Arcade Fire Tackles "We Exist" Criticism, Says Casting Andrew Garfield was Powerful
On Friday, May 16, Canadian indie rock group Arcade Fire released their music video for "We Exist," which stars Andrew Garfield as a trans woman who is assaulted in a small-town bar. Since its debut, the music video has drawn a considerable amount of scrutiny, even some controversy — perhaps most notably from Laura Jane Grace, lead singer of Against Me!, whose most recent album Transgender Dysphoria Blues explores Grace's experience as a transgender woman. Last Thursday, Grace tweeted at Arcade Fire, "maybe when making a video for a song called 'We Exist' you should get an actual 'Trans' actor instead of Spider-Man?" thereby calling multiple music news sources' attention to the backlash.
So, in an interview with The Advocate on Saturday, Arcade Fire's lead singer Win Butler responded to the criticism surrounding the video, explaining first off that the idea for the song came from spending time with "some gay Jamaican kids" when the band was abroad and hearing stories of their oppression:
[The band] realized that [the Jamaican kids] were constantly under the threat of violence. For me, I get kind of used to being in this sort of extremely liberal bubble — where we have Whole Foods and people are tolerant. And you can kind of trick yourself into thinking that the world is that way. For me, it was really eye-opening to hang out with these kids who, if they were going to dress differently or express who they were, there was this real tension.
And, asked about casting Garfield in the video, Butler replied, "For a gay kid in Jamaica to see the actor who played Spider-Man in that role is pretty damn powerful, in my opinion."
To be honest, my initial, if callous, reaction to Butler's Whole Foods bubble explanation is a Britta-from-Community-style "duh-doy" and a reminder to read the news. Such pfft-ing aside, however, the best I've seen this objection articulated is in Leela Ginelle's piece for PQ Monthly, "Spider-Trans*: Arcade Fire's Unhelpful 'We Exist' Video," which hammers home beautifully the band's messiah-esque tactics while still appreciating their (indeed, appreciable) intentions. Regarding the video's oft-retread "[character] who cross dresses and then immediately has the shit beaten out of them for daring to dance with a man in public" storyline, Ginelle writes:
These are not new tropes. I’d learned them subconsciously by puberty in the 80s. The reason they’re rehashed here, seems to be to highlight the band’s response. “We’ve heard life is shitty for transwomen, and we don’t think it’s cool,” the clip says. Is that terrible? No. Were their hearts in the right place? All evidence suggests they were. What exactly is a transperson supposed to take from it, though? “I’m certain to be viciously bashed for being who I am and pursuing love . . . and Arcade Fire and Spiderman like me.” Um, thanks?
It's a sentiment that also dovetails with Butler's response to Grace's original "why Spiderman" challenge, because once again, Butler seems to presume that the allyship of straight, white dudes is paramount — that the Jamaican kids who so inspired him would be happier to see Garfield-as-Spiderman acting out a scenario remotely comparable to their situation, as opposed to, say, a queer or trans actor of color being cast in a role with Spiderman-like prestige in the first place.
Of course, such outlandish goals can't but smack of idealism — and there's certainly a way in which Butler's advocacy-by-proxy is one of the only realistic options available today when it comes to providing high mainstream visibility to an oppressed community. Because it's true that a heartthrob star of a superhero blockbuster donning a wig and a bra is bound to elicit a slew of pageviews and then some — the same way Jordan Catalano putting on some blush and going through harrowing full-body waxes garners press, accolades, a cabinet's worth of awards. As Laverne Cox recently opined to Bustle at The Opportunity Agenda's Creative Change Awards:
"Andrew Garfield the Spider-Man guy in an Arcade Fire video" is going to make headlines, and people are going to click on it and talk about it, and you’re asking me about it, so that’s a business decision. If I were asked to do the Arcade Fire video, I don’t know if it would have the same kind of attention.
Still, "attention" aside, it's hard to ignore Grace's concerns — even as regards the simple semantics of the song's title. As reported by Rolling Stone , the singer tweeted (though apparently since deleted from her account): "It's called 'We Exist' and there is literally no signs of that existence represented. Should have been called 'They Exist.'" Driving home her point, she reportedly declared herself still a fan of Arcade Fire, particularly the suburbanite band's album The Suburbs, because "When you come from the perspective you're representing, it's truth and powerful."
Indeed, it couldn't be clearer that Butler intends both the song and the video as a sincere act of compassion. He talks at length in the Advocate interview about the "incredible socializing pressure" on all different kinds of people, whether "gay" or "goth" or "wearing pink," pressure he professes having experienced — and more power to Arcade Fire for that. But that kind of one-size-fits-all empathy also, especially in this case, edges dangerously on appropriation.
Of course, these responses to the video don't invalidate it entirely. For example, Our Lady J, a transgender musician who advised Garfield on his performance, tweeted her support for the video — a reaction that, despite my reasoned objections, I happen to share:
While the "We Exist" video may indeed be divisive and certainly imperfect, the fact is, it's out there now — and, critiques leveled and (hopefully) heard, it's time to look ahead to the next piece of trans* visibility in media. In the words of transgender writer Kat Haché, who penned a piece on the video for Bustle:
It comes off hollow when our narratives are used as bait for awards and recognition, especially when it doesn’t translate into more opportunities for transgender actors.
So, here's hoping that Butler's good intentions and Garfield's impassioned performance combined with Grace's, Ginelle's, Haché's, and others' well-meaning criticism will make those opportunities a reality — that, the next time a film or music video claims "we exist," that "we" will actually be represented.