7 Reasons People Become So Obsessed With 'Hedwig And The Angry Inch'
Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask-penned rock musical first performed in 1998, has been making waves in the last year with its Broadway revival. The new production has boasted a string of famous actors in the title role, including Neil Patrick Harris (who won a Tony for his efforts), Andrew Rannells, and Michael C. Hall, with Glee’s Darren Criss preparing to take over the role in April. If you’re not able to head out to Great White Way during the musical’s run, take heart! You can see Hedwig in all her glittery glory in the 2001 film adaptation of the play, starring its creator, John Cameron Mitchell.
New to Hedwig? Here’s the premise: Hedwig grows up as a young “slip of a girlyboy” in East Berlin. In order to escape the communist regime and go West, Hedwig marries an American soldier and undergoes sexual reassignment surgery. Her surgery is botched, and she is left with what she terms “An Angry Inch.” Throughout the musical, Hedwig and her band (called “The Angry Inch,” of course) perform at restaurants and coffee shops, recounting her journey and her search for acceptance and love.
When I first saw the film, I was obsessed. I mean, really obsessed. I saw it in the theatre multiple times, went to see a live touring production, and hosted many a film viewing for me and my fellow “HedHeads.” I was a freshman in college and couldn’t believe that this glittery, bawdy, powerful movie existed. I had never seen anything like it, and it had a profound effect on the way I think about gender, sexuality, and identity. Plus, it had a kickass soundtrack. Fourteen years after the movie’s release, it's lost none of its relevance, and the music's as addictive as ever. Needless to say, I’m still obsessed. Here's why:
1. It (literally) rocks
A musical is nothing without great music, and, on this front, Hedwig delivers. Taking its inspiration from rock musicians like David Bowie, Lou Reed, and Iggy Pop, the show’s music cycles from delicate, emotional ballads (“Wicked Little Town”), to bawdy country parodies (“Sugar Daddy”), to angry, punk-fueled rockers (“Tear Me Down,” “Angry Inch”). When Mitchell and Trask developed the show over a period of years in the mid-1990s, they performed at bars and clubs, giving the music’s rock-vibe precedence over Broadway glossiness. That initial grit holds over into the film.
2. The costumes are campy, glittery awesomeness
In the song “Wig in a Box,” Hedwig celebrates the transformative power of makeup and a great wig, singing,
I put on some make-up
Turn up the eight-track
I'm pulling the wig down from the shelf
Suddenly I'm Miss Farrah Fawcett
How can anyone not get a little excited about Hedwig’s elaborate wigs and costumes? Or her skill at pairing denim with huge quantities of rhinestones? Wouldn’t we all be just a little happier with more glitter in our makeup routines?
3. Audience participation!
One reason that Hedwig has developed such as cult following is that the it encourages the audience to sing, dance, and participate. At the end of “Wig in a Box,” Hedwig sings, “OK, everybody!”, and the words to the song appear on the screen, accompanied by a bouncing wig to lead us through it. Who doesn’t love a good sing-a-long? Misanthropic monsters, that’s who.
4. It references old school philosophy because Hedwig’s fancy like that
In “The Origin of Love,” Hedwig describes a world once populated by dual beings—“the children of the sun” (two men stuck together), “the children of the earth” (two women together), and “the children of the moon” (a man and woman stuck together)—and recounts how an angry Zeus came and split them apart into the bodies that we have now. Hedwig’s story is based on Aristophanes’s speech in Plato’s Symposium, written circa 385–370 BC. Many scholars argue that in Symposium, the speech is satirical, but in Hedwig’s interpretation, it becomes a moving way to describe the craving for love and completion that many of us feel—we are, she suggests, incomplete, looking for our other halves. By the end of the film, Hedwig seems to realize that she has to find wholeness within herself.
5. Hedwig is really funny
Throughout the musical, Hedwig regales her audience with bawdy stories and dry one-liners, finding a hilarious balance of self-absorbed and self-deprecating.
6. It’s incredibly moving
With it’s Technicolor campiness and rollicking music, a work like Hedwig could easily become cartoonish—pretty to look at and listen to, but otherwise empty. But at the core of the musical is an emotional, profoundly human story about identity and love. Many might not feel that they can relate directly relate to Hedwig’s past as an East German immigrant with a botched sex-reassignment surgery and a low-budget rock band, but I think most of us can identify with the themes that underlie these plot points: Hedwig’s sense of alienation from the world around her; Her desperate longing for love and acceptance; Her ultimate need to accept herself first.
7. Hedwig’s approach to gender and sexuality is complicated and thought-provoking
Since the Broadway revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch last year, there has been some debate about the show’s stance on trans issues (with particular controversy about NPH’s comments that he looked to drag performers to inspire his performance). When discussing the musical, a lot of critics and audience members describe Hedwig as “transgender” or “transsexual,” but I don’t think these words accurately reflect Hedwig’s character—either her history or the way she evolves over time. Before Hedwig undergoes sexual reassignment surgery, she is Hansel, a young gay man who doesn’t seem to be particularly conflicted about his gender. Hansel undergoes surgery in order to get out of East Germany, and, at least at first, lives as a woman out of necessity, so that he can pass as Luther’s wife. Hedwig maintains her female presentation after her husband leaves her, and it’s not explicitly stated what her reasons are, whether it’s necessity, a love for blonde wigs, a deep sense of herself as female, or some mix of all of all three.
It’s not clear exactly how Hedwig thinks of her gender or what labels she would apply to herself, if any. I think, however, that this very lack of clarity is essential to Hedwig’s character and to what the film is about. Hedwig exists in a gray area—both male and female, but neither at the same time—and her story is that of a person grappling with a society that isn’t prepared to accept that kind of ambiguity. What makes the ending of her story so powerful is that this ambiguity isn’t resolved—Hedwig emerges simply as Hedwig, labels be damned.
The most important thing, I would argue, is that Hedwig gets people talking—provoking essential discussions about what gender means, how we use gender to define identity, and how we treat people who, for whatever reason, don’t fall within conventional conceptions of “male” and “female.”
Images: Fine Line Features and New Line Cinema (2); Giphy (2)