Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)

When one first considers the film Hedwig and the Angry Inch on the surface, one might expect to just watch a film about the extravagant lifestyle of a drag performer. But this film is about a lot more than that. It’s not just about wigs and makeup and some sort of Culture Industried presentation of homosexuality.  It’s about the process of living. It’s about making choices. It’s about being bullied into choices. It’s about reflecting on where you’ve come from, what’s gotten you to where you are right now, and where you’re going with what you’ve got at this exact moment. It’s about sadness, irony, and those ‘what-the-fuck’ moments we’ve all experienced in our lives. It’s about how people along the way have helped, hindered, or hurt you in the process. It’s a universal narrative. And it’s told smartly in this case.

This film depicts how one act of what I would consider violence and trauma, for the ultimate goal of freedom, can affect one’s perception and perpetuation of the Self.  Hedwig even says/sings that her one inch is angry.  The viewer must therefore consider that the act of the botched sex change was a regrettable moment for Hedwig, especially with the irony of the Wall coming down so soon after the deed-of-emancipation was done.

I think one of the most remarkable parts of this film was the way in which the director (John Cameron Mitchell, who plays the protagonist) presents Hedwig (formerly known as Hansel) as an individual with an amazing degree of self-awareness.  It is the lyrics of the songs, and the animations/dance numbers that accompany several of the musical scenes, that provide the best evidence of Hedwig’s intelligence and Self-awareness. And those scenes prove why this film is about life and living through disappointment and extreme trauma by pushing through and persevering despite the odds against you.

Hedwig is a very diverse character. She is clever. She is heartless. She is controlling. She is desperate for acceptance. She is tremendously creative.  She is traumatized. She is manipulative. She is more intelligent than anyone else. She is defeated. She is emotional. She is hardened. She is angry. She is capable of being ultimately happy.  She also looks really great as a woman!

This film reminds me that desperation leads people to do just about anything to be free and therefore happy. As humans, we go to great lengths to attain freedom and happiness, and in Hedwig’s case, she sacrificed five out of six of Hansel’s inches to get there! It’s a daunting reminder that there are individuals out in the world who struggle with issues many could not even fathom. Freedom comes at a great cost, sometimes costing freedom itself. Freedom to love, freedom to be loved, freedom to be happy in the way you had always envisioned it. Freedom to be free even.

This is a sad movie. But it’s also a happy movie. The viewer is escorted through Hansel’s and  Hedwig’s lives, and is treated to an insider’s look at the results of the traumas endured. Would Hansel’s or Hedwig’s life have been completely different had s/he been born in America instead of having to escape from East Germany by the (fore)skin of her/his teeth? Who knows. We are still facing a great deal of oppression in this country when it comes to gay rights. How is this happy, you say? Because, as a great man likes to say: “Happiness is being.”  And I think that’s what we, as viewers, are supposed to take away from this film.

6 thoughts on “Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)

  1. Hedwig uses feminine pronouns and there are many points in the movie that shows she considers herself a woman. Therefore, referring to her with masculine pronouns and calling her a man is an off analysis.

  2. I agree to some extent, Nome. So I’ve gone in and edited my pronouns to at least acknowledge the ambiguity. Perhaps my explanation below will further clarify my initial use of the masculine.

    Part of what I didn’t even get into with my analysis of this film is that until Hansel was essentially coerced into the sex change, there was no evidence that he viewed himself as a woman. That was an identity that appears to have been forced upon Hansel (by his mother and Sgt. Robinson) so that he could escape East Germany (noted by the expression on his face when the idea is brought up, and when she (she is Hedwig by then) finds out the wall has ironically fallen soon after she arrives in the U.S….).

    Because of this, I read it to mean that Hedwig’s female identity was one that perhaps she hadn’t ‘chosen’ for herself necessarily but rather it was one that she had to assume if she was going to survive in the world. By the end of the film, Hedwig strips down completely (back to what I would interpret would be Hansel), only to be reborn again in the final scene as Hedwig again; therefore really taking on a female identity by choice. I suppose I read this as an acknowledgment that Hansel had been there the entire time (duly noting the awkward couplings with Yitzhak in bed, indicating the male underneath), thus my use of the masculine pronoun as the standard. This is not necessarily “right,” but I suppose it is what fueled my use of the masculine.

    But point well taken and I do want to be sensitive to my own use of pronouns in this case. It’s obviously not a clear-cut case because gender identity is itself not a straight-forward thing (especially in this film). Thank you for pointing it out to me, and hopefully I have clarified my words to be more in line with my intentions.

  3. Um, no, you probably shouldn’t. It’s full-on, hardcore, non-simulated sex throughout. I was actually kidding about you seeing it. You’re too nice of a southern belle to watch something like that.

    (For the record, I haven’t seen it either.)

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