than that. As I mentioned earlier, I believe the “Hedwig” persona came out of Hansel’s need to (a) satisfy male/female sexual stereotypes in her relationships (with Luther, with Tommy, etc), and (b) force herself to “pick” a gender to portray after her botched operation. Take a look at the lyrics of “Sugar Daddy,” which takes place after Hansel/Hedwig first meets Luther:

LUTHER:
Oh, baby. Something crossed my mind.
And I was thinkin’ you’d look so fine
in a velvet dress with heels and an ermine stole.

HEDWIG:
Oh, Luther, darling. Heaven knows
I’ve never put on women’s clothes–except for once, my mother’s camisol!
So you think only a woman can truly love a man?
You buy me the dress, I’ll be more woman than a man like you can stand.

I am not suggesting here that Hedwig never wanted to “put on women’s clothes” or present herself as a woman, or that she was necessarily forced to. Rather, I think it’s the expectations of gender and sex forced upon us by society that forced her to try to reconcile the dichotomy of her traditionally “male” and “female” traits–to “choose” one or the other. Luther says before the start of the song that he could “swear [Hansel] was a girl” by the look of his body. Hansel then becomes that girl envisioned by Luther in exchange for his love and affection.

Next, from the get-go, we know Hedwig has been obsessed with finding her “other half” since she was young (this is expanded upon in “The Origin of Love,” my personal favorite piece in the play). While some interpretations suggest that Tommy Gnosis is Hedwig’s other half, I think it’s more that Tommy Gnosis is a projection of the other half of Hedwig’s self. We learn at the start of the play that Hedwig essentially created Tommy’s rocker persona and wrote all his songs. Tommy, then, essentially is the components of Hedwig she felt she needed to leave behind to be the ideal image of a “woman.” Take, for example, the song “Wicked Little Town” that Hedwig sings as part of her newly formed band. She mentions, a bit offhandedly, that the song is meant to be sung by a man. What does this mean? Why would she mention it? I interpret this as evidence of her struggle with identifying as a woman. She writes music for herself, for her “in-between”she doesn’t realize she can exist within.

And then you’re someone you are not, and Junction City ain’t the spot
Remember Mrs. Lot and when she turned around?

“Someone you are not.” So Hedwig is herself–but she isn’t her full self. Not until she encompasses both “halves.”

Yitzhak, too, is  presented as Hedwig’s opposite, her foil. Yitzhak identifies and feels comfortable with a female persona, and Hedwig takes that away from him–just as Tommy Gnosis takes away the more “masculine” part of Hedwig and projects it onto himself. Does that make Yitzhak her other half? I don’t necessarily think so. What I took away from this play is that everyone has their “other half” within themselves–they just have to discover it. Or in Hedwig’s case, rediscover it.

Sex and gender are two very different things. I think Hedwig’s journey, her struggle with herself, her ultimate understanding of who she is as a whole person is a great analogy for what a lot of people struggle with in terms of gender identity and sexuality. Until recently, most people tended to believe you were either a man or a woman based on whatever genitalia you were born with. A lot of people still believe this–though it’s untrue. Gender stands on its own; it is performative and does not have to directly correlate with sex. In this case, though, ironically enough, I think Hedwig’s sex, or lack thereof, is a perfect representation of her gender identity–and that is in-between. Throughout the whole play, Hedwig grapples with which “side” or “half” of herself to stick with, which persona to present to the world. In the end, quite literally stripped of all the makeup and clothes, she becomes her basest self again while at the same time realizing she doesn’t have to choose. There need not be a “divide” between “man and woman, top and bottom”–Hedwig can exist as both. As Hansel and Hedwig. As Hansel and Hedwig and Tommy and Yitzhak and every piece of herself that’s been projected onto others. She is, in herself, a whole person.

And on a broader scale, there need not be that divide between “strictly male” and “strictly female” in our understanding of gender identity. If we adopt this progressive thinking, if we are willing to understand that one can be both Hansel and Hedwig without having to make a choice, then perhaps we might be a lot more empathetic in the long run. Amongst the knocking down of the Berlin Wall, Hedwig knocks down the walls she created for herself and had imposed upon her. In the end, she is Hansel and Hedwig, all of her experiences tied together to make her who she is now. She is fluid, just as gender and sexuality have come to be understood.

I remember a family from England sitting in front of me at the show who looked utterly disgruntled throughout the entire performance. Perhaps they, and those like them, could learn a thing or two from embracing the completeness of fluidity Hedwig so skillfully promotes.

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