Six Inches Forward, Five Inches Back, Twenty Years Later

CW: Discussion of harmful queer stereotypes, sex mentions, mentions of violence, molestation, use of “cripple”, “psycho”, “tranny”, and “faggot”.

“Grief is not apparel, not like a dress, a wig, or my sister’s high-heeled shoes. It is darker than the man I love who in my fantasies comes for me in a silver six-cylinder chariot…While I wait, I’m the only man who loves me. They call me “Star” because I listen to dreams and wishes. But grief is darker. It is a white dress that covers my body. It is a wig that does not rest gently on my head.” Essex Hemphill, “Homicide”, excerpted from Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied and abridged for this piece

“And, if I know anything at all, it’s that a wall is just a wall and nothing more at all. It can be broken down.” Assata Shakur, “I believe in living

It’s only once a year but it’s over. Everything got a little more colorful for thirty days because of the rainbow. Streets were blocked off for a weekend for a Technicolor parade and fun fest with security from traditional oppressors. The mood itself is happy and, well, gay. It’s Pride month and you’re supposed to feel good about your identity and orientation if you’re queer. But it’s become fucking difficult as a trans person in America as the landscape has become incredibly hostile and tiresome as the days go by.

As it stands, anti-trans legislation has ramped up in recent months. Florida governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill banning trans students from sports, vetoed money for counseling for Pulse survivors five years after it happened (yes, it has been that long), and said no to funding for a LGBTQ shelter for the Zebra Coalition, all of this in June. Forty-one states have had anti-trans bills on the docket at some point this year. Former sports star Caitlyn Jenner placed a bid to run for California governor while taking the gold medal in mental gymnastics by saying that trans kids shouldn’t be in sports and echoing TERF talking points. And this is happening under a new administration that has shown to be timid in keeping campaign promises to not just help the marginalized but the rest of Americans a whole year into a pandemic. All we want is to breathe, find a little space so we can move in between and keep one step ahead of ourselves.

Speaking of which, we’re still struggling in the thick, non-kinky chokehold of capitalism. The rich got richer and the poor became poorer with Covid-19. Even as vaccinations ramp up for free (a rare event in the minefield of American healthcare), it’s getting harder to make ends meet. The minimum wage should’ve been increased many yesterdays ago but corporations are learning the hard way that the way things were weren’t great to begin with. People are learning that wage theft is indeed real and jobs that ask for experience for $12/hr is no longer feasible. You can’t stimulate the economy without having the funds to do so amongst the masses. So, who will buy your rainbow merch when June comes around?

The concept of pink capitalism (or the more common “rainbow capitalism”) has been around for a while but 2021 has shown the worst of it. Wal-Mart, while having a rare 100% rating on the 2021 Corporate Equality Index from the Human Rights Campaign, has given money to state legislators sponsoring anti-trans bills since 2018. Corporations market the pride merch with the new Progress flag which includes the trans colors but nearly exclusively focus on cisgender gays. Plenty of influencers gave devastating reads on Target’s pride collection among others. Lego announced a Pride set that is rated for the 18+ crowd, going against the “everyone is awesome” namesake because kids can’t possibly be queer. Video platforms like YouTube and TikTok continue to be criticized for censoring queer people from the almighty algorithm. Tumblr, even in after the sweeping ban of adult content of late 2018 that included “female-presenting nipples” and other queer things, managed to don the various colors of Pride because it’s what you’re supposed to do in June. Commercials for Pride month reek of the artificial allyship that can only exist in their manufactured environments.

In Hollywood, Disney tries to have it both ways with their perpetual announcement of the first openly queer character in a movie and rainbow merch of Stitch against the “ohana means family” quote from the film while they shuttered Blue Sky as they were preparing to finish their adaptation of the webcomic Nimona because it was seen as competition. Hell, it took at least a decade for Disney to actually acknowledge Loki as genderfluid with his spinoff show with roughly a minute devoted to queer lip service in the course of five hours (the whole bisexuality/pansexuality discussion is a separate thing). Netflix debuted a trailer for their upcoming adult animated series Q-Force towards the end of June with queer and heterosexual members crossing the aisle to express their disdain over yet another show that believes that All Fags Are Flaming is still a fresh source of humor. Streaming platforms will have their collection of queer works but only go so far as to highlight the letters of LGB and possibly the T and ignoring the Q and even then, you’re getting a very limited selection in most places. Once July 1st hits, it’s off with the costumes and back in the closet until next year as the larger struggle continues for recognized humanity; unless it’s Awards Season then by all means be the Sad and Tortured Faggot.

It’s not enough to only be visible and give people a heightened awareness of your identity for thirty days because it’s not something you can re-bury. Gender does indeed exist on a spectrum and as a social construct. Biological and gender essentialism does a lot of damage that can lead to suicide. Bathroom bills are still pushed as a moral good “for the children” despite everyone needing to piss and shit. Trans people are still murdered. Bodily autonomy is still an issue for those who are disabled and trans because it’s still assumed that cripples can’t be faggots and cripples can’t fuck (except as a punchline in works like Freddy Got Fingered) when the range of human sexuality supersedes ability; after all, you can’t have revolutionary politics if you don’t include disabled people. Recent Australian studies have found autistic people are seven times more likely to be trans/gender non-conforming, 70% identify as not heterosexual, one in eight queer neurodivergent folk attempted suicide in the past year with more than one in three recording an attempt in their lifetime. Compared to abled-bodied people, it’s twice as high and five times compared to able cishets. Once you add intersectional identities to the mix and the rainbow becomes more vibrant with this stark warning: “Deny me and be doomed.”

So how do you express that in the cinematic arts? There’s the Oscar bait route of The Danish Girl, Dallas Buyers Club, The Crying Game, or Boys Don’t Cry; the cruel punchline in Family Guy, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, or The Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult; the psycho killer (qu’est-ce que c’est) in Sleepaway Camp, Dressed to Kill, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Ticked-off Trannies with Knives (a piss-poor attempt at aping the grindhouse aesthetic), and CSI; the sex worker on the streets in Tangerine, All About My Mother, The Hangover: Part II, In a Year of 13 Moons, and Pose; conflated with drag like The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert (with Terence Stamp as a trans woman) and the inferior American cousin To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar; and the film adaptation of the musical like Rent, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. This list is not exhaustive and we don’t have time to unpack all of the baggage they carry however we will look at that last one, Hedwig.

It’s no surprise that when you think of a musical involving any level of gender-bending fuckery, it’s Rocky Horror and rightfully so. A staple of midnight screenings and Halloween canon, this nearly fifty-year-old film shows that people have been more than willing to indulge in a mental mind-fuck. It’s one of the more famous films involving audience participation as part of the routine outside of The Room, the cisheterosexual equivalent. Viewers cosplay as the characters or at least the aesthetic of the Transylvanians. They dance and sing and gleefully toss rice and toast at the screen while shouting the litany until the very end in a perverse Mass. But at the end of it all, Brad and Janet don’t have time to process the trauma of that night over at the Frankenstein place involving some dead faggots in the most entertaining fashion. Their rose-tinted world is gone. For the audience, they can leave the theater and shed the queerness of the night like one of their costumes. Two hours of absolute pleasure does not fully erase the issues that encompass the queer identity. So, then what of Hedwig and their story? It’s one of genderqueerness that wrestles with dichotomies: East vs West Germany, Adam and Eve, the gender binary, oppressor and victim, and so much more.

Let’s be clear here: Hedwig isn’t trans or intersex; that botched surgery which resulted in the titular angry inch happened as a cis male who happened to be effeminate (“born as a slip of a girlyboy”). We only know what’s in their pants via “Angry Inch” but we never see it because it doesn’t fucking matter (not unless Cronenberg adapts it). The text states that Hedwig is genderqueer and that’s the point. Hedwig states later in the film that “it’s what I have to work with” and it’s within that line do we have a summary of the human experience.

The opening track, “Tear Me Down”, subtly introduces us to a larger motif in the work: the collage, citation in art form. From its Dada roots to the DIY mentality of punk, the collage is a critical part of Hedwig’s expression and an allegory for ourselves. Hedwig’s main outfit in the number is a patchwork denim piece and a cape resembling graffiti from the Berlin Wall and a star-spangled quilt on the back. Yitzhak’s exposition about the rise and fall of the wall is illustrated thanks to Emily Hubley via Xeroxes of the Berlin Wall and cel animation. “The Origin of Love” repurposes material from Plato’s Symposium and the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas and tosses in some Indian and Egyptian mythology for good measure. Young Hedwig is forced to play inside the oven and we see two different collages of various musicians and pop culture icons of the era. Tommy Gnosis’ guitar is bedazzled with illustration, glitter, and cut-out photos. “Exquisite Corpse”, itself a form of writing collage and drawing challenge and shown briefly in “Tear Me Down”, refers to Hedwig’s body and at one point the screen splits into six parts with each section’s edge designed to look like scraps of paper. The film itself ends with the tattoo on Hedwig’s body, a different kind of canvas from which has borne suffering.

By internalizing their previous trauma, it becomes a weapon on everyone near her. We see the start of it, within the film’s chronology from opening logos to credits, when Hedwig unplugs Yitzhak’s microphone towards the end of “Tear Me Down”. Hedwig antagonizes the clientele at each Bilgewater’s restaurant. It’s presumed that Hedwig was molested by her father as a child as his abusive mom throws him out after discovering the two of them sleeping together but it’s not exactly clear even in innuendo; “how can I say who touched me most?” “Angry Inch” ends in a food fight. You also have the laundromat scene where Hedwig chastises a bandmate for putting a bra in a dryer and the manager runs off to consult him. No sooner does Tommy Gnosis slip his hand down Hedwig’s skirt and touch the angry inch we have Hedwig throw him out of the trailer. Hedwig ends up shredding Yitzhak’s passport before his eyes after getting the role of Angel in Rent. When not in flashback, we have Hedwig shadow her protégé’s more successful tour as a bitter stalker of sorts. It all comes to a head in “Exquisite Corpse” with the destruction of equipment and outfits and Hedwig revealing her tomato tits and squishing them all over herself. It is within this sequence that the film queers the emotional energy of Pink Floyd: The Wall by having our protagonist wanting out of the shitstorm they’re in. Unlike The Wall, Hedwig’s trial results in transforming once more into a new being and walking into the world naked and unafraid.

Of course, any work will have its imperfections and they might be more intense as the years go by. The work as a whole is still a cisgender work from a cisgender man. Even though the intent of Hedwig is that there shouldn’t be a gender binary, the role is still performed by actors who live within that space. Sure, we’ve had gay actors as Hedwig such as Neil Patrick Harris and Anthony Rapp from Rent (giving Hedwig some shared DNA) and women like Lena Hall and Brat Pack star Ally Sheedy as well as productions involving a rotating cast of Hedwigs for a more fluid experience but when it consistently excludes whole groups of actors, is it really a gender of one as the musical so proudly proclaims? This argument came last year during an Australian production when the show was postponed after outcry of another cis man securing the role of Hedwig. While the creators have stated that the role of Hedwig is “open to anyone who can tackle it and, more importantly, anyone who needs it”, there’s something to be said about having that insight as a trans person that can elevate a character. John Cameron Mitchell, the original Hedwig, has claimed to have seen trans people perform as Hedwig in some productions but not really elaborating where it happened as well as stating that what Hedwig is doing is more along the lines of drag and not as a transition of any gender identity. The less said about the credit for the “Tranny Hooker” when Tommy and Hedwig reunite the better.

So, what the fuck do we even have? Is it an alternative to Rocky Horror that’s a product of its time? Is it a groundbreaking work in American cinema? Is it the embodiment of the divine alchemy of the self? It is all of these. It’s a start and it takes all kinds to make the revolutions. So listeners, whether you like it or not, here’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

(Author’s Note: This opening monologue was written for The Omniplex for a Pride-themed episode dedicated to the 2001 film. Due to production delays, it was postponed. What’s presented here is the monologue as it was performed at the time, most notably the reference to Loki before the July 14, 2021 season finale. Links are included for reading material with a few extending beyond that date. -ZA)

Autistic and multiply disabled film scholar. (she/they)