Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) enters the scene in all leather, an indication of how The Matrix will go. Already, the 1999 film pushes back against what female protagonists were expected to be during that time: beautifully charming homecoming queens in The Breakfast Club (1985), and bubbly blonde cheerleaders in Bring it On (2000).
In grittier films, such as Pulp Fiction (1994) or Basic Instinct (1992), female leads were slanted in the male gaze, created to fight crime and dabble in backdoor drug deals while being sexually appealing in slinky outfits. The ’90s offered a prototype of what strong women were, long-haired, curvy actresses that were approachable but intimidating all at once. With one image of femininity being pushed, it felt hard to know where I fit in.
Growing up, the idealized woman never matched my self-image.
When The Matrix came out, all I knew about gender was that I didn’t want to be a “girly girl.” My limited eleven-year knowledge correlated “girly girl” to everything I hated about being a woman: dresses, fuzzy pens, and being excluded on the playground when it was time for boys to pick their soccer team. Tomboy was a status I desired, a rejection of “woman” for a young, highly confused third grader. This wasn’t a deviation from the norm, most people in my grade also loved leaning into tomboy but being branded a “girly girl” seemed a death note, an acceptance of being weaker than the boys in my grade. I had a nasty bowl cut, basketball shorts, and high, white socks, the epitome of toting the line between man and woman.
Of course, I didn’t have the tools to psychoanalyze my existence this deep at the time, but now, as a 27-year-old far removed from the pain of my youth, I consider this to be a good summary of my struggle with gender growing up.
Gender on the Big Screen
Drawing inspiration on what made a “good woman” in the early 21st century was hard, considering how small the pool of representation was in mainstream media. Rolling into the 21st century, male directors, producers, and actors dominated Hollywood. Little female representation existed behind the scenes, resulting in a distorted image of female representation on screen, where women lived up to men’s expectations at the expense of themselves. Especially in the ’90s, when media streaming and downloadable content increased the number of movies produced, female visibility faced a sharp decrease on-screen.
Per the study Sexism on the Silver Screen: Exploring Film’s Gender Divide, the proportion of movies starring female characters fell 55% between 2005 and 2009, from a record high of 17,403 movies in 2005 to 7,884 movies in 2009. In terms of relative proportions, males held between 72% and 84% of leading roles between 2000 and 2009. Hollywood saw a rise and fall of women in films, remaining stagnant in expanding female representation. It’s a narrative we hear all too often, Hollywood is a man’s world with women at the fringes.
And it wasn’t simply in movies, either.
The Transformation of Gender in English-Language Fiction, published in the journal Cultural Analytics found that the presentation of gender was a paradox in the 20th century. As rigid gender roles dissipated in literature and film, indicating more equality between sexes, the number of women characters, and the proportion of women authors, decreased. The further mainstream media moved away from what it had constructed to be traditional femininity, i.e. wives scrubbing the kitchen waiting for their husbands to come home à la the 1950s, the fewer people seemed to understand how to present women.
Then came the Wachowskis.
The Roots of Carrie Anne Moss’s Trinity
When Trinity came on screen, she was unlike anyone I had ever seen. Maybe it was the pure shock of seeing a hot woman with incredibly short hair (unheard of in grade school) or maybe it was the fact Trinity defied what I expected a woman to be but for the first time, I felt an incredible draw to what I wanted to emulate in life. Unlike the 2003 Daredevil, a film I was also obsessed with at the time, her leather outfit never felt intended to grab men’s attention the way Jennifer Garner’s did. This point was only strengthened when every member of Nebuchadnezzar, the hovercraft captained by Morpheus, also donned the same leather ensemble when operating within the real world. They were equal, not separated by binary, and the charge felt spearheaded by Trinity.
Spearheaded by nonbinary icons that paved the pathway before her.
According to the Wachowskis, a big part of The Matrix was inspired by the 1995 Japanese cyberpunk anime Ghost in the Shell. Based on the manga series of the same name, Ghost in the Shell follows Major Motoko Kusanagi on their quest to stop a cybernetic terrorist from infiltrating various networks. As confusing as The Matrix, this cyberpunk dystopia features computer technology that has advanced to the point that many citizens have cyber brains, technology that lets them plug in their brains with various networks. Essentially, people are now able to import themselves into the worldwide web and explore it as if they are Wreck-it Ralph (2012) experiencing Wi-Fi for the first time.
If you need to visualize most scenes in Ghost in the Shell, this is likely the easiest way to describe it.
I initially watched Ghost in the Shell as a means to impress a boy (embarrassing) whose virginity I’d later take (impressive). Similar to grade school, high school was a time of feeling disconnect lingering below the surface, growing larger and inexplicable the more I watched films where people toted the line between gender neutrality. By the time 2011 rolled around when I first watched Ghost in the Shell, I had expanded my palate to include more media that fed whatever feelings made me uncomfortable in my body. I wanted to get out constantly, going to extremes to reshape and repurpose how I saw myself, putting my body through pain for the pain it gave me.
Why love something that brought so much confusion to me?
Movies with strong female protagonists that didn’t necessarily present as what translated to woman in my head, the best example being Amanda Bynes in She’s the Man (2006), and movies that dealt with body as an entity outside of self, like with body horror in the Jackass franchises. I couldn’t possibly process the plot of the film but loved the fact Major Kusanagi existed outside her body, a cyborg hosting a brain incredibly powerful and strong.
How I could translate this analysis of the film to my crush was a moot point.
The Female Body as a Tool
This focus on female body as nothing but a holding cell is most present in Major Kusanagi than Trinity. Despite Trinity being what one might consider the human replica of Kusanagi’s character, The Matrix allows limited room for manipulation of body than Ghost in the Shell can, given the fact it is animated. At the end of the film, Kusanagi, after one and a half hours of exploring what it even means to be human, merges with the main antagonist of the film Puppet Master, a hacker who seems to be an all-powerful benevolent God. In one move, she abandons her body completely, elevating her intelligence for the sake of giving up her being. The end, after posing many philosophical questions, sends the message that we are truly more than the vessel we inhabit, more than societal norms have conditioned us to be.
As Willow Maclay wonderfully muses in their article Mannequins: On the Power of the Original Ghost in the Shell, Major’s removal of body highlights the difficulties of the trans journey.
“The Major was devised to be a tool of Section 9, but this hasn’t stopped her from considering the state of other women and their own biological nature. She is held at bay by the limitations of her own body, and Oshii conveys this beautifully through frequent images of solitude where the film quietly observes the Major as she considers her identity and her own skin,” writes Maclay.
“These images capture the way transgender people obsess over the nature of the human form. They are constantly aware of the body, of the inability to rest within skin that has been molded into something that was never asked. Biology never considered their consent.”
Ghost in the Shell provided a jumping-off point for The Matrix to fly. Especially with a future that would soon become predictably contingent on technology, Ghost in the Shell provided food for thought in terms of how the internet could evolve to a point of total takeover. Major Kusanagi, a cyborg that required a full-body prosthetic to survive following a tragic accident in her childhood, is a vessel for Kusanagi’s brain, an expression of being outside body. Despite being naked most of the film, Ghost in the Shell, like The Matrix, utilizes this theme as means of desensitizing what we expect from the female body. It isn’t sexualized, albeit how fit both Trinity and Kusanagi are, but is used as a holding place serving as a means to an end. They are agile, fit, and sleek, carefully maneuvering high-pressure situations strategically, earning the respect of their peers regardless of gender.
They were valued for their wits, not their looks.
Coming out as nonbinary was a process for me. Experiencing pushback online after questioning my gender, I felt the world was against me for my feminine features, a privilege I can’t complain about despite the body dysmorphia that came with it. I couldn’t change my appearance as easily as Trinity or Kusanagi could, plugging my body into a system that essentially worked as a character selection menu. I hadn’t earned the title of non-binary if I didn’t look how society taught us was androgynous: dressing manly, and presenting masculine. Defining my experience wasn’t enough if my exterior didn’t match my interior.
I hadn’t learned yet how to extract myself from conversations surrounding binary completely.
Self-Image in The Matrix
Both movies follow separation of body and mind, splitting the two as means of portraying existence as nothing other than what we perceive ourselves to be. In The Matrix, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) introduces Neo (Keanu Reeves) to the construct, a holding place where they can load anything they need for battle. He explains everything Neo is in this world is a residual self-image, the mental projection of digital self. How he exists in 2199 is constructed from bits and pieces of his memories from The Matrix, the 1999 reality he lived in that exists as a neural-interactive simulation. Neo, like Trinity, Morpheus, and the rest of the crew, builds his appearance from what he believes he looks like, tweaking small pieces, like his hair, to better suit self-image. It’s why they all gallivant around in leather, slaying bad guys across the Matrix.
They’re projecting idealized versions of themselves, further affirming the fact both Matrix and Ghost in the Shell defy binary as anything other than how we perceive ourselves.
“The Matrix is an allegory for transgender identity based on the Wachowski sisters’ own experience,” the publication Necessary Behavior writes. “Ghost in the Shell is enshrined as a film with incredible visuals, complex characters, and revolutionary commentary on the struggles of those who do not conform to societal gender standards.”
Costume design, especially in The Matrix, served as a neutralizer between male and female leads in the film. Looking at the movie poster, one might have a hard time deciphering Neo from Trinity, with short haircuts closely paralleling the other. The all-black leather works to mute how the two are portrayed by their body, Trinity no different than Neo in their ensemble. The use of fashion, as commented on by costume designer Kym Barret, was utilized to set the world of The Matrix while being gender-inclusive, as Fawnia Soo Hoo stated in Fashion Magazine:
Barrett intentionally designed gender neutral suiting silhouettes for a “subconscious” and not “banging you over the head” aesthetic. “Then people can take from it what they need to complete the jigsaw puzzle,” she says. “I never feel like it’s my job to teach anyone anything through what people are wearing. I just wanted [McCrory] to look good and feel confident.”
The Matrix as Trans Allegory
The Wachowskis scratched that similar itch with time, unraveling what creating The Matrix likely meant in terms of defining their own gender identity. At the time of the movie’s conception, Lana Wachowski, was rumored to be questioning the prospect of transitioning, a fact later confirmed in 2010. Following this, Lilly Wachowski, transitioned in 2016, solidifying most of their media at least hinting at subtle trans undertones. Like The Matrix, I binged Sense8 my senior year of college, the Wachowskis’ Netflix original series depicting eight people sharing the same mind and, occasionally, body. Somehow, they’d done it again, a conversation surrounding how body and mind are separated despite society’s attempt to meld the two into one, shoving outdated ideas of masculinity and feminity down our throats until we’re accepted to process existence correlated to body. The chain reaction of Ghost in the Shell inspiring The Matrix resulted in two decades of Wachowski content stirring similar thoughts for those struggling with gender to look to.
Their journey impacted centuries of people struggling against society’s constant fight to suppress the queer agenda. Even the character Switch, an incredibly gender-fluid member of the resistance in the movie, was originally written to be a male character portrayed by a female character in The Matrix.
Once word of their transition came out, people began picking up on these small aspects as a means of satisfying the Wachowskis trans agenda.
“There’s a critical eye being cast back on Lana and I’s work through the lens of our transness,” Lilly spoke about while accepting a GLAAD Award with her sister in 2016. “This is a cool thing because it’s an excellent reminder that art is never static. And while the ideas of identity and transformation are critical components in our work, the bedrock that all ideas rest upon is love.”
I watch The Matrix and Ghost in the Shell side by side in preparation for this piece. The days of un-packaging the complexities of gender and sexuality, watching the silver screen without fully being able to explain the things I felt, pale in comparison to my latest discoveries about how I see myself in the world. Trinity stands out yet blends into the scene the same way Neo does, androgynous in the fact both rock the same look despite their gender differences. Major Kusanagi excels outside the binary for traits that can neither be defined as masculinity nor feminity, carrying the cyberterrorism task force she’s a part of on her back as their most valued agent. It’s not their strength that defies femininity, often branded as “weak” or “emotional.”
It’s their drive at the end of the day to be defined by anything other than themselves.
This article was first published on December 17th, 2021, on the original Companion website.
The cost of your membership has allowed us to mentor new writers and allowed us to reflect the diversity of voices within fandom. None of this is possible without you. Thank you. 🙂