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 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.
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.”
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.”
A core part of the Matrix that struck a chord with me was when Agent Smith interrogates Neo early into the film. Sat on 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.