“I put on some makeup
turn on the 8-track
I’m pullin’ the wig down from the shelf
this punk rock star of stage and screen
and I ain’t never
I’m never turning back“
These lines are from one of my favorite songs in one of my favorite musicals. This is part of the song “Wig in a Box” from Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Hedwig was released as a film in 2001, based on a stage musical by the same name (here’s a nice plot summary). I’ve loved this production for a long time and, this past weekend, my partner spoiled me (spoiled us) with two tickets to a production at the Moore Theatre in Seattle, with the fabulous Jerick Hoffer as Hedwig. I would now like to share some of the love with all of you.
Let’s start with a clip from the 2001 film. We’ll begin with the intro song, “Tear Me Down,” because it’s the intro and it introduces everyone:
Now you’ve met Hedwig and the band, the Angry Inch. So why do I love Hedwig so much? And what does it have to do with history and medicine? Indeed. The answer to both of these questions is summed up best by one simple word, one that can be at times hurtful and at others empowering: ambiguity.
Today I’ll be focusing specifically on the idea that a person, or a part of a person’s body, can be “ambiguous.”
I’d like to start by noting that the word itself is fraught. As I mentioned, it can be both empowering and hurtful depending on how it’s used. The first question is: ambiguous to whom? Is this person ambiguous to themselves? Or are they just ambiguous to the person doing the looking? A person who, like many of us, is trying to sort and categorize the people around them into boxes labeled “male” or “female,” “gay” or “straight,” “black” or “white.” But — and this gets at one of the reasons I love Hedwig, with all its issues — ambiguity does not have to be a problem. Taken up dusted off and worn proudly ambiguity can carve out spaces for human difference in a culture and a history too often resistant to divergence from the “norm.”
Keep that in mind as you watch the next clip.
Hang on. This one starts loud and stays that way:
Human ambiguity, for much of American history, has been approached as a problem. Especially where sex and gender intersect, American doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, surgeons, and many others have spent a lot of time trying to “fix” what they perceived as ambiguous bodies. And, oftentimes, when people are confronted with ambiguity (especially in terms of gender and sexualiaty) they become uncomfortable, angry, and sometimes violent.
As an example, consider a topic that’s come up here on Nursing Clio before: what doctors today refer to as Disorders of Sex Development (DSD), but what we’ll call “variation” of sex development, in keeping with Elizabeth Reis’s suggestion in Feminist Conversations: Elizabeth Reis Talks Intersex.
Reis, in her book Bodies in Doubt, and others like activist Cheryl Chase (Bo Laurent) have done great work describing how surgery used to “correct” variations of sex development at birth is invasive and violent, but not often questioned. Chase suggested in a 2006 publication that this “indicated the extreme discomfort that sexual ambiguity excites in our culture.” It is important, Reis argues, to conceive of the “less frequent middle spaces” in human development, experience, and biology not as incorrect or unnatural, but as simply different. The history of intersex in America shows, however, consistent attempts on the part of the medical community and society in general to determine intersexed people’s “true sex” and shape them to that designated binary.
This history of medicine working to shape human bodies — to erase ambiguity — has been inextricably tied up with ideas about what made a man a man and a woman a woman and what sorts of things men were supposed to do and like and what sorts of things women were supposed to do and like. You can probably guess these things. For example, boys weren’t (aren’t) supposed to like dolls, dresses, playing the role of the homemaker, and certainly not other boys. And the same things went for women on the other side of the coin. The efforts to keep the middle spaces between “men” and “women” empty are based not only on doctor’s ideas of what “normal” bodies look like, but also on how “normal” men and women should act.
And that’s one of the reasons I like Hedwig so much. It stakes a claim for the middle ground and refuses to give it up. And it looks good doing it. For even when the “ambiguous” body is tolerated it isn’t supposed to be sexual. When it is, it’s often met with hate (as, for example, in the “Angry Inch” clip earlier).
Now watch this one, from the end of the film:
I love Hedwig and I love Yitzhak because they are complicated, messy characters in a moving story about music, loss, and love. And because they’re hot. They aren’t always allowed to be, but they are. Like people, they aren’t perfect and they aren’t always nice. I love the story because it revels in ambiguity. It doesn’t treat ambiguity as something to fix or solve or lament — it celebrates it.
1. John Cameron Mitchell, Hedwig and the Angry Inch – Wig In A Box, 2008, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NuItUNFw07g&feature=youtube_gdata_player.
2. Cheryl Chase, “Hermaphrodites with Attitude: Mapping the Emergence of Intersex Political Activism,” in Stryker, Susan, and Stephen Whittle, eds. The Transgender Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 2006, 300.
3. Elizabeth Reis, Bodies in Doubt: An American History of Intersex (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), xi.
4. Sherilyn Connelly makes this point very well in “The Big Reveal” in Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman, eds, Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation (Seal Press, 2010), 78, where she discusses “shemale porn stars” as idols because they represented the reality that “a girl with a dick could be just as sexy and hot as genetic girls.”
The YouTube clips used were all from the 2001 film production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, directed by John Cameron Mitchell, adapted by John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask. John Cameron Mitchell also played Hedwig and Stephen Trask did the music and lyrics.
Feature image is the theatrical release poster from Wikipedia.
This post by Adam Turner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.