Angry Inches, Happy Itches, Aber Wer Bin Ich?



Reviled, graffiti'd, spit upon.
We thought the wall would stand forever.
And now that it's gone,
We don't know who we are anymore.
Ladies and gentlemen, Hedwig is like that wall,
Standing before you in a divide
Between East and West.
Slavery and freedom.
Man and woman. Top and bottom.

- "Tear Me Down", by Hedwig and The Angry Inch

The spectator lands in my world the way s/he incidentally enters a seafood chain of the Midwest, the very night a noisy rock concert has been programmed. What you are served is not exactly what is on the menu. This is the situation Bildgewaters' customers find themselves in the opening scene of my movie, eyes and ears taken by surprise as my band, The Angry Inch, and I, start to play "Tear Me Down".  This first scene allows the viewer to situate The Angry Inch and myself from the very start: no beating around the bush, yes we are freaks. More specifically, the singularity of my "condition" is revealed: apart from the fact that I am dressed as a rock'n roll drag queen, the lyrics of the song explicitly infer on the ambiguity of my gender.

The Wall and I

Standing in front of a wide screen displaying child-like drawings, Yitzhak's high-pitched voice, which contrasts with her manly clothes, explains the symbolic value of my existence by comparing me with the Berlin Wall. In which sense would I be, as I also claim it myself, the "new Berlin Wall'?

The wall that splits Berlin into East and West is described through the lyrics of this first song as a symbol deeply hated until its fall, but nonetheless necessary for the understanding of one's identity: "Now that it's gone, we don't know who we are anymore". Did something get lost when it fell? The way the Berlin Wall stood between the GDR and the FRG, my character makes up for the frontier between man and woman. If we pursue the metaphor and believe that indeed, there "ain't much of a difference between a bridge and a wall", I come to posit myself as an entity which allows both sexes' intelligibility, as much as the wall gave West and East Germans their specific identities. You may want me to fall, the Wall to be destroyed, the result of such eventualities would be a systematic dissolution  of a certain concept of difference. As the song goes on: "Without me right in the middle babe, wow, you'd be nothing at all". What then, within my precarious intermediary position, within my uncategorizable status, gives me this power to designate myself as a creator of meaning?

The concept of the "abject", examined by Judith Butler in Bodies That Matter, allows us to consider the subject as constituted by her/his repudiation of what s/he precisely considers as subject.  What Butler calls "abject" is a domain perceived outside the subject, a domain which designates inhabitable zones of social life. These inhabitable zones delimit the domain of circumscription of the subject (3). If Hedwig, while being uncategorizable, is relegated to the domain of the abject, it is then possible to envision how this belonging to such domain could form the subjective identities of "woman" and "man". Butler continues:

We see most clearly [the orchestration, delimitation, and sustainability of discourse and power] in the examples of those abjected beings who do not appear properly gendered; it is their very humanness that comes into question.

In "Hedwig's Lament", I sing: "I was born on the other side of a town ripped in two". Here, "the other side" refers to a place at the limits of the unspeakable, a place highly despised, possibly even outside either sides of the wall. Thus, I territorialize my identity by situating it in the domain of the inhuman, of the inconceivable.
Circumventing categorization

It is interesting to observe how Mitchell, my real creator - as opposed to my fictional creators, my mother and father - uses language in the film. It is particularly true as far as pronouns and denominations are concerned. You may have noticed that I am very rarely referred to in the third person. I am present in almost each scene, I monopolize the spectator's attention as well as that of the other fictional characters'. As a consequence, the use of the pronouns "she" and "her" is very seldom, as if their choice was in the end more by default than by adequacy to what they designate (me!). The only instances where I become an object of discussion (i.e. when I occupy the position of third party) is in the media: on tabloids' covers (these being visual references) or when Tommy Gnosis is arrested. In this last occurrence, Tommy's declaration resorts to an utmost dubious grammar: "I never knew that she wasn't a woman". It is indeed quite difficult to speak about me without stumbling over words.  I was a "he" before crossing the border to the West and started becoming a "she" once on the other side. Forgive me, but I feel like asking you and myself, along the way: what am I now?

I tend to avoid self-categorizations, you might have picked this too. When I speak about myself, I do not employ conventional taxonomy. I prefer witty self-references, such as "some slip of a girly-boy from communist East-Berlin". And I do not mind unequivocally pointing to the ambiguity and the confusion that I inspire, by incorporating my existential questionings into my narratives: "It is clear that I must find my other half, but is it a 'he' or a "she'?".

Along with Tommy's failure to make a coherent sentence, the media have a hard time referring to me in the third person: what does "gay transsexual lover", or "mystery 'woman'" mean?  What do we make of this gay/transsexual juxtaposition? And in the end, to what extent does the pronoun "she" allow me to be considered as a woman?

The use of certain words at the expense of others is in this film something one has to pay close attention to in order to understand the way in which Mitchell plays with the concept of division. I may be at the limit of the human because I am not humanly qualifiable; because I can at the same time be located on both sides of the division between sexes, and outside  this division. I do not feel part of this world of binaries; I see myself and am perceived as belonging elsewhere.  But is it possible to envisage an "elsewhere" within the symbolic order, that is to say within language?

Sex/gender distinction revisited

My material sex is undefinable. After undergoing a botched sex-change, what remains of my genitals is a "one-inch mound of flesh". If "sex" refers to materiality, to a morphological fact (in other words, something which would not necessitate interpretation to make sense), then how do we explain that my material sex is not intelligible? Certainly, one could restrict my identity to that of "trannssexual", but it is clear that this will not enlighten us much more on the meaning of my sex, or my self. You may be able to picture yourselves what my one-inch mound of flesh looks like, but what does it signify, really? The term "transsexual" can actually help us further our problematization, in the sense that it complexifies the traditional distinction between sex and gender.  Let us follow what Ewa Waniek writes on the subject of gender theory:

Situated at the common level of Geschlecht, [sex and gender] form the semantic opposition of culture and nature, with the word gender designating the culturally constructed aspect of sexed being (Geschlechtigkeit), and the word sex all biological aspects operative in a linguistic community. (4)

The term "Geschlecht" here, encompasses two semantic dimensions (a priori) distinct in the English language. The fictional circumstances of my film call into question the validity of the sex/gender traditional distinction (i.e. sex is purely biological vs. gender is a construct): I was born as Hansel, with male genitals - that is, with a male biological sex. But since Hansel has passed on, would it be just to concede a biological sex to me as Hedwig? If I cannot be attributed a biological sex, can we find a sex which corresponds to my morphology? We saw that the term "transsexual" is too unsatisfactory, too vague. It seems that my material sex is no less constructed, no less social, than my gender: it has to be articulated through the symbolic to be understood. The fact that my sex has lost its biological pseudo-essence - i.e. that it underwent re-construction - interrogates the individual's morphology as a pure given. Eva Waniek continues:

A theory of meaning can thus show that, whenever one speaks of Geschlecht, one is already at a culturally produced plane of signs. A semiological approach reveal that all meanings are semantic conventions, and the words nature or body are no exceptions since they too are necessarily constituted and culturally determined. (4)

Butler pushes Waniek's argument further:

If gender is the social construction of sex, and if there is no access to this "sex" except by means of its construction, then it appears not only that sex is absorbed by gender, but that "sex" becomes something like a fiction, perhaps a fantasy, retroactively installed at a prelinguistic site to which there is no direct access. (5)

Sex remains a signifier, it still is a certain interpretation of the real. If sex might is perceived as something that goes beyond language, it is because it bears this presupposition that it overlaps, it overflows onto an unnamable outside; it both conceals and infers on the idea of the fictionality of the real. My singular morphology renders this fictionality of sex, and thus the fictionality of masculine and feminine bodies.