The Arcade Fire, Transgender, Privilege and Voice

arcade-fireThe new Arcade Fire video, for the song We Exist, features Andrew Garfield as a trans woman (or a man who likes cross-dressing). I hadn’t seen it until a Facebook friend posted a link to an article by Tom Hawking on culture website Flavorwire, Arcade Fire Have Nothing to Say About the Transgender ExperienceAccompanying the link on my friend’s Facebook feed was “Thoughts?”

Now I like Arcade Fire, and I also often have thoughts (too often, some might say), so anyway I clicked and I read and I watched. As fate would have it I did have some thoughts, so I put them down. They’re not really to do with the transgender experience, of which I know nothing, but more about art and expression and audience and voice, about which I know a little bit.

Anyway, if you want, read the article and watch the video and then read on for my thoughts.

So, my thoughts:

The article makes some very good points about portraying other people’s experience, and what artists writers, musicians, etc need to constantly be aware of. It’s interesting to discuss how something could have been done differently, and with a different focus. A few things in the article I didn’t agree with when I read it:

1) The article criticises the band’s portrayal of the main character and the way their experience was expressed, particularly in terms of stereotyping, saying it would have been more more radical to present a trans character “who goes out, has an awesome time, goes home, wakes up, and goes to work in the morning.”

I don’t doubt that would be interesting, But the Arcade Fire are not naturalists, and I don’t think we should expect them to be. I’m more interested in reading the video as stylised analogy than a depiction of life. As I kinda expect from them, it has a magic realism feel. There are definitely plenty of stereotypes, which felt a bit odd to me, but I’m not taking anything in it literally when I watch.

2) The article also suggests the band is attempting to be progressive/liberal (small “l”) which is why they have to present being trans as being an Issue (large “I”) rather than having a trans character and it not making an Issue of it.

That’s an interesting approach too but, extending on the above, the Arcade Fire have a very broad audience base that they’re targeting, which obviously affects some of the choices they make regarding how they ‘pitch’ their ideas. In terms of being progressive/left, they’re likely pitching more progressive than where the average of their audience is, but not all the way, like where the writer obviously is.

3) The article also criticises the ‘voice’ of the video, saying that the band had previously said that the lyrics and by taking on the voice of “we”, the band is speaking from a voice they don’t have experience of.

For me, just because the lyrics as written and then recorded meant one thing it doesn’t mean they can’t shift and mean something else when presented in a new form – in this case video. Again, we’re talking about stylised/poetic lyrics which you can put different scaffolds of meaning over. Also, I think it’s the job of creatives to attempt to understand and write from different points of view. It’s a primary characteristic of fiction. And that’s what the song/video is – a work of fiction.

I enjoyed the video, and the article – both thought provoking, especially in terms of discussions about voice and people of privilege writing/creating in the voice of people who are different from them. I’ve seen people write that straight white men should not write in the voice of any less privileged/marginalised/discriminated against character.

I strongly disagree with this and see it as based on a misunderstanding of what fiction is – which essentially is an attempt to create a world. Taken to it’s logical extreme, the argument would first see no males writing about females, or vice versa, and then no one of a particular class writing about another, and then, really, how can we actually write about anything other than ourselves?

I think it is the job of creatives to attempt to understand and put themselves in other people’s shoes, to try and see things from other people’s perspective. For me the more creatives who attempt to engage constructively with issues of privilege, class and discrimination the better. Not doing so creates vacuous fiction – books, films, art, music, etc – that to just reinforces displacement, disengagement and discrimination.

I like to think I have a degree of empathy and perspective for what other people are feeling, regardless of who they are, and if by my words and art I can encourage others to develop a better understanding of where other people may be coming from, well, then I think that may be a valuable contribution that I can make.

Still – I’m a straight privileged white man – so just some thoughts really. Keen to keep thinking and discussing them.

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