Weighing In on Arcade Fire’s “We Exist”

Today, as I’m sure some are already aware, Arcade Fire released the music video for “We Exist,” the third single off of their acclaimed fourth studio album, Reflektor. While the song’s lyrics follow the difficult conversation between a gay man and his straight father, to whom his son pleads for recognition rather than the isolation he has faced from others, the video tracks a different story, but one with similar themes of identity and social rejection nonetheless.

It begins with the main character, played by Andrew Garfield of the rebooted Spiderman franchise, sullenly staring at the reflected image of their own naked torso. The chattering of chickens wafts through an open window but is quickly blended with the buzz of an electric razor guided over the head of and by the melancholy protagonist. Music bursts in with a punch as they* reach for and then throw aside a red top after trying it on over a black bra.  A series of different shirts are cycled through until a peach button-up, tied at the waist, is selected and paired with a blonde, crimped wig.

The camera flashes to them walking past a corn field on the edge of a small town, hands nervously fidgeting and eyes oscillating from looking down at the ground to straight ahead. This gaze is held as they walk into a bar, walls lined with neon signs and beer advertisements, and draw the attention of the other patrons just by entering. While sipping a drink and longingly watching** a couple dance on the otherwise empty dance floor, the main character is approached by man who pulls them up to dance, despite their obvious hesitancy. It isn’t long before a group of other men, friends of the first, swarm the dancing couple. A strobe light splices the scene as Garfield’s character is groped, harassed, and thrown to the floor.

It seems as though things will only continue to escalate until the protagonist, in a moment of triumph, bursts forward, a single spotlight illuminating their actions. They move about the dance floor freely, joined by four bearded men in jean shorts and flannels tied in a fashion that mirrors the character’s top. Are they guardian angels? Are they an up-and-coming new dance act that’s slowly sweeping the midwest dive bar scene? It’s unclear, as is whether or not the rest of the video is a fantasy or a trip to an alternative dimension, but their affect is overtly positive as they dance along and eventually reveal a portal to an Arcade Fire concert. Garfield, now wearing a beautiful white dress, approaches the stage slowly but soon, finding comfort among the band, stands on a speaker and faces the audience, making commanding poses that radiate a new confidence.

The whole video is both inspiring and striking in a lot of ways, particularly the exhilarating second-half of the six-minute piece. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a tear or two resting in the lower lids of my eyes as I watched Garfield’s character leap and twirl in the spotlight, first at the bar but then on stage at real-life Coachella. Their open form relates a sense of freedom, both from the negativity of others but also to flourish in self-acceptance as well as the acceptance of others.

However, thoughts began to cross my mind as I finished watching it for the umph-teenth time. Andrew Garfield, as far as I know, isn’t gay and doesn’t experience gender dysphoria, despite his noteworthy performance. Is anything, perhaps, loss because of this?

It’s a question that’s been asked before, but is clearly still relevant, especially considering story lines involving lgbt characters are growing in acceptance by mainstream culture in the form of movies, tv shows, commercials, and music videos. Is is okay for straight actors to hold gay roles? Is it okay for gay actresses to hold straight roles? What about cis actors and actresses and transgender roles? The answers are unclear. Blue is the Warmest Color, for example, received criticism from some for its heterosexual director and leading actresses, while others praised it as an honest portrayal of the struggles attached to coming of age, figuring out one’s sexuality, and the ups and downs of a lesbian relationship. Hillary Swank, however, acquired almost nothing but commendation for her performance of Brandon Teena in 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry. One major critic, however, is Brandon’s former girlfriend who thought the film was a misrepresentation of the true story.

A lot is left for discussion, especially about the purpose of acting, the role of story and art-making in truth-telling, and the liberties given to artists and storytellers. What I’m wondering is if maybe its time for not just the marginalized voices to be made welcome in society/culture, but for the people to whom the voices belong, to be given a space to represent themselves. That is why I think a character like Laverne Cox’s Sophia Burset from Orange is the New Black, has a certain additional quality that Andrew Garfield’s is missing, despite the excellent performance. Because, again, for a song and video that is about visibility and acknowledgment of existence, why not have an existing transgendered actor or actress play the lead role?

*I refrain from using he/she pronouns as the gender identity of the character has been left unknown though some articles have identified the character as a transgender woman

**There’s a lot of references to vision and looking in this synopsis. This makes sense though, right?, considering the song is about seeing and being seen.


2 thoughts on “Weighing In on Arcade Fire’s “We Exist”

  1. I’d say the problem doesn’t lie so much in cisgendered heterosexuals portraying lgbt characters in and of itself, but that they are given preference, and subsequently lauded for such a “brave” choice. As this whole conversation comes to the fore, thanks in no small part to Laverne Cox, something that’s never discussed is the reverse situation. Gays and lesbians playing straight characters is a time-honored tradition itself, but I have a sneaking suspicion that victory will only come about when trans folks get a shot at playing cis/straight characters. But, of course, this is not to belittle their achievements in their portrayals of characters like themselves as full-fledged human beings rather than as offensive tropes in shitty police procedurals.

  2. I think there is a real risk of elevating those who play certain roles, typically based off of outdated and overused tropes, over the people they are supposed to be representing. There’s surely a lot to be said about statements of false equivalency, but I’m not sure I’m the best voice to say it at this point. I’d point in the direction of subreddits like /r/trans and /r/asktransgender and blog posts such as “The Rayon Effect” at transadvocate.com about Jared Leto in “Texas Buyers Club,” which have all hit on different topics and perspectives that I never would’ve considered on my own.

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