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How The Matrix universalized a trans experience — and helped me accept my own

The film, now 20 years old, is probably the most famous art ever made by trans people. But its cultural legacy doesn’t end there.

Actress Carrie-Anne Moss as Trinity wipes the face of the unconscious Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, in “The Matrix.”
Carrie-Anne Moss and Keanu Reeves star in The Matrix.
Sygma via Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Some online trans communities have a word for trans people who haven’t realized they’re trans just yet: egg.

When you’re an egg, you’re safely closed off by your shell, unable to see the wider world. It’s kind of like being in a sensory deprivation tank. Everything is muffled, and the world is hazy and translucent through the walls. There is always some barrier between you and reality. Being inside the egg is comfortable. And leaving the egg is a lot of work, a lot of painful, grinding work that many people would rather avoid.

Eggs hatch, though, and the hatching process is messy and complicated. It leaves behind something new and beautiful, but getting there can take days or years. (It took me 15 years after thinking, “Wait, am I ...” to realize, “I am.”) And what will crack the shell isn’t always predictable.

But if you look back on your life pre-hatching, you’ll find a host of clues that read not as questions but as evidence. Which is a long, roundabout way of me saying that when I was 18, I was obsessed with The Matrix. The movie celebrates its 20th anniversary on March 31, 2019, a date that is also, coincidentally, the 10th trans day of visibility.

The Matrix was directed by Lana and Lilly Wachowski, two trans women who at the time of the film’s release had not yet come out as trans publicly (or perhaps even to themselves). It is by far the most influential work of pop culture ever created by a trans person, and it is maybe the eggiest movie ever made.

But everything about it that replicates what the trans experience is like prior to coming out — and, thus, made it so appealing to trans viewers — simultaneously tapped into some other zeitgeist entirely and became a weapon of some of the worst people on the internet.

The Matrix perfectly captures the experience of being a closeted trans person

The Matrix
Neo and Agent Smith face off in the film’s climactic battle.
Sygma via Getty Images

Lana Wachowski came out as trans in 2010 (though rumors regarding her gender identity had swirled around her going as far back as the release of The Matrix Reloaded in 2003 — and only click on that link if you want to be reminded how awful the 2000s media could be about trans people). Lilly Wachowski came out in 2016.

In the wake of both women coming out, it became at least somewhat popular for critics to read their films through the lens of their transness. Their wildly ambitious stories about the mind transcending the limitations of the body, the need for individual self-determination, and a kind of vision of the future as a polyamorous leftist love fest make a lot of sense as coded stories about the trans experience.

Lilly Wachowski spoke about this newfound attention while accepting a GLAAD Award with her sister in 2016: “There’s a critical eye being cast back on Lana and I’s work through the lens of our transness. This is a cool thing because it’s an excellent reminder that art is never static. And while the ideas of identity and transformation are critical components in our work, the bedrock that all ideas rest upon is love.”

The Matrix is at the center of multiple arguments about how the sisters’ transness informs their work. One reason for its centrality to those arguments is that it was a massive, global success: It made $463.5 million at the worldwide box office, earned extensive critical acclaim, and won four Oscars.

That gave the Wachowskis the freedom to do whatever they wanted in Hollywood, a freedom they would use toward more audience-alienating ends over the next 20 years. (I love all their movies, but the mass audience that embraced The Matrix simply didn’t turn out for 2012’s Cloud Atlas or 2015’s Jupiter Ascending.) But almost everyone has a passing familiarity with The Matrix, and its cultural permeation makes it the best window through which to examine how the sisters’ work captures the trans experience.

Another reason for The Matrix’s centrality to the idea that trans identity is core to understanding the Wachowskis’ body of work stems from how perfectly (and perhaps accidentally) it captures something essential about being trans. There are reams of academic literature written on the idea of The Matrix as a trans allegory (most of them published after at least Lana came out), but on its most basic level, the movie follows characters who break free of their real life via the internet, creating online identities that feel more real than their physical ones.

The movie’s coolest trick is the way it inverts what you’d expect from a movie released in 1999, by making the internet the poisonous capitalist space that keeps people emotionally numb. Meanwhile, the post-apocalyptic reality in which a war between man and machine reduced the landscape to a desert is where people can finally be their true selves. (The internet becoming a poisonous capitalist faux-utopia is perhaps The Matrix’s most accidentally accurate prediction.)

The Matrix
Neo stops the bullets coming for him.
Warner Bros.

The plot of The Matrix mirrors the online gender experimentation of the early digital era, when some unsuspecting egg might log in to a chat room as a woman and discover how much better it feels to embody that version of themselves. Inhabit that experimental space long enough and you might eventually find yourself breaking through the shell containing the hermetically sealed world you thought you lived in to some other reality entirely. That reality might reduce everything else in your life to rubble, but getting to experience it is worth the fallout.

The sense of using the internet to find a true identity permeates every scene of The Matrix. In the movie’s first exchange between hero Neo (Keanu Reeves) and badass hacker girl Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), he says he assumed she was a guy, and she replies, blithely, “Most guys do.” The characters reject the names they were born with — in Neo’s case, Thomas Anderson — in favor of their chosen names. Their wardrobe grows increasingly androgynous and leather-bound. The entire movie is about transcending the limitations of the physical form to explore what the mind is capable of. Bodies are, at best, a suggestion. Your brain is what really matters.

The Wachowskis actually wanted to make The Matrix’s trans metaphor explicit, via the character of Switch (one of several crew members on board Morpheus’s ship, the Nebuchadnezzar). Switch was written to present as male in reality while presenting as female in the Matrix — a fun way to play around with the idea of online identities and a subtle wink toward the idea that gender is a construct that can be blown apart, like so many lines of green code. (This concept also would have pushed back, ever so slightly, against the idea that reality is more “real” than the Matrix, since the Matrix was the one place Switch could present as female.)

Warner Bros. nixed the idea of Switch crossing the gender divide, feeling mainstream audiences wouldn’t understand. (She appears in the film but is played by a woman in both realities.) But I would have understood, even if I wouldn’t have known why. (1999 was still a few years before I’d have my, “Wait, am I ... ?” moment.) I was logging in to chat rooms to present as a woman, and I was doing so with more and more frequency in ways I didn’t dare interrogate. The Matrix celebrated the idea that there were two worlds, separate but linked, and that what happened in the one influenced the other.

In the guise of a big-budget action movie (albeit one with a very different set of influences than the other action films of the ’90s), this duality suggested a future where the rigid lines of the self would start to break down. In 1999 and in the years to come, the internet would cause trans people’s eggs to start cracking all over the place, in a way that just wasn’t possible before its existence. The Matrix translated the resulting era of self-discovery into a vision of gun battles and the Chosen One narrative.

But trans people weren’t the only ones it resonated with.

How a movie directed by two trans women became central to men’s rights activists

The Matrix
Morpheus offers Neo a choice.
Warner Bros.

1999 was a terrific year for the movies. It was also a great year for movies about white men realizing they’ve been lied to and that society is trying to rob them of something fundamentally true about themselves — from American Beauty (which would win Best Picture) to Fight Club to, arguably, Being John Malkovich. And superficially, at least, that category would include The Matrix.

I like all of these movies, and they’re all at least somewhat suspicious of their heroes’ quests to disrupt the system in the name of being manly men. But audiences didn’t always grasp that maybe it wasn’t appropriate to openly lust after your teenage daughter’s best friend, as the hero of American Beauty does, or blow up the buildings that form the underpinnings of global capitalism, as the hero of Fight Club does.

Because these characters were played by men like Kevin Spacey (a very different figure in 1999!) and Edward Norton, movie star charisma carried viewers of their films a long way toward accepting behaviors that the filmmakers intended to be morally complicated, at the very least. This disconnect between intention and reception is not the filmmakers’ fault, but it did tap into something roiling in the American undertow at the time: the idea that white men needed to somehow reclaim a primacy they had apparently lost.

Again, The Matrix, at least superficially, plays into this narrative. Keanu Reeves isn’t white — he’s multiracial, with European, Chinese, and Polynesian ancestors — but The Matrix codes Neo as a white guy corporate worker drone before he breaks free of his old life and becomes The One. And the mere mention of “The One,” the person who will help human beings fight back against their machine overlords, should reveal The Matrix as a Chosen One narrative — a storytelling trope that isn’t always centered on a white man, but that American pop culture has very frequently centered on a white man.

That brings us to one of the movie’s weirdest cultural legacies: the idea of the red pill. In the film, Neo is memorably offered a choice between a red and a blue pill. Taking the red pill will awaken Neo to the truth of his existence, as a piece of hardware in the dark post-apocalyptic landscape where he is used by machines as a literal battery. Taking the blue pill will let him return to the Matrix unhindered. (Neo takes the red pill, because that’s how stories work.)

In our reality, the idea of taking the red pill has since come to bolster some of the worst people on the internet. In 2019, to be “redpilled” is to suddenly realize all the ways that social justice issues, particularly those related to feminism, can cause a person (usually a young man, though women have also used the term) to not be their truest self.

The obvious irony here is that the red and blue pills were dreamed up by two trans women, in the middle of a story that is now widely read as an allegory about how immensely powerful it can be to discover one’s true self by getting online. But in the early 2000s, when I was logging in to chat rooms under a woman’s name, there were plenty of men around my age logging in to other chat rooms, where they were being radicalized to believe that women (and people of color and LGBTQ people and ... and ...) were keeping them from some larger, truer reality.

The Matrix doesn’t exactly discourage this reading. The film’s two sequels — which subvert and blow up the Chosen One myth in favor of telling a story about how salvation will come not from domination but from synthesis, from people (and machines) coming together — both push back against the idea of the redpill, as does the rest of the Wachowskis’ oeuvre. And if we’re keeping with the trans allegory idea, the later Matrix films replicate the way many trans people ultimately become even more aware of the intersectionality of their own privilege, or lack of it. (For example, I have never been more aware of my own whiteness and relative financial comfort since coming out.)

Still, it’s not as though the idea that spawned redpilling isn’t present. That’s not The Matrix’s fault; the Wachowskis couldn’t possibly have foreseen how their work would be interpreted. But the idea that both trans people and men’s rights activists would see themselves in The Matrix speaks in a perverse way to how the Wachowskis translated what feels to me like a very specific trans experience into something much more universal.

In 1999, we were all getting online. Some of us were finding ourselves. Others were just finding excuses.

Note: This article was originally published under Emily VanDerWerff’s pen name, Emily Sandalwood. You can subscribe to her newsletter.

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