“The Stranger is Always You” : Hedwig, Survival, and the Questionable Trans Label
“And Agathon said, ‘It is probable, Socrates, that I knew nothing of what I had said.’
‘And yet spoke you beautifully, Agathon,’ he replied.”
Plato, The Symposium
My reading here of Hedwig and the Angry Inch is based upon the filmed production (Mitchell 2001), augmented by consulting a printed edition of the stagescript (New York: Dramatists Play Service Inc, 2003). I have not seen the current Tony-winning production, starring Mr Neil Patrick Harris, and my interpretations can therefore not speak with specific to his performance.
My first attempt to watch Hedwig and the Angry Inch — with the love of my life sitting on the couch beside me, who is also trans — ended in an epic cinematic panic attack. I was shocked by the display of coercive sexual relations set to an all spit, no polish, saloon soundtrack; and then this notion of the gay-guy goes too far and seeks out a backroom “sex change”; and then the operation is carried out by a grimacing Victor Frankenstein who specialises in budget bottom surgeries that he botches with the scalpel. The misadventures all result in the deformed trans woman and her physical ignominy of the angry inch.
… my mind balked at processing all of that! To me, I’d just endured a montage of every insipid cissexist stereotype of what motivates transsexual women and what our lives are like. Disgusted. Oh thank God I didn’t see that pre-transition! I cried, I cried harder, and then I fled the room — my wife hitting mute on the television as she leaped in pursuit of me as I sobbed on the trot.
Perhaps I had too much of the drink in me that night, or smoked a bit too much weed … perhaps there were pockets of residual trauma from my own years spent between the Scylla and Charybdis of gender dysphoria — to drown or to transition. Between those two possibilities I struggled in-between for years as I tried to carry on just “being a dude” and hitting undertow with every desperate whap of my sinking arm . . .
In short, the film hit me hard, very hard.
My reading of Hedwig might have ended there. I was ready to dismiss the script, whatever its aesthetic merits, as a pantomime act of transsexual identities: the disturbed turning into the desperate. The whole sex change aspect felt like a theatrical plot device to convert the trans woman’s body in a corpus of pain for a cis theatre of cruelty. Likewise, her back story seemed to buttress TERf arguments that trans women are merely effeminate men who, instead of exploring gender non-conformity, violently restore the sexual binary. “You’re a gay guys and you just should accept it” … check, I’d been told that. And the way the SRS is portrayed. So much monstrous misinformation about genital reconfiguration as alleyway interventions, performed with hatchets and elastic bands on lunatic patients. And, just to make the trope tally complete … even the deceitful trans woman! They all seemed to be there, the whole lot of transphobia blocked as dramaturgy of sh*male pity-hilarity!
And yet I gave Hedwig a second view, a few months later: sober, more prepared for the shock of the stagecraft. My wife loved the film and, loving her, I wanted to understand what she saw in it.
And the truth of the matter, on this second go, I fell in love with Hedwig as well. The central theme — that we are not so much what we do, but we are doing in response to what was done to us — seemed to playfully reconsider the agencies of freedom and identity in a trans point of view. I appreciated her story of expatriation, of being unable to shirk off the contextual damnation of the past but nonetheless believing in the future anterior — the yet to come of what she will have been. And the songs! The music sounded sinful and seditious, fucking with the conventions of American rock and roll while still preserving enough optimism to hit the operatic high notes. And I did weep again at the animated renovation of Aristophanes’s speech from The Syposium and its narration of sexual and gender diversity.
Hedwig may have the appearance of a broken doll, but she is — as St Bowie said — well aware of what she is going through.
Since then, I’ve toyed with more academic essays exploring the features and symbols of the story. I’m especially interested in how Hedwig’s transsexual interpretation of the Symposium contrasts with the maternal biologic of Luce Irigaray, one of my favorite feminist writers who takes up a fairly ciscentric reading of Plato in her An Ethics of Sexual Difference [Éthique de la Différence Sexuelle, 1984], which privileges a fairly essentialistic way of presenting the woman’s body in relation to sex and culture. Hedwig actually helped me have a new dialogue with Irigaray, since I think Hedwig has a decidedly poignant existentialism that fits very well with Kristeva: subjectivity is a process, not a fixed identity.
But before I can really think through any of that, I knew I had to confront my own initial misgivings of the text, ones that have been reiterated by many trans thinkers I respect. And I think our concern came down to an important question to all of us: Is Hedwig really trans?
It’s a perfectly valid question, but not a simple one to answer.
Trans activists generally follow a straightforward identity politic: you are what you say you are. Transness is not conferred by gatekeepers, political climates, or regulatory policing. This style of imposition, in fact, had been the initial paradigm: trans is a merit badge awarded by the Dean. However, the reclamational politics of trans* thinking has been to restore agency to the voice of the individual. So — rather than a mental illness or a special concession made to the elite few — trans is what one knows themselves to be. It may sound like a somewhat facile philosophy — I am what I say I am — but that worked for God in Exodus, so …
But really — I’m personally more critical than most trans writers I know about the tenability of naive identity formation based on temporary, limited, contextual assertions. That’s another topic, and certainly a controversial one, especially given recent attempts to deconstruct ‘cis’ as a meaningful rhetorical category. But, for now, I start with this enquiry: who does Hedwig say she is?
But then is saying ever a truly independent act? It’s important to remember the historical framing of Hedwig’s life story as a nomadic subject. Born in the former East Germany, raised by a single mother, Hedwig has no access whatsoever to any source of information to help her negotiate confusion about gender and sexuality. We know she has dysphoria and panic, as she considers late into the night the problem of ‘maleness’ after hearing a bedtime-story version of Aristophanes’s speech. To Hedwig, myth of origins terrifies but invites because it offers alternative paradigms, a genesis for androgyny, new ways to configure the puzzle of sex and gender.
We don’t, however, hear Hedwig talking about being born in the wrong bodies, or breathless wishes to have her sex undone. There are references to trying on her mother’s camisole and a desire to act out a feminine role in sexual relationships [“Sugar Daddy”]. This seems atypical, since we’re used to having so many ‘my transition story!’ texts out there that all tend to fulfill the same paradigms of torturous self-knowledge and sequential transition. (My own story matches that template in some ways, but not others.) But Hedwig is not predictable: she flirts with some expectations of trans lives, and outright rejects others. We’re audience watching an audience — the film presents Hedwig as doubly performative before multiple cis-gazes. And there is something decidedly irreducible about Hedwig that resists all labels and their intrinsic expectations to restore sense and comprehension. Thus, I think this is crucial in understanding her as an abject heroine: the irresolvable musician who both enchants as well as hexes from the dimness of her alterity.
In song, she finds self-awareness.
Seeing herself as a fallen angel in Plato’s mythos, the split-in-half being composed of mismatched parts and unrequited holes, Hedwig has turned to that Almighty Savior, the one who saved my soul and many’s another: music. Hedwig’s radio becomes the sacrament of confirmation: “crypto-homo rockers: Lou Reed … Iggy Pop … David Bowie …” He notes wryly how authors can use idiom to change the information of the past and to be reborn new gestalt of their own erratic designing, to turn puzzles into passions of performance and utterance. This is important, since the musical score of Hedwig so brilliantly imitates and desecrates the idiomatic rules of musical genres. Nothing ever quite fits, and no tune resolves its cadences or its lyrics in predictable ways.
So what does distinguish Hedwig from a drag queen, from a trans woman, from a drag queen who’s also a trans woman? The text deliberately eschews the typical linear narrative of most transition schemes. Hedwig is a nomadic subjectivity, a multiplier of radical engendering. She is
Standing before you in the divide
between East and West,
Slavery and Freedom,
Man and Woman,
Top and Bottom
Such lyrics are the articulation of the irreducible and the irresolvable, a tremendous punk-rock fuck you to the stability of identitarian labels. Hedwig is confrontationally challenging the listeners pre-conceived metaphysics and the linkages of binary stability they depend upon to maintain order. And for that, she is reviled and spit upon. She is an enemy expat — geographically split, not entirely in charge of her own agency — both enslaved but seeking freedom — her gender identity is a deliberate rebuttal to binary norms … she embodies the failure of politics, medicine, ethics, and romance. Against such failures, she survives in her life of gender non-conformity through invention and reiteration to maintain an indefinable aporia of her resistant subjectivity.
But sure there’s still no definitive claim to being trans, as such. And perhaps that’s a statement of its own.
True, she was — to appearances — a gay male whose erotic taste of sweets, sex, and sonority got her involved with an American Army lad who, according to his plan, asks Hedwig to get SRS so that she can have her passport changed. One could easily say she made this decision under duress, driven not by her own needs but the desire to fill the needs of others. The botched sex change, and her unhappiness with her genitalia, echos the Platonic warning of vengeful Gods who tear bodies in half with lightning bolts to punish autonomy. But she does not regret getting SRS; she regrets the results and the conditions in which she endured her transition. But there is no de-transition, no desire for one: for her to live as a ‘failed’ woman is far more important than to live as a successful gay man, like Tommy. There is no profit in riches acquired through living under the pretenses of expectation and convenience. I refer to her with female pronouns, because that’s what her friends in the script do. That she utilizes female pronouns does not seem a hapless gesture of submissio, but a deeply consistent personal preference.
Yet one can’t eschew all of the patterns of female identification she uses as forms of therapy, deliverance, and survival. “Wig in a Box” is a profoundly heartbreaking story of secret clothes stashes, a private repertoire of the women she wishes she could be — Hedwig identifies with popular iconic cis women of the time, but in a manner deliberately distinctive of the Judy Garland drag-queen worship one finds in that milieu. Hedwig’s sense of transition is expressed completely unlike cis-gay drag culture. To me, what is most telling of all the lines in that song is when she decides that the wig will not be going back, to be once more shoved ashamed in the dark cracks of embarrassed closeted recess. “I’m never going back,” she says. Cis drag queens do go back — they walk off stage, take their dresses off, and resume gay maleness. Hedwig, instead, affirms that she must never “turn back into myself”, in which myself is the unwanted maleness of before, Hans — that man she presumably played out to satisfy her mothers and the authoritarianism of the East German state. Remember how she was, as a child, writing on the Berlin Wall: “Deny me and be Doomed.”
I’m not trying to plead a case here, ultimately. I think she’s trans, and that’s my reading, but it’s not definitive. The text won’t allow definitions. Hedwig possesses a migratory individualism that remains resilient despite being relentlessly migratory, and her capacity to adapt also has the agency to overcome silence and erasure. Roz Kaveney offered a sentiment on twitter that matches my own thinking in our discussions: “She survives and makes art even if it’s stolen from her.” In my view, her art is the one consistent resource she has autonomy over herself and her gender — on her terms and according to her inspirations.
Hedwig is a terrifying story of the failures of health care for trans women; of authoritarian regimes and their “we know best” rules about gender enforcement (or abolition, if you know what I mean). We trans women have had to escape terrible places: the suffocating spaces of unsupportive homes, volatile neighbourhoods, and the most difficult geography of them all — the uncongruent body. Yet it’s also poignant in its meditations on independence and adaptation. As Tommy puts it near the end of the play, “With all the changes / you’ve been through / it seems the stranger is always you”. Abandoned and afflicted, plagiarised and purged — Hedwig survives, because she can say “Goodbye, wicked little town.”
And for me this is the most practical, heartfelt message of Hedwig: survival is a complicated narrative.