Arcade Fire Have Nothing to Say About the Transgender Experience

The Arcade Fire, bless them, just released the video for their single “We Exist.” I’m writing about it because it will, no doubt, be Controversial: the video features Andrew Garfield as a character who’s meant to be either a trans woman or a man with a penchant for cross-dressing (it’s unclear exactly which — the video description on YouTube just speaks of “a young person’s struggle with gender identity”). Our protagonist dresses up in short shorts and a wig, ventures to a paint-by-numbers hick dive bar, gets harassed by the clientele, escapes into a sort of fantasy world where the menacing rednecks are transformed into latter-day versions of the Village People, and then ends up stepping into the light as a bona fide rock star. Um.

I have no doubt the Arcade Fire meant well with this video, and the narrative of finding a relatively safe place where you can be yourself without being menaced by cartoon hicks is, I suspect, one that’s largely heartening, even if the ending is… questionable (poor benighted protagonist warps through magic portal to Coachella, becomes fabulous, is invited up on stage by benevolent musical god Win Butler). But still, I can’t help but feel the whole thing plays into the pervasive idea of trans characters as victims and freaks, destined to be oppressed by a world that doesn’t understand them.

Look, I’m not suggesting that there isn’t any such problem in our society. Clearly, the level violence against trans people in America (and beyond) is hideously disproportionate and awful, and clearly the trans community is discriminated against like crazy, both by small-minded cis types and by people who should be their allies. Still, it seems that almost every time you see trans characters in popular culture, they’re either a) tragic, sensitive figures brutalized by the horrible world or b) flamboyant, hedonistic female impersonators who still end up as a) eventually. (Or, y’know, batshit crazy mass murderers.)

If the Arcade Fire really wanted to be radical here, they could cast a video with a trans character — played by an actual trans woman, even! — who goes out, has an awesome time, goes home, wakes up, and goes to work in the morning. Or, even better, a trans character whose being trans isn’t an Issue in the first place. But that wouldn’t mark them out as Progressive or Liberal, or be as Powerful and Moving as this video is presumably meant to be. And in any case, this is presumably designed to play into the song’s lyrical theme.

But, um, about that lyrical theme: Butler has described the song as being “about a gay kid talking to his dad.” This raises a couple of questions: first, if the song’s about a gay kid, why is the character in the video trans? Surely Arcade Fire don’t think they’re the same thing?

And either way, who’s “we” in this context? Writers can write from whatever point of view they like, but approaching a subject like this in the first person… it’s fraught with danger, put it that way. You risk putting words into the mouth of a community to which you don’t belong, which is kinda shitty, considering that community doesn’t have much of a voice in the first place. (James Brooks got eviscerated for appearing to be doing something similar last year, remember.)

If the Arcade Fire had something interesting to tell us about this subject matter, there might be something interesting about this song and video. As it is, the video reinforces pretty standard stereotypes and the song… well, considering that the chorus goes, “Maybe it’s true/ They’re staring at you/ When you walk in the room/ Tell ’em it’s fine/ Stare if you like/ Just let us through/ Na na na na na na na,” it’s safe to assume that it’s not exactly a revolutionary tract about the fluidity of gender roles and the tyranny of the gender binary.

Look, it’s all very nice that the Arcade Fire sympathize with the LGBT community, but I’d much rather hear about the experience of coming out as gay, or trans, or whatever from actual members of that community than have a straight bro from Texas speak on their behalf. And in the meantime, if I want to see a music video about Andrew in drag, I’ll be sticking to this.