Call Trans Opt: Transgender Themes in The Matrix 5

I love the Matrix films. Not only do they kick seven fla­vors of ass (eight in some coun­tries), effec­tive­ly merg­ing kung fu action, cyber­punk and anime-style cin­e­matog­ra­phy (pur­port­ed­ly the Wachowskis pitched the idea as a live-action Ghost in the Shell), but they are also ter­rif­ic brain food. The films abound with bril­liant metaphor and intel­li­gent use of Judeo-Christian and Eastern themes. Further, and more per­ti­nent to my the­sis, they are some of the most high pro­file works by a trans­gen­der artist ever.

For those of you who do not know, the Wachowskis are no longer broth­ers, but a star­ship. Lana Wachowski recent­ly made pub­lic her tran­si­tion (which had been rumored for the bet­ter part of a decade) from male to female. In a short video intro­duc­ing their next project, we were greet­ed with a three word intro­duc­tion by the woman her­self: “Hi, I’m Lana.” Though we can but guess what Lana’s com­ing out will mean for trans­gen­der artists of all kinds, all that is cer­tain is that the Matrix can­not tell you who you are.

In light of Lana’s recent announce­ment, I pro­posed to re-watch the orig­i­nal Matrix film to see if there were any trans­gen­der themes. Understand, this is not a foren­sic exam­i­na­tion of the Wachowski’s oeu­vre for biographical/psychoanalytical insight into their lives. It is mere­ly my con­tention that a trans­gen­der read­ing of the Matrix is not only pos­si­ble, but quite fruit­ful. The alle­gor­i­cal prop­er­ties of the film have been dis­cussed quite a bit, cast­ing Neo as both Everyman and Christ. I pro­pose a fur­ther metaphor: Neo’s arc is that of a trans* or oth­er­wise queer indi­vid­ual assert­ing hir own unique iden­ti­ty.


First, I need to set the stage for this dis­cus­sion. It’s been point­ed out to me that my use of aster­isks for things like LGBT* and Trans* are a lit­tle con­fus­ing to the unini­ti­at­ed. In these cases, the aster­isk is used to make umbrel­la terms out of what is oth­er­wise exclu­sion­ary lan­guage. (We in the queer com­mu­ni­ty are big on try­ing not to exclude peo­ple.) The entire LGBT* ini­tial­ism (as I under­stand it), for exam­ple, is LGBTQQIAA1. That’s a mouth­ful, and some­thing of a bitch to type. So, in the inter­est of acknowl­edg­ing the wider spec­trum of queer­ness, I employ the aster­isk. Likewise, my use of the word trans* encom­pass­es the expe­ri­ences of transexual/transgender2 indi­vid­u­als (both Male-To-Female and Female-To-Male), gen­derqueer, agen­der, bigen­der, and oth­er­wise gender-nonconforming indi­vid­u­als. The cur­rent trend in thought among peo­ple who fall into one or more of these cat­e­gories is that gen­der is a spec­trum, and that every­one falls at some point on that spec­trum. Cisgender peo­ple are those who are rea­son­ably happy, or at least con­tent, with their place on the spec­trum, where­as trans* peo­ple feel as though some­thing is amiss.

Before we see how deep the rabbit-hole goes, let me first explain the title of this piece. The film opens with a trac­er pro­gram being run on a phone call between two peo­ple who we will learn are Trinity and Cypher, two sol­diers in the human resis­tance against the Machines. The first four words that appear on screen, even before the first line of dia­logue is spo­ken, are “Call trans opt received,” fol­lowed by a string of num­bers. Now, I real­ize this is a tiny point on which to hit, but I find it sig­nif­i­cant, from a trans* read­ing, that the sec­ond word in the whole movie is “trans” (fourth, if you count the title). Does the word have anoth­er mean­ing entire­ly when con­sid­ered in the con­text of the action? Of course it does. Does it make much of a dif­fer­ence or set the tone for the film? Not real­ly. Am I pick­ing nits? You bet your glo­ri­ous gold­en ass. But as a stu­dent of lit­er­a­ture who was taught to pay spe­cial con­sid­er­a­tion to the open­ing sen­tences of works, it is the case, and I feel it might be sig­nif­i­cant.

As I see it, a trans­gen­der read­ing of The Matrix exam­ines three points: Neo’s so-called “Path” to becom­ing the One, the arti­fi­cial­i­ty and per­va­sive­ness of the Matrix itself, and the rigid­i­ty with which it is enforced by not only its cre­ators, but those trapped with­in. For those of us who trans­gress gen­der as it exists in the world today, we fol­low a sim­i­lar path. We must free our minds from an arti­fi­cial sys­tem of con­trol that can’t be seen but is omnipresent, and the sys­tem is rigid­ly, fright­en­ing­ly self-enforced by those who oper­ate with­in it.


Neo’s jour­ney is that of a per­son search­ing for answers. For much of the film, Neo is seek­ing under­stand­ing, answers to the many ques­tions that sur­round him. What is the Matrix? Am I the One? Is this real? As he gains answers, Neo’s Path becomes clear: he must embrace who he truly is and accept that he is the One. This path to accep­tance is one that all trans* peo­ple know. It is mon­strous­ly dif­fi­cult, and goes against all con­ven­tion­al wis­dom. To be aware of the incon­gru­ence between the outer appear­ance and the inner real­i­ty is bewil­der­ing. Time and again, Neo is unsure. He seeks answers, and when he is final­ly given them by the Oracle, he is only fur­ther dis­cour­aged and con­fused.

Neo’s prob­lem is one that is com­mon to the transgender/transsexual expe­ri­ence. Currently, ours is treat­ed as a med­ical con­di­tion replete with diag­nos­tic cri­te­ria that don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly apply to every­one. To quan­ti­fy the unquan­tifi­able, the very essence of a per­son, is some­thing that would only occur to a machine or an Enlightenment thinker, and which only brings con­fu­sion. Thus, to the newly-awakened trans* per­son, the infor­ma­tion regard­ing tran­sience is dizzy­ing and almost use­less. I, for exam­ple, asked all the ques­tions when I first real­ized I might be trans­gen­der. I looked every­where for tes­ti­monies sim­i­lar to my expe­ri­ence, but found only whis­pers of res­o­nance in the reams of vir­tu­al paper I poured over detail­ing the expe­ri­ence of my big sis­ters; some things made sense, but oth­ers did­n’t match up at all. I became wor­ried that the expla­na­tion I had found, the one that put every­thing into per­spec­tive and made it all click, was invalid. Ultimately, and after much soul-searching and inter­nal panic, I had to con­clude that the truth was big­ger than the expe­ri­ence of any one trans* per­son. Or any thou­sand.

The gen­er­al con­sen­sus among trans* folk, and the best test to deter­mine one’s tran­sience, is that if you keep search­ing, if the ques­tion con­sumes you, then you are prob­a­bly trans*. I say prob­a­bly because nobody can tell you who you are. This is a ques­tion we must all answer for our­selves, and our answers are unique. In much the same way Neo could not be told he was the One, but had to dis­cov­er it for him­self, the trans* per­son can only be shown the door, and must choose to enter or not for hir­self.

The deci­sion to fol­low that inner voice, address that inner dis­qui­et, is mad­ness. It’s hard to go against out­ward appear­ances, espe­cial­ly when one’s entire life is built around out­ward appear­ances. Neo could bare­ly han­dle it the first time he was shown the truth about the Matrix. Throughout the first half of the film he is unable to free his mind and accept the truth. But Neo can­not be fault­ed for his hes­i­tance; Morpheus him­self remarks that nor­mal­ly the human resis­tance does not free minds after a cer­tain age, when the mind has fully embraced the cod­ing of the Matrix as truth.

Neo’s con­vic­tion that real­i­ty is not all that it seems is what prompts him to fol­low Morpheus in the first place. He knows that the sys­tem in place feels off, that it does­n’t hold the answers he seeks. This dys­phor­ic sense of wrong­ness is what dri­ves the plot; Neo knows the world isn’t real. Then he knows he isn’t the One. Next, he knows what he must do to res­cue Morpheus, and final­ly he real­izes that he is the One.

You may have noticed that word, “dys­phor­ic” in the last para­graph. Dysphoria is the oppo­site of eupho­ria; where eupho­ria implies a har­mo­ny between every­thing, dys­pho­ria indi­cates that some­thing is wrong, or out of place. In less than a year, the DSMV, which is the hand­book for psy­chi­atric diag­no­sis, will be released, at which time trans­sex­u­als (just one slice of the trans* pie, mind) will be defined as peo­ple with “gen­der dys­pho­ria,” which means that we feel a strong cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance between our inter­nal gen­der and exter­nal make­up. It’s safe to say that Neo feels a kind of dys­pho­ria between real­i­ty and the world around him. Only after resolv­ing this dys­pho­ria can he become at peace with him­self and stop ask­ing so many damn ques­tions.

Only after he does what he knows he has to do to save Morpheus, fol­low­ing on blind faith a path that is most cer­tain­ly sui­cide, Neo finds his true strength. Self-realization and self-acceptance are the most pow­er­ful things a trans* per­son can achieve, for they are the two things we most sore­ly lack in this world. When the inter­nal truth of who we are is accept­ed, it can be built upon, and we can grow and become truly our­selves. This vic­to­ry is so much sweet­er because of the nature of the enemy we are fight­ing against.


There exists an insid­i­ous sys­tem of con­trol, cre­at­ed by the dom­i­nant agents of our world to keep the rest of us in check. It sur­rounds us, and engulfs the sum of our col­lec­tive expe­ri­ence. It is so per­va­sive that, like God, we must define our­selves rel­a­tive to it. Our minds are trapped by it, and escape is prac­ti­cal­ly impos­si­ble. And the worst part is, most of us are unaware that we are swim­ming in it.

The Matrix is one of the best analo­gies for gen­der I’ve ever come across. Gender, like the Matrix, shapes the way we look at the world. It is that most fun­da­men­tal lens we as humans use to define those around us. Spaces are gen­dered (restrooms being a prime exam­ple), words are gen­dered, items are gen­dered, and most impor­tant­ly of all, peo­ple are gen­dered. If we are not care­ful, we let gen­der define our real­i­ty, tak­ing for grant­ed what our brains tell us about gen­der, skin color, nation­al­i­ty, or any other box we check to define the world.

This sys­tem isn’t a nat­ur­al phe­nom­e­non; we are born into it, rather than it being ingrained with­in us. What we in the trans* spec­trum real­ize that soci­ety as a whole has­n’t yet is that these bound­aries are imposed upon us at birth, and like many rushed deci­sions, are not always cor­rect­ly applied. Though gen­der is intend­ed to be a bina­ry sys­tem, a clos­er exam­i­na­tion will reveal that there are many who feel the social con­ven­tions usu­al­ly attached to a per­son at birth do not entire­ly fit in one way or anoth­er. These peo­ple chafe under these labels they never asked for, and are often dri­ven to dras­tic action to resolve the dishar­mo­ny they expe­ri­ence.

Like the Matrix, gen­der as it is enforced today is bina­ry. You are insert­ed into the sys­tem at birth, given either the des­ig­na­tion MALE or FEMALE, and sent on your merry way, doomed to check one box on every god­damn form for all eter­ni­ty. Escape from the bina­ry sys­tem is dif­fi­cult, and requires the aban­don­ment of the pre­vi­ous iden­ti­ty. Neo him­self lives two lives, those of the mild-mannered Thomas Anderson and an ace hack­er who has com­mit­ted every cyber-crime they have a law for. Though he choos­es the life out­side the Matrix, Agent Smith com­pul­sive­ly refers to him by his pre­vi­ous name (which ain’t fun, let me tell you). Smith refus­es to acknowl­edge Neo’s place out­side the Matrix, and the other Agents refer to him as the Anomaly, see­ing him only as a glitch in the sys­tem rather than a whole per­son. To gen­der, as to the Matrix, you are only one thing or anoth­er.

Gender’s arti­fi­cial­i­ty is even given a pass­ing nod in the film. When Trinity approach­es Neo in the club and intro­duces her­self, Neo is in awe. He has heard of the leg­endary hack­er Trinity, who is respon­si­ble for remark­able and sto­ried feats, but he is stymied because he assumed Trinity was a guy. Trinity’s sly response, which in itself speaks vol­umes, is “Most guys do.” Now, with very few excep­tions to do with their respec­tive repro­duc­tive sys­tems, there are no dif­fer­ences between the capa­bil­i­ties, be they phys­i­cal, men­tal, or tech­no­log­i­cal, of peo­ple assigned male at birth and those assigned female. Neo was sim­ply oper­at­ing under a false assump­tion ingrained into his head by an arti­fi­cial sys­tem that has him in its clutch­es.


My pre­vi­ous arti­cle intro­duced to the read­er­ship of this most esteemed pub­li­ca­tion the con­cept of the Patriarchy (Large P, so you know this is srs bzns). The Matrix is very sim­i­lar to the Patriarchy itself, a sys­tem of oppres­sion designed to con­trol those who the Machines judge to be in need of sub­ju­ga­tion3. The Machines, in the con­trol they exert over the humans, are the force that keeps the Patriarchy strong, and their Agents are those who enforce the rules that ensure order is main­tained and the Machines are never sup­plant­ed.

The Matrix is a myth cre­at­ed to keep a tight rein on the humans, and the Machines are the myth­mak­ers. They paint Morpheus as one of the most dan­ger­ous men alive. Though we aren’t told exact­ly what he has done to piss them off so badly, the Machines make it clear to every­one plugged into the Matrix that Morpheus is bad news. This is to say noth­ing of the even big­ger whop­per that is the Matrix itself, which is noth­ing more than a dream world, a false cre­ation pro­ceed­ing from the Machine-oppressed brain.

The Machines built the Matrix as the ulti­mate form of sub­ju­ga­tion for their human bat­ter­ies. They are all-powerful with­in the sys­tem, and can alter it on a whim to suit their goals, going so far as to lit­er­al­ly silence Neo when he shows them defi­ance. In much the same way, the Patriarchy silences those who would ques­tion it, either through threat of phys­i­cal pun­ish­ment or, far more sin­is­ter, era­sure of iden­ti­ties and lifestyles that have no place with­in it. Why do you think there are so few depic­tions of lov­ing, com­mit­ted same-sex cou­ples in pop­u­lar media? Why are trans* peo­ple even more heinous­ly under­rep­re­sent­ed? It’s because we don’t fit in to their myth. The most com­mon mis­con­cep­tion about trans* peo­ple, for exam­ple, is that we are “Xs trapped in Y bod­ies” (or the oppo­site, if you take a chro­mo­so­mal read­ing). This plat­i­tude is, in addi­tion to being incor­rect for many of us, a gross over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tion of what I can assure you are some of the most com­plex, dif­fi­cult to process and ana­lyze feel­ings it is pos­si­ble to feel. But because we don’t fit in neat­ly, because we resist a sim­ple clas­si­fi­ca­tion, the com­plex­i­ty is erased in favor of a sim­ple lie.

Throughout the movie, it is stressed that any per­son still trapped inside the Matrix is poten­tial­ly an Agent of the sys­tem. In much the same way, any­one who is depen­dent on the social con­struct of gen­der not only for hir own per­son­al iden­ti­ty but also for hir under­stand­ing of the uni­verse is like­wise an agent of the Patriarchy. Morpheus stress­es to Neo that every­one who has ever gone toe to toe with an Agent has been killed, because the Agents oper­ate with the full author­i­ty and approval of the sys­tem which gives them power. In much the same way, cis­gen­der peo­ple, most­ly men, are often con­sid­ered jus­ti­fied for react­ing vio­lent­ly when they dis­cov­er that that hot girl they’ve been flirt­ing with all night did not fully match their expec­ta­tions, so to speak. Given the too real threat of phys­i­cal vio­lence and dis­crim­i­na­tion trans* indi­vid­u­als face sim­ply for vio­lat­ing these alleged laws of gender…no. I was going to come up with a pithy anal­o­gy, but I can’t. Not when my broth­ers and sis­ters are dying, being incar­cer­at­ed, and bru­tal­ized because of use­less, base­less, out­dat­ed, out­mod­ed ideas that should not be com­pul­so­ry, but which carry with them the penal­ty of death.


It seems that, in addi­tion to being Jesus, Everyman, Socrates, and not Will Smith, Neo is also trans*. The Matrix is replete with mean­ing for the trans* indi­vid­ual; the Path of the One is the same path to self-acceptance that trans* peo­ple must walk. The Matrix, like gen­der, is an arti­fi­cial sys­tem of con­trol and oppres­sion designed to only accept the bina­ry and destroy all out­liers.

As I men­tioned in the begin­ning of my arti­cle, it would be safe to apply a broad­er queer read­ing to this piece, given that the theme of self-actualization in the face of an oppres­sive patri­archy is pret­ty much uni­ver­sal to all facets of the queer expe­ri­ence, as well as many other non-patriarchal expe­ri­ences. I chose to focus specif­i­cal­ly on a trans­gen­der read­ing because of the recent out-coming of Ms. Wachowski, and also because, while queer read­ings of art and geek­ery have a fair pres­ence, trans* schol­ar­ship on such things is pret­ty lean.

But with the rise of such rock stars as Ms. Wachowski, and the very grad­ual appear­ance of trans* icons such as Poison and Birdo4, I feel it imper­a­tive that trans* folk be given a voice too. For too long we have been mis­un­der­stood, thought of as freaks, degen­er­ates, ene­mies to the very fab­ric of soci­ety. We’re just peo­ple, like any­one else, look­ing for heroes, peo­ple who under­stand what we’re going through. We have been unable to speak because we didn’t know the words. It should come as no sur­prise that such a voice has been wait­ing in the sub­text of the main­stream for over a decade, over­looked because unlooked for, a meta-analogy all its own. With Ms. Wachowski, and oth­ers like her, in the pub­lic eye, it will be dif­fi­cult to keep over­look­ing such nar­ra­tives for much longer, and more will come to light. Soon we will have our own heroes. I think it’s time for that phone call now.


  1. This stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, Allies. []
  2. What’s the dif­fer­ence? We’re not sure either. That one’s still up for debate, and I’m not too keen on the con­sen­sus that has been reached, although that’s for an entire­ly dif­fer­ent place and time. []
  3. I sim­ply must fan­girl out here and say what expert crafts­peo­ple the Wachowskis are for cre­at­ing such a rich story that speaks to so much of the human expe­ri­ence []
  4. But not, as I will explore in a future arti­cle, Bridget []

Chelsea L. Shephard

About Chelsea L. Shephard

Chelsea L. Shepard (formerly Hannah DuVoix) doesn't write for the Ontological Geek anymore, but she used to be our Editor-in-Chief! She is currently earning her MFA in Game Design from NYU and is probably also thinking about Fallout: New Vegas.

5 thoughts on “Call Trans Opt: Transgender Themes in The Matrix

  • Jim Ralph
    Jim Ralph

    Great arti­cle Hannah. As you say I’m not sure these are themes that The Matrix was look­ing to deal with direct­ly, but the read­ing is def­i­nite­ly applic­a­ble and you make a great job of it.

    Something that always inter­est­ed about the films was the way the human iden­ti­ties, par­tic­u­lar­ly phys­i­cal appear­ances, were changed once the char­ac­ters real­ized they were in the matrix. Fashion per­forms a very spe­cif­ic role with­in the films in that it becomes an out­ward per­for­mance of the char­ac­ters’ inward per­cep­tions. (‘Leather is badass’ seemed to be the over­rid­ing theme!) There’s some­thing quite videogamey, I think, about that level of (semi-)conscious self-presentation. What I think would have been inter­est­ing would have been to see char­ac­ters manip­u­lat­ing their racial/gender/etc iden­ti­ties with­in the matrix, some­thing that is pre­sum­ably pos­si­ble in the­o­ry, but which the films to my knowl­edge did­n’t stretch to. Still, I think the oppo­si­tion of matrix-informed iden­ti­ties vs the self-identities of those who’ve bro­ken free of the matrix’s struc­tures might be per­ti­nent to the way you’re think­ing here.

    Anyway, well done!

  • Tara Elizabeth

    Fantastic job!! Honestly I’m so glad you wrote this it saved me the trou­ble. LoL I had just fin­ished watch­ing the Trilogy when this notion popped into my head. I thought it would be best to google it before I wrote it, and here I am. I very much enjoyed your inter­pre­ta­tion and will cer­tain­ly be shar­ing it with lots of friends. =)

  • Audietta Caro

    I quite agree your analo­gies. Coming to terms with Gender Dysphoria is very much like being trapped in the Matrix. Just such con­fu­sion kept me chas­ing my life in my body for 58 years and I always woke up in the same mess. Now that I am on my way in tran­si­tion, I can grasp my real­i­ty and sur­vive

  • River Kauss

    Not only I have to note the fact that Neo is sup­posed to rep­re­sent Alice in won­der­land, a woman.

  • Chris A.

    Just came across this. Great arti­cle. So much of the Wachowskis’ life-perspective informs this read­ing of the film. There is no spoon, and there is no doubt that you are cor­rect with your view about what the film is truly depict­ing.

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