If you’ve ever seen John Cameron Mitchell’s most famous film Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001), then you already know that its male-born titular hero undergoes a botched gender reassignment surgery in order to leave communist East Germany as a married woman during the late ’80s. But while many fans see Hedwig as an empowered transgender icon, Mitchell recently said that he doesn’t consider Hedwig as trans at all.
In an interview with Advocate.com, Mitchell said:
In this case, the trauma wasn’t really like a trans choice of finding yourself and defining yourself because the character was raped and mutilated and forced into a gender reassignment against their will, which is not exactly a trans fairy tale.
You know, it’s more like someone having a forced medical procedure from a Communist government. It’s almost like a circumcision against his will.
But then the real transformation comes after that when the music comes in, the writing, the band, the wig, the makeup, the Hedwig persona, which is built after the trauma. Everyone can relate to reinvention, to self-definition, to finding out who you are and letting go of society’s rules about gender.
Hedwig is forced into something by what I call the binarchy, which comes out of the patriarchy. To be a man, you have to do this. To be a woman, you have to do that. To be free, you have to be one or the other.
And so I don’t think of it in any way as a trans statement. It’s a survivor statement. It definitely talks about androgyny as a kind of wholeness. We all have male and female energies. Society defines them differently, but we all have those energies in us. All of us. And the binarchy requires you can define yourself as one or the other, and some more courageous people are saying, “No, I’m myself. I’m a gender of one. I’m nonbinary.”
Indeed, early on into the film, Hedwig’s backing man says that she represents both man and woman, and near the end Hedwig transforms back into her male persona Hansel, so it makes sense to see Hedwig as genderfluid or genderqueer moreso than trans.
Though Hedwig remains Mitchell’s most influential creation, in 2017 he released his fourth film, How to Talk to Girls at Parties, a sci-fi punk rock film based on a Neil Gaiman story set in Lindon during the 1970s. He also directed the 2006 explicit sexual fairy tale Shortbus (which is currently unavailable for viewing at theaters for distribution reasons) and the criminally underseen 2010 Rabbit Hole which starred Nicole Kidman as the mother in a straight couple who’s just lost their young son.