Last week, indie rock superstars Arcade Fire unveiled the music video for their song “We Exist.” Released May 16th, it is described by the band as “the story of a young person’s struggle with gender identity” and stars Andrew Garfield of Amazing Spider-Man and Social Network fame. Garfield is shown shaving his head, donning a wig and going out to a bar where he is victimized and beaten by the patrons before being resurrected at the band’s Coachella set.
While intended as a shot of support for the trans community, the band has come under heavy fire for their decision to cast cisgender male actor Andrew Garfield as the central character. Joining the wave of criticism is Against Me! Singer Laura Jane Grace; who is herself transgender.
Thursday morning she tweeted, “Dear @arcadefire, maybe when making a video for a song called ‘We Exist’ you should get an actual ‘trans’ actor instead of Spider-Man?” Grace added later:
— Laura Jane Grace (@LauraJaneGrace) May 22, 2014
Grace isn’t alone in slamming the casting choice of Garfield. “There seems to be a prevalent idea in Hollywood that viable transgender actors and actresses simply do not exist,” writes Kat Haché of Bustle. “This becomes particularly problematic when you’re casting a video for a song entitled ‘We Exist.’ If so, where?”
Those of you who recall this year’s Oscar season might remember a similar controversy surrounding Jared Leto’s performance in Dallas Buyer’s Club. Amidst the praise that was lauded on him for his portrayal of Rayon, a pre-op transwoman, many raised the question of Hollywood’s general hesitation to cast trans actors in trans roles. Aside from Laverne Cox’s breakout performance in Orange Is the New Black last summer, the status quo seems averse to this concept. It’s not that trans actors should be limited to trans roles or that cis actors should be excluded from them, but the imbalance tells many trans people that they aren’t trusted to tell their own stories. A parallel could even be drawn to Shakespearean times when roles of all genders were only filled by male actors.
On the flip side, many like @BEYONDTHENEXT argue that Garfield was chosen for the “We Exist” role based primarily for recognition and bankability. Having a big name star guarantees awareness and in this case, the controversy fuels discussion. At the end of the day, Andrew Garfield is Andrew Garfield and his presence will bring the masses, however they fall on the approval spectrum. Perhaps the blowback will aid casting directors in deviating from the status quo the next time a trans role falls on their desks.
But it isn’t just casting choices that churned up the storm. Many also take issue with the narrative presented in “We Exist.” “I can’t help but feel the whole thing plays into the pervasive idea of trans characters as victims and freaks, destined to be oppressed by a world that doesn’t understand them,” writes Tom Hawking of Flavorwire. “Almost every time you see trans characters in popular culture, they’re either a) tragic, sensitive figures brutalized by the horrible world of b) flamboyant, hedonistic female impersonators who still end up as a) eventually.” It all boils down to inaccurate media representation, an issue that needs to be addressed first and foremost in the writer’s room. Why are these depictions the ones that producers think will resonate most with the public? Because stereotyping streamlines our thought process. It makes us more likely to come back for more since it eliminates all the pesky societal complexity that plagues real life.
Subscribing to stereotypes can be problematic, especially if we take what we see on TV as an accurate representation of our culture. Every type of character – wherever they fall on the gender spectrum – should be approached as a human being first. Not a caricature, or amalgam of stereotypes. Often times the viewing public rewards such honesty. Game of Thrones owes a portion of its universal acclaim to the respectful treatment it gives each character regardless of gender. Instead of perpetuating the “violence against transwomen” stereotype, Arcade Fire should have broadcast a message of acceptance. “Have Garfield dress up and date Christian Bale or Chris Hemsworth, for instance,” writes Leela Ginelle of PQ Monthly. “Transwomen don’t need rescuing, we need equality.”
The breadth of human experience is too wide to be boiled down to gender stereotypes. That means acknowledging the road to equality takes more than a rock band standing on its pedestal and proclaiming “we” exist.
What do you think? Was the “We Exist” video a step in the right direction for trans rights? Let me know in the comments below.