I have bad news for men’s rights activists who’ve held “The Matrix” up as a symbol for their “struggle”: You’ve all really taken the blue pill and the Matrix firmly has you.
In recent years, some of those arguing feminism has gone too far have appropriated the film’s Red Pill/Blue Pill scene, saying they are people who’ve "taken the Red Pill” and realized the world is really controlled by women and men are oppressed. It sounds ludicrous, and it is especially laughable with the revelation that both Wachowskis are transgender women – a group held up as especially dangerous by these types. With that knowledge, you can’t come to any conclusion other than all of these people are basically Agent Smith. Every single one of them.
See, “The Matrix” trilogy is inherently trans. This isn’t to say it’s an allegory for being transgender or the oppression trans people face in their daily lives. It’s more complex than that. But if one rewatches the films with the new knowledge that both of the Wachowskis have transitioned, its transgender themes are unmistakable, and have been largely overlooked by (mostly cisgender) critics. Interestingly, Lana Wachowski told her family she was trans on the set of the second and third films.
The Wachowskis’ transness is so central to the trilogy’s metaphors and its entire plot that it’s hard to believe anyone other than two trans women could have created it. It’s stacked with symbolism that means quite a lot for transgender people who watch it.
I’m not just talking about all the shapeshifting in the movie, which everyone from Agent Smith to the Oracle does. Nor am I referring to the ideas about “monsters” and “monstrous bodies” that can be found throughout the film.
But if you think about it, of course two transgender people would create a film about perceptions being false and people being controlled by programmed ideas. The Matrix itself is artificial, and humans are trapped in it without realizing it. Waking up from it and resisting its imprisonment puts one at risk of being killed due to rigorous enforcement of its rule that all human beings must now be part of it.
The gender binary is a set of ideas about what it means to be male and female that have been handed down to practically every person born on Earth for centuries. It stipulates that men and women act particular ways, wear specific things according to their assigned sex, have very specific bodies, and have hard-wired ways of acting that are basically “code.” Stepping outside these boundaries, whether it be by transitioning, loving someone perceived to be of the same gender or even by wearing the “wrong” clothes, is called “unnatural,” puts one at risk of harassment, and can still in many cases result in death. The Matrix itself also holds people’s bodies physically captive. The notion of being “trapped” and freedom from this type of “imprisonment” is central to the trans experience. I’m not referring to the tired and harmful cliche about being “trapped in the wrong body.” The Matrix itself is actually a nice rebuttal to that idea, since people’s bodies don’t change inside it.
During the first film’s revelation in which Morpheus tells Neo he’s really been living in a computer simulation, his Matrix self is referred to as his “residual self-image.” His clothes and mannerisms are revealed to be just a projection of is his programmed “self.” This all sounds very similar to how trans people feel when seeing a body other than the one that’s been told “you need to wear these clothes, have this hairstyle and act these ways.” To me, it basically sounds like the experience of gender dysphoria.
Since the gender binary has been hammered into us from an early age, many trans folks will often stare into a mirror and still see the person they were before, even if their bodies have changed. Hips that look “too feminine,” voices that are “too low,” and jawlines that are either too pronounced or too muted meet us every day. We might falter and fall back into that residual self-image, thinking we’re either “too feminine” or “too masculine,” but the thing is, there’s nothing about breasts, say, that’s inherently female. Cisgender guys with gynecomastia know that very well. There are also plenty of cisgender women who have very low voices.
The notion that “things are not always how they appear,” as rigid enforcer Agent Smith himself says in “The Matrix Revolutions,” is something trans people know very well. Pushing beyond this “residual self-image” and breaking through to who we actually are – the notion of becoming – is central to the trans experience. We are not “trapped” in our bodies. We are instead held captive by people’s preconceptions of us and by a set of “rules” that are fundamentally false about what it means to be “male” and “female.”
Neo breaks free from his own world’s perceptions and rigid rules while being held down by Agent Smith on a train track. His "My name is Neo!” outburst before escaping the clutches of the enforcer who continually calls him Mr. Anderson is one of the first film’s most important moments. Throughout all three films, Smith continues to refer to him by his previous name, a frustration trans people know lots about.
At the end of “Revolutions,” Neo confronts the machines and tells them that “the program Smith has grown beyond your control.” Smith has replicated himself so much that he’s starting to run amok. You can’t help but see Smith as a metaphor for rigidly enforced gender roles that have gone out of control, leading to people dying. Machine and human then work together to destroy Smith and learn they can live in harmony. Is it any coincidence that trans people’s own becoming, and their from oppressive gender roles and the binary has partly been helped by technology? Just in the last few decades, gender affirming surgeries have made huge strides and are now considered fairly routine.
If you’re still doubtful, this quote from Lilly Wachowski’s coming out letter should tell you everything you need to know about the film: “My reality is that I’ve been transitioning and will continue to transition all of my life, through the infinite that exists between male and female as it does in the infinite between the binary of zero and one. We need to elevate the dialogue beyond the simplicity of binary. Binary is a false idol."
Wachowski’s connection of binary code and the gender binary can leave no doubt about just how trans "The Matrix” is. What is the Matrix itself, after all, other than just false coding?