“OK Wig”

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)

Fine Line Features

You ever try on a blond wig so ill-fitting that the only thing to do is snap a mirror selfie and show it to everyone around you? On the right scalp, a frilly, oversized blond wig is like a stairway to heaven; it has the power to turn the most regular of us into a stunning Camp object, a gleaming exhibit of sensuous va-va-voom à la Selling Sunset. But on the wrong scalp—mine—a blond wig carries the lugubrious air of a dehydrated fern plant in a straight man’s apartment, a necking specimen inching closer to death than to life. Rather than amplify the curvatures of a head, a bad wig turns the hairline into a discomforting liminal space. Shadows amass. Architecture shudders. Questions circle the dome like dust mites hungry for surface. Where are you right now? How did you get here? Is it too late to turn back?

These are the questions I pondered while staring at an old photo of myself, pre-transition, posing in the mirror with a behemoth of bleached curls resting atop my head. My first attempt at wig shopping was haphazard—Amazon cart, cheap-to-expensive filter setting turned all the way on. The model wearing the wig I purchased stared out from the item photo like an upside-down cross between cunty-realtor-boss-lady and ex-pageant-queen-clinging-to-the-trophied-wins-of-yesteryear. In other words, a healthy middle. 

Without thinking to check the reviews, I hit purchase and leaned back in my cheaply constructed womb chair, up at my apartment’s moonish popcorn ceiling. I could almost see it: this other girl with my name, my face, but without my hair and its awkward growth patterns. The brown, almost black tinge of my short cut kept me ruefully suspended in a cloud of scene-kid apathy. The shape of my face was too visible for my liking. I looked mannish and sullen, which was the opposite of what I wanted in my early days of “womanhood.” It was time for me to look the part. Still in the throes of early-egg delusion, I imagined the Bad Amazon Wig to be my ticket out of failed manhood. Somehow, each curl would come to represent a different stop on my journey towards high-femme Nirvana. I would arrive at the final platform fully bimbofied, a shark among fishes, a Cock Destroyer of nuclear magnitude. Thank you, Jeff Bezos. 

Except not. There was no dancing around the subject: the wig was a flop. I mean this in every conceivable imagining of the word: ungainly, unsuccessful, cheap. I stared at the ramen-noodle crown of JonBenét Ramsey necromancy and thought, This is it. This is the wig that they’ll bury me in once I perish from the weight of this humiliation. I looked like Dolly Parton drawn from memory, like a Marilyn Monroe impersonator trapped in the frame of a warped carnival mirror. It was funny. Like Lady Gaga, I had to laugh (but also: fuck you, Jeff Bezos). 

(imagine if I continued to wear wigs like this)

And laugh I did. In true girlish fashion, the Bad Amazon Wig became a catalyst to Live, Laugh, and Love. For within the Bad Amazon Wig is an important lesson: to embrace the bad wig is to embrace the rock and roll within. No film captures this better than 2001’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Directed by John Cameron Mitchell as an adaption of his popular, initially off-Broadway musical of the same name, the film is a tour-de-force of bad wigwork, a punk-rock opus of oversized blond ambition, and a curatorial masterclass in scalp-forward pathos. 

The story goes: Hedwig, a German expat who performs impromptu concerts with her band in Joe’s Crab Shack knockoff restaurants, stalks her music-stealing-ex-lover Tommy Gnosis across America, eager for closure and revenge in equal measure. Her obsessiveness places her squarely in the shadow of her former relationship; it’s there that she mines the heart for guitar-swept ballads of love lost, of hope found, of gender’s many trappings and amorphous possibilities. A lot has already been written about Hedwig’s gender presentation, and I don’t wish to explore the intricacies of trans/not-trans discourse pertaining to her botched sex reassignment surgery, or how she references herself as a woman throughout despite essentially being a “gay man in drag” (see link). As a trans woman myself, I have more pressing matters to address—primarily, her hair that is both hers and not. 

(pre-transition glow up but make it horrific)

The sheer number of wigs in Hedwig and the Angry Inch is enough to put American Hustle in a synthetic coma. With every performance, Hedwig dons a new yellow crown. From a foot-high beehive to a wig that resembles a buttered croissant, Hedwig is, above all else, a business in the back, party in the front-woman. Heavy is the head that wears the wig. It stands above everything—even, presumably, the band’s merch table. Adoring Hedwig fans appear throughout the film sporting foam cut-outs of Hedwig’s infamous headgear. The wig is the film’s central motif, an expression of hyper-femininity that also functions as a mask in how it draws the eyes up and away from her face, the cacophony of glitter brushed above the eye as well as the palpable loneliness swirling inside of it. 

I lied a bit, earlier in this. I do have a vested interest in Hedwig’s gender, unrelated to genitalia. Instead, I’m moved and entranced by the peculiar and specific isolation that Hedwig carries in the bones throughout. Her desire to be loved is monstrous, threatening. Underneath the curatorial onslaught of midriff-revealing apparel and Party City ornamentation, Hedwig is a starving animal, hungry for her desires to be matched by someone else willing and able to look beyond the flesh. And it’s in that nebulous space between surface and self that Hedwig comes to terrorize those closest to her. She agonizes over her body in the way that a painter might agonize over the limits of their canvas. Hedwig cannot undo the damage done to her skin, and so she takes that damage and externalizes it. She’s a force of nature disrupting towns, friendships, restaurants. Her music rests in the eye of her storm, and even that is taken from her. She howls into the mic and shatters nothing but the self. 

And maybe me. The first time that I watched Hedwig and the Angry Inch, I was a lowly theatre kid in 11th grade, gayer than a Mapplethorpe photo of a fist inside an ass, and lost beyond measure. I was also perhaps the worst kind of theatre kid: the one that hated theatre with the passion of one thousand suns, whose iPod remained purposefully—and, to my mind, politically—empty of musical soundtracks. I rebelled against four-part harmonies and cringed when asked to take the stage in any capacity, even as background knife #4 in a production of Beauty and the Beast. My disdain for the theatrical was so strong that I couldn’t even break into the top three knives. 

But community theatre gave me access to wigs on wigs on wigs. My favorite part of any production was the day that we tried on our transformative mops and briefly imagined ourselves as the elderly, or the imaginary. I loved how a wig took me outside of myself, how it offered me a chance to gleam myself into other, seemingly impossible contexts. In a production of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, I wore a gray wig that was supposed to age me at least 60 years. How uncanny it was to feel the pangs of adolescent angst while staring into the eyes of a grandfather who was also me. How utterly freeing. Time and time again, I found myself longing for new shapes and contours, features completely devoid of the self I’d come to know. They allowed me a chance to encounter myself beyond the bounds of myself; underneath an itching crop of hair, I was convinced that I looked different—that if I walked into a room of friends, no one would call me by name. 

(Revenge of the Fake Amazon Synthetic Titty)

How silly, that thought. In Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Hedwig is the same devastating self in every wig. The wig functions to extenuate the wildness that was there the whole time. The wig is useless and perfect and useless. However garish, the wig shines because the person wearing it shines. But on a stand, the wig hangs dead. I’d missed this crucial lesson as I tried to use my Bad Amazon Wig as a kind of disappearing act. Try as I might, I couldn’t dissolve behind its artificial loudness. 

And neither can Hedwig. In the film’s final scenes, she strips her head of adornment, stands in front of a raging crowd, naked from head to toe. As a catalyst for resurrection, Hedwig’s wig must leave her to begin her transformation process. It must fall into the hands of another who needs it more. 

(2 Fake Boob 2 Furious)

And so, I take my wig off and fling it to Mars. “Wig,” says the American Idol contestant to Katy Perry. “Wig,” she says back to him. Wig as state of mind, state of being. Like a cartoon supersuit, great wigs come with great responsibility. Even the bad ones. “I’m pulling the wig down from the shelf,” croons Hedwig. “Until I wake up / And I turn back to myself.” After a certain point, I’m convinced there’s no longer a difference. 

All photos courtesy of the author