Thursday, 14 August 2008

Another university term essay. Essay question based on two materials, a film called Hedwig and the Angry Inch and a play Joe Guy.

Altering one’s identity to fit in the society one lives in does not allow one to belong, as this denies one’s personal truth. The main characters of Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Joe Guy changed their identity to be accepted in the society they chose to be in. However even after changing their identity, the characters were still completely isolated. It is only when they accept their true selves that they are whole. Although personal identity is shaped by society’s perception of an individual, the two plays suggests that there is also such a thing as personal truth beyond social appearances.

Hansel’s desire to leave East Berlin and come to America forced him to go through gender reassignment and change his name. (Mitchell and Task, 2000: 43) Hansel’s non typical-gender behaviour is constrained by the ‘cultural perceptions of masculinity and femininity’ (Gove and Watt, 2000: 75) of this dichotomy world, which does not allow Hansel the freedom to belong. This is proven in the lyrics shouted out by Yitzhak, Hedwig’s current legal husband and back up singer in the song Tear Me Down.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Hedwig is like that wall,

Standing before you in the divide,

Between East and West,

Slavery and Freedom,

Man and Woman,

Top and Bottom.

(Mitchell and Task, 2000: 15)

Therefore Hansel who is known as Hedwig after sex-change operation lived in her confused identity in an outlook of a woman or to be precise a transgender. As said by Weedon, ‘The body is central to identity – both chosen identities and those imposed by institutions.’ (Weedon, 2004: 14) Here society’s treatment towards Hedwig account largely from her appearance. This supposedly defines her gender, sexuality, age, beauty etc. In the scene from the movie when Hedwig was singing the song The Angry Inch, a man who was disturbed by Hedwig’s lyrics came up to him and called him a ‘faggot’. Such slanderous attack shows how a person treats Hedwig from what he sees. One could say that this man is judging Hedwig’s appearance and not Hedwig’s true personality. However a familiar rejection is thrown at Hedwig in her kissing scene with Tommy. Tommy expressed his love to Hedwig and this is obviously because of the chemistry and strong feelings he had towards her, however he refused to accept Hedwig’s ‘Barbie Doll-crotch’. Tommy was taken aback by Hedwig’s physicality but not Hedwig’s personality.

Hedwig was born biologically as a boy with male genitals and had lived as a boy until he met Luther but since her sex change she had adopted a female identity. She wore fake breasts made out of clay, (Mitchell and Task, 2000: 44) make up and women wigs (Mitchell and Task, 2000: 47). On top of her appearance and behaviour as a ‘woman and concealing any evidence of maleness’ (Taylor, 1997:201), it should be noted that this was not Hedwig’s true desire to become a woman. Hedwig was persuaded by her mother and boyfriend, Luther, to have his sex changed when Hedwig was perhaps just a boy with feminine qualities whose sexual preference is man. Therefore Hedwig had to deal living with society in an identity he denied. Hedwig is doing what Judith Butler called ‘performativity’. Butler explains that ‘Identity is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results’ (Butler, 1990: 25). In Hedwig’s case her gender is just a performance but it does not define who she truly is.

Hedwig’s statement projected on screen while she was singing The Origin of love saying ‘Deny me and be doomed’ and the song Tear Me Down proves Hedwig’s appeal to be accepted in a defensive way. His point to people ‘Without me right in the middle, babe, you would be nothing at all’ (Mitchell and Task, 2000: 18) explains that he has equal role as others to be part of the world he lives in. Unfortunately in Hedwig’s case he was treated as ‘the other’.

Similarly the character Joe in Joe Guy was also treated as ‘the other’. He was bullied and outcast by his peers for his ethnicity. This is particularly obvious in act one, scene two, when the British-Caribbean kids treated him unfairly. Like Hedwig, Joe’s appearance was pointed out by his school mate. Marcus made a point that Joe was not one of them; he said “I mean, I know we look alike, but not as dark as you”. Joe’s identity at this stage was very much affected by colonialism, migration and creation of diasporic communities. Unlike the cooler kids of West Indies, they were born British. Therefore they had a sense of belonging living in Britain. Joe on the other hand was considered an ‘asylum seeker’ (Williams, 2007: 16) by his peers. Here Joe is dealing with ‘the dislocation associated with migration to Britain, questions of identity and belonging, alienation, prejudice and racism.’ (Weedon, 2004: 75)

The racism Joe received eventually shaped Joe’s identity. He dismissed his Ghanaian accent, changed his behaviour and preferred to be known as Joe Guy rather than Joseph Boateng for a supposedly cooler Caribbean style. This transformation comes with hopes of being the same as others or perhaps even more superior. In act one, scene five, one can see the transition from Joseph to the “the new and improved model” called Joe. One can see clearly of Joe’s new social identity by contrasting the character Joe in scene one with Joseph from the scene at the burger bar. The fact that Joe denied his Ghanaian ethnicity to change people’s perception on him is agreed by his father “I should never have brought you to England. They have you all mixed up over here.” (Act two, scene four)

Joe’s anger expressed in act one, scene five which was a reaction of being isolated from society proves his fight of wanting to be accepted. In his line “What do I look like to you, what do I sound like, some booboo big rubber-lips monkey-faced African bin bag?”, Joe’s struggle to rise above his appearance and show the possibilities of his self-identity is overshadowed by his roots and background. As Weedon said ‘The meaning of visual is not at the disposal of individuals but is overdetermined by the history of representation.’

Although Joe’s aim is to become visibly recognised and to have a sense of self worth, he has been denying his true self. In act one, scene seven, when Joe’s scandal with a woman was confronted by Naomi, it can be seen that Joe was doing this only not to be laughed at by his colleagues. He had been changing his identity to meet the expectance of others. However after a materialistic and superficial lifestyle as a footballer, he had never felt belonged. This can be seen from the early stage when he admitted to Naomi his struggle of fitting in “‘Believe.’ ‘Nice blood.’ ‘You go low dat.’ All my life! Sounding like the fucking rest of yer, makes me sick.” (Act one, scene seven) Joe’s slump in life and career got him to return to where he came before. Marcus who used to be a bully surprisingly turned a new leaf and became a decent police man. Seeing Marcus the person Joe has been trying to compete with and be like all this time, in his new identity, just proves that not only ‘our identities are shaped by social structures but we also participate in forming our own identities’. (Woodward, 2000: 1) Marcus ability to change into a better person came from his inner self. Joe’s visit to his father gave reminder of his old self. His father still accepted Joe regardless of all the troubles and this indirectly gave Joe the warm feeling of belonging. The Joe who used to have self respect towards himself, hard working, did not participate in drugs and not buried in fame and fortune decided to meet Naomi and get acquainted with his abandoned daughter. Rather than trying to fit in being someone that he is not, Joe could only escape his current identity he is performing when he returned to his past to retrieve his personal truth. Joe could only try so hard to change himself but he can never deny the true personality in him that has always been in his consciousness.

In Hedwig’s position, she only achieved in being whole when she tears open her dress and exposed her real physicality to people.( Mitchell and Trask, 2000: 72) She refused to put on her ‘woman outlook’ as she walked down the street towards the lights; a sign of rebirth. Setting Yitzhak free and allowing him to wear the wig also symbolised the need of one’s freedom to be one self. Although the way the world defined her and her identity relied on dichotomy, he or she, deep down Hedwig recognized her true self as an individual.

Both Hedwig’s and Joe’s ‘identities may be socially, culturally and institutionally assigned’. (Weedon, 2004:6) Although they decided to ‘redefine and reconstruct’ their identities to fit in the world which they live in, (Woodward, 2000: 39) it was only when they accepted who they were and lived as their true self, did they feel accepted and belonged.


BARKER, Chris, Cultural Studies Theory and Practise, London: Sage Publications

BARRY, Peter, Beginning Theory, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002

BUTLER, Judith, Gender Trouble; Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, London: Routledge, 1990

GILROY, Paul, The Black Atlantic, United Kingdom: Verso, 1993

GOVE, Jennifer and WATT, Stuart, “Identity and Gender”, Questioning Identity; Gender, Class, Nation, London: Routledge, 2000

HALL, Stuart, Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies, London: Routledge, 1996

TAYLOR, Paul, Investigating Culture and Identity, London: HarpersCollin, 1997

MITCHELL, John Cameron and TRASK, Stephen, Hedwig and The Angry Inch, United States: The Outlook Press, 2000.

WEEDON, Chris, Identity and Culture; Narratives of Difference and Belonging, England: Open University Press, 2004

WILLIAMS, Roy, Joe Guy, London: Methuen Drama, 2007

WOODWARD, Kath, Questioning Identity; Gender, Class, Nation, London: The Open University, Routledge, 2000

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