Girls on Film: Sex and Gender in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
I recently rewatched Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a glamrock, gender-bending musical that holds a very special place in my heart. In a world where subjectivity is lost in favor of rigid, boring stereotypes, a film which welcomes interpretation is refreshing. As simple and comforting as it would be to reduce sexuality to GAY, STRAIGHT, LESBIAN, & BISEXUAL, we cannot. There is no truth in that. Sexuality & Gender Identity are messy and complicated. They exist in spectrums, not uncompomising boxes.
The film itself is about a transgender woman left deformed by a botched sex-change operation (hence The Angry Inch), so the plot itself is one which offers commentary on the lives of people living in the grey area of gender identity. But what’s more striking is the creative risks that the director takes with the film’s form in order to deepen his commentary.
The film takes elements from multiple genres (musical, animation, romance) and combines them to create a new style which emphasizes the fluid nature of sexual identity. In fact, the film’s amalgamous style makes it difficult to place it within a specific genre. But this is not an accident nor is it a flaw. The interweaving of different styles strongly reflects the ideas explored in the story, providing cohesion.
As a woman who has always struggled to define her sexuality, I am comforted (moved even) by the nonjudgemental approach that the director takes when portraying these characters. With a subject as unconventional as this, I think it is important to encourage the audience to relate on a level that is independent of stereotypes. Love is complicated, and so are we. The End.
People are too complex to be categorized neatly, and Hedwig gives us the opportunity to see the complex mixture of thoughts, feelings, and anxieties that are born from believing just the opposite. In fact, the film points to confusion and self-loathing as inevitable developments of strict definitions of gender and sexuality. Hedwig’s internal conflict is in part, the result of her need to please those around her– to fit into our culture’s standards of beauty.
I don’t think that the pressure to be beautiful is the film’s focus, but I do believe that the danger of internalizing fashionable opinions (whether they relate to beauty, gender, or art) as objectively true is touched upon. The story shows us that just as people morph and change, so do the shared truths of entire groups..entire countries.
Hedwig’s transition from male to female is paralleled by the erection and destruction of the Berlin Wall. To cross the wall and gain freedom, Hedwig must surgically alter himself. Shortly after this, the wall is demolished, suggesting that the restrictions placed on expression and identity change (sometimes drastically) over time. Hedwig is then tragic and pathetic, because his hardships have been rendered meaningless. We get the sense that conforming to cultural standards of gender or beauty, always leads to misery.
In the last scene of the film, Hedwig discovers that through love, we share so much of ourselves, that we morph into each other. Though relationships can be painful, they lead to rebirth and reinvention. For some, this film is odd, erratic and sort of hard to relate to, but I felt connected to it in a special way. As an outcast, as a woman, as a sexually confused person. And it helped me to understand that blurring boundaries of gender, sexuality, and artistic form can deepen our understanding of beauty and our capacity for empathy.
by Angie Hoover-Hillhouse