By Lucas Grindley
Originally published on Advocate.com May 29 2014 6:00 AM ET
After setting off headlines all over the world last week when she criticized Arcade Fire's "We Exist," Laura Jane Grace now tells The Advocate she feels differently about the band's new video.
Grace — the transgender lead singer of Against Me! — had called out Arcade Fire for casting Andrew Garfield instead of a trans actor in the lead role for its new music video.
Now the disagreement over erasure of trans people in popular media — which at first played out contentiously on Twitter — has each side talking about their respect and love for the other. Even after Arcade Fire front man Win Butler defended choosing Garfield in an interview with The Advocate Friday, saying that casting such a big mainstream star makes an impression on LGBT youth that is "pretty damn powerful," Grace posted a series of new tweets expanding her criticism.
"My main problem with the video isn't even casting it's stereotyping," she wrote, wondering why the character Sandy cries about shaving her head and then puts on a wig, or why Sandy goes "to the shittiest bar ever to drink domestic beer and dance with bigot rednecks," who end up assaulting Sandy on the dance floor. The visuals at first seemed stereotypical to Grace.
But over the weekend, Grace hung out in Los Angeles with Our Lady J, the trans musician whose job it was to coach Garfield on-set. Our Lady J met up with her fellow artist to participate in Grace's forthcoming documentary as part of the AOL Originals series, then watched Grace perform with Against Me! at the Roxy on Saturday night.
"We only talked about the video briefly, really," Grace tells The Advocate. "She mentioned that her experiences growing up were similar, with going out in femme to bars like that just to see what would happen, and how she loves to see gender played with in general. Fair enough. I respect that."
Grace acknowledges that when it comes to exploring your gender identity, there is a "wide spectrum of experiences out there." Grace went back to Twitter after meeting Our Lady J to say they had just talked and that it "really made me think about it differently." Our Lady J responded, tweeting, "I love you for many reasons, but I love you so hard for that."
Grace hasn't stopped being critical of the video altogether. But one important thing changed. "I could see that the video spoke to her, and that while I did not identify with it, she did, so more power to her and to the video," Grace tells The Advocate.
It's not absolutely clear in the video whether Sandy is indeed a trans woman. And that led to contradictory headlines reporting Garfield was merely dressed in drag, while others claimed he played a trans woman. When Grace sees Sandy on-screen, she still sees a trans woman.
"My personal take on the transformation that happens over the course of the video is that Garfield's character is struggling with identity, and then after getting their head kicked in at the redneck bar, emerges like a butterfly at Coachella, fully realized," says Grace. But she is open to Our Lady J's interpretation. "If it's a person just struggling with gender identity, that's totally valid. Everyone in Arcade Fire has a gender identity, and I'm sure they've explored it just like anyone else."
Grace says she didn't know Our Lady J had consulted on the video when she first saw it. "But by bringing in a trans person as a consultant, it makes me think the character is supposed to be trans, and then saying that [the character is] just 'exploring their gender' seems like they're just deflecting the criticism," Grace says.
Our Lady J says she knew the portrayal would be scrutinized and perhaps misinterpreted by "the usual few," but was surprised when Grace critiqued it as a fellow artist.
"It saddens me that sometimes we trans women see a man in a dress on film or TV and then automatically think the story is about us," says Our Lady J. "What's that about, really? The trans community does not and should not have authority over who gets to break gender norms. We all deserve the freedom to play with gender — yes, play — and express this in our art."
Our Lady J is clear about the intention of the character. "Simply, the story is not about a self-identified trans person," she says. "If we're going to go with labels, it's about a young man who is exploring their gender identity."
That echoes what Butler and the music video's out director David Wilson told The Advocate in an interview Friday — that when the character Sandy stares into the mirror, exactly who looks back is still being figured out. "When he cuts his hair, he's clearly pretty tortured about it, just to have the courage to explore who he is," Butler said last week.
In the video, Sandy goes into a dream world that starts with a metaphorical coming-out moment in dance and then ends with Sandy onstage being welcomed by throngs of people who Wilson said "accept her just the way that she feels and just the way that she is."
Our Lady J says the world needs more depictions of trans people, because trans people have a disparate set of experiences that still aren't represented. That dearth of nuanced representations helped fuel the backlash to "We Exist," she argues. "I may be trans, but we are all just human beings working to tell our stories," she says. "There is no monster in Hollywood trying to keep our lives invisible. It's just that we are only at the beginning of our storytelling."
Meanwhile, the lack of representation of trans people is allowing transphobia to continue, Grace argues.
"It was just a snarky tweet, it wasn't a damnation," Grace says of her original criticism, "and the type of response I got online for sending it I think truly exemplifies the problem. As a fan of the band who is stating lighthearted, constructive criticism in a nonhateful way on my personal platform — my Twitter account — who also happens to be trans, and then being told by Arcade Fire fans to 'shut my mouth,' that I am 'wrong' and that my criticism is 'unfounded and misplaced,' being called an 'ugly tranny' and that 'she/he should fuck off,' and then having the whole 'shouldn't an actor being allowed to play any role' argument thrown at me while everyone ignores the fact that trans roles always, always, always go to cisgender people but you have never, never, never seen a cis role go to a trans person — it makes me think that the video certainly hasn't done anything to raise awareness amongst the band's fan base or promote acceptance and understanding."