The Gender Aspect in Hedwig and The Angry Inch

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Gender has been an interesting feature widely discussed in the film industry following the varying roles played by characters of different gender orientations. To explore reality aspects such as gender, it is imperative that film theories are utilized. Essentially, film theories give insights into the relationship between films and realism (Rushton, 2013). In the case of gender, the Ideological analysis - which encompasses the influence of culture on films - is an ideal theory to employ given that socio-cultural gender perceptions are entwined with the exhibition of characters belonging to varied gender orientations (Turner, 2002). Conversely, the Psychoanalytic feminist theory is equally useful in analyzing the depiction of gender in a film. This theory highlights the treatment of female gender characters as mere objects in films (Mulvey, 2001). It brings to light the male ‘gaze’ phenomenon whereby a female character is only made to fulfil the desires of the viewer or a male character.

To analyze how gender is depicted in a film, this paper will look into the classic movie, ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’ (2001), using both Ideological Analysis and the Psychoanalytic feminist film theories. Similarities and differences as exhibited in the independent analysis using the two theories will also be outlined including the utilities specific to each approach.

Ideological Analysis

The film ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) may not have topped the Box office charts but its fanatical following will always be revered. Arguably, it is the exhibition of the gender aspect in its plot that prompted such overwhelming response from the audience to the extent that it garnered the best director and audience awards. Actually, critics could not help but applaud the movie and its author for a work well done (The Gay Essential Film Blog, 2018). Indeed, gender identity, gender roles, feminism, and marriage are some of the themes vastly featured in this film.

The movie explains the troubled life of a transsexual young man (Hansel) from Germany who elopes with an American serviceman, Luther, after undergoing a failed surgery to change his sexuality. Hansel who changes his identity to Hedwig, a ‘she’, is dumped by her ‘sugar daddy’ only to end up with another serviceman’s son. Given her musical prowess, she inspires her newly found lover, Tommy, who later dumps her on discovering that Hedwig is transsexual. She is again betrayed since Tommy rides on the music he stole from her to stardom. Dejected, she can only stalk her ex-lover as his career flourishes while her lowly band only performs behind a salad bar. At this time she has hooked up with Yitzhak who is a member of her band.

Examining the gender ideals which can rather be explained as the societal beliefs about sexuality, it can be said that most cultures take cognizance of the male and female gender. Indeed a study by Saeed, Mughal, and Farooq, (2017) discussed how socio-cultural factors like religion view trans-sexuality as a phenomenon against norms. It would, therefore, imply that if put under the classification by Comolli and Narboni, (2004), ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’ (2001) would fall in the category that goes against the dominant ideology. Evidently, the development of Hedwig as a transgender character is against the dominant cultural reality whereby one is either male or female. Besides, a rather strange aspect is brought forth in the film where the character undergoes surgery as a way of changing sexuality. Indeed, part of the film also supports the inference that trans-sexuality is against the cultural norms when Tommy breaks up with Hedwig following the realization that she is transsexual.

It’s also interesting to see how the film depicts the aspect of gender and responsibility. Unlike, the widespread societal ideology and beliefs that the female gender is not purposeful and can only assume passive roles, Tommy is at the beginning open to learn from his lover. Apparently, at this stage, he is of the impression that Hedwig is female. Culturally, it is out of the ordinary expectations of the society for Hedwig to act as Tommy’s mentor in music since females are seen to be a weaker gender.  Her superiority is further exhibited when he steals her music after their separation. This is an indication that her written music was better than what Tommy could come up with hence he chose to steal it.

 The role of raising a family is also witnessed to lie squarely on Hedwig’s single mother. Even though it is arguable whether her parental role was executed well, it cannot go without mention that a female with the guts to raise a family by herself falls nowhere in the cultural imaginations of many societies. She is seen taking charge and even suggesting the doctor who performs the operation on Hansel to change her sexuality. This is despite the fact that Luther had brought up the idea of getting rid of Hansel’s manhood but he could not suggest how this was to be realized. It is an illustration that portrays Hansel’s mother –who later gives her name and passport to him after the sex change operation- as a decisive family head.  Actually, as argued by Shaka and Uchendu, (2012), the role played by the female characters in movies is highly influenced by the societal beliefs. Hence, in this particular case, Hedwig’s mother can be said to have gone against all patriarchal societal ideals.

Still, delving into the depiction of cultural gender roles, Hedwig explains how her mother ended up in East Germany as a sculpting instructor to children. This ideologically reflects the role played by women in the performance of manual jobs at that time as they were viewed as sources of labour since they could not fit well in the military. Even in her flashback, Hedwig mentions the numerous rock stars from America she could listen to at her early days back in East Germany - none of whom is feminine. The domination by men in rock music indicates that her decision to pursue rock music was against the widespread cultural beliefs that rock music is a preserve to the male gender. It is no surprise that her mother was sceptical of her fixation to music.

The issue of gender and marriage is also depicted in the movie. Ideally, as Luther explains when rooting for the surgery to remove young Hansel’s male genitals, the society expects a marriage between a male and female. Since a physical confirmation is conducted prior to the joining of couples to ascertain their sexual orientation, her mother contracts the doctor who performs the ‘sexual-change’. It is a desperate act that clearly indicates that marriage is believed to be a union between a man and woman. However, it is out of the ordinary to see Luther dump Hedwig for another man. Notably, it can be thought that Tommy’s decision to abandon Hedwig was informed by this cultural belief that marriage could only be between a male and female partner. Now that he had unearthed his lover’s secret that she was transsexual, his only option was to quit the relationship. Hedwig’s dairy as a young boy also illustrates some aspects of gender and marriage as witnessed in the matrimonial relationship between her German mother and American father. Indeed it is weird from the cultural viewpoint to see a woman chase out her husband from their matrimonial home as Hedwig’s mother did. However, the fighting which even escalates to a physical confrontation is symbolic of the widespread disagreements in marriage as well as divorce in a real cultural setting.

The performance of the song ‘The origin of love’ by Hedwig’s band seems to undermine the general ideology regarding the origin of gender. Whereas, many societies believe that the male and female genders have existed throughout the entire historical existence of humankind, the illustrations in the song explain a totally different story. It is alleged that humans had lived for years characterized by a two-faced circular appearance with four legs and four hands. The issue of gender was non-existent by then until some angry gods struck humans with lightning thereby separating them into two halves; one male and the other female. This is a strange ideology which has been passed across in this film as far as gender in humankind is concerned.

Analysis using Psychoanalytic Feminist Theory

This form of analysis is mainly based on the aspects of gender and sexual desire. The approach illustrates the perception developed in films whereby female characters are passive and viewed as objects only relevant for the enrichment of the male characters’ role (Creed, 1998). Using this analysis, the focus is mostly on the influence of the film on the culture or behaviour of individuals. Thus, the audience will gain perceptions on characters-especially female- depending on how films exhibit these female roles. For instance, the editing and camera focusing on characters will influence how performers will be perceived by the viewers. Mostly, the films exhibit the male gender as dominant through setting up scenes whereby, however big the role of the female character is she still has an obligation to be patronized by her male counterparts.

 Analyzing ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’ (2001) using this approach calls for a scrutiny of how the female characters are showcased in the film. This is in comparison to their male counterparts and the sexual desire creation achieved using these characters. It is worth noting that though in several instances Hedwig has been portrayed as a resilient character, the ‘use and dump’ attitude that male characters have persistently had on her is an indication of objectifying the female gender in films.  Probably the reason why in some instances her character is seen to illustrate tenacity is due to her roots in the male gender. But as Smelik, (2007) indicated, in some instances, the filmmakers may opt to split the perception they give viewers pertaining a certain character into two. In this case, the first version of Hedwig is that of a resilient character as witnessed when she assumes roles known to traditionally belong to the male gender. On the contrary, the usual illustration of the feminine gender as an object is the flipside of Hedwig’s character.

Throughout the film, a trend has been established in which Hedwig has been exhibited as incapable of pursuing a successful life - especially in her rock music career. Actually, it is only in a scene towards the end of the film when she seems to have realized her dreams but only after reuniting with Tommy. Indeed, the reunion is preceded by a phase in her life where she is at her lowest point. This is after her band and manager have abandoned her. These occurrences portray the female gender as feeble and incapable of standing on its own as McCabe, (2012) asserts regarding depiction of females in acting roles.

The depiction of the female gender as a sexual object is also illustrated in this film. According to Smelik, (2009) films have overtime given the impression that feminine roles are meant to meet sexual cravings in both the audience and the fellow cast members. ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’ (2001) has widely revealed this feature. From the onset of the film, Hedwig is seen pulling out some stunts that thrill the audience as she performs with her band. Specifically, one cannot miss the jaw breaking moment when an elderly man seated in the audience is carried away by her seductive acts and gazes at Hedwig’s bottom to the extent of ignoring his partner seated beside him. Indeed, at this point, the highlight of the camera is on Hedwig’s bottom and the gaze of the man. The fact that the rest of her body is out of the picture suggests that the filming only exhibits her as an object meant to fulfil the fantasies of the male gender. In the same scene, she is seen suckling a guitar peddle at the lever of one of the guitarist’s crotch as they perform. This is an act meant to raise the fantasies of the male gender as they are seen cheering and staring obsessively from the audience seats.

Yitzhak, her husband cum band member also portrays her as an object. For instance, his obsession with her as a sexual object is evident in his fantasies as he clutches on her wigs and later interrupts her speech as she explains what had transpired after the show. He seems not interested in their conversation but only after fulfilling his sexual desires which he actually does by cutting her short only to proceed and seduce her for sex even though she is not in the mood for romance. He is further angered by her for not giving in to his sexual demands after her attention is caught by a record of Tommy playing her written music. Interestingly, when Hedwig has the sexual urge in a later scene, Yitzhak shrugs her off. His behaviour indicated that he only needs her for his own sexual fulfilment and thus he is not bound to satisfy her needs. Her first lover, Luther also gazed her with his lustful eyes the first time they met in a scene where his every advance towards her portrays her as a sex object that he was willing to go to great lengths to meet his perverse desires. The depiction of Hedwig as an object meant to satisfy men’s sexual desires is greatly exhibited during the band's second performance in the club. She is showcased in erotic positions exposing her nudity to members of the audience regardless of their age and gender. The stare given by the audience members tells how much they are thrilled to have their sexual thirst quenched.

Towards the end of the movie, Hedwig walks exposing her nudity down an alley. This also depicts how female characters can be used to fulfil sexual desires, especially to the audience. In other scenes, she is also seen to engage in loveless sexual encounters. It is an indication that the men she is involved with are just fixated on gaining from her regardless of how she feels. Worse still, they end up breaking her heart – something they seem not to care about. Importantly, it is the filmmakers who have developed these perceptions by developing characters with such attributes and editing the film to portray the female characters as sheer objects.

The psychoanalytic feminism approach envisages the lack of proper acknowledgement of female characters in a film. According to Case, (2014), females only serve as shadows to their male colleagues. ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’ (2001), seems to concur fully with this assertion given the way Hedwig is showcased. First, as she admits, she is an artist who has been globally ignored. As bizarre as it may sound, her sentiments are sensible in that, Tommy has commanded a huge following and success courtesy of the training and the music he stole from Hedwig. However, in spite of her better prowess in music than Tommy, she remains a mere shadow if her success was to be compared to his.

Comparison between Ideological Analysis and Psychoanalytical Feminism Analysis

In the examination of the gender aspect of the movie, Hedwig, and the Angry Inch, (2001), the two approaches used have exhibited points of congruence as well as divergences. The similarities can be attributed to the fact that filmmakers who illustrate the female characters as objects as realized during psychoanalytic feminism theory live in a social setting characterized by cultural ideals. Thus, these perceived societal ideals may as well influence how characters are portrayed in films (Gledhill, 1999). Equally, filmmakers can create certain virtual perceptions which promote patriarchy and in the process influence the adoption of a certain way of living among the audience (Kaplan, 2013). For instance, an ideological analysis of the ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’ (2001) film established that trans-sexual gender and gay marriages differed with the ideal cultural views of the society. However, when applying the Psychoanalytical approach in which gender and sexual exhibition of the character forms a fulfilment in the audience’s expectations, the viewers may end up assimilating various traits as shown in the film.

In as far as contradictions between the two approaches are concerned; it is noteworthy that psychoanalytical feminism theory delves more on the gender aspect –particularly the female gender- than the ideological approach which has a broad spectrum of application given the complexity of societal culture. For instance, as illustrated by Scott, (2000) Ideological analysis can scrutinize a film based on political or economic norms showcased in a film, unlike the psychoanalytic feminism approach which is limited to the patriarchal dominance in films. Thus, it implies that even though this paper was centred on the gender aspect in the case study film, the Ideological approach can explore other cultural ideals in the movie (Herman and Vervaeck, 2014). A good example is the analysis of the economic aspect whereby Hedwig leads a modest living in America, a country whose dominant cultural expectations are of economic success and liberation. Thus, the movie portrays her as a character going against the ideals of the American dream of prosperity.

Through ideological analysis, the cultural aspect of politics and power is also illustrated in ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’ (2001). In ideology theory, other factors such as myths and religion also influence film (Martin, 2018). These are aspects that cannot be evaluated using the Psychoanalytic Feminism theory. The film, through first music performance by Hedwig’s band, focuses on the politics prevailing during the erection of the Berlin wall which separated the city. The lyrics of the song further expounds on the divisions caused among people and the need to bridge them. In this way, the film perfectly relates to the reality in the society.  


Through the ideological analysis of gender as portrayed in ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’ (2001), Hedwig the lead character is viewed to exhibit tendencies that defy the customary societal beliefs. First, with respect to gender identity, she embraces trans-sexuality, a seemingly odd phenomenon in the society given that it causes her break-up with Tommy. Her role in the film also expounds on the gender roles as perceived in a cultural setting. However, Hedwig and her mother are shown to defy the cultural ideologies that restrict women from performing specific roles deemed to be a preserve for the male gender. These roles span from raising a family singlehandedly as Hedwig’s mother does to her entry into the rock music arena.

By analysing the relation of characters’ depiction in the film to the reality in the society regarding gender and marriage, several discords arise.  For instance, by agreeing to a same-sex marriage, Hedwig violates the cultural principle, whereby, marriage is an affair between a man and woman. Her mother is also a victim of going against cultural marital ideals since she kicks her husband out of their marriage. However, in a way the social reality of divorce between couples is demonstrated by Hedwig’s separation from her first love, Luther just as her mother parts with her American husband. Finally, through analysing the ideologies brought forth in the film, a rarely focused feature of gender-the origin of gender- is illustrated. Unlike popular ideologies, the film explains a unique belief that the female and male genders ware not in existence since the beginning of humankind.

On the other hand, using the psychoanalytical feminism approach Hedwig’s character is constantly portrayed as a feeble object unable to function autonomously. As a result, she ends up dejected wherever the seemingly authoritative male companions dump her. All her partners have had the good of her, making her a sex object only fit to satisfy their perverse needs.  She has also been portrayed as a character meant to offer pleasure to the audience especially when she indulges in sexual escapades and revealing her nudity. The editing and camera focusing as discussed by Penley, (2013) has indeed played a massive role in the objectifying of Hedwig. Severally, the focus is made on particular body parts and the gaze given to them by the audience.

Based on the analyses using the two approaches, similarities and differences can clearly be highlighted. A striking similarity can be deduced from the causal impact in both cases whereby cultural sentiments can impact on the content being showcased in a film and vice versa. The cultural ideals and issues within the community will, therefore, influence the filmmakers’ decision to portray a character in a certain manner. On the other hand, the content showcased in the film can also impact the behaviour of the viewers thereby influencing their culture. It is therefore important to understand that though, in psychoanalytic feminism theory, the filmmakers illustrated the female character as an object; they do not exist in a vacuum. The society in which they live has norms which could have informed their action.

 Contrarily, differences in the two theories are mainly portrayed in the unique application of the two approaches in specific scenarios as indicated while using the ideological analysis in other cultural aspects other than gender.  Indeed, the analysis of the political ideology in Germany and the Economic customs in America are aspects that can only be evaluated using the ideology theory. Therefore, when analysing varied aspects of a film, it is imperative that several theories are used to aid in the evaluation due to the specificity nature of some theories.


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August 01, 2023




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