I was deeply worried for Neil Patrick Harris when he started giving interviews to promote the Broadway revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the post-punk, neo–glam rock musical in which he stars as a transgender rocker from East Berlin. When New York Times reporter Patrick Healy asked Harris about the challenges of performing in drag to portray a transsexual woman, Harris responded, “Thankfully, there’s lots of drag examples right now—with RuPaul’s drag show, Jared [Leto] in Dallas Buyers Club. I’m able to see a lot of interesting examples of guys donning a femininity.” I cringed at this for two reasons: First, talking about drag as a way of talking about transgenderism is a big no-no in the LGBT community; and second, trans activists have accused both RuPaul’s Drag Race and Dallas Buyers Club of transphobia.
Before we get to Hedwig, I’d like to offer a crash course in this particular chapter of LGBT identity politics. Trans people and drag queens alike seek to lead an authentic life in their gender variance, despite considerable pressure to conform to social norms. But they’re not the same thing. A drag queen is typically a gay male entertainer who adopts a female persona. Trans men and women are not entertainers by definition; they are ordinary people who feel their gender does not match their biological sex. What’s more, the two groups don’t always get along. There are trans separatists who find drag degrading, and there are gay people and drag queens who think that trans people reinforce the black-and-white gender binary when they should learn to live in the gray. These are extreme positions on either side of the debate, and they don’t reflect the feelings of most LGBT people (including me). Nevertheless, these arguments demonstrate the chafing that occurs when different groups are lumped together into a single coalition.
Okay, back to Hedwig. Was NPH being insensitive with all the drag talk about his trans character? Yes. He should distinguish more carefully between the two groups—and, as his listeners, we should be careful, too. Harris is a gay man portraying a woman onstage, so it makes sense for him to look to drag queens for inspiration. It’s easy to mistake Hedwig for a drag queen, because the male actor portraying her must become one. And like drag queens, Hedwig is a performer: She sings and dances, dons fabulously over-the-top wigs and precipitous platform heels and wears dramatic stage makeup. She is often portrayed by a male actor, but there are plenty of exceptions, such as Breakfast Clubber Ally Sheedy, who played Hedwig at the Jane Street Theater in 1999. For its 2012 production, San Francisco’s Boxcar Theatre rotated 12 male and female actors of various ethnicities in the role of Hedwig.
So, as an actor discussing technique, it makes a certain kind of sense for Harris to talk about what he can learn from drag queens, even though he seemed to conflate the trans experience with female impersonators. But even if we settle the notion of Harris finding inspiration in drag queens, there’s the problem of the show itself. Is Hedwig and the Angry Inch transphobic? You can read it that way, though I think it’d be a mistake to do so. Hedwig does not follow the traditional trans narrative, in that her decision to undergo sexual reassignment does not stem from a conviction that her biological sex differs from her personally realized gender. She gets a sex change to escape East Berlin. By becoming a woman, Hansel (Hedwig’s original name) can marry his American G.I. lover and use his mother’s passport to emigrate to the U.S. In other words, Hedwig’s motives are entirely circumstantial—and external.
When the sex change operation gets “botched,” Hedwig sings that she’s left with “a Barbie-doll crotch,” and a “one-inch mound of flesh.” In this sense, Hedwig seems to begin her new life as a gay man trapped inside a not-quite-woman’s body. She speaks of lingering in the divide between man and woman, and of longing to find her “other half” (an idea borrowed from Aristophanes’s speech in Plato’s Symposium). But is she a man looking for a man? A woman looking for a man—or another woman? Does the show use gender as a mere plot device?
I believe Hedwig is a great work of art that transcends these questions, because it dreams up an incredible story and tells its truth. Is it possible that an impressionable young man might undergo sexual reassignment surgery to escape the hellscape of East Berlin only to find that the real journey is one of self-discovery and acceptance? Yes, it is. Does Hedwig tell the story of such a life, with great humanity, a whip-smart book and a combustible punk rock score? Yes, it does. Hedwig is a bitter, touching, defiant, riotously funny person—exactly the kind of performer who can hold the attention of an entire theater for a 90-minute monologue interspersed with blistering songs and scene-chewing choreography. And Harris is exactly the funny, charismatic song-and-dance man to bring Hedwig to life.
Ultimately, Hedwig rejects the world’s desire to put her in a box. The current Broadway staging, directed by Michael Mayer, ends with Hedwig stripping off her wig and fake breasts. Nearly naked, she turns upstage and walks away from the audience into a bright light. Hedwig spends the entire show seeking recognition and validation, but in the end she no longer feels the need to make herself legible within the gender binary for the benefit of others. She is who she is. In appropriately punk rock fashion, Hedwig doesn’t give a fuck what anyone thinks anymore—whether it’s her fans or her critics, or you and me.
Photo courtesy of Everett