The Pain of Waking: The Matrix at 20, The Stories We Tell Ourselves, and My Journey of the Self

Carolyn Petit
Oct 10 · 16 min read

I. The First Time I Woke Up

Last week, I went to a screening of The Matrix at the Alamo Drafthouse in San Francisco. It was part of a special Queer Film Theory 101 series, and although I would have said I already had a pretty queer reading of The Matrix, the film was preceded by a talk that made me think of it in ways that I hadn’t before. (I apologize to the speaker, who only gave his name as Michael, if I accidentally misrepresent any of his comments.)

Michael argued that, although some have used the famous red pill/blue pill scene as an allegory for the acceptance of the Judeo-Christian god, and although MRAs have embraced the imagery of this scene so thoroughly that “being red-pilled” became online shorthand for embracing the oppressive ideology of the manosphere, the scene is clearly about accepting a true, transgressive self in a world that doesn’t want you to. We see this in part by what the opposition to this acceptance looks like: the agents who serve as the enforcers of the matrix are always men, always middle-aged, always white. Agent Smith and the others, Michael said, like M*lo Y*annopoulos and his ilk, exist only in opposition to those they deem to be too free.

In opposition to the very gendered agents, Neo and Trinity serve up what Michael called “gender-nootch;” they could be gender-flipped reskins of the same avatar. He said that within the oppressive framework of the matrix, the demonstration a young child offers Neo in the apartment of the Oracle that “there is no spoon” suggests that rigid notions of gender, one tool the matrix uses in its attempts to maintain order, also have no basis in reality. There is no gender. There is only yourself.

The point in Michael’s talk that hit me hardest of all, though, was when he said that Agent Smith’s insistence on referring to Neo as Mr. Anderson is an act of deadnaming. The system, of which Agent Smith is a manifestation, refuses to accommodate Neo’s self-actualization. It demands that he continue to fill the role he was assigned. With this new framing in mind, Neo’s late-film response, in which he faces down what Smith calls inevitability and asserts, “My name is Neo” before flying up, liberating himself from Smith’s grasp and leaving Smith to take the impact of a subway train, hit me differently than it ever had before. Seen through this lens, a trans person asserting their identity in our hostile world is truly a heroic and miraculous act.

Of course I love this reading because, like Neo, I once lived two lives.

Early in the film, Agent Smith tells Neo that he knows he lives another life “in computers.” I wonder how many of us this is true for. I spent many years playing the role I was assigned at birth in the “real world” while escaping each night into forums and message boards clad in the identity that felt like the real me, but that I didn’t know how to bring with me from the digital realm into my daily existence.

It’s been twenty years now since The Matrix was released but it’s still been less than ten since I transitioned, though unlike Neo, who learned so quickly, I haven’t yet figured out how to liberate myself from the grasp of the matrix. Each time I’m misgendered, I feel the claws of the matrix holding me back, trying to cram me back into the box I was placed in at birth, and preventing me from living a truly free existence. Perhaps I spent too much time in the digital world, because I’m still unsure on my feet in reality. But that’s only because reality still refuses to accept people like me on our own terms. It tries to prevent us from stepping into the fullness of ourselves, free of fear or shame. The struggle for liberation continues.

II. The Second Time I Woke Up

One thing I thought about while watching The Matrix last week that I’d never really thought about before is the price that Morpheus, Trinity, Neo and the rest of those freed from the system pay for their self-actualization. The truth may set you free but it might also be cold comfort when you’re crammed aboard the Nebuchadnezzar, eating gruel and sleeping on cold metal. The traitor Cypher tells Agent Smith that even though he knows the steak he’s eating during their meeting isn’t real, he no longer cares. He wants to be back in that world of illusion, with all its creature comforts.

Sometimes I catch myself wondering what I sacrificed for choosing to live as myself. Would I have a partner if I’d stayed asleep? A family? More money, a stable job? It’s possible. I’ll never know. But I do know that I never could have settled into such a life. The awareness that I was living a lie would have caused me pain during every moment. Morpheus describes the sensation to Neo as “like a splinter in your mind.” For me, it was more like a blade cleaving my spirit in two. But that first act of waking didn’t dismantle the matrix by any stretch; it just enabled me to see it much more clearly. Now I’m committed to doing anything I can to help dismantle it, but that commitment is often alienating. It’s not the steak I miss. It’s feeling like I’m living the same dream everyone around me is living.

Here’s what I think the matrix is now:

Yes, it’s all the systems that limit us. It’s patriarchy, it’s white supremacy, it’s colonialism and capitalism and rigid notions of gender. But it’s also all the stories that mask the machinery of the matrix, that make this reality feel natural and inevitable when in fact it’s anything but.

Late in the film, Agent Smith tells Morpheus that “the first matrix was designed to be a perfect human world where none suffered” and that it failed because “no one would accept the program.” So the matrix is the bad stories we tell ourselves about what is and isn’t possible, who we can and can’t be, the kind of world we can or can’t create for ourselves and each other. It’s a view of humanity that’s more focused on what individuals can achieve in constant, ruthless competition with each other than in what we can accomplish if we view each other with collective compassion and work to lift up our species and nurture our planet.

If that’s the case, then the films that perpetuate harmful, limiting ideas about what it means to be a man serve the matrix. The games that encourage people to see humanity as a species that turns on itself in times of crisis to create a kill-or-be-killed nightmare rather than as one that comes together and relies on each other serve the matrix. All the racist and misogynistic and homophobic and transphobic garbage we’re bombarded with all the time that help divide us into hierarchies and systems of power and privilege serve the matrix.

When I started working for a major games site as a visibly trans woman, I routinely had my gender denied by many of the site’s readers, obedient little agents, and I was told by many of them that I didn’t belong in that space because the main reason for women to exist in that space is to be desirable to men. It was apparent to me that the programming on which these men were operating was programming they had absorbed, at least in part, from the media they consumed, media in which women existed primarily as objects of male desire. I would have called myself a feminist before this, but this was a true feminist awakening, one that made me particularly concerned with how narratives can serve to uphold systems of oppression.

“The matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But when you’re inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters — the very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system, and that makes them our enemy.” — Morpheus

Out of necessity, Morpheus has an antagonistic relationship with the matrix, and the people in it. I realize now that I have internalized an antagonistic relationship with the world around me. I’ve done this in part because I often feel alienated and antagonized by the world, but perhaps in part, too, because it’s easier to position myself this way, to view this as simply the way things are, when the alternatives seem so elusive, when the closeness and compassion and solidarity I’m looking for are so hard to find.

In the novel The Overstory by Richard Powers, which I read after I saw Keanu Reeves recommend it in an interview on YouTube, a small group of people in the late 90s who already see the doomed trajectory upon which capitalism has placed the planet engage in criminal activity — the destruction of machinery, the burning of buildings — to halt, in some minuscule way, the slaughter of forests, or perhaps to try to make people take notice and start listening. In their own way, they’re like Morpheus and his crew. They see a truth others don’t. They wish they could make everyone see it. And they do whatever they can to push back, to help people save themselves.

At one point in the novel, psychology grad student Adam Appich says, “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.” I think the flipside of this is true as well, that as long as we hold on to the old stories, we won’t be able to change in the ways we need to change to liberate ourselves and fulfill our potential. For now, the matrix has us, and its stories keep us in thrall.

These convictions have become part of who I am. They are my second awakening. I want to do what little I can, as part of a larger movement, to help liberate all of us from these systems of oppression, which also means letting go of the beliefs that help maintain capitalist imperialist heteronormative cisnormative white supremacist patriarchy. Where it gets tricky is that I don’t see a way to do this that doesn’t also involve us finally letting go of all the old stories that normalize and perpetuate those beliefs. But people love those stories. Hell, I love some of those stories. We are still so enamored with those stories, and so incapable of seeing past them. And when your convictions include the belief that the impact of those stories is actually deeply harmful, it comes between you and a lot of other people. I think it hurts me professionally, too. People don’t want to pay, don’t want to read a critic who just tries to point out how all these works people like, as admirable as some of their qualities might be, are in some way serving to keep us content within the matrix, seeing its systems as natural, immutable.

On one hand I’m as deeply sure as my convictions on these matters as Morpheus is that, in Neo, he has finally found the One. And on the other, I’m constantly second-guessing myself, doubting, not because I think I might be wrong, but because I feel how these convictions put me in opposition to others, and I’m so tired of feeling cut off in that way. My anger over this shit costs me, because I can’t view it as something that doesn’t really matter, or as an inconsequential difference of opinion, so it creates a chasm between me and others.

Every time I read a piece from a critic that I think glosses over or celebrates ideas I find harmful, I feel both frustrated and isolated. I know that patriarchy doesn’t have the urgency of other crises facing humankind right now, though who knows, if a leader like Trump pushes us over the brink into nuclear armageddon, then patriarchy will have obliterated us as surely as climate change will if we don’t dramatically change course. But even if we consider such a patriarchy-related extinction level event unlikely, patriarchy kills people every day, and it severely limits our sense of what’s possible. It deserves our rage. It deserves our refusal to accept it any longer. It deserves our unwavering commitment to its dismantling.

Sometimes I look around and I don’t understand why we don’t all feel tortured by knowing that a far better world would be possible if only we let go of all the old ways. How is it not splintering all of our minds? Why am I isolated because of this? I wish that instead of feeling like I needed to stop raging to find a sense of belonging, it was closer to the truth to say that we were all raging.

III. Another Kind of Waking

But I don’t know. Maybe I’ve got it all wrong. I mean, I know that this way, the way things are in my life right now, this isn’t the way things are supposed to be. One splinter in my mind has replaced another. I’ve woken into another reality that feels off in some way that I can’t wholly define, but I know the problem is there. And if stories are part of the problem with the world, then maybe the stories I keep telling about myself are part of the problem with me.

Today (Tuesday, October 8, 2019), two kids sped past me on a scooter, one of them shouting “Are you a boy?” as they booked it into the distance. They were innocent of course, not knowingly doing Agent Smith’s dirty work of deadnaming and identity denial, and this was admittedly pretty mild as these things go. But what always stings in moments like this is the awareness that I have nobody I feel truly close to that I can call or text to be reminded that someone I love sees me for the person I am. There is never a comforting presence to come home to. There are never loving arms in which to heal and be rejuvenated. Maybe worse, there is never someone for me to give my love to, for me to lift up, to shield, to cheer on. But I always come back to this, always. I don’t know how not to. I can’t pretend that anything is more important to me than finding love and connection. I can’t pretend that a life lacking in those things feels real or meaningful to me. It doesn’t. It never will. But maybe being so focused on it is part of what’s keeping me from finding it. As much as I want change, maybe this story of mine is helping to keep things the same.

In The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, the 1993 Game Boy game which just had an extremely faithful remake released on Switch, you come bearing change. You must wake up the wind fish, but when you do, Koholint Island and all the people who dwell there will fade away, for they are a part of the wind fish’s dream.

What do we lose for waking? What does the kind of change we need to undergo cost us? When you do ultimately wake the wind fish, the ending of Link’s Awakening shows us the residents of Koholint, people and creatures to whom Link has been a friend, fading away as they go about their lives.

The known is lost. The familiar is lost. Link’s act of self-actualization, freeing himself from the confines of the wind fish’s dream (and, thus, awaking himself), costs him these people. A lot of us who wake up lose people in the process. (We don’t see any meaningful connections in Neo’s life before he wakes up, but if he had any, he loses them when he chooses liberation.) Like many other queer and trans people, I have no blood family to speak of. Sometimes losing people is necessary and inevitable if we are to be our true selves. But at a certain point, we need to find people, too.

In The Matrix, Neo’s muscles have atrophied because he’s never used them. Whole parts of me that I almost never use have withered too. I have vibrant, playful parts of myself that I barely know exist because I don’t have anyone to be playful with. My isolation is a different kind of prison than the ones from which I’ve already escaped. To stay disconnected is another way of staying trapped, which is right where the matrix wants me.

To wake is to change. To love is to change, to be transformed by love. To change is to die, to die in order to be reborn. In a conversation with bell hooks, Cornel West, who appears in the second and third Matrix films, says,

“Love is a form of death. You’ll never be able to get on the edge of that abyss, to make the leap to know what love is, unless you’re willing to take that risk, be it personally with your isolated lonely self who’s killed in order for a new self to emerge and tangle with another self with a smile at least for a while, or a love of wisdom, where you undergo fundamental transformation, your prejudices and presuppositions are called into question. That’s a form of death, to be reborn, to become more mature in your critical orientation.”

Neo’s awakening is certainly a form of death. Mr. Anderson, insofar as he was ever really alive, dies. The same can be said for the person I spent so long pretending to be, but never really was.

I’ve already undergone that latter form of transformation West mentions at least once. It’s the former that I need so much now. And it is hard. The very reasons I need that change are the very things that make it so difficult to undergo. How do I find the trust and closeness I need in a world that constantly reminds me that it doesn’t see me clearly and it views me with hostility and contempt? How do I stay tender? How do I break down the walls I’ve built around myself? I don’t entirely know. There are no maps for these territories. But I have to find a way, because this is, after all, a journey of self-actualization, and we cannot fully know ourselves or be ourselves in isolation. It is only in relation to others that we can do that.

I feel alienated by all the ways I’m “supposed to” meet people, by dating apps and all the rest of it. I feel like these demand some kind of performance of competence and experience, when what I need is a space in which I can be fully honest about my fears and inexperience, like Yorkie who, in the Black Mirror episode “San Junipero,” experiences a kind of inverse Matrix: for her, liberation and love are found at last in the digitally constructed world, a place where she can be young and fumbling, because she never had the chance to be young and fumbling before. I need that freedom, too.

Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) in the Black Mirror episode San Junipero

And yes, of course it’s deeply unfair how much easier all of it is for some people who can move in the world being seen as desirable, or even just seen in a way that doesn’t run entirely contrary to their very sense of self. When something never happens, it’s hard to believe that it can happen. But I can’t let the fact that love is far more available and attainable to others prevent me from seeing it as attainable for myself, even if it often feels like it isn’t. I have to stay open. Stay vulnerable. Stay human.

There’s a line I love in the beautiful Bloc Party love song “Sunday”:

Forget about those melting ice caps
We’re doing the best with what we’ve got

Right now, and for too long, all I’ve had are the melting ice caps. I want more than that. And that doesn’t mean abandoning my convictions. It means folding them into a fuller, more open, more multifaceted self. I need to learn not to feel as if I’m on the defensive whenever I’m out in the world, to not feel as if being trans and a radical feminist places me in opposition to all things and all people. I need to remember that I’m a part of all things, too, even if I want to take a wrecking ball to the foundations of so much of what we call society.

I know, too, that I still don’t want to settle, to pretend that people I find boring actually excite me, that people I find insincere actually engage me, that people who drain my batteries actually rejuvenate me. I didn’t go through everything I’ve already had to go through in pursuit of an authentic life just so that I could live another kind of performance. I’m still going to hold out for something, for someone, that feels real to me. I know that those people exist. I’ve met them before.

In The Overstory, one member of the group of eco-radicals is an artist who paints messages at the sites of their actions. One of those messages is this:

And it is time to heal. Or, to put it another way, Morpheus is absolutely right when he says that “as long as the matrix exists, the human race will never be free.” But there are different matrices in which we exist, and they control us in different ways, and they require different acts of liberation, all of them painful, all of them transformative, but ultimately, they must root us in connection with others, for there is no freedom worth a damn that is ours and ours alone. And maybe I’ve built a little matrix of my own that I need to smash if I’m ever gonna find what I need in order to live a real life.

So here I am, fractured and fragile. Real and alive and vulnerable, grateful to be living an authentic life, but still not quite free, and still very much searching for something. So let’s you and me wake up, let’s let go of the stories we’ve told ourselves about what we can and can’t have, let’s die so that we can be transformed and live more fully, let’s take a chance on each other, let’s accept each other and be tender and flawed and forgiving and let’s believe in something and let’s do the best we can, together. That may be the most radical transformation of all.

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