Grey Weinstein (he/they)
“What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it,” Morpheus says to Neo in the original Matrix movie. “You’ve felt it your entire life— that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.”
Morpheus is describing Neo’s growing awareness that his reality is in fact a simulation called the Matrix. Generated by machine overlords to keep humanity complacent while their bodies are harvested as robot fuel, the Matrix is “the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth,” in Morpheus’s words. Yet Morpheus is also describing the feeling that many trans people have as they come to the realization that their gender identity does not match the one assigned to them by society.
When I first watched The Matrix in high school, I didn’t read it as a trans allegory. That’s not surprising; I was living as a cisgender woman (or rather, a cisgender teenaged girl) and, like most cis people, I didn’t think much about gender or transness at all. But like Neo, there were a lot of things I “felt but couldn’t explain.” Like why my closet had consisted almost entirely of baggy t-shirts and oversized sweatshirts since puberty, or why I couldn’t imagine myself doing the things that my friends talked about with excitement, like growing up and getting into a relationship.
Looking back with the knowledge that I’m transgender, I know the reasons for my behaviors. As my body became more feminine during puberty, I increasingly tried to hide it, driven by a discomfort I couldn’t put into words. I couldn’t imagine myself taking on the socially gendered role of “girlfriend,” so I adamantly insisted that I would never date. I couldn’t even imagine myself growing older, but I couldn’t articulate why the idea of maturing into a woman felt so impossible, so I simply spent most of my adolescence assuming I didn’t have much of a future ahead of me. Those things are all, technically speaking, manifestations of dysphoria. Although experts will tell you that dysphoria is the “distress that results from an incongruence between one’s sex assigned at birth and one’s gender identity,” the way that dysphoria actually feels isn’t something that’s easy for me to describe. The best I can do is borrow from Morpheus and say that it was something I had felt my entire life, that there was something wrong with the world. I didn’t know what it was, but it was there, like a splinter in my mind.
Like Neo, I couldn’t see the Matrix when it was around me. But once Neo takes the red pill offered to him by Morpheus, he is able to see his former life as it really was– a simulation– and begin to build a new life in the real world. (Not coincidentally, in the 90s when The Matrix was released premarin was the most widely used form of feminizing hormone therapy, in the form of a red pill.) Unfortunately, unlike Neo, I was not “The One” chosen to liberate all of humanity; I was just a depressed trans kid. Luckily for me, however, transitioning helped me see my life more clearly by recognizing the ways that gender dysphoria was hurting me. Once I could see the Matrix, I could escape it– medical and social transition allowed me to take steps to ease my dysphoria.
Trans Matrix fans long suspected that Neo’s journey in the original Matrix movie reflected the experiences of its two directors, sisters Lily and Lana Wachowski, with gender identity and transness. (Neither of the two filmmakers were out as trans at the time of the film’s release.) Then in August 2020, Lilly Wachowski confirmed that the movie’s plot was an allegory for trans identity, among its other themes. Now, nearly two decades after the third movie of the original trilogy was released, The Matrix Resurrections returns to the original movie’s trans motifs. That’s right; The Matrix is back, baby, and it’s more trans than ever.
Directed by Lana Wachowski, The Matrix Resurrections stars Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss, who reprise their roles as the iconic, badass sci-fi heroes Neo and Trinity. The story resumes years after the events of the last movie, in which Neo had presumably died sacrificing himself to save humanity. Brought back to life by the Analyst (Neil Patrick Harris), a sentient computer program bent on keeping humanity trapped within the Matrix, Neo believes himself to be the successful designer of a video game also called “The Matrix.” After the Analyst erases his memories of his previous victory, Neo considers his adventures with Trinity to have been an elaborate delusion. But he is liberated from his dismal existence in the Matrix when Bugs (Jessica Henwick) and Morpheus (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) pull him into the real world and give him the chance to rescue Trinity, who is likewise trapped in the Analyst’s simulation.
After watching the second and third Matrix movies in preparation for Resurrections, I was pleasantly surprised at how enjoyable I found the new release to be. I share the extremely popular view that the original sequels were nowhere near the mastery of the first movie. I found them difficult to follow, crammed with worldbuilding that wasn’t sufficiently explained and which often left me asking, “Wait, why are they doing that?” The sequels were also incredibly dark– and I’m referring to the set design, not the storyline. When Neo and his crew aren’t in the vibrant simulated reality of the Matrix, they’re in the real world, which has been taken over by evil machines. Thus, the last two movies of the original trilogy are mostly in a dimly lit, monochromatic universe completely washed of color. The overall effect is not only dreary but also boring to look at, giving very little variation to the scenes.
Approaching this movie with low expectations, I was quite impressed that The Matrix Resurrections manages to avoid these blunders. Set mostly in the colorful world of the Matrix, the film also features a liberated city named Io in the real world, where humanity flourishes alongside robots who have defected to their side. The set design for Io is a lot more visually pleasing than that of Zion, the city from the original sequels. It features splashes of vegetation (plants once more exist in this universe as a result of biological engineering, the plot explains), which adds not only color but a general tone of optimism for humanity’s future to the worldbuilding. The plot of Resurrections is essentially a romance between Neo and Trinity who ultimately frees herself from the Matrix to escape with Neo. Streamlining the plot to tell one story, the reunion of the franchise’s heroes, made it easy to follow and fun to watch. It certainly didn’t feel like a two-and-a-half hour film.
The original sequels’ worst crime, to me, was that they moved away from discussions of gender. Part of what made the original Matrix films so engaging was that they weren’t about just one thing; while the trans allegory is central to the first movie, it’s also a story that warns about the limits and risks of technology, ponders the existence of fate and free will, and questions the nature of reality. (And, as my highschool philosophy teacher was excited to point out, it closely borrows elements from Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.”) Following the first movie, the films ceased to explicitly reference gender identity and leaned more heavily into discussing its other, more universally understood themes.
Resurrections returns to its gender-bending roots in a way that the rest of the original trilogy failed to do. Offered the red pill that will free him from the Matrix or the blue pill which will allow him to keep living within it, Morpheus demands, “You call this a choice?” Holding the pills in her hands, freedom fighter Bugs replies, “The choice is an illusion. You already know what you have to do.” Being trans isn’t a choice, many transgender people have long repeated, it’s simply who we are. Yet at the same time, upon coming to terms with one’s own trans identity, the decision to openly live as a transgender person is a big decision, and a terrifying one. (Speaking purely for myself, coming out as trans was the scariest thing I had ever done, and transitioning continues to be the most difficult.) But faced with the alternative– a life of being closeted, a life in a body that doesn’t seem to fit, a life forced in gender roles that feel wrong– many feel like there is only one possible choice.
I certainly did. In fact, what stood out to me most in Resurrections was the general tone of the first act, during which Neo remains trapped in the Matrix, his memories erased. Every scene is instilled with a deep sense of melancholy and loss. Neo doesn’t remember the life that had been taken from him when he was reinserted into the Matrix, yet he is grieving, even without knowing what it is that he mourns. He seems detached from life, distant from the people around him. The tone of act one felt intimately familiar to me, as I’m sure it did to many trans people. It wouldn’t be accurate to my experiences to pretend that I was always miserable pretransition; I certainly had good days, periods of happiness, and relationships with people I loved. But the fracture Neo feels between himself and the rest of the world, his passive lack of interest in participating in his own life– that was there for me, too. So when presented with the “choice” to transition, I really didn’t feel like I had much of a choice at all. The choice is an illusion. You already know what you have to do.
The Matrix Resurrections might not be a film masterpiece; it is certainly very self-referential and some have criticized it as redundant and unoriginal. But the nostalgia-tinged movie also reads as a triumphant reclamation of the red pill/blue pill trans metaphor from the clutches of the alt-right. (Many members of the far right, who adopted the term “redpilled” to refer to their indoctrination into the cults of Trump or Q-Anon, are simultaneously violently transphobic.) If you’re looking for feel-good romance and guys with big guns wearing cool clothes, this is the movie for you. And if it inspires you to kick a transphobe into the path of a moving train, all the better.
6/19/2022 02:12:11 am
If you pay heed to a specific circle of film criticism, you’ve probably already come across the breakdown of The Matrix that expresses it in the transgender point of view of its filmmakers: a story about opening from a world that compels you to live how it notices to be fit, the spotlight is on Thomas Anderson’s change into Neo and the significance of apprehending that transformation within himself, the constant pressure from outside forces to exactly “repack” himself into the Matrix and take on the way that machine overlords have selected for him. All those who exit the Matrix selected new names for themselves, but its story goes with “the One.” Neo’s decree of his actual name against Agent Smith’s continual buzzing to the tune of “Mr. Anderson” serves as an explanation on intent, uniqueness, and personal ability. It’s tough to discover a stronger or direct metaphor for transiency than that. Neo is reconstructing himself in complete view of the world: that’s what transformation is.
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