The Matrix, a fun if daft bit of sci-fi, is 20. Lots of publications are running retrospectives on its impact, which was significant: among other achievements it introduced the world to the concept of “red pilling”, where you take the red pill and finally see reality.
Red pilling is a trope among far-right goons and anti-LGBT men’s rights activists. And that’s funny, because the red pill is estrogen.
The Matrix was written and directed by the Wachowskis, who came out as tran women in the years afterwards. While I think Marcy Cook’s analysis of the film as a protracted trans coming out story is perhaps a little keen to see everything through a trans lens, there’s clearly a whole lot of trans going on: the film is about someone trapped in a soul-sapping life who only discovers their true self after popping the aforementioned red pill. Back in 1999 in the US, the most common prescribed estrogen pills were red.
“It seems you have been leading two lives, Mr Anderson.”
One of these lives is cisgender and one is real, a very obvious comment on that fact that many trans people do lead two lives for potentially decades. Before transition, trans people are always playing two roles, attempting to fit into cisgender-normative society, playing along for appearances just like Neo at the office. We are often not out to everyone at once; sometimes no one else knows or only friends know, or we hide the fact we’re transgender from work.
“One of these lives has a future, and the other … does not,” Smith says with finality.
Once you realise that The Matrix is at least partly a trans allegory, the clues are everywhere. Here’s the guru figure, Morpheus:
“What you know, you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life—that there is something wrong. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me.”
Queer people have a long history of hiding their stories in plain sight, and The Matrix definitely fits into that tradition: if you’re queer and an artist, it’s really hard not to let your own life bleed into the art you create – but if the cultural environment around you is intolerant and ignorant, as it certainly was for trans people in 1999, then you code it, camouflage it, present it in such a way that your fellow travellers can still see it but your enemies can’t or won’t.
“I can’t go back, can I?” Neo asks, his voice plaintive.
“No. But if you could, would you really want to?” replies Morpheus.