I Was Red Pilled
Two stories caught my attention this week, one good, the other terrible.
First, a new Matrix sequel was announced. The fourth film in the blockbuster franchise will star Keanu Reeves, and Carrie-Anne Moss, with Lana Wachowski writing and directing. The second was the White House’s continued efforts to legalize the discrimination of trans people.
I was thrilled to learn that Reeves and Moss were reprising their iconic roles. But I was pissed off that this Republican administration of mostly white heterosexual cisgender men is determined to deny trans people their civil rights.
The Matrix and the anti-trans news are related in one ironic way: White heterosexual cisgender men love The Matrix, which was created by a pair of visionary trans siblings. In fact, many white heterosexual cisgender men have built an entire political religion around The Matrix.
In the movie, the character Morpheus, played by Lawrence Fishburne, offers Keanu Reeves’ character Thomas Anderson a choice. He opens his palms and reveals two pills, a blue one, and a red one. I remember sitting in the theater twenty-years ago during this scene and thinking the red pill looked a lot like a Hot Tamale cinnamon candy.
Morpheus then says:
“You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember, all I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more.”
I liked The Matrix when it came out. I liked it for the same reason I liked The Sixth Sense: it had a killer twist. A clove cigarette-smoking undergraduate philosophy major twist. Reality isn’t reality, bro. We’re living in a simulation.
I was happy to sort of forget these very entertaining movies until I found out about ‘red pilling.’ It turns out there’s an entire generation of heterosexual men who cannot make space in their heads and hearts for anyone who isn’t a heterosexual man. So they decided to steal The Matrix’s ‘red pill’ plot device and use it as an online shorthand. To be ‘red pilled’ is to learn the shocking truth and, to these men at least, the truth is that the world is actually run by evil feminists and their allies, marginalized peoples.
‘Red pilling’ is a make-believe game where boys get to pretend they are a horribly oppressed minority, unlike any that has come before. It’s a concept that is both infuriating and offensive, for many reasons. One of which is that it is a complete misunderstanding of what the Wachowskis intended.
In The Matrix, Thomas Anderson takes the red pill and learns that the world is bigger, scarier — and in some ways more wonderful and freeing — than he ever imagined. He took the red pill and became the person he truly is and embarked on a new life full of adventure and peril, love and wisdom.
I know what I’m talking about because, in a way, I was red-pilled. Before it became a trendy coping mechanism for men. I experienced a moment in my life when I was given a choice: take the blue pill and return to the comforting reality I was raised in. Nothing changes. Or open my eyes and discover there are people who are invisible to me because I was allowed to believe they didn’t exist.
A confession: I use to be a sort of liberal punching bag on a late-night Fox News talk show. I wrote about it for Esquire years ago. I’d say something controversial like “I support affordable healthcare” and the conservative guests would treat me like a chicken wing. I was paid in free hair and makeup.
The right-wing pundits I met in the green room always talked about Republican politicians as if they were unrequited crushes. Well, in the years since I was on Fox, that love affair has bloomed into a grotesque marriage with millions of needy children, most of whom are white men, scared, and angry because the blue pill isn’t working.
So once, about ten years ago I think, I was on this late-night Fox show, having a laugh, not taking anything seriously because privilege is the safest of spaces.
I forget the story topic, but I suppose that doesn’t matter. The host and I were bantering and I used the word “tranny.” It was an ignorant, thoughtlessly hurtful thing to say. There is no use in sugarcoating it but that is the truth. I used a transphobic slur on national television. That I didn’t understand that at the time is not an excuse. I am not proud of that now.
The next day I received an email from a trans rights activist upbraiding me for my use of that word. It surprised me. My instinct was to be defensive. Thankfully, while it was not their responsibility to educate a white heterosexual cisgender man, they engaged with me, briefly.
Since then, I have learned that the world was more diverse than I thought. I learned that gender is a construct, like a hat. That human beings whose gender identity does not conform to the sex they were assigned at birth have always been here simultaneously hiding from and building our flawed civilization.
I also learned that I can go to work and never worry about being fired because of how I express my gender identity. I still struggle to be a better person, but I ask more questions and listen. If I make a mistake, I apologize and try to not make that mistake again.
Anyway, my Morpheus was a trans person who emailed me — an ignorant loudmouth — and opened my eyes. They didn’t have to do that but I’m grateful they did.