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The Gospel According to Hedwig


The first time I saw the film version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, I thought I would probably be sick. It was the early 2000s and I was an uptight Evangelical teen. I had never heard the words transgender or genderqueer. Hedwig's graphic talk of sex acts and the gory description of how a "sex-change operation got botched" was scary and probably evil, I feared. But there was something else, there. Hedwig was a compelling character, part philosopher and part diva-off-her rocker. She was the opposite of everything I was raised to believe was good and right, and I couldn't stop thinking about her.

That was many years ago. I've changed a lot since then. I've had the opportunity to see the movie and the stage production several times. Watching the film as an Evangelical teen, all I could think about were the sexual aspects. Looking at the film now, as an #exvangelical, is how intertwined Hedwig's story is with the gospel.

At first glance, Hedwig seems much more concerned with Platonic philosophy, particularly The Myth of Aristophenes, wherein Plato describes the origin of love. But there's a certain amount of Evangelical theology hidden there. One of awkward teenage Tommy Gnosis' first questions to Hedwig is whether she'd accepted Jesus into her heart. 

But the central theme of the show is power and its use, as discussed in the following scene:

HEDWIG: Jesus said the darndest things!
HEDWIG'S MOTHER: Don't you ever mention that name to me again.
HEDWIG: but He died for our sins.
MOTHER: so did Hitler
HEDWIG: huh?
MOTHER: absolute power corrupts
HEDWIG: absolutely
MOTHER: better to be powerless, my son.

The theme that is repeated throughout the play is that those in power hurt those without power. Those who are abused pass on their pain to others. Hedwig's parents hurt her, Luther hurts her, Tommy Gnosis hurts her, and so she abuses her bandmates and her spouse, Yitzhak. Hedwig's mother posits that it is better to be powerless, to be the one absorbing the pain than the one inflicting it. 

This is an idea taken up by rebel theologian Rob Bell. He posits that the power of the crucifixion is that rather than passing on the pain inflicted upon him, the all-powerful Jesus absorbed it. Jesus was stronger than those who killed him because he chose to absorb the violence and turn it into redemption and forgiveness. Forgiving people is infinitely harder than getting revenge or passing on abuse to those weaker than us.

Hedwig is a deeply flawed character, but she's also lovable and compelling. We care about her because she undergoes a transformation, from hostile, revenge-focused, toward forgiveness. The climax of the play comes in an intense, crucifixion-like moment, when we see Hedwig stripping off her wig and costume, transforming herself before our eyes into Tommy Gnosis, her former love and the object of her ire. Hedwig/Tommy performs a reprise of "Wicked Little Town" (a song Hedwig used to help Tommy transcend his small-town imprisonment).

But this time, Tommy sings

"Forgive me for I did not know
I was just a boy, you were so much more
Than any god could ever plan
More than a woman, or a man
And now I understand
How much I took from you
That when everything starts breaking down
You take the pieces off the ground
And show this wicked town
Something beautiful and new

The play feels ambiguous at this point. Is the actor now playing Tommy, offering a real apology? Or is it Hedwig pretending to be Tommy, imagining what she'd want him to say to her? Did she have the answer to her own problems all along? Does an imagined apology work as well as the real thing? 

Either way, Hedwig's next action is to pass her wig on to Yitzhak, a symbolic moment that shows her sharing her power rather than using it to abuse any longer. She gives up her power, fading into the background. Is it better to be powerless?

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