Entering the Matrix (again) because it’s not a trans allegory
Allow me to rip the bandage off immediately: I recently watched The Matrix: Resurrections and thought it was a dumpster fire of almost the highest proportions. It wasn’t quite the colossal insult to storytelling, theme, and character as The Last Jedi or the majority of Mass Effect 3, but was bad enough to leave me intensely frustrated and even more disillusioned with the state of modern storytelling. I’ll do a more traditional review of the film later, but first I need to put my hand up to stop the socio-political bullets accompanying this movie’s release.
I’ll springboard what I have to say off of one particular article (which is one of many pieces of information available on this topic, both from the Wachowskis themselves as well as varying critics and pundits), erroneously dubbed in pure clickbaitese as “Why ‘The Matrix’ is a trans allegory”. This article alone defeats its own title, as well as the larger point it espouses to support. In example, Emily Vanderwerff states, “…the main sort of thrust of this argument is really the idea that the system that you have built your life upon is a lie and is made up. And obviously, that has larger applications beyond trans identities. I don’t want to pretend it doesn’t.” Well, Emily, NPR, and anyone else willing to make the statement in the article’s title: If a story or a piece of creative work so blatantly and obviously has a larger meaning and is more universally than specifically applicable, you cannot in the same breath state that the same body of work “is explicitly an allegory to this and this alone.”
The aforementioned are confusing allegory with metaphor, and even calling The Matrix a trans metaphor is a stretch. Some aspects of the film can fit that relatively easily, however others do not at all. Allegories are a whole other bag of cats altogether. Allegories are one to one reflections of reality. An excellent example of allegory in science fiction is Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, which sees the Federation and Klingon Empire directly standing in for the United States and the Soviet Union, as both nations try to broker a new peace whilst the latter finds itself on the verge of collapse. The Praxis explosion stood in for Chernobyl, and Chancellor Gorkon was explicitly there to represent Premier Gorbachev. That is allegory. If you extracted these Cold War elements, the entire film would essentially evaporate. By contrast, any elements of The Matrix that can apply to and resonate with trans folk do so because of its universal appeal, but if you removed specific elements that supposedly make it all about transness (for example the red pill supposedly standing in for the old red estrogen pills) the film and what it represents to so many would still stand. Neo didn’t have gender dysphoria, the antagonists did not display or practice trans bigotry (the term I prefer to use, because transphobia is a buzzword erroneously used in the same context as hate practices such as sexism and racism), and the characters were fighting to find reality, not escape from it.
Emily is also quoted as saying, “…the movie follows characters who break free of the real life via the internet, creating online identities that feel more real than their physical ones.” Oh honey, did, did you even watch the same movie as me?
“The Matrix is a computer generated dreamworld, built to keep us under control.” – Morpheus
Neo, Trinity, Morpheus, all of the unplugged are fighting for the real, to free minds from the authoritarian machines who want to control every possible aspect of human existence. Their equivalent of the Internet is a digital prison, not where they are free to be themselves, but instead are meant to live as the system dictates. “Free your mind” and “taking the red pill” goes so much deeper than transness, feminism, left or right wing politics, or any of the things the Wachowskis are trying to make it about retroactively, or what groups like “the alt-right” or even conservatives in general have supposedly coopted. These ideas touched on something far grander, and that’s a big reason among many why the original film was such a smash success and remains a pop culture fixation. Indeed, I posit that the Wachowskis and those who are their political kin are practicing the very mistake The Matrix Reloaded cautioned us to be wary of, of how easily our beliefs are conscripted into being part of the system of control we claim to oppose.
In Reloaded, we find out that the prophecy of The One, what Morpheus based his entire life and meaning upon, turned out to be yet another layer of machine control over humanity. It was a lie, a fabrication. He and his followers became pliable and controllable rebels by being made to focus their energies entirely on their belief structure, blinding them to the truth and liberation they thought they had found. They lost sight of the true battle for truth and transcendence. In our world, how different is that than being so absorbed in your own political and social ideologies, that you become all the more entrenched in the oppression you claim to oppose? Aside from being wrong in a literary sense, reducing The Matrix to being merely a trans allegory, as is asserted, turns it into just another chess piece in the shitslinging, neverending grudge match between modern conservatives and liberals, particularly in America. Making it about “taking it back” from “the Right” is playing into the very model of control that those with power exert over those without it. Divide and conquer keeps ordinary citizens plugged into their own Matrix, perpetually at each others’ throats, locked in a repeating loop of hate, blame, and resentment, passed on by meme and gene from generation to generation. As long as you keep blaming “the other side” for all of your problems, none of them get solved, just at best shuffled off for our kids to deal with.
To fall back on a cliche, I do need to give the devil his due, of course. As much as I resist bringing it up, much as I only ever want to be regarded as you all see and hear me, not by whatever label might happen to fit me, I am a trans person. I say all that I do in this article with my heart firmly hand in hand with my brain. I do not rebuke such articles as the one by NPR lightly. I understand full well from my own experiences, with my own dysphoria and beyond, what The Matrix can mean to someone who feels trapped and downtrodden by their own existence. However, with gloves off and boss bitch mode engaged, it’s time for me to quote Trinity:
Yes, let me tell you what I believe, Lana and Lilly Wachowski, Emily Vanderwerff, to any and all reading this. I believe The Matrix means as much to me as it does to you. It came along at a tender point in my existence, where I was chafing under the weight of religious oppression but lacked the wisdom and breadth of perspective necessary to enact my own rebellion and unplug. It opened my mind to new possibilities in my own reality, in storytelling, and what was possible to convey with visual art. It opened the door for an interest in anime and exploring more of what Eastern cultures had to offer. Perhaps The Matrix did not do anything that was completely brand new or original, perhaps like the original Star Wars before it, it was a love letter to the things that most inspired and awed its creator(s). Maybe some or even all of what it had to say had already been said by wiser folk, but there comes a point where that doesn’t necessarily matter, because it presented these ideas and imagery in a newly evocative way. It’s extremely easy to watch these movies and come away feeling like you are instantly some sort of armchair philosopher, and it’s fair to say that the Matrix trilogy (in particular the haughtiest moments in Reloaded) is often better at suggesting Big Ideas and asking Big Questions without providing any real answers. But then again, do we really want a movie to be able to answer enormous questions about the nature of existence and what is real? Much as we like the characters and root for the heroes, do we want to be led around by the nose and spoon fed simplified answers to complex problems, the way the Oracle does with Neo? Are we pawns in a game, or do we think for ourselves?
There’s a reason why for the last two decades and more, my online existence has almost always included a variation of Neo. I saw something of myself in Neo, not because he was necessarily dealing with the same struggles as me, struggles in some cases that took many years to even identify, but because he was a hero that embodied the virtues of love, self-sacrifice, humility sprinkled with irreverence and rebellion, and a desire to find truth, no matter how painful or uncomfortable that truth was. Yes, Neo’s caustic retort to Agent Smith calling him “Mr. Anderson” one time too many has some overlap with being deadnamed and the ugly feelings that brings up (though Reloaded showed us a Neo who has matured and grown beyond feeling his identity threatened by being called his dead name). Yes, there absolutely is some resonance with the idea of having to live a manufactured identity while knowing that it has nothing to do with your true self. But this applies to so much more than transness, and to say that this is all it was meant to represent feels like a slap in the face to those who have similar torments because of their sexual orientation, their religion, their ethnicity, or any other reason that would cause a conflict of identity. Instead of allowing the messages of the The Matrix to remain open and empowering to virtually all people from all walks of life, which, by the way, I thought was what progressive liberals were all about, being reductive and narrowing its purpose feels cheapening and like a childish attempt to take a toy away from a kid you would rather not touch it. Taking something inclusive and trying to make it exclusive is the opposite of progress.
I get it. I’m protective of my creations too, and if I saw someone trying to interpret After Terra as something it blatantly is not, or attempting to use it for a destructive purpose, I’d be pissed too, and I’d fight back. I can even to an extent understand how a creator could get funneled down a path where they would rather say fuck it and burn their creation to the ground, sabotaging it rather than letting someone or something else continue to control and guide it. But, as much as I endeavor to leave as little about my stories open to interpretation as possible (with some exceptions; also I do this because I have a clear goal and know what I want the reader to come away with), I understand that once it leaves my hands and enters yours, there is a degree of control I lose. I do the best I can to paint the same image in your mind as mine with my words, but inevitably there is something different you will get from the experience of reading my work. If I’m lucky, extremely fortunate, the experiences and messages I convey with my work will have a universal appeal, able to resonate with folk of all backgrounds and experiences. Achieving something as profound and beautiful as that is not something I take lightly, and I think you sabotage and retroactively attempt to change it at great peril.
Also, I do not say all of this without some sympathy for the Wachowskis. If their repressed, closeted identities were something they secretly wanted to express through The Matrix, I feel for them. Feeling censored and held back by culture or the corporate moviemaking world is the big suck. Problem is, at the end of the day, they did not create a trans allegory. even if secretly that’s what they wanted. Intentions do not get to retroactively change the reality of what has been created. However, I argue that they still accomplished something wonderful and in a roundabout way, succeeded in their goal, as even though anything blatantly to do with transgenderism is not explicitly present in the film, what we were offered was still able to appeal to folks like me as well as a huge swath of the human population, if not potentially all of it. The Matrix is about humanity as a whole, quite frankly more important than any single group identity. Its themes, questions, ponderings, and explorations are about all of us, not merely some of us.
Although The Matrix has many elements that trans folk can resonate with, it is not a trans allegory. It is much more than that, and I do not hold to reducing a profound work of art into a piece of political ammunition that only furthers the machine of hate, instead of rising above it.