Twenty years later, ‘Hedwig and the angry inch’ is still one of the most celebrated and troubled musicals of the century | Culture | ICON

The fall of the Twin Towers cast a shadow over everything in 2001. Still, the American show business managed to leave us some iconic images for the yearbook. Björk dressed as a swan at the Oscars. A return to garage rock led by the Strokes. The death of Aaliyah. The landing of the iPod. For the cinema it was also a great year. The sagas of Harry Potter Y The Lord of the rings, and Baz Luhrmann sublimated kitsch with Red Mill. But it was another humbler off-Broadway musical that would end up generating an unpredictable cult that continues to this day.

The day after the 9/11 attacks, the film adaptation of Hedwig and the angry inch, a glam rock explosion turned into a discussion text over time for the non-gender binary community. The theatrical release was a box office flop: Mayor Giuliani opened theaters to New York audiences for free to make up for some of the pain. It would not be until its DVD release in December of that same year that Hedwig would spread his colorful wings and his punk message to the world.

Hedwig was born from the minds of John Cameron Mitchell (who wrote the character) and Stephen Trask (the songs) at New York club Squeezebox's drag punk parties in the mid-90s to become one of the most combative and acclaimed musicals on off-campus. Broadway at the end of the decade.
Hedwig was born from the minds of John Cameron Mitchell (who wrote the character) and Stephen Trask (the songs) at New York club Squeezebox’s drag punk parties in the mid-90s to become one of the most combative and acclaimed musicals on off-campus. Broadway at the end of the decade.

Through his musical numbers, Hedwig tells us about his fateful existence. From a childhood illuminated by Bowie, Iggy Pop or Lou Reed, with an abusive father and a castrating mother on the other side of the Berlin Wall, to his pathetic tour in seedy bars stalking an ex who has succeeded by stealing songs. As a dramatic climax, a botched sex change operation forced by her American sergeant boyfriend in order to marry and take him / her with him to the promised land… To be abandoned by a younger boy in a Kansas trailer with nothing but his dreams of becoming rockstar and the flap between her legs. The ‘angry inch’ the title alludes to.

The film won the award for best director at Sundance to its creator, John Cameron Mitchell. A breath of fresh air for the cinema indie which was, in particular, a definite step forward in the narratives of the LGTBI community, which was still dealing with the aftermath of the onslaught of AIDS. The nineties were defined by movies like Philadelphia, theater works like Angels in America and musicals like Rent. Hedwig and the angry inch it broke an era of guilt over that pandemic that served the ruling class to further marginalize the gay community. Except The Crying Game, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert Y Boy’s don’t cry, the representation of the trans in the cinema of the decade remained anecdotal. Even today it is.

According to the latest annual report from GLAAD (the association that monitors diversity and inclusivity in American fiction), in 2020 there were zero transsexual characters in the 44 major releases of the largest Hollywood studios for the fourth consecutive year. Meanwhile, reactionary policies make their way. According to the Human Rights Campaign analysis, the US closes 2021 with the sad record of adding more anti-trans laws passed than ever. We don’t need to go that far. In Madrid itself, the rights step on the accelerator for the modification or repeal of LGTBI laws. And in all this, yes, cinema and series play an important role. It is not enough to film products focused on specifically transsexual characters whose gender identity is the axis of the plot (such as, say, Poison The Pose) to promote visibility but, when the participation of a transsexual character in a successful series such as The Money Heist, there is a truly trans actress and not a well-known female face that guarantees the tranquility of the large audiences.

Despite the applause, that has been one of the main criticisms that has dogged Hedwig, played in the film by John Cameron Mitchell himself. After the makeup, genitally the protagonist is neither a man nor a woman. As she sings: “After the operation all I have is a Barbie crotch.” For much of the trans community, Hedwig is a cultural appropriation of Mitchell, a mask of transsexuality; something not too far from when a white actor played a black character. Hedwig is in danger of misrepresenting a collective. Something that Judith Butler already reminded us in her essay Bodies that matter, where it points to Tootsie, Victor or Victoria? Y Whit skirts and being crazy as containment narratives in which the threat of queerness it is “produced and diverted” and in which “homophobia and panic against homosexuality are negotiated.”

The actor, producer, director and screenwriter was kind enough to welcome me to his apartment in the West Village of New York in 2010 to promote the film he had just directed, Rabbit hole [estrenada en España como Los secretos del corazón], a drama about coping with the loss of a child starring Nicole Kidman. Inevitably, the conversation turned to Hedwig, despite the fact that after the movie Mitchell had left the wig on stage to others. He justifies the character’s identity over gender: “His drag aspect can work in many directions: you can see in it an armor, an accessory or a tool… By telling us all the hardships he has gone through, Hedwig ends up breaking with drag to go naked back to a world that has not accepted her, as a gesture of affirmation, as if saying: ‘This is me’. To understand the complexity of any person, you have to attend to their scars. Only in this way can we also park the pronouns ”. Returning to Judith Butler: “Identification is always an ambivalent process.”

Actor Michael Pitt deflowered before the audience playing Tommy Gnosis, Hedwig's ex-lover who succeeds by stealing his songs.
Actor Michael Pitt deflowered before the audience playing Tommy Gnosis, Hedwig’s ex-lover who succeeds by stealing his songs.

At that meeting, Mitchell showed his disenchantment with the progressive transformation of culture queer. “I used to think that being gay was interesting. When I came to New York in the mid-eighties, the gay community I encountered was very different, much more diverse. We learned from our elders, from the queer people who had led the way. It was the time of AIDS, of political protests. To survive in a hostile environment, many things had to be questioned. What we have gained in visibility we have lost in credibility. The price of acceptance is mediocrity. In the same way that the whole society tends towards conservatism, we will see many more conservative gays in the coming years. Gay culture is already a product of instant marketing, they treat us like sheep and we buy it: ‘Oh, that’s the music I have to listen to’; ‘Those are the clothes I have to wear’, ‘I feel safer if I have the same body as everyone else’… I am terrified that we have fallen into such a superficial mentality ”.

And he pointed to the internet as a breeding ground for these behaviors: “The sense of community has been diluted in favor of atrocious individualism. The energies have been invested to see who comes closest to the top of the power structures. And that is something that also affects queer culture, which could not be further from that punk spirit that permeated it in the last years of the 20th century. The way queer people interact with each other on the internet has become something of an Olympics of oppression. Being outraged online is proof of existence: I accuse, therefore I exist. It would be good if we went back to look for common places despite our differences ”.

What Mitchell could not foresee is the renewed activism of a large part of the LGTBIQ + community in the face of that wave of conservatism that he predicted. The manifest opinions of one and the other have reinforced our conscience as a collective. We have become more sensitive to difference. On the internet there are thoughtful disquisitions about the positive or negative contribution of Hedwig and the angry inch to the perception of the trans. The non-binary playwright Tom / Crystal Rasmussen sums it up well: “Hedwig is a cis-gay living a trans experience, and this identity complexity gives rise to many misrepresentations, but it also opens the door to many interpretations of sexuality that we do not usually see: that is where the interest of this character lies queer so punk. In this highly commercialized world, it should not be forgotten that we can learn much more about our limits and our queer nature from Hedwig than from an IKEA sofa upholstered in the non-binary flag. “

The fans of this musical call themselves Hedheads and attend the performances with yellow foam wigs in the purest 'Rocky horror picture show' style.
The fans of this musical call themselves Hedheads and attend the performances with yellow foam wigs in the purest ‘Rocky horror picture show’ style.

With all that is questionable in her, Hedwig and the angry inch It also contains some successes that lead us into that complex identity to which scholars refer. Apart from his eminently pop temperament, his musical numbers are pure queer activism. In The origin of love (The origin of love), the lyrics go to the dialogue of the playwright Aristophanes in The banquet Plato’s where he raises the original hermaphrodite existence that, after separation, turns desire into the search for the half that completes us. Y Wig in a box (The wig in the box) is a gesture of what the theorist Elisabeth Freeman coined as chronopolitics: the present is a hybrid, time is no longer linear, and for people queer less, because we care about things from the past that are not those that matter to everyone. A drag can be the Madonna of the nineties and in five minutes the Pantoja of the eighties. In this song, while Hedwig recalls that he recovered from Sergeant Luther’s abandonment by “putting on makeup” and “planting the wig”, he changes his ditto up to six times to jump compulsively from time to time, from one personality to another. , including that of Farrah Fawcett.

John Cameron Mitchell is celebrating his own artistic return these days thanks to his role as Joe Exotic in the Netflix miniseries Tiger King (Created as a result of the success of the homonymous documentary series). Meanwhile, he feeds his own self-fiction music podcast Anthem (where he imagines what his life would be like if he had never left his town in Kansas and that has striking presences such as Glenn Close, who plays his mother; Laurie Anderson, who plays a tumor that they remove and speaks to him; or Marion Cotillard, who plays the doctor who treats him). And he has recovered Hedwig along with the composer of the soundtrack, Stephen Trask, on a self-tribute tour of US stages mixing rock with monologues. He calls it a ‘concert making-of’. Poor Mitchell recently excused himself on an American TV show for not being able to get on his heels like before: “My heels are more sensitive. I’m over 55, pity, at least I’m still dancing. Prince had to have two hip surgery, I hope it doesn’t get to that. “

Coming to life today, which pronoun should we use for Hedwig? Mitchell responded in a recent interview: “Hedwig would skip the pronouns. We are each ourselves, a unique gender. When you are with your friends, you are not thinking about sexualities or genders, you just accept how they are. Ultimately, that should be the goal in life. Socially too: stopping less to think about what the other person is and limiting ourselves to being and letting be ”.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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