On Why The Matrix and Its Meaning Matter to Transgender Politics Today
(CW: threats of gun violence against transgender people)
When The Matrix was released in 1999, it received considerable critical praise and a whole lot of money. It wasn’t universally popular, of course; the usual “sci fi is for kids” critic crowd had their go at it, but much more memorably was the effect of the unfortunate timing of the film’s release just weeks ahead of the Littleton, Colorado school shootings — carried out by trenchcoat-and-gun-wielding killers who reportedly enjoyed the movie (although the massacre had been planned for months). Today, however, a new ideological “problem” has been discovered with the film, a problem some of us have been writing about for years, which has only come to the surface because it’s harder to ignore that one half of a directing/producing duo is a transgender woman when the other one is too.
In discussions with cisgender people following Lilly Wachowski’s outing (and that’s what it was; when the Daily Mail forces you out, you’ve been outed), a lot of people, even if they like the Wachowski sisters’ work and/or see some of the obvious transgender themes that run through it, don’t really understand why Lily and Lana Wachowski’s The Matrix is so important to transgender culture. I’ve written on this many times before, but with an aim to convince my readers that my reading of The Matrix as a transition story is right. This essay takes that as a starting point and explains the importance of it.
I find it sort of bitterly ironic that a movie that I first heard of in conjunction with alleged glorification of gun violence (and for the record, I think it does actually glorify it) becoming newsworthy again after years because of an issue where NUMEROUS threats of gun-based violence are being made against people who happen to share the demographic trait that is most evident or visible about the film’s creators — that is, being transgender woman. What I’ve posted above is, I promise you, the mildest of what’s circulating around “conservative” Twitter and Facebook — a threat of death for those of us who use bathrooms matching our gender identity, carried out as a death sentence by anyone who thinks they can guess what our bottom bits are.
When someone reposted a particular brutal meme of a gun in the face of a trans woman trying to use the bathroom (staged), an image popped into my head of the singular fight from The Matrix, the lobby scene (which is also where the “glorifying gun violence” comes in) restaged in public bathrooms. Does Neo use the men’s bathroom because he was born male by Matrix records? Coming from experience here, being a trans woman in the men’s room is A LOT more likely to make people feel uncomfortable as it should since I’m a woman. So the fight might be a Neo trying to comply with a bathroom bill, only to find himself in a gunfight with the men within, who of course object to his presence. Slow motion urinal disintegration, people. Seriously, special effects people get on this.
The point of this silly diversion and literalist ion of The Matrix as a metaphor for transgender identity is to point out that the metaphor describes very real parts of our experience. Being trans (and I’m speaking from a trans feminine experience, but I’m certain the Wachowskis at least would like their work to be read sympathetically in a transmasculine context) is dangerous and scary. The first time I “came out” to a friend, it wasn’t this dramatic thing. I literally said:
I think I’m trans. But I don’t want to be, because it’s so much trouble.
My friend, who is also trans, agreed — but told me if I had that feeing inside me, I had to move forward. One of the things that The Matrix portrays really realistically about the trans experience is the seeming comfort and safety of the establishment — and how quickly that turns to isolation and self destruction.
I know why you’re here, Neo. I know why you live alone and why night after night you sit at your computer. You’re looking for […] the answer to a question.
“Can I really be a girl?” is a question that carries the impact of power of the question-answer pair “What is the Matrix?” which blew audiences minds in 1999. The Wachowskis have made a LOT of movies, and all of them reflect transgender experience. But The Matrix is one of the great transgender films of all time (despite starring cis people and having a cis protagonist) because it depicts things typical of the trans experience that aren’t “sexy,” that don’t make it into the Caitlyn Jenner magazine spreads.
- That irresistible sense that you have to change something in your life or everything will fall apart anyway
- The bureaucratic frustration of a system that can take years to make the “on-paper” you reflect the real you (thus, “’Mr. Anderson”)
- The association with drug and criminal culture because we’re outsiders and that’s where society puts us
- The desire to detransition, and the willingness of some detransitioners to cooperate with transphobes
- Poverty (surely the Nebudchannezar, where the crew eats sloppy goop and engine grease for alcohol, is even worse than the bachelor pad I was living in when I came out)
- The fight continues after that dramatic moment when you assert your identity. I’ve written a lot about the moment where Neo declares that that is, in fact, his name, and then does a backflip, watching his deadname get hit by the El. It’s awesome and triumphant — and then you get bathroom policed again or called Mr. or Miss and you’ve got to fight all over again — as Neo does immediately after this scene
- The complex relationship we have with cis society. Probably the most troubling thing about these films as a trans metaphor is that the people who are metaphorically trans are fighting a guerrilla war against literally everyone who isn’t one of them. This is famously highlighted by the Woman in the Red Dress scene, where Neo learns not to trust those who are still “plugged in,” but also in the troubling morality of the film’s conclusion, where the protagonists kill hundreds of soldiers who don’t know who they’re fighting or why and cause massive destruction to the downtown cityscape. (But then, Superman and Batman do that now, so who gets to cast stones?) So, this is pretty ugly, metaphorically, BUT I want to make two observations:
- Trans people are being threatened with exactly the violence that Agents and police in the film use. This violence is disproportionately directed at trans people of color, but it’s there — and all of us feel that dread of “what if today when I go to pee, there’s a guy with a gun”?
- The Matrix is ultimately a story about people who want compromise, peace, safety. The people of the awkwardly-named Zion injury want to be able to free those for whom the Matrix is a prison and leave the others. In The Animatrix, we find out that the Machnes themselved were abused and oppressed by humans (and the trans metaphor/resonance runs strongly through the Wachowski-written parts of the anime). If we find ourselves idly imagining being Keanu Reeves and having a Kung Fu battle with someone over which restroom to use, it’s not because we think cisgender people are copper tops. We want to be your friends — we just know how quickly you, like the woman in the red dress, can become enemies.
There are very few truly good transgender movies. I will admit to not seeing Tangerine, but everyone I’ve heard from who has seen it says it accurately reflects trans experience. We need more like that, more literally-about-transgender-people creative works.
Here’s the thing though: we don’t have any, other than maybe the aforementioned Tangerine, and that’s recent. Like gay people until fairly recently, transgender identity has been relegated to subtext in film. What The Matrix offers is a film where the entire subtext is about us, by us, and for us.