Arcade Fire have responded to Against Me! frontwoman Laura Jane Grace’s criticism of their video for the song “We Exist” and the use of Amazing Spider-Man 2 actor Andrew Garfield in a role that Grace believes should have gone to a transgender actor. “There was just so much thought and love that went into the video I don’t personally see it as negative,” frontman Win Butler told The Advocate, but added, “I can totally see the sensitivity of the issue.”
The video begins with Garfield staring into a mirror and shaving his head before getting dressed in women’s clothing. The character then goes to out to a bar and is assaulted by a group of men before entering a dream world dance sequence. The video ends with Garfield, wearing a long white dress, taking the stage during Arcade Fire’s performance at Coachella to dance before a cheering crowd.
Grace, who is transgender, tweeted her displeasure with the casting choice last week. “Dear @arcadefire,” she wrote, “maybe when making a video for a song called ‘We Exist’ you should get an actual ‘Trans’ actor instead of Spider-Man?” She went on to say that the video “inaccurately plays on and perpetuates stereotypes” and compared the pattern of casting non-trans actors in trans roles to “white actors in blackface.”
David Wilson, who directed the video, said that he had considered using a trans actor for the role, but was convinced by Garfield’s dedication to the concept. “Before I got on the call, I thought, Is this the right person – should we be using a transgender person?” he said. “But then getting on the phone with Andrew, and Andrew’s commitment and passion toward the project was just overwhelming. For an actor of that caliber to be that emotionally invested in a music video is just a very special thing. It just completely made sense.”
Butler also spoke with The Advocate about the origins of the song, which depicts a young man coming out as gay to his father. He said that the song was written in Jamaica and was a response to an antigay culture that he found there. “There is a very kind of homophobic undercurrent, even in a lot of popular music and dancehall music, where there is a lot of violence against gay people,” says Butler. “And we were in Kingston, and we went to this kind of film event and met some gay Jamaican kids and just kind of talked to them and realized that they were constantly under the threat of violence.”
He said that for the video, the band wanted to expand the song’s message through a character exploring gender identity. “Once something gets on the Internet, it works its way into people’s lives in a way that I think is pretty powerful,” Butler said. “For a gay kid in Jamaica to see the actor who played Spider-Man in that role is pretty damn powerful, in my opinion.”
After the Advocate article was published, Grace responded in a long series of tweets directed to the magazine and Arcade Fire, taking issues with certain elements of the plot and questioning the band’s justification for the project. “The implication that a homeless Jamaican LGBT youth living in a sewer is going to feel empowered because a cis, straight white male actor in movies they can’t afford to see stars in a music video they’ll never watch? That’s like so wtf?” She also dismissed the video’s climactic ending: “And the idea that the band playing Coachella is their Mecca of acceptance and validation. Phfff. As if.”
Grace explained that her primary issue with the video isn’t the casting choice, but rather what she describes as stereotyping. “If the song was called anything else I wouldn’t have even had a problem with it,” she said. “It’s called ‘We Exist’ and there is literally no signs of that existence represented. Should have been called ‘They Exist.'” Grace concluded by declaring herself a fan of Arcade Fire nonetheless, and used her admiration for their album The Suburbs to drive home her point. “When you come from the perspective you’re representing, it’s truth and powerful,” she said.