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Culture » Film Reviews

Taking the Red Pill

On its 20th anniversary, a look at The Matrix as an awakening of trans identity.



March 31 marks the 20th anniversary of the release of The Matrix. The first of a groundbreaking and influential sci-fi film trilogy has lingered in the public consciousness for its action sequences, its view of the way technology plays a pivotal role in modern life, and its notion of life as a simulation, with acceptance or denial of that false reality represented by the blue pill/red pill binary. The latter point has been co-opted by men's rights activists to politicize their ideas that men are repressed—which is ironic, given that the filmmakers behind The Matrix, Lana and Lilly Wachowski, are two trans women. And even more ironic, The Matrix is one of the easiest films by the Wachowskis to view through a transgender lens.

The films of 1999 have been rightfully characterized as an embarrassment of riches in terms of quality. That bounty included some notable works in transgender cinema, with Kimberly Peirce's Boys Don't Cry and Pedro Almodóvar's All About My Mother (featuring trans cabaret artist Antonia San Juan in the female ensemble) winning Oscars. Even in films without explicitly trans characters, questions of gender identity were in the ether, such as when Cameron Diaz' character in Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich briefly considers a sex change after feeling so comfortable in the mind of actor John Malkovich (that plot point is never picked up or acknowledged again in the film). Less memorable, but still notable, Joel Schumacher's Flawless features a drag queen played by Philip Seymour Hoffman seeking the financial means to medically transition.

These films are all pretty imperfect when it comes to presenting a multidimensional trans narrative. Such a dearth of good trans cinema often has trans people attaching themselves to films on an allegorical level. Science-fiction tales dating back to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein have appealed to trans people as narratives of transformation, a second body. The Matrix is very much part of this lineage of sci-fi where worlds, consciousness and bodies are awakened.

The film's protagonist, Thomas A. Anderson (Keanu Reeves), is a desk jockey computer programmer by day and a hacker by night. Little does he know his double life is being surveilled by multiple parties, including the agents (best personified by Hugo Weaving's captivatingly stilted Agent Smith) and a group of other hackers led by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). Morpheus gives Anderson the name Neo and tells him he is the messianic "One" to help them fight against the Matrix, an artificial intelligence-created global simulation where humans have been enslaved by machines and manipulated into thinking they are just living normal lives. Morpheus offers Neo a proposition: Return to life as he previously knew it by taking the blue pill, or take the red pill and join him and the others to fight against the Matrix. Neo chooses the red one, and the series begins.

Neo's hero's journey doesn't fit neatly in the archetype Joseph Campbell popularized. It is stranger and more specific. By taking the red pill, Neo is reborn, waking plugged into a pod via tubes, naked, covered in gook. This is Neo's entry into the "real world"; he is physically altered so he can bend time and space and trains to optimize these heightened senses and skills. Morpheus takes him through the process of "passing" without detection in the Matrix with a program called Construct. Neo, Morpheus and the group of hackers can re-enter the Matrix to "unplug" more humans to rebel against the Machines. That battle to emancipate humanity is the foundation of the entire trilogy.

The trans reading, which has increased with the fact the Wachowskis are trans, precedes even the "medical transition" portion of the story that takes place after the red pill. In that pre-awakening double life, Neo's role as a hacker puts him on the outside of mainstream society already, with certain feelings he cannot put into words about how he feels amiss in the modern world.

Neither Lana nor Lilly Wachowski were out as trans women at the time of The Matrix's release, and even though the mostly reclusive duo continued to be credited as a pair of brothers throughout the series, they have since publicly reflected on their trans experiences predating their filmmaking. Much like Neo, both struggled with feeling they were outsiders, but had yet to find the words and direction that later happened for them as they publicly and medically transitioned. Ultimately, they have worked on presenting the trans experience through trans characters, such as in their recently finished Netflix series Sense8, but the allegory and symbolism found in their most influential and popular creation still remains very much adopted by the trans community.

There will be many anniversary pieces on The Matrix, but it is important to center on the people who created the film that became a groundbreaking blockbuster, and to consider that they were trans women. This was not by happenstance; many visual and spoken signifiers of trans reality exist throughout the film. Celebrating The Matrix also means celebrating two of the most significant and influential trans filmmakers in film history.