The Matrix opens with an incredible scene featuring the capabilities of a person who has an impressive understanding of the Matrix. However, at this point, the audience is not even fully aware of what the Matrix is yet. The film engages with a fear that was present when the film came out in 1999 (and perhaps in some ways still is): the possibility of computers taking over. Only The Matrix takes place in a world where computers have already won the war, and the human race is living in a dream world, believing that it is still 1999.
The film, which would be expanded into a trilogy in 2003 and this year will also have a fourth iteration, was created by two sisters known collectively as ‘The Wachowskis.’ Since both sisters have publicly come out as transgender, they have confirmed the longstanding theory that The Matrix was actually a trans allegory, coming from a closeted point of view. People have theorized this since the film was released, reasonably so, as upon inspection, there is a lot in the film that relates to the experience of being a transgender person.
In a video for Netflix Film Club, Lilly Wachowski said: “The corporate world wasn’t ready for it [in 1999]”. Once she publicly came out as transgender, she suggested that audiences look back on all their works, not just The Matrix, and pay attention to ideas of transness, as it is present in all of their work. According to trans people, The Matrix seems to embody something about being transgender. But it is so subtle that it is often overlooked by cisgender people, as there are experiences and ideas that one can only really understand if they have experienced them themselves. Today, there is a huge amount of academic literature based on the notion of The Matrix as a trans allegory.
Identity, self-image, and transformation are all themes present in The Matrix. The film follows Neo and his struggle with his identity within the Matrix. He has an inexplicable feeling that something in the world is wrong, but he can’t place what it is. He feels as though he is going crazy. This is similar to how trans people often feel just before coming out. Once Neo learns what the Matrix is and how it works, he can exist outside of its strict rules and become the self that he was always met to be, the chosen one. The movie embodies the idea that there is power in embracing what makes an individual unique.
While in the Matrix, bodies don’t matter. It is all about exploring what the mind is capable of outside of its physical form. The brain is what matters, as Morpheus says to Neo, “The body cannot live without the mind.” As Neo is first learning about the Matrix, he asks Morpheus, “Right now, we’re inside a computer program?” Morpheus responds: “Is it really so hard to believe? Your clothes are different … your hair has changed. Your appearance now is what we call residual self-image.”
In the original script of the film, the character Switch, a member of Morpheus’ crew, was supposed to change genders when they went into the Matrix. In the real world, they were male, but in the Matrix, they were female. This idea of residual self-image illustrates how transgender individuals see themselves, despite how it may not be how they are perceived by others in the real world. It was decided by Warner Brothers that this character be female in both worlds. They believed that mainstream audiences wouldn’t understand the implications. The character kept the name Switch and was portrayed androgynously to honor the original idea for the character in the final film, however.
All the people on Morpheus’ ship are people who chose to break free of normal life through the use of the internet. They create identities within the Matrix that seem more real than their physical ones in the real world. The characters all choose new names in place of their given ones, and everyone dresses more and more androgynously as the film goes on. Agent Smith all throughout the film chooses to refer to Neo as ‘Mr. Anderson’ in place of his chosen name. In a scene close to the end of the film, where Agent Smith tries to kill Neo on a train platform, Neo definitively states “My name is Neo” before jumping out of the way of the oncoming train. This embodies the notion of how trans people may not always be referred to by their chosen names, and the frustration they might feel as a result of it.
In this scene, it is implied that Neo, only having just realized who he really is, will never get to live out his life as his true self, the chosen one. He will be killed on the train tracks as ‘Mr. Anderson’. Lana Wachowski has spoken publicly about her own experiences growing up as a transgender person, and she described a time where she contemplated suicide while standing on a train platform. In the film, at this point, Neo has accepted himself enough to assert his dominance and fight back against Agent Smith. Neo becomes who he was meant to be, just as Lana and Lilly would too.
The Matrix was not made explicitly to be presented as a trans allegory. While shooting, Keanu Reeves didn’t even know that it was the intention. It is unclear how present Lana and Lilly’s transness was in the writing of The Matrix, as neither had publicly come out yet. However, it seems that there are so many things that relate to transness present in the film, that the ideas must have come through whether they intended them or not. For example, how Agent Smith removes Neo’s mouth could suggest how transgender people often don’t have a voice in society. The Oracle doesn’t tell Neo that he is the one even though she knows he is. She waits until he is ready to be the one and is able to come to terms with his identity on his own. Where Neo is offered a red or a blue pill could suggest hormonal drugs.
However, the pills don’t suggest this to all viewers of the film. ‘Redpilling’, a slang term derived from The Matrix, has been taken on by men’s rights activists who suggest that feminism is, like the Matrix, a false reality that oppresses men and keeps them from being their true selves. To take the red pill is an awakening from this ‘false reality.’ It is interesting that such men might use this idea in this way, particularly when it was invented by two transgender women.
The Matrix won four Academy Awards and has been considered one of the greatest science-fiction films of all time. Twenty years later, the movie is still as interesting and entertaining as it was when it came out. Beyond that, it is fairly diverse in its cast, and it has been a valuable piece of media for trans people. There are not many big blockbuster films that can say all of that. The world may not have been ready in 1999, and the Wachowskis’ work since The Matrix has had more and more explicitly trans content. Now, in 2021, as the release date for the Matrix 4 film approaches, the film hopefully will be able to say more than it could in 1999.