And I Turn Back to Myself
Juan Barquin Revisits Hedwig and the Angry Inch
It’s been a decade since I first wrote about John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch. I was just a baby at 22, casually failing a number of my university classes due to a mix of laziness, day-job exhaustion (which has gotten worse since), and a greater interest in scrolling down iCheckMovies. At this age, I still thought of myself as cis, not so far removed from my high school days, when I thought leaning into masculinity would make me “not like those other gays” and more appealing and accessible to those around me.
Revisiting that essay, I see the seeds of whom I’d become down the road, not just in the writing but also in the feeling behind the writing. Like Hedwig never imagined having to truly reflect on the cards life had dealt them, wandering aimlessly or purposefully (depending on your reading of the ending), I never imagined that my perspectives on queerness and cinema would one day be so challenged. Every queer film I encounter today is a new chance for me to reassess what queerness can look like in cinema. With such a malleable term as “queer cinema,” we have to create our own definition and understanding: for me, it is not to fall in line with the status quo, trying to blandly mimic convention, but to dive into what it means to exist as the “other” in any given situation.
But Hedwig is why I’m here. Who is Hedwig beyond the transsexual rock singer touring the U.S., telling tales of her life and former flames? When I first wrote about the film, I mindlessly referred to her as a “scarred person” without interrogating what that meant. I passingly questioned Hedwig’s identity (“never a true moment that the boy named Hansel truly showed a longing to become a woman”), just as her creator John Cameron Mitchell (himself non-binary though uninterested in shifting pronouns) insisted that she was not trans. In the current representational landscape, this is harder to define than ever, with every piece of the character’s life blurring that fine line known as gender. Is Hedwig a trans woman simply because of a botched surgery—one that was never truly a point of desire, of affirmation, but a reassignment of gender for the sake of convenience? Or is Hedwig just a cis man who got “force-femmed” into a person they never meant to be? And isn’t that feeling of being in the wrong body a large part of what being trans (or, at least, what being trans in cinema) is?
This leads me to think about a favored feature of so many films featuring trans characters, whether average person or monstrous murderer: everyone’s favorite bit of business, the mirror shot. It can offer a fresh perspective or represent a tortured downfall. As a reflection of anything, from natural beauty to crippling insecurity, it’s a cliché used to reflect on suitability of what we’re wearing at any given moment. So often with trans characters—whether The Silence of the Lambs’ Buffalo Bill (whose dance I have emulated far more than I care to admit), Boys Don’t Cry’s Brandon Teena, or The Danish Girl’s Lili Elbe—we find ourselves staring into a mirror along with them, longingly gazing at what could be if only life had turned out a little different (or if life offered us a better route to transition than where we’ve ended up). Though such a scene presents itself as aspirational, as a chance to see what it might be like “in the right body”—a double-edged sword—the characters are always weighed down by their current state of being.
There’s a sense of lamentation in the way Hedwig gazes at herself in the mirror, notably in the centerpiece musical number, “Wig in a Box.” Here, our protagonist sings about the wigs she dons to embrace personas that allow her to escape her reality. The mirror represents beauty as much as monstrosity (like the shift from her smiling in a feathered wig to a distorted funhouse close-up of terror), but, more often than not, Hedwig’s gaze is directly to the camera. It’s as though her preoccupation is the viewer, her adoring (or apathetic) audience serving as a visual extension of her character’s fixation on how others see her. Yet the film’s key mirror shot provides a unique reflection of what Hedwig is missing. She holds up a hand mirror to allow her betraying lover Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt) to see himself and the way she’s manipulated Tommy’s appearance, but the camera shows us Hedwig’s own face fractured by the reflective surface and half of his face. What we see in this reflection is not traditional femininity or masculinity, not an idyllic presentation of gender, but a complete version of herself: her own face conjoined with that of her fated other half.
A face split in two is the defining image of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, all the way back to one of its earliest numbers, “The Origin of Love.” In the song’s lyrics, composer Stephen Trask and Mitchell trace how people roamed with “two faces peering out of one giant head” before Zeus used his “lightning like scissors” to “split them right down the middle.” It’s a loose, if simplified, telling of Aristophanes’s speech on the same subject within Plato’s Symposium; a digestible bite of philosophy that sets the stage for the film and its core relationship between Hedwig and Tommy. The tale is illustrated using hand-drawn animation by artist Emily Hubley, whose visuals have become an inextricabe part of how we identify Mitchell’s character and film (down to its Criterion release having new work by the artist and Mitchell projecting her visuals during his “Origin of Love” concert tour). The face that accompanies this song, its perfect circle split into two halves like a play on the familiar yin-yang symbol (itself tattooed on Hedwig’s wandering body at the end), is among the most prevalent of all of Hubley’s images. Though the Chinese philosophy is fixated on two opposite but intersecting forces—that of receptive (yin) and active (yang); of winter and summer, female and male, disorder and order—its melding with Aristophanes’s text is a natural one: these halves belong to a whole, cohesive image that, despite seeming out of place when it comes to the “natural” state of things, creates harmony when brought together.
This merging of personas (particularly within the persona swap genre) isn’t unfamiliar terrain in cinema, with Persona and 3 Women being defining examples, and Hedwig falls comfortably in the same space as what Miriam Bale describes, from its focus on a “distinctly feminine experience,” being a film in which “magical events are accepted in a grounded reality,” and as suggesting “that any distinctive personality is a performative act.” As we watch Hedwig cycle through wigs, bounce through musical stylings and lovers, oscillate between exploiting individuals who desire to possess her and being exploited by those she seeks to possess, we witness the merging of the persona swap film and the queer film. (This intersection forms the basis of a number of my favorite works and screen duos, including Showgirls’ Nomi and Cristal, whose performance of femininity and desire comes across as distinctly trans to me.)
The elements of the persona swap film are prevalent throughout Hedwig and the Angry Inch, with its fixation not only on Hedwig and Tommy but also on the relationship between Hedwig and backup singer Yitzhak (Miriam Shor, in a deeply affecting performance). Though the stage show that the film is based on strips down these layers to focus on Hedwig as a performer, Mitchell’s film is more interested in the way that every human is performing in their day-to-day life. We begin by emulating what we can see that has a distinct impact on us; Yitzhak dreams of being Hedwig, Tommy dreams of being Hedwig, and while Hedwig dresses up as “Farrah Fawcett from TV,” Hedwig dreams of being Tommy. I’ve dreamt of being any number of women, from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ Lorelei Lee to Basic Instinct’s Catherine Tramell, but the reality is I’m more of a cross between Diane Keaton and Divine. The more striking characters I discover, the more I internalize different aspects of each one to shape myself as a person. These personalities seep into my writing (and my films), just as it is an essential part of how Hedwig navigates her own art. Different pieces of Hedwig come out in her music—whether soft (“Wicked Little Town”) or harsh (“Angry Inch”), playful (“Sugar Daddy”) or solemn (“Midnight Radio”), each one as introspective as the last. Hedwig isn’t one product or person. Maybe being trans isn’t the key to Hedwig. Maybe transition itself is. And transition is something that I find myself thinking about frequently, not just in regards to my own experiences with hormones and gender but in the way that my own views are constantly changing.
In Hedwig, transition is less about gender and more about how these myriad identities are all part of a whole. The film reminds me that each discovery in our lives allows us to transition to the next stage, to again and again reshape our engagement with everything from gender to art. If ten years ago I could barely consider what existed beneath the text itself, writing standard reviews that touched upon themes without truly engaging with them, what can I make of the person I have become today? Inane declarations I’ve made in the past make me look back with embarrassment, just as films I once loathed have revealed themselves as personal favorites. (Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem, a film about how exhausting it is to reckon with one’s inescapable history, is one such work and was at one point going to be the basis for this semi-personal confrontation with myself, analyzing why I was fixated on snark instead of engaging with a work of art on its own terms.)
I am as much the twenty-something who wants nothing more than to see themselves represented on screen as I am the thirty-something who knows that to be represented means seeing the best and worst parts of yourself at once. Seriously engaging with cinema is about knowing that you can find yourself in any character, whether the deviously glamorous gals of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or any of Divine’s beautifully monstrous women (but especially Female Trouble’s Dawn Davenport). It’s about aspiring to have the confident physicality of bisexual murderess Catherine Tramell as much as we want to stop existing in our body, in this world, like Carol in Safe. These are all wigs of a sort, just as each sentence I write is itself a kind of makeup that hides any perceived ineptitude. They are all part of me.
In “Wig in a Box,” Hedwig may sing that she turns back to herself as soon as she wakes up, but her dreams are part of her waking reality. I once referred to film and character alike as “an over-the-top mess,” but never took the time to reflect on why that “mess” was a feature, not a bug. To be queer is to be a mess, to be strange, to be an oddity in the face of normalcy, to be the abject in a populace that seeks exaltation. Every perfectly manicured personality is a piece of her. If “The Origin of Love” posits that each of us is two individuals, I challenge that by suggesting that maybe our identities are a lot more like some grotesque mound of flesh out of a Clive Barker novel: each person, or piece of art, or life experience we ingest becomes an indispensable part of us, for better or worse. It may look like a mess, but it sure is a lot more fun. Hedwig is so much more complicated than the “scarred person” I once dismissed her as; she deserves more than the simple labels prescribed to her.