Arcade Fire’s Cross-Dressing Music Video Raises Controversy

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Canadian Alt-Rock band, Arcade Fire recently released a video for their new single “We Exist,” a song about a son coming out as gay to his parents, and decrying the abuse and disregard with which some in the wider world treat those who don’t fit hetero-normative, gender-binary pigeonholes. The video, which stars Spiderman himself, Andrew Garfield, has raised the ire of some in the trans community. Laura Jane Grace, the transgender lead singer of Against Me!, didn’t feel that the video was true to her life experiences and criticized the casting of a cisgender, heterosexual white male as the trans equivalent of blackface. After speaking with Our Lady J, the trans musician whose job it was to coach Garfield on set, Grace backtracked on her incendiary statements.

Watch the video at the end of this post.

The song was written while Arcade Fire was in Jamaica, a country seething with homophobic violence, and while the trans community is rightfully frustrated with depictions of trans people in the media, often portrayed by cisgender actors, the video never establishes Garfield’s character as specifically transgender and seems intended to be allegorical, rather than a documentary of a specific trans experience. The video resonated with one trans critic. Kat Haché stated in her critique: “When I first saw the video, I had conflicted feelings. I thought that Garfield’s portrayal of a trans woman paralleled some of my own experiences as a trans woman, and I found it relatable, perhaps even uncomfortably so. As his character stood and stared in the mirror, I was transported back to my bedroom when I was 20 years old and struggling with my gender identity. I remembered the same frustrations as I tried to find my way to a reflection that wouldn’t make me want to avert my eyes every time I saw a mirror.”

We’ve watched the video several time and think Garfield turns in a powerful performance, as was observed by Ms. Haché. The video starts with him despairingly observing his male form, trying on various clothes to camouflage his true physical nature, applying makeup and donning a wig to conceal his square-jawed masculinity, not entirely successfully. He then sets out to face his destiny in rural farm country, walking into town and entering a redneck bar. It’s heartbreaking to watch him do his best to blend, looking away and self-consciously pulling his long blonde tresses in front of his face, hoping to pass. Sitting alone, he watches an old straight couple dancing in each other’s arms, and his melancholy and longing is palpable. He is then approached and convinced to go out on the dance floor by a scruffy bumpkin, and for a moment we’re almost convinced that this isn’t a tragedy about to happen. He slowly begins to relax and starts to smile before it all comes crashing down. He is set upon by a group of ruffians who shove him around, tear at his clothes, and finally when he has dropped to the floor, kick him in the face.

As Garfield’s character is bashed, we shift into a dream sequence, where the actor delivers an impressively executed Flashdance-esque dance number, soon joined by big bearded men in short-shorts, high heels and tied-up flannel shirts. These burly bears guide him through a laser-lit tunnel, and he emerges on the other side at Coachella. Wearing a long, flowing white dress, he takes to the stage with Arcade Fire, being cheered on by enthusiastic fans.

While we understand, and can relate to the frustration voiced by some who see this video as an inappropriate conflation of the gay experience and the transgender experience, the video never makes explicitly clear if the central character is gay, transgender or any label in particular. We think it makes a powerful allegorical statement nonetheless, capturing that moment when a person decides to live their life out and proud, well aware of the risks they are taking, which should be an equally compelling message to every letter within the LGBTIQ community.

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