The Path That Lies Behind Me: Transgender Themes in The Matrix: Reloaded 1

Some of you may remem­ber last October when I wrote a piece about trans­gen­der themes in the first Matrix film. It was nice and all, but the project as a whole felt incom­plete; there were still two movies that poten­tial­ly con­tained trans themes. Fortunately, though per­haps unsur­pris­ing­ly, I was right.

Much as games were an impor­tant part of many of our child­hoods, I imag­ine many of you have seen these films. Let’s face it, the Matrix tril­o­gy, love all, some, or none of it, was pret­ty damn cool, and for this cub writer it was an essen­tial part of her mat­u­ra­tion as a geek. They were some of the first R‑rated movies I saw, and their mythol­o­gy fed both my love for awe­some action and relat­able sci-fi. Growing up when I did, these films were an impor­tant expe­ri­ence which informed much of the rest of my artis­tic palette. I sus­pect  I was­n’t alone in that expe­ri­ence, par­tic­u­lar­ly among peo­ple who love sci-fi.

Another expe­ri­ence in which I’m not alone is that today of all days I am in mourn­ing. You see, November 20 is Transgender Day of Remembrance, the day that trans peo­ple and those who love them count our dead and remem­ber every one of our sis­ters and broth­ers who have died since last November 20. It’s a harsh con­dem­na­tion of soci­ety that all we get is one day, and a sad day at that.

It is against this back­drop of mourn­ing that I explore Matrix: Reloaded, per­haps the most encour­ag­ing film of the tril­o­gy from a trans per­spec­tive. In prepa­ra­tion for this arti­cle I real­ized that there are a pletho­ra of themes from which one can draw in Reloaded. We can dis­cuss, for exam­ple, how Smith per­son­i­fies a trans per­son­’s pre-transition iden­ti­ty (though I imag­ine this theme will be much more sig­nif­i­cant in my inevitable exam­i­na­tion of Revolutions), or how Neo’s iden­ti­ty as the One, in that he is a nec­es­sary part of the Matrix’s anti-crash pro­to­cols, rep­re­sents an enlight­ened take on trans peo­ple as the evo­lu­tion­ary process at work on gen­der, but those threads of thought quick­ly began to repli­cate beyond my con­trol, iron­i­cal­ly enough. But instead, as this is a day of look­ing back for trans peo­ple, I feel we ought to exam­ine the path Neo walks in ful­fill­ment of his Oneness.

The Matrix: Reloaded is, of course, the sec­ond part of a tril­o­gy, and so is focused more on devel­op­ing themes than intro­duc­ing them. We are no longer fol­low­ing Neo’s ges­ta­tion into One-ness; he has by this time accept­ed that he is the One (syn­ony­mous with a trans iden­ti­ty), or at least cho­sen to embrace the nar­ra­tive.  Neo, now fully embrac­ing his trans iden­ti­ty, inter­acts with the rest of the world. The movie opens with news that the Machines are mount­ing an assault on Zion, the seat of human civ­i­liza­tion.  The human resis­tance, we learn, has been swelling in num­bers and suc­cess, and Morpheus describes this as an act of des­per­a­tion on the part of the Machines. When pushed, when threat­ened, the Machines, and by exten­sion the Patriarchy, push­es back hard­er.

In the first movie, Neo is born from a world of shad­ows and lies into one of hor­ror and war. The truth Neo sought, which he now fights to actu­al­ize, isn’t rosy. It’s not a truth one would glad­ly embrace, and embrac­ing it means embrac­ing strug­gle and bull­shit. Morpheus has lived with the war his entire life (after his awak­en­ing, of course). A child of the war, he has lived in con­stant, myopic search of the One, because he believes that find­ing the One will win the war and break human­i­ty free. Little does he real­ize until it’s too late—his Messiah was never meant to win any wars, but instead to ensure a Machine vic­to­ry through the per­pet­u­a­tion of the Machine’s con­trol through the Zion myth. Similarly, tran­si­tion will not per­mit the trans per­son to “win”, to “beat” gen­der or any­thing else. Much like the One’s pur­pose is to restart human­i­ty after it is inevitably crushed, tran­si­tion serves only to allow the embat­tled trans per­son to con­tin­ue onward.

Queer peo­ple in gen­er­al, but trans peo­ple in par­tic­u­lar, have long been told three mag­i­cal words: “It Gets Better.” these words are meant to guide us through the hard times into an even­tu­al adult­hood that will bring empow­er­ment, strength and sun­shine. Transition, like find­ing the One, isn’t an end in itself, but a means to feel­ing less shit­ty about one­self. It is easy to see tran­si­tion, the making-right of the wrong­ness that a trans per­son is mar­i­nat­ing in, as sal­va­tion. The fact is (and I say this as one who has yet to phys­i­cal­ly tran­si­tion), tran­si­tion will not end one’s prob­lems. It will fix one’s prob­lems as much as turn­ing six­teen or eigh­teen or twenty-one will fix one’s prob­lems. I deride the goal of tran­si­tion because, though it is undoubt­ed­ly one of the best things an ail­ing trans per­son can do for hir­self, it is not the cure-all that many (myself at times includ­ed) see it as. As I said last time, I often feel as though I am just look­ing for heroes like every­one else, and just as hope­ful that things might be less hor­ri­ble.

Much has been writ­ten about the need for escapism, for heroes. It’s why we do many of the things we do. We like to believe that being a badass­es would make life eas­i­er, more bear­able. Perhaps the most deeply-ingrained badass arche­type is that of the Messiah. It’s com­mon enough knowl­edge at this point that Neo is a kind of Messiah. Unlike the first movie, where he awak­ens his latent Messianism, Reloaded shows Neo actu­al­ly act­ing as Messiah, though not real­ly know­ing how to go about it. He awk­ward­ly hears the earnest pleas of Zionites to pro­tect their loved ones. Neo isn’t exact­ly inept, he is as capa­ble as ever of doing the impos­si­ble, but with no frame of ref­er­ence for how to lead, or even what to do, Neo must bum­ble along a path that nobody, least of all he him­self, under­stands.

One of the things peo­ple in tran­si­tion hear the most, to the point that it’s become a bit of a joke and even trig­ger­ing to some, is that we are so brave. We are so strong, tak­ing a stand that we are dif­fer­ent. The prob­lem with this is that these prais­es ring hol­low; trans peo­ple tran­si­tion because they have to. The show of strength isn’t the tran­si­tion­ing, but every­thing that came before. We go through this process we don’t entire­ly under­stand, not for prais­es and acco­lades, but because part of who we are is bound up into this jour­ney. Imagine if you got con­grat­u­lat­ed every time you grew anoth­er inch. Weird and vague­ly unset­tling, right?

I men­tioned ear­li­er that the One acts as a resta­bi­liza­tion of the “Zion myth.” Zion exists1, but it does so on the Machines’ terms and because the Machines allow it. Initially, we are told that all there is to the fight is the free­ing of minds and sav­ing of more fight­ers. Gradually, the intri­ca­cies of the Machine hier­ar­chy are revealed and we dis­cov­er that the One must “go to the Source,” what­ev­er the hell that means. When we find out what it means, we see that a lot of effort has been put into get­ting Neo to behave exact­ly as the Machines want him to.

It is from the Merovingian that we get a direct illus­tra­tion of power and see the Patriarchy in action. He is only ever shown in the utmost lap of lux­u­ry, sur­round­ed by loyal-to-a-fault flunkies. His the­sis, that choice is an illu­sion cre­at­ed by those with power for those with­out it, throws the lib­er­a­tion and self-actualization of tran­si­tion into a ter­ri­fy­ing new light. even the Oracle, who through much of the series is seen as ulti­mate­ly trust­wor­thy, is revealed to be a pro­gram, indeed the pro­gram respon­si­ble for defin­ing the para­me­ters of the Matrix and the One. Horrifyingly, Neo learns that he has­n’t been wag­ing a war against the Machines; rather, he’s been danc­ing to their tune the entire time.

There is a divi­sion of thought among the trans com­mu­ni­ty (again, I use trans as an umbrel­la term), name­ly whether or not gen­der as a con­struct has any place in soci­ety any­more. Should gen­der, a sys­tem of oppres­sion and power which has done a great deal of harm in the name of sta­bil­i­ty and order, not be abol­ished? I don’t think so, and nei­ther, it seems, does the film. Zion, the film’s ana­log to a queer soci­ety, is a civ­i­liza­tion that defines itself as sep­a­rate form the Machines. It is shown, how­ev­er, that that Zion is built upon a foun­da­tion of machin­ery. Councillor Hamann muses pri­vate­ly to Neo that Zion is just as depen­dent on machines as the Matrix requires those plugged into it. It is a brief point, but pro­found; for the queer per­son or soci­ety, are they any longer queer with the unqueer soci­ety removed?

Neo tells Hamann that the dif­fer­ence between Zion and the Matrix is that the humans could, if they want­ed, shut the Machines down. They are not depen­dent on the Machines to sur­vive and could func­tion with­out them. This ques­tion of con­trol is a con­stant theme of the film. The sec­ond act is a response to the Merovingian, who as we’ve estab­lished is con­trol per­son­i­fied. The fact remains, though, that the machines in Zion are keep­ing human­i­ty alive, or at the very least help­ing a great deal. Much the same is our rela­tion­ship with gen­der.

Growing up, I never under­stood one of my favorite lines in the entire tril­o­gy. After fight­ing Neo in the tea house, Seraph, guardian of the Oracle, tells Neo that he couldn’t have sim­ply asked if Neo was the One2, remark­ing that “You do not truly know some­one until you fight them.” When I was a kid I thought I under­stood what that meant (hav­ing been in exact­ly one fist­fight in my entire life), but now that I’ve taken on gen­der and, more impor­tant­ly, gone toe to toe with myself in fig­ur­ing out the answer to the ques­tion of my ulti­mate real­i­ty, I have a much bet­ter under­stand­ing of that badass line.

By tak­ing this jour­ney, I gain insight into gen­der and into myself. I see the awful truth of gen­der, yes, but I also see that it has its mer­its. Neo also gains a unique per­spec­tive on the Machines. At the end of the film, after all illu­sions are shat­tered and he has learned that his spe­cial­ness is noth­ing more than anoth­er facet of the Matrix, Neo dis­cov­ers that he has a spe­cial con­nec­tion to the Machines. He under­stands them, and real­izes (in the next movie) that they need him because he is dif­fer­ent. Indeed, because he is an anom­aly, ulti­mate­ly he can do things nei­ther the Machines nor the humans can do. His unique per­spec­tive on the nature of human­i­ty and Machine is what will ulti­mate­ly save them both.

What I’m about to say is some­thing of a sore spot among the trans com­mu­ni­ty. There is a part of our iden­ti­ties that we gen­er­al­ly avoid dis­cussing, most­ly because to attempt a uni­fy­ing the­o­ry on the sub­ject would alien­ate and inval­i­date a good many of us. The ques­tion of what we were before we accept­ed our trans nature is one that haunts many of us. Were we always trans, thus mak­ing our pre­vi­ous lives a lie, or are we now some­thing dif­fer­ent, mak­ing our tran­si­tion some­thing nonessen­tial or option­al (and thus an unnec­es­sary, cos­met­ic choice)? Naturally, this isn’t a topic one ought to address light­ly, for fear of alien­at­ing half of us at least.

Thus I’m going to speak only from per­son­al expe­ri­ence. I for one never had a girl­hood. I am miss­ing what many (myself includ­ed) con­sid­er an indis­pens­able part of being a girl. So my under­stand­ing of one part of the female expe­ri­ence (as prac­ticed, at least, in America) is sec­ond­hand. Do I feel that this is a dis­ad­van­tage? Well, it cer­tain­ly is a bit of a hur­dle to clear and I’m not going to pre­tend that hav­ing the entire first part of my life to learn a par­tic­u­lar set of skills wouldn’t have been just fan­tas­tic. But at the same time, hav­ing been raised as a guy for the first twen­ty years of my life, I have an innate under­stand­ing of who and what I am not. Like Neo, I know some­thing is not right, some­thing is fun­da­men­tal­ly unre­al, and I now have the words to frame the prob­lem, mak­ing it eas­i­er to fight. In short, I have no clear answer to what I was pre-awakening, but I know where I’ve come from, and that gives me the strength and insight to forge onward.

Knowledge of what has come before is a pow­er­ful tool. Assurance of vic­to­ry or defeat can often come from learn­ing from the lessons of the past. And the past, and its lessons, are of great impor­tance in Reloaded. Neo even­tu­al­ly learns that he is the sixth One, and that the role of the One has always been to reboot the Matrix after Zion’s era­sure and the Matrix’s desta­bi­liza­tion. Neo’s pur­pose, to save human­i­ty, is one that he must take up, like the Ones before him.

Agent Smith (Oh the arti­cles I could write on Smith…) famous­ly med­i­tates on pur­pose before attack­ing Neo. “There is no escap­ing rea­son; no deny­ing pur­pose. Because as we both know, with­out pur­pose, we would not exist. It is pur­pose that cre­at­ed us. Purpose that con­nects us. Purpose that pulls us. That guides us. That dri­ves us. It is pur­pose that defines us. Purpose that binds us.” Trans people’s pur­pose is the same as every­one else’s pur­pose: to be our­selves. For Neo, the One, to be him­self, he must fol­low the path of the One. Part of our jour­ney as trans peo­ple is to tran­si­tion, how­ev­er much we indi­vid­u­al­ly need to. It isn’t the fin­ished prod­uct, nor our pre­vi­ous selves that define us, but the act of tran­si­tion. I men­tioned ear­li­er that the true strength for the trans per­son is every­thing that comes before tran­si­tion. And though we may start out on the path of tran­si­tion unsure, we will know by the end, when either we keep going or aban­don it, whether it was the right choice for us or not.

Morpheus is given the unpleas­ant task of telling the peo­ple of Zion that an army of Machines is com­ing to rip them all to shreds. Though this news could right­ly start a panic and break down Zion’s soci­ety before the Machines even arrive, Morpheus coun­sels courage. “If we are to be pre­pared for [the Machine threat],” he says, “we must first shed our fear of it.” He knows that, though the odds seem impos­si­ble, Zion will endure. He knows this, he says “…not because of the path that lies before me, but the path that lies behind me.” Zion has sur­vived Machine attacks, and many Zionites have sur­vived the Matrix, so what’s anoth­er wave of bots?

Is this a sim­plis­tic out­look? Yes. Is the fight going to be a hard one? Absolutely. But there is wis­dom in draw­ing strength from our past. For our past, you see, is one of the very few things in this world that is unique­ly our own, and it is inte­gral to who we are and who we become. If any­thing, Matrix: Reloaded has a mes­sage for trans peo­ple: choose to fight on because of who you are. The the­sis of Reloaded isn’t the com­fort­ing non­sense of It Gets Better. It promis­es a bat­tle, and an uphill one, but encour­ages us with a reminder that we are strong enough to endure, to thrive. Today is a day of mourn­ing, but it is also a day of remem­brance. Remember, my sis­ters and broth­ers, those that we have lost, but also remem­ber that you have lived to see anoth­er November 20. I feel it appro­pri­ate to close now with Morpheus’ words of encour­age­ment, and I urge you, sis­ters and broth­ers, to take them to heart.

Believe me when I say we have a dif­fi­cult time ahead of us. But if we are to be pre­pared for it, we must first shed our fear of it. I stand here, before you now, truth­ful­ly unafraid. Why? Because I believe some­thing you do not? No, I stand here with­out fear because I remem­ber. I remem­ber that I am here not because of the path that lies before me but because of the path that lies behind me. I remem­ber that for 100 years we have fought these machines. I remem­ber that for 100 years they have sent their armies to destroy us, and after a cen­tu­ry of war I remem­ber that which mat­ters most… We are still here! Today, let us send a mes­sage to that army. Tonight, let us shake this cave. Tonight, let us trem­ble these halls of earth, steel, and stone, let us be heard from red core to black sky. Tonight, let us make them remem­ber, THIS IS ZION AND WE ARE NOT AFRAID!

  1. Unless you take a super freak­ing meta read­ing of the series’ action. []
  2. If you’ll remem­ber, Neo has a bit of a dubi­ous his­to­ry with get­ting straight answers to that ques­tion. []

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.

One thought on “The Path That Lies Behind Me: Transgender Themes in The Matrix: Reloaded

  • Audietta Caro

    Hello Hannah.
    a very clear and cor­rect take on the Matrix mas­ter­piece. It is trans­sex­u­al ver­sion of thr Illiad. Wonderful to read your pieces. I am going to list them on Susan’s org.

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