Spider-Trans*: Arcade Fire’s Unhelpful “We Exist” Video

By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly

How should a marginalized community respond upon receiving representation from well-meaning artists with messiah complexes?

It’s a conundrum I faced watching the new Arcade Fire video “We Exist,” in which the heteronormative singer Win Butler “speaks” for all LGBTQ people, affirming that we, in fact, exist, since apparently there’s some confusion about that.

The video features actor Andrew Garfield, from “The Social Network” and “The Amazing Spiderman,” who cross dresses and then immediately has the shit beaten out of them for daring to dance with a man in public, because this video apparently takes place in the ’90s, when that cliche was ground into the dirt by “The Crying Game” and “Priscilla.”

Mid-beating, the scene transforms and Garfield busts out an awesome, Flashdance-level dance routine, before going into a mysterious space/time tunnel and emerging in a new outfit at Arcade Fire’s recent¬† Coachella concert.

At the concert, Garfield stands on the stage absorbing the love of the crowd, because, while “men,” particularly rural, Red State-looking ones, assault transwomen on site in this video, as though by some Pavlovian response, Arcade Fire, through its artistic message of tolerance, creates the opposite response.

My my my. As I’ve written before, music acts don’t have to portray transpeople as victims in order to convey their support.¬†“We Exist” clearly isn’t one of those videos, however.

Instead it’s a retread of transphobia’s greatest hits: transwomen hate themselves; transwomen want cisguys who don’t want them; and, worst, transwomen attract physical assault like magnets.

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?

I actually enjoy Garfield’s performance here. It’s an interesting choice for him, and he dances his ass off. Also, because he’s playing a character at the very beginning of their gender exploration he’s physically appropriate for the part, and isn’t stealing a role that ought to have gone to a transwoman actress, a la Jared Leto.

Arcade Fire’s savior routine, however, is less welcome. There’s a truism that goes, “If you want to make an anti-war movie, make a movie about flowers,” with the idea being that any depiction of violence, no matter negatively it’s depicted, will glamorize it.

If the band thinks violence against transwomen is bad, why are they recreating and broadcasting it with their work? Why not simply tell a story of transwoman acceptance if that’s what you wish to promote?

Have Garfield dress up and date Christian Bale or Chris Hemsworth, for instance. Spider-transwoman hooking up with Batman or Thor – now that sounds queer (and awesome)!

Instead the video just recreates the image of the transwoman as isolated, defenseless and victimized, loved only from afar by majestic, yet empathetic, festival-conquering rock idols.

Arcade Fire seemed to have channeled the best of U2’s Joshua Tree period on their grammy winning album “The Suburbs.” With their new album “Reflektor,” and moments like this, they appear to be inadvertently recreating the alienating pomposity of their predecessor’s Rattle and Hum era, to no one’s benefit.

Transwomen don’t need rescuing, we need equality. I’m sure the band’s intentions were kind, but its follow through was meh. Loved the dancing, though!