Why the cult rock musical’s message of loving yourself first and foremost is still empowering today.
Words by Jordan Currie. Art by Sam Liacos.
A janky guitar riff. A blonde Farrah Fawcett wig. Glittery blue eyeshadow and a rebellious spirit that could knock down the Berlin wall.
The opening sequence of Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) wastes no time in telling the audience that the story they’re about to watch is unabashedly queer–though unlike many of the queer film narratives of the late ‘90s and early 2000s, extremely unconventional. I was 17-years-old the first time I watched Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and like most queer kids still untangling their sexuality, any piece of media with even a crumb of LGBTQ+ content had the potential to resonate with me. Strange and poignant, Hedwig was a gold mine.
This year, 2021, marks the 20th anniversary of Hedwig and the Angry Inch as a film. It tells the story of Hedwig Robinson, born Hansel Schmidt, a genderqueer rock star who recieves a botched sex change operation in order to move from East Germany to America. She then tours the country with her band, The Angry Inch, to pursue an ex-lover who stole her music and passed it off as his own. Originally an off-Broadway musical first performed in the late ‘90s, it was adapted for the screen by John Cameron Mitchell, the man responsible for all things Hedwig: writing, directing, and starring as Hedwig herself, for both stage and screen. The score composed by Stephen Trask is an ode to the glam rock and punk greats, with influences like David Bowie and Iggy Pop riddled throughout.
Like most queer kids still untangling their sexuality, any piece of media with even a crumb of LGBTQ+ content had the potential to resonate with me. Strange and poignant, Hedwig was a gold mine.Jordan Currie
Admittedly, my understanding of cinema wasn’t refined enough at the time for me to completely grasp what Hedwig was about–the jarring and surreal camera angles and scene transitions, the couple of animated sequences, and especially the last 15 minutes all felt like a fever dream. But none of this stopped me from emotionally connecting with the ethos of Hedwig. It’s a sexy, sweaty, fashionable, glittery beast of a movie, an aptly named “angry” and loud and rambunctious piece of cinema that has achieved cult classic status, where die-hard fans dress in fishnets and lipstick and scream-sing the songs at live showings of the film a-la-Rocky Horror. Above all else, however, it’s also the ultimate queer self-love story, and one that still holds up 20 years later.
New Queer Cinema was a movement in film history about the surgence in independently produced LGBTQ+ movies in the 1990s. Films such as My Private Idaho and Paris Is Burning helped define the movement. While Hedwig may have technically missed being categorized under the New Queer Cinema umbrella by a few years, many consider the film a direct by-product of it–but Hedwig was different from a lot of what came before it. The character didn’t have strict labels on her gender or sexuality, and the story wasn’t a formulaic coming out narrative, or one that centered on the end goal of two gay characters getting together (or dying, as the ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope was alive and kicking even then.) Rather, Hedwig sought to depict a story that relished in self-love and individuality through a queer lens.
Stories about transgender and/or fluid gender identities weren’t unprecedented. But according to a study conducted by GLAAD in 2020, “…the year did include four transgender and/or non-binary actors in major releases, [but] none of those films established those characters as transgender or non-binary within the film’s world. While we are pleased to see trans actors being cast in roles that are not explicitly written as transgender, for this report, GLAAD did not count those characters in its tally based on what was on screen.” While significant strides have been made for queer representation, it’s evident that trans/non-binary/genderqueer characters are far and few between. With a film like Hedwig crossing those boundaries in a time where even less LGBTQ+ content graced the screen in an explicit way, blurring the lines of sexuality and gender and ditching frigid, distinct labels, it’s one of many reasons why Hedwig remains timeless.
It’s a feeling that so many queer people can relate to: the deep trauma and pain of having a parent not accept you into their life, or a lover who can’t fully commit to you, either due to shame or not being emotionally ready to be in a queer relationship.Jordan Currie
The film revolves around Plato’s Symposium, and the subsequent unravelling of it. In this popular Greek myth, Plato tells the story of how human beings were once born as two people sewn back-to-back, as men and men (children of the sun), women and women (children of the earth), and men and women (children of the moon). When humans became defiant, Zeus sent down lightning bolts to strike them as punishment, separating them in half. From then on, humans have been searching for their “other half,” birthing the concept of soulmates. The Symposium is summarized in the film through a song Hedwig writes called “The Origin Of Love.” She wholeheartedly believes in this story and has adopted it as a factor of her identity, searching her whole life for the perfect other half to complete her.
Many key figures in Hedwig’s life end up leaving her–her father when she was a child, her ex-husband Luther who convinces her to get a sex change in order to bring her to America, and her lover Tommy, whom she believes is the true other half she’s been searching for, but who ultimately cannot be with her due to his reluctance to date someone like her. It’s a feeling that so many queer people can relate to: the deep trauma and pain of having a parent not accept you into their life, or a lover who can’t fully commit to you, either due to shame or not being emotionally ready to be in a queer relationship. Hedwig has an emotional breakdown despite achieving fame with her music career, because she continues to yearn for the one thing that keeps getting away from her–love.
It’s near the end of the film where amidst her breakdown, a stripped-down Hedwig, devoid of her elaborate clothes and makeup and wigs, sees an imaginary version of Tommy, who apologizes to her in the penultimate song “Wicked Little Town (Reprise).” In it, the vision of Tommy croons, “Forgive me, for I did not know / ‘cause I was just a boy / and you were so much more”, but then later switches to, “And there’s no mystical design / no cosmic lover preassigned / there’s nothing you can find / that cannot be found.” Tommy, who at this point is just a manifestation that Hedwig has created in her mind, seems to be gently calling her out on her perceptions of love. This is a stark contrast to the lyrics of “The Origin Of Love” which read, “We wrapped our arms around each other / tried to shove ourselves back together.” Hedwig’s time in believing in a singular, predestined soulmate has come to a close, and she realizes that she is a complete, whole person all on her own. She is not broken or unfinished, and does not require another being to make her into a more evolved version of herself. Finally, Hedwig is free, and this allows her to give herself the love she’s been saving for a partner that has never been promised.
With a film like Hedwig crossing those boundaries in a time where even less LGBTQ+ content graced the screen in an explicit way, blurring the lines of sexuality and gender and ditching frigid, distinct labels, it’s one of many reasons why Hedwig remains timeless.Jordan Currie
Fabulous music and impeccable late ‘90s and early Y2K fashion aside, there’s a reason why this film has become a cult classic and has resonated with queer audiences across two decades. The take-home moral of Hedwig is not that LGBTQ+ people should give up on or reject romantic love because it may be more difficult to obtain in certain circumstances. Rather, it’s that you hold love within you, and you have the ability to wield it for yourself, even if you don’t find it in other people. Even if Hedwig doesn’t resonate with every queer experience, as no one piece of media can, its message of self-love never goes out of style. We can become used to being cynical husks when we do not get the romantic love from others we think we need, especially as LGBTQ+ folks, when outwardly expressing love can be a death sentence in some scenarios. Hedwig, ever-material at 20-years-old, reminds us to ditch the unfulfilling love scraps we’re given in life in favour of turning that love inward and embracing our queer bodies and identities ourselves. What could be more punk than that?