Am I Anything? How Hedwig and the Angry Inch Challenges Binary Gender Identities

“”She’s more than a woman or a man. She’s a gender of one and that is accidentally so beautiful.”
John Cameron Mitchell[1]

What decides gender? For some, gender may be decided by a parent dressing a child in pink or blue or a doctor stating that an intersex person — someone with genitalia of both sexes — has more prominent female genitalia and should thus be raised as a girl. For me, it was a worker at a fast food restaurant.

I was at McDonald’s with my mom when I ordered a “Happy Meal.” Each Happy Meal came with a toy, one specifically for girls and one for boys. The girl Happy Meal came with “girly” toys such as dolls while the boy Happy Meal was equipped with “masculine” toys such as model race cars. One day, I decided to ask the McDonald’s worker if I could have the boy Happy Meal toy instead. She laughed and said “No sweetie. You’re a girl so you have to play with the girl toy.”

While many social encounters solidified my gender identity, this encounter greatly influenced my own experience with gender identity, thus illustrating the societal pressures to adhere to gender norms and to enforce the binary gender system.

Fig. 1. Marcus, Joan. The Hollywood Reporter,29 May 2014, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/atlantic-records-release-hedwig-angry-708035

The musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch explores the oppressive nature of binary gender identity as it forces people who do not identify with binary gender roles to conform to an identity that is not expressive of their true selves.

Although society is beginning to develop a greater understanding about gender, the progressive nature of this musical has caused some confusion for some audience members, specifically regarding the casting of the actors, because modern society is still deeply rooted in the binary gender system. For an audience that has never been introduced to discussion on gender identity, Hedwig and the Angry Inch may suggest questions of “Do I identify as both male and female or only one?” and create confusion about the show’s main message, but the musical actually acts as a commentary on the irrelevance of the social construct of gender, examining the question “Am I anything?”

While “Am I anything?” is the true question contested in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, many people misconstrue the main message to be that Hedwig has chosen to be one gender due to the binary gender ideas that are deeply established in society.

Gender is not limited to just the traditional binary roles of “male” or “female.” Instead, gender is a complex form of expression that cannot be clearly labeled or defined. This strict enforcement of binary gender rules by society is expressed in Jack Halberstam’s keyword definition, “Gender.” Halberstam’s commentary on gender, specifically binary gender roles, as a primary mode of oppression sheds light on the way society forces people into fixed roles to assign labor, responsibilities, moral attributes, and emotional styles (Halberstam).

While it is hard to explore Hedwig’s gender identity as she herself is in a constant battle with her male and female identity, ultimately, Hedwig explores her identity by illustrating the image of a progressive future that fully eliminates the concept of binary gender.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a rock musical that first premiered off-Broadway in 1998 but was revived on Broadway at the Belasco Theatre in New York City from April 22, 2014 to September 13, 2015. The music and lyrics of the musical were written by Stephen Trask and the book was written by John Cameron Mitchell. The musical follows a fictional rock and roll band that is led by Hedwig, a character that utilizes the pronouns “she/her” even though she struggles with her gender identity due to a failed sex change operation that left her biologically male and female with neither fully male or female genitals.

Hedwig was born biologically male and went by the name Hansel prior to the operation. Growing up in East Germany, Hansel identifies as a male and subscribes to the pronouns “he/him.”

Hansel falls in love with American G.I. Luther Robinson at the age of 26. Luther was the first person to introduce Hansel to drag by convincing him to dress as a woman. The two decide to get married, but in order for the marriage to occur, Hansel has to undergo a sex change operation to become a woman so that he and Luther can become a heteronormative couple as marriages were only legally allowed between a man and a woman. Hansel utilizes his mother’s passport and assumes her name, Hedwig, so that he can identify as a woman. However, the operation “fails” and Hansel — now Hedwig — assumes both male and female identities.

After Hedwig officially becomes Luther’s wife, the couple moves to America, but Luther leaves Hedwig for another man. Because of this incident, Hedwig, who now utilizes the pronouns “she/her,” struggles with her gender identity, as she subscribed to becoming female only to marry Luther, not because she identified as a woman. Enraged that Luther left her for a man with male genitalia, Hedwig decides to further embody her female identity by creating a more glamorous and dramatic feminine image for herself and begins a rock band.

Later, Hedwig falls in love again with Tommy, the brother of a child she babysits, and a future songwriter and performer. The two begin a romantic relationship, but it ends after Tommy leaves in disgust when he discovers that Hedwig does not identify as a cis-gender female.

These failed relationships haunt Hedwig and create many of the issues in her exploration with her gender identity.

Ultimately, the musical traces the evolution of Hedwig from her need for distinction between male and female gender qualities to eventually discovering and embracing her identity as genderqueer, meaning “an identity commonly used by people who do not identify or express their gender within the gender binary” (“LGBTQ+ Definitions.”) because “(they) may see themselves as outside of or in between the binary gender boxes, or may simply feel restricted by gender labels” (“LGBTQ+ Definitions.”). While Hedwig herself never specifically states that she is genderqueer, the show’s writer John Cameron Mitchell states that she identifies as genderqueer (Ouzounian).

In this essay, I will mainly analyze Hedwig’s gender identity journey through her physical appearance. It is important to note that a male actor portrays the character of Hedwig. This casting choice was meant to blur gender lines.

2014 Tony Awards Performance of “Sugar Daddy” from “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”
Fig. 2. Krulwich, Sara. “Neil Patrick Harris in ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch,’ at the Belasco Theatre.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 22 Apr. 2014, www.nytimes.com/2014/04/23/theater/hedwig-and-the-angry-inch-stars-neil-patrick-harris.html.

In the musical number “Sugar Daddy,” Hedwig is wearing black stockings, gold high-heeled boots, and a denim vest and skirt that are embroidered with red and orange drawings. She wears dramatic makeup — layers of pink rouge on her cheeks, defined eyebrows, glitter on her face, bright pink lipstick, and a blend of pink and blue glittery eyeshadow — coupled with her more “masculine” features — strong jawline, sharp cheekbones, and overall more defined facial features. Her hair is a shade of platinum blonde with two dramatic buns done on the side of her head that are reminiscent of Princess Leia’s from Star Wars. She presents an exaggerated gender presentation; her image undoubtedly exudes femininity.

It can be argued that because of Hedwig’s desire to clearly translate her gender to the public, she feels the need to hyper-feminize her gender presentation. However, Hedwig’s physical representation of herself could be portrayed as the look she desires for herself — neither fully masculine or feminine. Instead of softening her “masculine” features, Hedwig retains them and adds “feminine” features through her choice of clothing. In this sense, she embodies both masculine and feminine. While it can be seen as Hedwig attempting to mask the masculine through the feminine clothing and makeup, it could instead be interpreted as Hedwig embracing her masculine features while combining them with feminine ones. In this way, Hedwig is not attempting to become fully feminine. She is allowing for male and female characteristics that illustrate her as neither fully male or female nor only male or female, thus allowing for the blurring of gender lines.

Fig. 3. Marcus, Joan. “Neil Patrick Harris in ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” The Hollywood Reporter, The Hollywood Reporter, 8 June 2014, www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/hedwig-angry-inch-star-neil-710098.

At the end of the musical, Hedwig, after suffering a breakdown from the pressures of conforming to a gender image, performs as her former lover Tommy, stripped away of the hyper-feminine image and instead bare clothed with a pair of grey, metallic briefs and smoky, grey makeup. It is in this moment that Hedwig finds peace with her gender identity.

While some may view Hedwig’s undressing only to briefs as submission to her “masculine” side, it is actually the moment she embraces herself as Hedwig, the person free of the constructs of gender identity. In that moment, she is finally free of the societal construct of gender image and identity; she is genderqueer. Through this, Hedwig makes the statement that gender binaries repress true gender expression, and the only way to truly express oneself is to be free of the gender binary ideas and just live as a person. She is allowed to no longer perform for others — Luther, Tommy, the audience, society, etc… — and be a person not defined by gender. She is not male or female; she is Hedwig.

Some people may argue that the finale of the show implies that Hedwig is identifying as male and dis-identifying as female. Or, since it is never explicitly stated that Hedwig is genderqueer in the musical, many people misconstrue Hedwig’s gender identity and believe her to be a transgender woman. Some people misidentify Hedwig as transgender and see her as a drag queen (Kochhar-Lindgren et al. 259). This view of Hedwig being transgender reinforces the idea of binary gender and misreads the overall message of the show.

By labeling Hedwig as transgender, the audience again falls into binary gender labelling. Gender reassignment surgery can be seen as falling into a binary gender system as the goal of gender reassignment is to reassign a person’s sex to either male or female, genders that are considered acceptable and familiar to society. As society tends to define gender based on sex or biological genitalia, since Hedwig’s surgery is “failed,” she is technically both male and female by definition of her genitalia. Thus, Hedwig by definition is not a transgender woman as she does not have only female genitals, which also makes her not a drag queen.

Hedwig’s overall journey illustrates her no longer defining herself by her genitals. She finds peace with the idea of identifying as purely Hedwig and not the gender binary identities. As the need to identify drives Hedwig to a breaking point, it is only logical that Hedwig is finally able to come to terms with gender when the concept of gender is fully dissolved in her life.

The show can be criticized for contributing to the audience’s confusion by casting actors that identify as male for Hedwig. Instead of casting male actors to portray Hedwig, the show’s creators should have casted an actor that identifies as genderqueer in order to truly blur the gender lines. While gender should not determine the casting of a role, because society is still rooted in ideas of binary gender, having a male actor portray Hedwig shifts the focus of the message of eliminating binary gender to the fascination of a male actor performing in drag.

When the 2014 revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch premiered, Neil Patrick Harris, a cis-gender, gay male, portrayed Hedwig. Having such a famous actor portray Hedwig drew large crowds of people who were fans of Neil Patrick Harris from his television show How I Met Your Mother. Because our society is rooted in the binary gender system, many people were fascinated by the idea of Neil Patrick Harris performing in drag, and lost sense of the overall message of the show (Beyer). Having the drag performance be the main focus of the musical discredited the actual message of the musical. That being said, having Neil Patrick Harris portray Hedwig could also be seen as a strategic way of drawing in a larger audience so that more people learn about the dangers of the binary gender system.

Although casting Neil Patrick Harris was successful in generating a larger audience, the overall casting decision failed as Hedwig was misrepresented by a male figure, and confused audience members about the show’s intent.

Seeing how oppressive binary gender can be, we can begin to question why this traditional system still exists in our society. Hedwig’s progressive nature indicates the direction in which society should follow. Society should no longer be tied down to the binary gender system of “male” or “female.” Instead, society should adapt an outlook in which gender labels are no longer relevant or applicable.

However, present day society maintains the compulsive need for labelling and reinforcing these stereotypes. Perhaps then, the first step to achieving a society that is not rooted in the binary gender system is by creating new labels that expand beyond just “male” or “female,” and are more inclusive of those who do not identify with the established, traditional labels. As Jack Halberstam states in his “Gender” keyword definition, we as a society are not ready to rid the system of gender, or with one gender in particular, but we can at least begin to imagine and create other genders (Halberstam).

As progression towards an understanding of a non-binary gender system continues in society, hopefully one day establishments such as McDonald’s will create a universal happy meal with a toy that children of all genders can enjoy.


Works Cited

Beyer, Dana. “The Tidal Wave of Gay Portrayals of the Trans Experience.” Huffington Post, Huffington Post, 13 June 2014, www.huffingtonpost.com/dana-beyer/the-tidal-wave-of-gay-por_b_5490102.html.

Halberstam, Jack. “Gender.” Keywords, New York University Press, 2014, keywords.nyupress.org/american-cultural-studies/essay/gender/.

Kochhar-Lindgren, K. & Schneiderman, D. & Denlinger, T.. The Exquisite Corpse: Chance and Collaboration in Surrealism’s Parlor Game. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009. pp. 259. Project MUSE.

“LGBTQ+ Definitions.” Trans Student Educational Resources www.transstudent.org/definitions.

Ouzounian, Richard. “John Cameron Mitchell to Host Hedwig and the Angry Inch Sing-along in Toronto.” Thestar.com, 18 June 2014, www.thestar.com/entertainment/stage/2014/06/18/singalong_hedwig_and_the_angry_inch_comes_to_lgbt_film_fest.html.

[1] Ouzounian, Richard. “John Cameron Mitchell to Host Hedwig and the Angry Inch Sing-along in Toronto.” Thestar.com, 18 June 2014, www.thestar.com/entertainment/stage/2014/06/18/singalong_hedwig_and_the_angry_inch_comes_to_lgbt_film_fest.html.