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.
WELCOME TO THE DESERT OF THE REAL
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.
THE MATRIX CANNOT TELL YOU WHO YOU ARE
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.
MOST GUYS DO
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.
WE ARE THE CURE
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.
MY NAME IS NEO
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.
- This stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning, Intersex, Asexual, Allies. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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 [↩]
- But not, as I will explore in a future article, Bridget [↩]
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!
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. =)
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
Not only I have to note the fact that Neo is supposed to represent Alice in wonderland, a woman.
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.