Reading Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Otherwise: A Reparative Reading on the Art of Enacting Middle

Curator's Note

The story of Hedwig demonstrates a 'queer' love and strength in this patriarchical world. To 'frame' the story, Hansel (pre-Hedwig), which is his/her Mum's name), had a sex-change operation. Opposed to Jordy Jones's 'paranoid reading,' there is no 'evidence' in the film to state this operation was done 'under coercion' (Jones, 450), and perhaps Hansel was always already trans; and s/he did all of this because s/he fell in love with an African-American G.I., who also fell in love with Hansel, and he gave him/her an option to leave East Berlin for the US -- but they would have to marry, and Hansel would have to have a full examination; hence, a sex-change, which, from the watching film, makes Hansel, who is donning a wig, all the more happy (Image 2). That stated, the African-American G.I. with his encounter with Hansel, can be read as a moving of the 'queerness' of the film; in a similar manner to Hansel, both marginalized.

As the story unfolds we see Hedwig change her relation to the world: she finds herself elsewhere; she swells with 'queer' (un-)acceptance,' or in the words of Angela Davis, 'just because something "is" does not mean that it "is". This is a refusal of absolutes and discrete categories. (We are (un-)following the (un-)contours of 'middle' [Ricco, 3]?) Hansel is now Hedwig, but the surgery went awry. Post-surgery Hansel-cum-Hedwig was left with a scare and a one-inch nub (an 'angry inch,' which will be routed into a positive anger; she has not yet recognized middle): in her words about the surgery, I was left '... where my penis used to be and my vagina never was.' Middle. She leaves for the US with husband, but life happens, and the husband soon leaves her for a young, white boy; she is left alone -- even her brief romance with a teenage boy, who eventually steals her songs and aspects of her style: Tommy Speck-cum-Tommy Gnosis.

Though this narrative can follow the 'lonely, abused transsexual' (and she is) -- rather, we see how Hedwig transforms her life, into an 'aesthetico-queer' relation by making auto-biographical-mythological-stories-music. One may easily go down the well-trotted road of, what Sedgwick has called, 'paranoid readings,' but I would rather follow Sedgwick's 'reparative readings' that looks at how 'queers' transform rejection, dejection, and depression into something 'beautiful.' Hedwig even sings a 'reparative song' (see: ). This is the first time we see Hedwig, not as a the 'real' Hedwig -- there isn't one -- or even the finding of 'wholeness,' as Jordy Jones has argued -- the whole is a myth . Clearly, with Hedwig singing in an outfit that confuses all genders and sexes (she explodes them) she is (un-)located in middle: nowhere but elsewhere (Ricco, 3). To be sure, there is much to theorize and explore about Hedwig -- otherwise.


Thanks for your post Robert. I want to ask you a question about race in Cameron Mitchell films. In your own comment on myself and Karin's post you surfaced the possible connection between the biogram's interstitiality and Sofia's asianness:

"Also, with hegemonic visual culture in mind, do you both ‘read’ Sophia’s (Sook-Yin Lee) role as subverting or reifying the normative sexual and subject position of the ‘Asian woman’ in the West (i.e., the US)?  Does her character open to ‘middle’? Or, is it caught in an ‘ancient’ history of colonialism (of bodies) by the West?  It would be interesting to hear more on race (and class)"

And in your reparative reading of Hedwig above you suggest that Sgt. Luther Robinson (Maurice Dean Wint) moves the queerness of the film from his non-hegemonic position as an African American male.

So, I want to invite you to say more about race in both Hedwig and Shortbus and about possible openings to and enactments of middle by the queers of color in those films. And further, can you say something about how class, as well as race, might figure into your reparative reading practice and a queered aesthetics of existence?


Thank you for your question regarding race, and the only significant character, with a small role on screen, in the film is of color: Black.  Here, I would like to quote, as well as comment on, Stockton’s Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame (Duke, 2006): ‘The seduction of our eyes (eye candy, indeed) takes place while we are seeing a seduction [indeed, let us give into seduction] on its way to [always] unfolding debasement [I would argue that, in a sense, all of the movie moves around a queer celebration of ‘debasement’ — instead of rejecting it].  In Hedwig … an East German youth (effeminate, flamboyant, lying bottom up  … [and never performed with shame — but rather shamelessness]) meets a seductive and older [B]lack American army sergeant (a buff "sugar daddy," literally), with a rich supply of candy. … The two hatch a plan to marry each other by unusual means … the youth will have a sex change [and it should be added Hansel must do this because s/he must pass a medical clearance by the East Germany].’  Stockton goes on to state, ‘the point at which one sign’s rich accumulations — those surrounding ‘American [B]lack — lend themselves to another — ‘East German queer.’ … [T]hough the figure of the [B]lack Sugar Daddy, many meanings attached to ‘[B]lack’ (perhaps false freedom or myths of castration, to take two [paranoid and/or racist] associations) switch [twist, turn, become undone and reformulated] onto new tracks [of other readings and meanings] and signify in the field of ‘queerness’ (whether his own or that of the boy).’  So, what we have here, via Stockton, is the mixing, blending, un-doing of normative and easy readings.  (By the way, the encounter of white and Black and ‘queerness’ is played out in various other ways throughout the film.)  I find it interesting that it is this relationship and this plan by white Hansel and Black Luther that Hedwig becomes.  Sergeant Luther’s ‘specter,’ after the break-up, is a specter that haunts most of the movie.  In many ways, and in the racist, normative US, if not Western culture/s, there is the shameless highlighting of two non-normative and non-hegemonic subjects that show, as I think it does, how difference can be routed into something that is a politico-aesthetic enactment and a refusal of the world constructed as it is: ‘just because something ‘is’ doesn't mean it is.’  This is one of many movements in Hedwig the film and Hedwig the subject.  And, it ‘started’ with a Black sergeant.  It should be noted that before Tommy Speck (later Tommy Gnosis) we see none Hansel’s boyfriends or tricks — if s/he even had any before Sergeant Luther

I would also like to comment on the fact that race and color make no ‘scene’ of the scene or the film.  I like that it ‘just happens’ in this way.  Race doesn’t take on as some issue that must be reckoned with in a traditional, serious way: i.e., liberal guilt.  In this way, I see queer bodies/selves as accepting in advance the arrival of the other (one fine day) as other and without comment on otherness or difference, but full acceptance.  I find this to be refreshing in comparison to so many (every?) Hollywood film that must make an issue as soon as a ‘numerical majority,’ but seen as a ‘minority’ -- there is no guilty politics to reckon with or explanation ‘why Black’ that needs to be surfaced on the screen.  In Hedwig there are ‘simply’ arrives on screen -- which the viewer must reckon with – which is different from Hollywood films.  In this way John Cameron Mitchell refuses to enter into tired and empty debates, which are always controlled by the ‘majority,’ and which run around the same vicious and tired circles.

I hope I have at least gestured to your question.  It is a tricky subject, but one that is vastly interesting.

-Robert Summers


Robert, Thank you for an interesting point. I really do like the arguments you made, which also connect with many comments by Karin about alternative interpretations of JCM's work.

I was wondering if you could speak a bit more about your choice to use the term "middle."  When I consider the act of "thinking otherwise," I usually imagine a post-structural redirection from "naughty" words like middle (often asking us to consider binaries, dialectics, etc.), but I ask this question in light of Michael's comment and Kathryn Bond Stockton's reading of the scene between Hedwig and the G.I. (in Beautiful Bottom, Beautiful Shame).  She suggests we consider how Hedwig and the G.I. meet at a switchpoint, where signs and meanings cross, become contaminated and/or reworked in productive (or unproductive, or beautiful, or shameful, or...) ways.  Here is a bit of what she says:

"The two hatch a plan to marry each other by unusual means, thereby pulling the German twenty-something across the wall: the youth will have a sex-change. As it turns out, the procedure is botched, leaving the young man not with a penis nor with a new vagina, but instead, an 'angry inch,' as the movie's title puts it. His move to the States is simultaneous with the fall of the wall (ironically making his great escape moot), along with the end of the lovers' relations, leaving the viewer at this point to wonder: the film needs a black American male (needs a specially black Sugar Daddy) to indicate ... what?

We can't fully tell, though any number of associations seem to rise up: freedom, false freedom, migration (of course), the cutting tone of irony, myths of castration and genital fullness, miscegenation. The black man's momentary passage through this text operates as a luxurious crossing, so voluptuous at the level of image[...] And yet, in its fullness, this crossing also works as a fascinating switchpoint [...] I mean the point at which one sign's rich accumulations – those surrounding "American black" – lend themselves to another – "East German queer" (among other possible readings of these bodies). That is, through the figure of the black Sugar Daddy, numerous meanings attached to "black" (perhaps false freedom or myths of castration, to take two obvious associations) switch onto new tracks and signify in the field of "queerness" (whether his own queerness or that of the boy)." (3-4)

With this being what came to my mind (e.g. she takes what is like Sedgwick's notion of beauty, but crosses it with shame and debasement), could you speak more about how you conceptualize "middle"?  When you talk about "moving," is the middle a moment to stop or pause?  Is it a space/place? Does it undermine space/place?  Or, unlike Anzaldua's Mestiza (or the post-/non-/human notion of hybrids), does it indicate fusion rather than becoming both/and/neither?

Thank you for your question.  I will only discuss middle.  But, I also hope the relation between the Black sergeant and Hansel became clearer in my response to Michael’s question -- I may have to return to it.  It is tricky, but I want to refuse the black/white binary, and show how this section is black/white/queer, and in a deeply complex way.  Without explanation, then, middle is against any and all dialectics -- for it is middle.

So, middle. another way to ‘explain what refuses all clear explanation.  I am thinking and informed by Deleuze and Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion of middle and aspects of becoming in ATP.  But also, I am deeply informed by John Ricco (see The Logic of the Lure) when thinking middle.  John writes, ‘The middle: the only place to begin [and not just producing, beginning, but rather another-existing, as a modality of an aesthetics of existence].  A here and now that in its singularity is not properly designated by middle, thereby marking the impropriety of every single singularity, every here and now.  A middle, then, that is in the midst of middle, now here that is at the same time nowhere but elsewhere’ (3).  So, on one level I read Hedwig as enacting, living middle (can one do this?  I argue yes: becoming-middle): now here as elsewhere: the film also shows middle; we are always reckoning with middle, and the end of the film is still middle.  The middle, I would argue, cannot be escaped — perhaps it is our (un-)livable, precarious condition.  Whatever the answer, slowly Hedwig welcomes middle?  She, so to speak, ‘is’ middle — perhaps constantly becoming-middle -- moving toward middle.  I am in tension with John, given I see middle as more of a stateless-state enacted through the body or bodies (the body seems to disappear in his work), if you will, and of seeing and being in the world and enacting ones life: middle — neither here nor there – always elsewhere.

I think that this video clip highlights middle, visually, it is ‘Midnight Radio,’ and it shows a Hedwig informed and accepting of middle:

As others have, I would not read this as coming out, or trying to normalize herself, but rather refusing binaries, and, perhaps working in-between them to undo them.  Also, middle seems to fill the video, as the middle is elsewhere — and in the closing of the film Hedwig, otherwise, walks the ‘middle,’ and he aims, as I read it, toward middle, elsewhere.

Thank you for a warm and very earnest post, Robert! I agree with you that Hedwig is much more interesting if read from a reparative rather than a paranoid angle - and I certainly think that reparation is a theme that is clearly visible in all of Cameron Mitchell's films. I would like you to talk a bit more about this theme in relation to Hedwig's (wounded and repaired) transgender identity (if indeed it is a transgender identity - I personally agree with you that there is every reason to believe that it is). The in-between body you are talking about doesn't really appear until the end, right? How do you read Hedwig's body before this? Do you see her as a transgender woman, and if so, how does this fit into your gender dynamic? Does this less androgynous transgender body not also have some form of queer reparative beauty?

Like Michael, I would also be interested to hear more about your reading of Luther as the character moving the queerness of the narrative forwards. I find him an interesting character, mainly because he seems central although he is given such a small part.  How do you read his position as the 'Sugar Daddy', the cause of the gummi bärchen 'rainbow carnage'? Is he some type of cathartically carnal event? 


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