When Arcade Fire released a song called ‘We Exist’, it seemed apparent which liberation group the band were trying to support. This was even before Win Butler explained the story behind the song (that of a conversation between a gay son and his father), inspired by the homophobic undertones the band had heard about in Jamaica.
Aside from the problematic notion of straight voices choosing to dominate gay discourse (*cough* Macklemore), it wasn’t until the band released the video for their single that they began to court controversy. In the video, the protagonist is played by recent Spiderman Andrew Garfield and shows him dressing up in femme attire before going to a dead end bar. There he promptly gets beaten up before joining Arcade Fire on stage at Coachella, like a butterfly emerging. It immediately drew criticism from Laura Jane Grace, lead singer of Against Me! and a transgender woman, for having what appeared to be a transgender character being portrayed by a cisgender man.
Win Butler was quick to justify the band’s decision to cast Andrew Garfield in the video. He argued that for a young gay Jamaican seeing Spiderman playing this part would be inspiring. Whilst this is a fair explanation (celebrities being shown to identify with personal struggles is gratifying), it would have been more inspiring to see a transgender actor given such a big platform to express trans issues. You only have to look at Laverne Cox, who has recently been put on the front cover of TIME, to see how a proper opportunity for a trans person to reach a wider audience can have a very real, political impact.
It is unclear in the video whether Garfield’s character is supposed to be trans or whether they are just experimenting with their gender identity. If the latter were true, given Butler’s assertion that the song is about young queer individuals facing oppression, it seems lax of the band to then choose a video narrative which was about questioning identity as opposed to celebrating an individual one. This is indicative of the problem of cis, straight people attempting to place their own mark on queer issues.
If you want to support trans voices, you’re better off buying Against Me! records than Arcade Fire ones.