Is it possible for a 90s action movie to have a stance on the politics of gender?
When The Matrix came out in 1999, the Wachowskis became two of the biggest up-and-coming talents in Hollywood.
Their mind-bending, effects-heavy action movie had quickly become one of the top-earning R-rated movies of all time and successfully launched phase three of Keanu Reeves' constantly evolving, eternal career (currently entering phase six).
However, as is so often the case, the project that earned the Wachowskis their cred was not everything they originally wanted it to be. As Lilly Wachowski put it in a recent interview with Netflix Film Club, "The corporate world wasn't ready for it." If they'd had their way, it would have been a much more overtly trans movie.
At the time, of course, Lilly and her sister, Lana, were widely known as "the Wachowski brothers." A transgender directorial duo was definitely not something that the business-side of Hollywood was ready for at the time (not that the film industry is necessarily ready now, but ever since The Matrix the Wachowskis are considered "bankable").
While Lana took a gradual approach to transitioning, with rumors starting in the early 2000s, she didn't publicly adopt her new name until more than 10 years after the Matrix was a hit, and Lilly came out as a trans woman in 2016—in response to media outlets threatening to out her against her will.
She said in her statement at the time, "I am one of the lucky ones. Having the support of my family and the means to afford doctors and therapists has given me the chance to actually survive this process. Transgender people without support, means and privilege do not have this luxury. And many do not survive."
Why The Matrix Is a Trans Story According to Lilly Wachowski | Netflix www.youtube.com
But did she and her sister even think of themselves as trans when they were making The Matrix back in the '90s? To what extent was that even an option in the '90s? This was, after all, the same decade that audiences had laughed uproariously at the prospect of Robin Williams' movie-children calling the cops on "Mrs. Doubtfire" for having the wrong genitals.
So, you might ask, how could The Matrix be a trans story if the Wachowskis didn't even "know" they were trans at the time? This, however, is entirely the wrong framing of the issue.
While the public conversation on trans issues has evolved dramatically in recent years, the experience of trans people struggling to adapt to society's expectations for them has likely existed for as long as the concept of a gender binary has. While some cultures have historically made room for trans identities, America in the 1990s was not really among them.
For the Wachowskis the tension and alienation bred from that disconnect has manifested in different ways. As Lilly puts it, "I don't know how present my transness was in the background of my brain as we were writing it … for me and Lana, we were existing in this space where the words didn't exist. So we were always living in a world of imagination. It's why I gravitated towards science fiction, and fantasy, and—you know—played Dungeons & Dragons."
All of those areas involve building worlds in which familiar limitations dissolve and inhabiting identities that fall outside what we're used to. Dungeons & Dragons, in particular, has recently become a cultural touchstone in the trans and queer community, at least in part because it allows players to imagine and inhabit identities and bodies that may represent aspects of themselves beyond their outward presentation and to operate in worlds where familiar hate and bigotry don't need to exist.
In the world of The Matrix, a similar idea is manifested in the way the inhabitants of the Nebuchadnezzar (the "real" world if we ignore the convolutions of the sequels) all had meaningful names that seemed to have been chosen, rather than assigned at birth, and also in the way they were able to alter who they are when they entered the Matrix—Neo has hair, for one.
At the time this seemed to refer to early Internet and hacker culture—with clever screen names and many people adopting alternate identities (Neo initially identifies Trinity for some hacking she did "a long time ago"). But it also functions as an allegory for trans identities.
Consider the way Keanu Reeves was dressed to look uncomfortable and out of place in his office job, or the way Agent Smith is constantly dead-naming Neo as "Mr. Anderson." But the most telling detail is the one the Wachowskis were made to cut.
As Lilly discusses in her interview, the original concept for Switch—of "not like this" fame—was for the character to be played by a male actor in the "real" world and by a female actor when plugged into the Matrix. Instead—because Hollywood...—Switch was played by Belinda McClory in both contexts, but with short hair and a somewhat androgynous look. Though her name remained Switch.
Sadly the world that the Wachowskis built—in which seeing past the false constructs can free you from mundane restrictions—has been co-opted by the kind of online communities who would never accept the Wachowskis identities.
The concept of "red-pilling," as it's known, was taken from Morpheus' offer to free Neo from the Matrix, but it has become synonymous with dismissive, hateful views on women, ethnic and religious minorities, and queer and trans people.
Far-right groups of "mens' rights activists," "anti-SJWs," and "race realists" believe that people who have embraced challenges to established social hierarchies are deluding ourselves and taking "the blue pill," while those taking "the red pill" see things clearly—and want culture to revert to the rigid structure of the 1950s. But that is exactly the opposite of the message of The Matrix.
They may have seen the cool guns and the badass fight scenes and assumed they were watching a standard hyper-masculine action movie, but they seem to have missed the anti-establishment rejection of authority that runs through the whole movie. They are functioning as the agents, protecting the illusory constraints of matrix more than the rebels trying to take it down.
There is a school of literary criticism that looks back at old works like the plays of Shakespeare to reinterpret them through an LGBTQ+ lens—also known as "queering" a text. Many have scoffed at this notion of applying modern cultural ideas to centuries-old texts, in the same way that people get upset if you suggest that Abraham Lincoln might have been gay; but in the case of The Matrix, we are seeing a very telling reversal of that approach.
A movie that was written and directed by two trans women—before they identified as such—has been co-opted by defenders of the heteronormative/cisnormative hierarchies. We aren't reaching back to apply a trans interpretation to a movie that doesn't call for it. The creators themselves have acknowledged how an undercurrent of their trans experience informed The Matrix—suppressed by both overt and subtle outside forces—yet people who deny the validity of trans identities keep claiming it as their own.
So, is The Matrix really a trans allegory? Yup. Sorry, incels.