Try and Tear Me Down: Challenging Gender Binaries in Hedwig and the Angry Inch


On September 13, Hedwig put her wig back on the shelf as the curtain closed for the last time on the Broadway show Hedwig and the Angry Inch (no, not this Hedwig – this Hedwig). I shed many a glitter tear at the news. Hedwig as a show opened the floor to discussion about gender politics and how to more effectively challenge the gender binary than with a genderqueer punk rocker.

Some quick terminology before we proceed: I identify as genderfluid, which means I feel that I embody both the male and female genders. Genderfluid is one of the terms that falls under the genderqueer umbrella, that is, those who do not fit into the traditional societal gender binaries. Hedwig, as a character, also falls under this umbrella. Hedwig is usually plugged as a transwoman; however, John Cameron Mitchell, the creator of the “internationally ignored song stylist” has often said that she is, in fact, genderqueer. Hedwig’s gender can be actively speculated about for one reason and one reason only: she is a fictional character. If Hedwig was a real person, we would not have the right to speculate or project our thoughts or beliefs about gender onto her. If she was real, the whole debate would be settled because we could simply ask, “What is your gender? What are your pronouns?” Since that is not the case, the audience is only left to what the creator tells us and also various pieces of contextual evidence sprinkled throughout the show. I am not here, though, to argue the gender or identity of a fictional punk rock star of stage and screen (shameless “Wig in a Box” plug). What I am going to discuss is the fact that Hedwig has brought about a discussion regarding ambiguities in the gender binary that have seldom been addressed prior in such an arena as Broadway.

There are three things I love more than anything in this world: glitter, punk rock, and theater. Hedwig provides all three. Originally a smash off-Broadway musical in 1998 and then later a motion picture in 2001, I was late coming to the Hedwig party. It was not until Neil Patrick Harris’ triumphant return to Broadway that I heard about the show. With music and lyrics by Stephen Trask, the story follows Hedwig, a post-punk glam-rock East Berlin escapee, as she follows her much more successful ex-boyfriend, Tommy Gnosis, while he tours the country. Hedwig is a lovely bundle of gender play. If you are a femme presenting performer, like myself, the only real opportunity in theater to explore your masculine side is to play Yentl or maybe a select Shakespeare production. As much as I love Babs and the Bard respectively, it would not be a good look for me. Yitzhak (Hedwig’s husband) is woman playing a man who is a drag queen (did you keep up with the high amount of gender-flowy going on there?) This would give ample opportunity to explore all sides of gender. It also blurs the binary lines and creates a lovely shade of grey.

Even subtracting the fact that this gives genderfluid performers opportunity to perform a part that is able to cater to all sides of their gender, Hedwig as a show opens a forum that is ripe for discussion about the gender binary. Hedwig, prior to her transition, was a self-proclaimed “slip of a girlyboy,” leading the audience to believe that she never truly fit into the binaries imposed upon her. Her transition is described in detail in the song “Angry Inch” which not only tells the story of her botched surgery which lead to her no longer having a penis but also left her with no vagina. Sex and gender are things that are often used interchangeably, but they are very different. Sex is what is assigned to a person at birth (anatomically based) whereas gender is an identity. All gender is an identity—there is nothing innate about it. Society has determined what is masculine and what is feminine; therefore, even cis people identify as a certain gender, they just happen to have their sex and gender match up. However, since people see gender and sex as synonymous, obsession with gender reassignment surgery is usually a hot topic of discussion.  Society is focused on the idea that the gender binary sync up with anatomical sex. One thing is clear: gender reassignment surgery is a very personal decision and is something that can only be left up to an individual person. Someone’s gender does not become invalid based upon their genitalia. Hedwig’s botched surgery left her with no genitalia, but it does not void her of her gender, whether that gender is genderqueer or transwoman. While the botched surgery causes her distress (whether that distress is dysphoria or not is up for discussion), it does not invalidate her as a character. She is a strong female character that has overcome a lot of adversity in her lifetime and no surgery would ever take that away.  

Hedwig is deeply insightful, honest and thoughtful; it wrestles with topics that are not easy, such as gender and love. While Hedwig as a character should not be viewed as a poster child for the queer community (she has her flaws, just as any well written character should), but as a show, it should be viewed as a discussion opener. What really defines male and female? Do these binaries affect how we love one another? In the end, though, it does not really matter because we are just trying to find where we connect with each other in the universe.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s