Bootlegging the Matrix

This is a repost from the now defunct dotcom website I ran and could no longer afford to run, but people often ask for links to it, as it’s been extensively discussed in the transgender community.

Bootlegging the Matrix: In Which Bootleg Girl Explains the Matrix Sequels


I’ve explained many time that The Matrix is a deeply important movie to me. I remember one day when my father said to me, “if you go do some chores, when you get done I’ll watch The Matrix with you.” Previously, the film had been off-limits — it was “R”-rated, and generally I wasn’t allowed to watch such films without an educational justification. I was fourteen, and watching it that night blew my mind. I immediately saw the references to Hitchcock (the hotel imagery ripped straight from Vertigo) and — my father’s observation about it — the Gnostic Christian symbolism. But of course I wouldn’t really know why the movie truly resonated for many years, even though hints would drop. I would go see the sequels and then that little, salacious rumor about one of the directors would drop, that a certain Mr. Wachowski was a “transsexual” “living under the domination” of some allegedly important figure in the Chicago BDSM scene, and then years later when Cloud Atlas released I would learn her true name. The reason that The Matrix was the most important film, besides Star Wars, that I ever watched would not become clear until a twenty-six year old Ellie, a couple of months into living under that name, called her bank to get a new debit card sent out.

“Mr. Lockhart.” That name, I hadn’t heard in some time, and it stung. And the fact that it stung… it reminded me of something. I remembered about Lana, and it all clicked. Shortly thereafter I wrote a post explaining the transgender symbolism in the original Matrix, which I’m not linking because it’s on another blog that I don’t currently maintain, and the central aspects will be recapitulated in my discussion of the sequel anyway. All of it has been pointed out by fans before, I’m sure — but I do think that I have been able to pick up on trends or emotive directions in the Wachowskis’ work that reflect the deep ties to gender dysphoria that run through the Matrix series. But first, I must to some extent apologize on the Wachowskis’ behalf.

The Matrix sequels are not very good movies, on any sort of critical or objective level. They bring up a lot of questions that should have been answered, and do not answer them. They give audiences gritty “real-world” robot-battling action rather than skyscraper-hopping kung fu like they were led to expect. They were a critical failure and commercially did less well than they should have. I’m not here to dispute any of that. However, I think that reading them through the lens of gender dysphoria is helpful.

So, a review. The Matrix is quite plainly a story about coming out as trans. Neo is more or less the archetypical trans woman in every way except being described as a trans woman. Every day he puts on a stodgy suit, goes to work, and just doesn’t fit in, no matter how hard he tries. He is connected with the underculture, the counterculture, the bad people of the not-Chicago that makes up the Matrix. He has friends who exist at an arms length from him and who don’t really understand him, and when he goes to counterculture events with them, he stands awkwardly in the corner staring at beautiful women.

Neo’s life is a waking dream — a metaphor Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! uses for gender dysphoria in the song “Paralytic States” — where he goes to work, goes out with friends, oversleeps, gets chewed out… none of it fits together, until both a liberating force — Morpheus — and an oppressing one — Agent Smith — intervene. (I want to note the casting genius of whoever picked Hugo Weaving here. He’s been well lauded for perhaps the most memorable villain since Darth Vader, but the ways in which Smith embodies gender nonconformity have been largely ignored in that praise. Weaving is known for his role as a drag queen in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and I can’t imagine that the effeteappearance he has didn’t help him acquire his otherwise baffling position as Elrond in Peter Jackson’s Tolkein adaptations.) Smith gives Neo an ultimatum:

“One of these lives has a future, and the other… does not.”

One life is Neo’s “respectable” career as a software programmer — the career of so many trans women. The other is his life as a hacker, and digital outlaw — Anonymous before it was called that. This is where the “dead name”/chosen name issue first appears. I’m personally not a huge fan of the way that in the trans community we treat our former names as if they have Voldemort-like power and try to avoid speaking them, but that is in fact the dynamic, and that is the character of Smith’s use of “Mr. Anderson.” When he addresses Neo that way, the speech carries the same implication that was used when a student, leaving a negative evaluation of my course, described me as “a man who thinks he is a woman” lost in “the somber realities” of my “chosen dysfunction.” Neo wants to be called Neo, and that name is as incompatible with “Mr. Anderson” as “Ellie” is with “Mr. Lockhart” — and yet he knows, inexorably, that it refers to him. Like me when I am forced to deal with police, Neo never corrects Smith — he simply knows that that’s not who he truly is.

The “red pill,” so frequently and flagrantly appropriated by pretty much everyone on every conceivable zone of the ideological spectrum, probably doesn’t directly represent estrogen therapy, or spironolactone (the drug most commonly used by trans women to suppress testosterone, which does frequently come in the form of a sunburnt red tablet). It represents that moment when you can never turn back. The moment you’ve known was coming for a long time. I had this for four years, basically — maybe longer, but definitely four years. A dear friend of mine came out to me as transgender in 2009, and her experiences resonated with mine; I found myself called back to a moment on a beach, drunk, when I made a deeply rude and impolite comment about another trans woman who I had never met, which arose from my frustration and deep curiosity about being trans. Another friend became “infected” (in a manner I’ve jokingly compared to the way Smith, in the sequels, infects others) in 2011. There were many other moments when transgender issues were pressed into my awareness; I was always an ally, but always denied I was one of the awakened, so to speak. Morpheus tells Neo that he’s always felt there is a “splinter” in his mind, and that’s exactly it — a splinter working its way forward. I knew I was going to eventually take that red pill, just like Neo did.

Upon waking up, Neo’s body is rebuilt — it can’t serve its intended purpose now that reality is known. He trains and struggles and is assured that everyone finds it difficult to live in this new reality. Eventually, Neo is forced into a confrontation with the authority that tells him he cannot be who he knows that he is: Smith.

This is the part I most recently found out, and which gave me absolute certainty that the Matrix films were intended as transgender allegory. In a reception speech related to Cloud Atlas, Lana Wachowski revealed that she once nearly committed suicide — by stepping in front of a train. She changed her mind at the last second.

Nothing could be clearer: Agent Smith is the voice of conformism, dysphoria, non-transitioning. One of my friends told me, early in her transition, that she was certain she’d end her life with suicide, because “no one likes old trannies.” This horrified me. When I heard Lana’s story, I remembered.

“Do you hear that, Mr. Anderson? That is the sound of inevitability. It is the sound… of your death.

I’ve never been suicidal but it’s an experience many trans women share. Smith is everything that drives us there. The doubts, the assurances that we are “biologically male,” that we can fit into society if we just try a bit harder. By putting Neo’s climactic victory in the first movie in that subway tunnel, with the assertion of his name — my name is Neo! — the Wachowskis depict a moment that must have actually happened to Lana: that voice within telling you your failure is inevitable, and that blessed decision to tell that voice to go fuck itself.

So, here’s the thing about the sequels: they’re about how that voice within doesn’t go away when you decide to transition. Again, I’m not going to be defending the Matrix sequels as good movies, but I’m going to be suggesting that Lana’s transition narrative is in fact encoded throughout them. I just rewatched them, and I’ve observed a number of quite poignant moments where what the films are really about peeks up to the surface.

The biggest change the second Matrix introduces from the first is that it expands the agency of programs within the Matrix. The only programs we really got to know in the original film were Smith and the Oracle, and we just sort of inferred the Oracle was a program based on her not having a physical body that we ever see. Programs drive the sequels, and the central issue programs face is that of purpose. All programs are created with a purpose; if they vary from that purpose, they are exiled and deleted. A little girl introduced at the start of Revolutions (who really should have been introduced in Reloaded) is key to this metaphor. Sati, her farther explains, serves no purpose to the Machines at all; she is to be deleted, unless they can smuggle her out. Other purposeless programs appear throughout the two sequels, such as the Keymaker and of course Smith himself. The point here is that assiging a purpose to intelligent beings is dehumanizing. This is the cry of every trans woman: I am not my dick! The fact that I can (probably) produce offspring due to my chromosomal configuration should not define everything about who I am to be — and yet that comes to be the single most fundamental trait that identifies us. Our pronoun is the word most frequently used to refer to us, and it’s coercively assigned from birth. This, I think, is why the sequels emphasize the programs’ resentment of purpose.

Smith, on the other hand, is all about purpose. This makes perfect sense, seeing as he is an embodiment of a trans woman who has chosen to be the patriarchy. This resonates with me a lot, because I often feel that my pretransition self was a reluctant pawn of patriarchy, but a pawn of patriarchy nonetheless. I certainly was Thomas A. Anderson, sitting anxiously in my speech-boy shirt and tie, plenty of times. When Smith meets Neo for the first time in The Matrix Reloaded, it reminds me a lot of a recent (positive) encounter I had with an old classmate who congratulated me on my transition — it was clear she felt she needed to recognize how I had changed in some way, but had never really dealt with this before. Smith confronts Neo like this — his intent is hostile, and yet it’s also friendly in the same way. He acknowledges how he himself has been changed by Neo’s defeat of him in the previous film — “I’m a new man,” he says. The way the two rivals look at one another and shrug is not unlike two trans people who knew one another before transition meeting one another, either; it’s clear that Smith has been “queered” in some way, as the other agents act creeped out by him in an explicitly homophobic way (and here I emphasize how all Wachowski films, with the possible exception of Speed Racer, depict homophobia in various ways.) The Oracle tells Neo that Smith is his dark mirror; that’s exactly right. And, like a non-transitioning trans woman, Smith can do a lot of harm. He takes over a human body and engages in self-harm which, to me, seems like a realistic depiction written by someone with experience, but I can’t say for sure. In any case, “Bane”’s experience in the “real world” is certainly a literal case of dysphoria — he finds his human body distasteful, and for that reason, he harms it.

There’s a number of thematic elements scattered through Reloaded in particular that stand out as trans beacons. Neo meets with a counselor in Zion, an older man who tells him that he “slept for the first eleven years of his life,” so he never sleeps now. This parallels my logic for wearing high heels at all times — I wore “comfortable” shoes for my first twenty-five god damn years, that’s enough for a lifetime. (Neo being older than the average person awakened, by the way, is almost certainly a reference to the toxic narrative among trans women that you’re a “late transitioner” if you haven’t figured it out by eleven or so. The opening conversation in the original film — “he’s too old,” “we’re going to kill him” — could be ripped directly from a forum such as TrueSelves.)

Trans people will never have exactly the bodies we want to have. We often feel shame when people who aren’t trans see us — and especially when they see us naked. A lot of the time, this leads us to be more comfortable with intimacy with other trans people. The unusually graphic “orgy” scene in Matrix Revolutions isn’t really about the people of Zion getting their kink on — it’s about Neo and Trinity, two people whose bodies were scarred by choices they didn’t make. We see them making love with one another, and the holes in their bodies from having been “plugged in” are visible, inescapable, and yet they don’t prevent their union. The people of Zion who have never been plugged in will never understand that particular kind of intimacy that Neo and Trinity accomplish there.

There are certainly themes in the Matrix films that are not about being transgender. My colleague Dana Cloud has made the case in an article published in Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies that the series can be read as an example of Marxist theory morphing into postmodernism, with the original film evincing rebellion against the exploitation of bodies and the later films falling into what Cloud sees as an unproductive, nihilistic power vacuum where no one is really the oppressed or the oppressor. This move to make power dynamics less simple, however, certainly ties in with the autobiographical gendered components of the sequels. “What is control?” Neo asks the counselor, and of course that’s the fundamental question every humanities graduate student is expected to grapple with over and over again. Cloud argues persuasively that the way power works in the Matrix sequels is Foucauldian — the dominator depends on the dominated, as the counselor explains to Neo with the metaphor of the machines that keep the inhabitants of Zion alive at the Earth’s core. Coming out as transgender forces you to examine questions about what being free to choose really means.

Ultimately, the conflict as always comes down to Smith and Neo — who are explicitly the same person. Smith’s newfound power is to erase everyone’s identity, not just Neo’s. While Agents can traditionally take over anyone’s body — representing in the original film the necessity for queer folks to be aware that people can turn against us at any time — Smith literally erases them. It’s not made explicit in the original Matrix, but I think if an Agent isn’t killed their human host will just get amnesia and get on with their life, although they’ve been violated. Smith takes you over and turns you into him. He loves doing it, too — you get to watch his glee as he replaces identity after identity with his own. Given what we know about Lana’s history with train tunnels, Smith is the dark future of a trans woman who lives but tries to embrace her “male” identity. It’s devastating and damaging and — I know this is controversial in the trans community, but I think this is true — more common than we’d like to admit. I think there are a lot of us who are like Smith, who let manhood consume us, that thing we never wanted that we “know” is our purpose. And if we do that — we’re scary.

The Oracle tells Neo that the system “assimilates” programs that go against their purpose, up to a point. This is clearly part of the Foucauldian ideology thing — the understanding in academic theory that resistance to domination can become part of the domination itself. Of course, that argument is what powers trans-yxclusive radycyl fymymysm, which I have to misspell to avoid its proponents stalking me: the idea that when people coercively labeled as men at birth reject that label and claim the label of woman, we’re actually supporting the agenda of a wider system of domination. In the Matrix, this happens when a program starts preying on others — the system labels it as a “vampire” and uses that legend to scare the humans, and so forth. Oppression adapts. Even though trans women know that we can respond with a Neo-approved middle finger to the Feminists Who Shall Not Be Named, that fear that our entire identity might just be another edifice of conformity is something we struggle with our entire lives. So on one hand, we have Smith, showing us that conformity gives us power, and on the other, the Oracle, saying that resistance might just be another kind of conformity. That’s not a pleasant place to be.

Ultimately, I think the resolution of the series is unsatisfying because there’s not a great answer to any of this. I will say that once you realize what Neo stands for, seeing Smith finally call Neo by his proper name in the final moment of Revolutions is a moment of joy (rather than the bewilderment I remember feeling in the theater when I saw it for the first time), but the message is still that for our entire lives, we’re tormented by the shadow of who we once we. We can’t kill Agent Smith, and really we don’t want to — because he’s us, he’s the dysfunctional coping strategies we developed, whether those strategies were as innocuous as a suit and tie or as secret as cutting or as terrible as stepping in front of a subway. At the end of Revolutions Neo says that Smith was right — it was inevitable that they would become one. I’m not really sure how to interpret that metaphor, and since Lana wasn’t fully out I wonder to what extent Neo’s second death/resurrection scene might have been a self immolation without purpose. But there’s one last thing I want to point out as the emotional core of Revolutions that just seemed insufferably twee because we misread it (through no fault of our own): Sati.

The final scene of the trilogy is Sati, the Architect, and the Oracle all hanging out on a park bench in the Matrix. Famously, the Matrix scenes had been filmed to minimize how much nature was shown and to maximize the depiction of technology. Reds and blues were removed from the image, as were yellows; everything in the Matrix is supposed to have a dull greenish tint. It’s all very accurate to Chicago, by the way. But at the end of the series, everything is bright — the sun is yellow, there’s red in the leaves of the trees, clothing is colorful. Sati is playing. She represents the childhood that was stolen from every trans woman. We never got to be a girl, we had to be a boy and that’s something that’s different in our society, whether it should be or not. Ultimately that bright light represents the longing for rebirth, for the childhood we never had. Do I think it’s healthy to have these preoccupations? Likely not, but we all have them.

So, the Matrix sequels are still not very well done. But I think understanding the ways in which gender drives them is very important. I want to be clear I’m not trying to say I’m some genius for figuring this out — I didn’t figure it out when I first saw it, and I’m probably the closest thing that exists to the ideal Wachowski target audience. Looking at it in retrospect with what we know now, though, the ways in which personal pain and struggle are expressed become clear — and I think it’s worth noting when the epic stories of our culture are in fact intensely personal.

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