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SYFY WIRE The Matrix

With The Matrix 4 coming, let's talk about how the first movie is a trans allegory

By Laura Dale
Keanu Reeves in The Matrix (1999)

As a trans woman on the autism spectrum, my first viewing of The Matrix was pretty formative. I was a socially anxious kid convinced I had to fit in with everyone around me, become just like everyone else, or be threatened with harm for stepping out of line. The idea that there was power and strength in embracing what made me unique was a radical concept, one that may well have resonated for me due to similarities I was unaware of between myself and the movie's creators.

Directed by Lana and Lilly Wachowski, a pair of trans women who were not yet publicly out as transgender at the time of the movie's release, The Matrix is the first piece of media I am aware of experiencing that was created by transgender people. Their coming out shaped the way I, and many other trans people, began to view one of the more formative genre films from the turn of the century.

A few weeks ago, we got the news that Lana Wachowski is returning to direct a fourth Matrix movie, making her the first openly transgender person to direct a major Hollywood blockbuster action movie. With this landmark on the horizon, now feels like a good time to revisit one of my favorite readings of the original Matrix movie: the idea that it's a huge allegory for gender transition.

The Matrix Trans

The opening line of text that appears on screen in The Matrix after the title sequence contains the word Trans; "Call Trans Opt". It's literally the second word in the film after it starts. Maybe that's a coincidence, but the same line of text also appears right at the end of the movie, bookmarking the experience. It may not be compelling evidence by itself, but in the context of the film's content, I take it as a deliberate nod to the themes of the movie.

The Matrix centers around the story of Neo, a shy nerdy computer programmer who spends most of his time alone, socially isolated, messing around on his computer. I'm obviously dealing in some generalizations here, but as a trans person, I can tell you the number of trans people who end up in computer programming is certainly higher than average as an anecdotal observation.

(Now, you'll notice I'm using he/him pronouns here while talking about Neo. This is for simplicity's sake, as those are the pronouns used for Neo in the movie itself, but that should not be taken as me ignoring the possibility of using other pronouns in a trans subtext reading of the film.)

Neo is not our protagonist's given name; instead, it's a chosen alias he goes by online. His given name, Mr. Thomas Anderson, is one of those names that just screams "we named our trans woman character after a masculinity reference." It's why so many 2000s-era sitcoms called trans characters Amanda (A Man, Duh) or Ida (I'll leave you to fill that anti-trans joke in yourself).

Matrix Neo

Right from the start, Neo rejects being called Mr. Anderson, a male title and a surname which seems to be a reference to Androgens, the class of hormones usually associated with masculine development. By rejecting that male coded name, and instead picking a new name without the male-gendered coding, Neo is able to avoid being referred to in a way that makes him feel uncomfortable. That sure feels like an allegory for picking a new name when you come out and not wanting to be deadnamed.

Of particular note, while the homogenous face of civil obedience and status quo Agent Smith insists on discrediting this new chosen identity, those outside of the Matrix all unquestioningly support Neo's name from the very first moments of the film, presenting the idea that escaping those societal expectations is a path to having who you are seen and validated by others.

Early in the plot, Neo is plagued by a restless thought that won't go away plaguing his mind. It causes an inability to sleep, to leave the house, to focus on anything else. While the presented text states that it's due to Neo wondering what the Matrix is, it feels analogous to the way many trans people feel shortly prior to coming out — that clawing feeling that something isn't right, and we need to find answers as to what it is that makes us different.

Upon Agent Smith's first meeting of Neo, he points out that Neo has been living "two lives" — the public-facing life as Mr. Anderson, and the online life of Neo. Many trans people come out slowly in stages, first presenting as their new gender online and with friends before work or the wider world are made aware. Indeed, it seems from what we publicly know of the Wachowskis, it's that both of them lived periods of double lives, knowing they were trans but not being out in the public sphere.

Agent Smith presents Neo's double lives in a very particular way. Living as Mr. Anderson is respectable, accepted by society, doesn't cause any issues. Living as Neo is not OK. As Agent Smith puts it, "One of these lives has a future, and one of them does not," which could be considered a reference to the feeling many trans people have prior to coming out. If they keep their head down, things will be fine, while coming out might potentially set them on a path that leads to their life being ruined.

Matrix Neo Mouth

When Neo still refuses to do as he is told, Agent Smith takes away Neo's ability to speak entirely, which could be seen as an analogy for the fact that many trans people are often voiceless in society. We can try and speak up when threatened by those in power, but their words fall on deaf ears, or we are simply not given a platform with which to demand our rights.

Upon first meeting Neo, the mysterious Morpheus gives yet another speech, which feels like a direct reference to trying to ignore dysphoric feelings: "You know something. What you know, you can't explain, but you feel it. You've felt it your entire life. There's something wrong with the world, you don't know what it is, but it's there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad."

When offered the red and blue pills by Morpheus, many critics have suggested that the red pill could be an analog for Spironolactone, an anti-androgen and little red pill prescribed to many trans women to help prevent the production of traditionally masculine hormones, the very hormones Neo's birth-given surname seems to be a reference to. He literally takes an anti-androgen to leave behind his life as Mr. Anderson.

After this, we see a very direct scene of rebirth for Neo. It's painful, confusing, messy, and happens so suddenly that Neo is essentially dropped into the deep end, left to suddenly work out how to survive all these necessary but huge changes in his life. Again, as someone who has transitioned, that sure rings true for many of my first years coming out and living full time in my new identity.

The Matrix Switch

One of the new characters we are introduced to once outside of the matrix is Switch, a character who for me really cements the validity of the trans-centric reading of the film. Switch's name is a reference to the fact that they were, in the Wachowskis' original script for the movie, going to be a transgender character, played by actors of different genders inside and outside of the Matrix, showcasing the idea that a person's physical body and the way they see themselves in a world where they can control their appearance may not always line up. This was cut from the movie by the studio, but it shows evidence that The Matrix was always planned to acknowledge the existence of trans people within its universe.

When we later meet The Oracle, she acts somewhat like a medical gatekeeper for transgender people. Her ability to diagnose Neo as The One is entirely dependent on him confidently telling her that he feels like he is ready to take on that identity, ready to be The One. Doctors for transgender people can only diagnose a person as trans if that person is ready to come out as trans, ready to say that's how they feel, ready to embrace that as their path. You can't tell someone who hasn't come out to themselves that they are trans, just like The Oracle can't tell Neo he is The One until he decides he's ready to be The One.

"Nobody can tell you, you just feel it."

Matrix Subway

Towards the end of the movie, there is a scene where Agent Smith holds Neo over a set of train tracks, asserting that he will die as Mr. Anderson, and will never get to live as Neo. This scene appears to have parallels to director Lana Wachowski's real life, in which she nearly contemplated suicide as a young adult while standing on a train platform (an event she has since publicly shared in a moving speech about growing up as a transgender woman). In the Matrix, Neo has to decide to embrace his identity as Neo, become confident enough to assert it, and be willing to fight back against anyone who tells him otherwise in order to find the strength to get off those train tracks and keep on living. Again, as a trans person who survived suicide attempts by having confidence in my identity, this scene feels very, very familiar.

Then, the film ends as it starts, once again showing the word trans on screen as a closing line of text to close out the movie.

The Matrix Trans

Truthfully, I know that the original Matrix movie has a lot of content that can in no way be read as a trans allegory, and the metaphor definitely seems less prevalent during the subsequent sequels, but it's a reading that feels personally resonant to me, and feels plausible enough to have been a deliberate act from a pair of trans directors.

With Lana Wachowski now working on The Matrix 4, I do quietly hope we might see some more directly trans content in the movie. Times have really moved forward, with superhero TV shows like Supergirl, for example, inserting trans characters into big-name projects. Sense8, which the Wachowskis also worked on, had some truly wonderful visible trans content. The world is more accepting of trans content in media, and I suspect if the director of The Matrix 4 wanted to put trans content in that film, the movie studios would be a lot less likely to try and fight that idea today.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.