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The Matrix | Transgender Allegory, Applicability, and Me

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Neo (Keanu Reeves) coughs blood as he comes to a kneel on the train tracks, attempting to get himself back on his feet. Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) jumps down from the station platform to the tracks and kicks Neo. He wraps his arm around Neo’s neck and holds him there as a train approaches them both. 

“Do you hear that, Mr. Anderson?” Agent Smith says. “That is the sound of inevitability. It is the sound of your death. Good-bye, Mr. Anderson.” 

Neo grits his teeth and responds: “My name is Neo.” 

Re-enter the Matrix

The Matrix was a pop culture hit when it first released in 1999 and went on to spawn two sequels, a  line of comics, an anime anthology series, and several video games. The lasting impact of the franchise has brought back co-director Lana Wachowski to continue the story in The Matrix: Resurrections almost 20 years since it originally ended. 

So much of what we use in our day-to-day lexicon has come from this initial impact of The Matrix. Be it harmless terms like a “Glitch in the Matrix” for interesting visual coincidence or more negatively driven ideologies like “red pilling” that targets feminism and liberal politics as a supposed oppressor of men. 

A larger discussion surrounding the franchise has also been maintained by the depth of writing and potential allegorical theming that points towards a transgender narrative. If you’re a fan of the Matrix franchise and have interacted with online communities, this may not come as a surprise to you. The ideas put forward by fans burst into popularity and have only grown since Lana Wachowski  came out publicly as a transgender woman in 2008. Lilly Wachowski would later have to out herself as a transgender woman in 2016 after a reporter from Daily Mail reportedly tried to coerce her to discuss her identity. 

She wrote in the Windy City Times:

“I knew at some point I would have to come out publicly. You  know, when you’re living as an out transgender person, it’s … kind of difficult to hide. I just wanted – needed some time to get my head right, to feel comfortable. But apparently I don’t get to decide  this.” 

Lilly Wachowski, The Windy City Times (2016)

With both directors from the Matrix trilogy having transitioned between the release of the original series and the coming fourth movie, discussion and readings on the topic have reached a fever pitch,  dividing fans on if the transgender themes were purposeful or even there at all. There’s a strong chance that you’ll spot a number of articles like this across the internet as we gear up for the release of The Matrix Resurrections later this year.  

The Companion is a safe space for our members to explore their own experiences through the lens of their favorite movies and TV shows, but this article may stir up some difficult emotions so be kind to yourself. The UK mental health charity Mind has some fantastic resources for LGBTQ+ people.

The Matrix as Allegory

It’s not especially hard to see even at the most basic level what thread people are pulling at with this discourse, the first Matrix film features our lead character on the run from a trio of almost identical-looking white men in business suits who keep using his dead name (Thomas Anderson) to reject his chosen identity (Neo). This is all you really need to start the discussion, Neo is attempting to outsmart and outrun a system that is built to try and keep him from becoming more than they want him to be. 

I first became aware of the transgender discussion surrounding the franchise soon after Lana had introduced herself to the world. A small forum post somewhere lead me to an old undergrad essay from 2002 titled Fluid Realities/Fluid Identities: Gender in the Matrix. Written well before the sequels had taken to the big screen, the author of the paper, Hannah Kuhlmann, discussed what they saw within the film that potentially challenged gender roles. 

Now serving as a time machine of sorts, it can be seen that Hannah had even written a disclaimer in  their summary for the paper: “My aim was to appropriate The Matrix for some trans theorizing fun – I don’t think the Brothers Wachowski had any transgender liberation aims with the film.” This warning is quite funny to read with the context we now have on the topic. 

Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) explains the nature of The Matrix to Neo. | Warner Bros, 1999.

But while written for fun, Hannah hit a lot of interesting and strong beats. A number of people maintain that the speech Morpheus gives to Neo about the reality of the Matrix can easily be about the construction of gender roles. Hannah likewise suggests that readers take the quote and swap  “The Matrix” for “Gender”.  He tells Neo:

“The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us, even now, in this room. You can see it when you look out your window, or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you  go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled  over your eyes to blind you from the truth.” 

Morpheus, The Matrix (1999)

Following this, Hannah’s essay calls attention to the writing of Riki Anne Wilchins in their 1997 book Read My Lips: Sexual Subversion and the End of Gender, where the “gender regime” is defined by five-set rules:

“(1) There are only two cages; (2) everyone must be in a cage; (3) there is no mid-ground; (4) no one can  change, and (5) no one chooses their cage.” 

Riki Anne Wilchins, Read My Lips: Sexual Subversion and the End of Gender (1997)

A core part of the Matrix that struck a chord with me was when Agent Smith interrogates Neo early into the film. Sat either side of a table in an interrogation room, Agent Smith calls attention to Neo’s “multiple lives”. He defines the life of Thomas Anderson as someone who works for a respectable software company, has a social security number, pays his taxes, and helps others. While his second life is one that he lives online under the name Neo and is branded as “guilty” by the agent. 

“One of these lives has a future. One of them does not.” Smith tells him. 

Neo languishes in the interrogation room. | Warner Bros, 1999.

It’s no surprise that most viewers know Neo will be the one to survive as the former identity of Thomas Anderson is to be let go, audiences aren’t unaware that Smith is the villain of the scene and he is someone to overcome. It struck me in rewatch that Anderson is described how most of us would be; Almost everyone has a social security number, pays taxes, maintains a normal job, and helps people in need. Neo is threatened with the idea of his basic rights as a human being stripped from him if he goes down any path less traveled. 

But none of this is news to you, not one bit, there’s no a deep reading of a scene that spells itself out. What this meant to me though was the same threatening thing in my own journey with self-identity and potential losses. I may not be losing the core basics of a social security number but in  my period of self-discovery, I had an Agent Smith in my head telling me what simple joys I might be stripped of. Parts of my family could disown me, friends could reject me, my colleagues might avoid me and my potential romances were all at risk along with the ability to feel safe around people that may not be a threat at all if I remained the person they expect me to be. 

Much like Neo, I lived my second life online. I’m not proud to say that as I (someone that identifies as a transgender woman) type this I’m in the middle of my fourth week with a growing depression beard. My female identity online is not even close to what would be my current “Thomas Anderson,” at best I look like a young Hodor from Game of Thrones. When I go out, and it’s quite rare at this point, I live by allowing people to consider me a man. A large part of this is due to the NHS Gender Identity Clinic waitlist reaching a near five-year wait for a first appointment as the trans community struggle to receive help, while the secondary reason is pure personal safety. 

If Neo, sat at this table, refuses to give up his digital identity and conform to what the Agents want  of him, he will be met with opposition for the rest of his life. Neo rejects, as expected, leading us  down a path of transformation that otherwise never would have been achieved. 

The Applicability of The Matrix

After Neo awakes on Nebuchadnezzar, we’re given a scene as he eats breakfast (a tin of slop) with the ship’s crew. One crewmember, Mouse (Matt Doran), asks: “Do you know what it really reminds me of? …  Tasty Wheat. Did you ever eat Tasty Wheat?” it’s quickly pointed out to Mouse that due to the  nature of the Matrix, nobody has really eaten Tasty Wheat.

“That’s exactly my point. Exactly. Because you have to wonder now, how did the machines know what Tasty Wheat tasted like, huh?  Maybe they got it wrong; maybe what I think Tasty Wheat tasted like actually tasted like … er …  oatmeal … or tunafish …” 

Mouse, The Matrix (1999)

Tasty Wheat, being a product that exists solely in a crafted simulation, has no way to taste “wrong”. The powers that be (machines, in this scenario) have built a system that lacks the ability to ask questions from those inside it. But Neo, prior to his interrogation by Agents, has faced the  possibility that everything is a construct. His life in the Matrix has been produced and assigned to him by the powers that be, he was placed in one of (1) two cages (2) that he must remain in (3) without the ability (4) to choose what one (5) he would like to be a part of.  

Where am I going with this? Before challenging my identity, I used to think that Agent Smith  represented the real danger of external forces. I’ve seen this film many times at different moments in my life; The first time as a young boy, it was just a movie scene where he’s offered the chance to  stop his journey before it all kicks off and puts him in danger. In my late teens, he was threatened  with an external, societal stripping if he tries to step out of line. 

Much like the allegory debate over The Matrix, there’s a continued discussion among fans of another popular series, Lord of the Rings, that debates if the series is an allegory for J.R.R. Tolkien’s time in the war. The fanbase remains split after Tolkien himself said when asked: “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned– with its varied applicability to the thought and  experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in  the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.” 

The divide has caused many to claim there’s no wartime experience that served as inspiration for the popular fantasy series. But what Tolkien seemingly meant with the idea of applicability is that  despite his direct intention to not have the story be an allegory, his own personal experiences in life  can still take shape in the books and the experiences of the reader can take shape in their journey through it. 

Lana Wachowski stood on stage to give a speech at the Human Rights Campaign’s annual gala in 2012. This speech covered a number of topics in relation to her trans identity along with anecdotes  from her past struggles. At one point, she tells the audience about her experience with attempted  suicide. She said:

“After school I go to a nearby Burger King and write a suicide note. It ends up being over  four pages. 

“It was addressed to my parents and I really wanted to convince them that it wasn’t their fault, it  was just that I didn’t belong.

“I let the B train go by because I know the A train will be next and it doesn’t stop. When I see the headlights I take off my backpack and I put it on the bench. It has the note in front of it. I try not to  think of anything but jumping as the train comes.” 

Lana Wachowski

This written piece you’re reading started with a scene from the final action sequence of the movie where Agent Smith holds Neo down on the train tracks and makes him await the coming “inevitable” death. It was here, hearing this speech as a strong ally and closeted transgender woman in the middle of my own struggle with self-identity that I realised I had seen Smith wrong on my earlier  watches. 

No doubt, Smith will grow in my mind to be a representation of an external force when I get to that portion of my changing journey. But what The Matrix really did for me is put to screen my own internalised confusion and worries that needed to be overcome to move forward. It told me that as long as I keep allowing this voice in my mind to scare me with risks of personal loss, to dictate the taste of a constructed “Tasty Wheat” world with two cages, I might one day be weighed down by it all and find myself awaiting my personal version of the coming train.  

The transgender experience begins years before finding out the truth about yourself. In 2016, Lilly addressed the discussion in her GLAAD Award speech, saying:

“There’s a critical eye being cast back on Lana and I’s work through the lens of our transness. This is a cool thing because it’s an excellent reminder that art is never static.” 

Lilly Wachowski

In a 2020 Netflix Film Club interview, Lilly added that The Matrix “was all about the desire for  transformation, but it was all coming from a closeted point of view. 

“I don’t know how present my transness was in the background of my brain as we were writing it.” 

The debate on allegorical intent within The Matrix can continue to take shape as the fanbase  engages with that discussion. But Tolkien’s applicability argument felt right to me. It doesn’t feel like an accident that The Matrix features the protagonist being held on the train tracks, a place where Lana had once heavily considered ending her own life. While The Matrix may not have been written with any intent to be an explicit allegorical transgender story, the mindset of the creators at a time where they were still seeking themselves certainly seem to have bled onto the pages of the script  well enough that many transgender viewers are finding themselves and guidance through the same  confusion and use of applicability. 

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Ell Twine is a professional screenwriter that loves to discuss narrative storytelling across all forms of media. Based in London, Ell works as a freelance journalist and runs her own website where she writes storytelling essays and reviews in the interest of other writers.

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