'I, too, was living a double life': Why trans fans connect to 'The Matrix'
Erin Reed was thirteen when she watched The Matrix for the first time.
In the mornings, she would log into internet chat rooms with a feminine screen name and talk to her online friends. Then she would return to school and her real life, where everyone knew her as male.
"There's a quote in the original Matrix movie where basically Agent Smith sits down and says, 'Mr. Anderson, it seems that you've been living two lives,'" Reed explains, referencing a scene where the protagonist's hacker persona Neo is uncovered. "I remember that line stuck with me as a teenager because I, too, was living a double life."
At the time, Reed was just beginning to understand that she was transgender. When she got back from school, the first thing she would do was run to her computer, where she was allowed to be herself again. This was back when you had to compete with a landline to load a web page, and her mom eventually bought a separate phone line because she was online so often.
The Matrix follows computer hacker Neo, who discovers the shocking truth that the life he knows is really a complex computer simulation designed by intelligent machines to enslave humanity. He has always questioned his reality, but now he must choose whether or not to embrace his role in humanity's battle to destroy the illusion.
In the approximately two decades following the release of the first movie in 1999, The Matrix has endured in pop culture for its portrayal of internet culture, philosophical themes, revolutionary special effects, and slick leather-clad fashion – just to name a few. A highly anticipated and unexpected fourth sequel, The Matrix Resurrections, is out this week.
But beyond its legacy in pop culture, The Matrix has long held a special place in the hearts of many trans people for the way it so perfectly encapsulates many essential facets of their identities.
Why The Matrix resonates with trans people
The Matrix was written and directed by Lana and Lilly Wachowski, two trans women who, at the time of movie's release, were not publicly out. Ever since both sisters came out to the public in the 2010s, people have long speculated about the trans themes in The Matrix.
But it wasn't until very recently that one of the Wachowskis publicly confirmed their guesses.
"I'm glad that people are talking about the movies, The Matrix movies, with a trans narrative," said Lilly Wachowski in an interview with Netflix last year.
"I'm glad that it has gotten out that, you know, that was the original intention, but the world wasn't quite ready – the corporate world wasn't ready for it."
She added that she didn't know how present her transness was in her mind as they were writing the movie, but that much of the desire for transformation in the films stemmed from her closeted point of view at the time.
But long before this was confirmed, many of their trans fans were latching onto the movie anyways.
A couple of the more overt parallels have garnered attention over the years. For example, Neo is offered a choice between a red and blue pill. The red pill will open his eyes to the truth that he is living in a simulation. The blue pill will allow him to continue in ignorance. The red pill that Neo ends up taking is similar to what estrogen pills, used for hormone replacement therapy, looked like in the nineties.
Another example: the Wachowskis wanted the character Switch to present as male in the real world while presenting as female in the Matrix, as an explicit nod to the idea of transness in an online world. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Keanu Reeves, who played Neo in the movies, recalled an early draft of the script that was later changed. "I think the studio wasn't ready for that," he said. The character ended up presenting as a woman in both dimensions.
But crucially, it's the spirit of self-actualization that resonates so strongly with many trans people – the existence of a true identity beyond your physical form, an ideal self that you can seize control of via the internet from an uncaring system.
Nowadays, the internet is inextricably meshed with our lives to a degree where we might take it's self-discovery possibilities for granted. Log on and one can pick from a glut of increasingly-specific identity tests, or find a community of like-minded people for any niche interest.
When The Matrix came out in 1999, the internet was only starting to resemble the force for self-discovery that it is today. It wasn't until the late 2000s that the majority of American households had access to a broadband connection. Many of the people turning to the internet in that early era were people like Erin, who couldn't find the answers they wanted anywhere else.
She remembers finding message boards targeted towards trans people, offering early glimpses into gender-affirming medical care.
"There was no way that I was ever going to learn about that from my parents or from school or from any resources that would have ever been given to me," she recalls. "But on the internet, it was like this is possible, and nothing could stop me from knowing it was possible. That knowledge in and of itself was enough for me to be like, yes, this is what I want. I want this in the future. One day I'm going to have it."
Many trans people in that generation turned to the internet for those reasons. Erin often hears stories of other trans people today that went through very similar journeys as teenagers, even frequenting the same sites that she visited.
Even for some folks who didn't realize they were transgender at the time, the movie stuck with them for reasons they couldn't fully explain.
Calista Termini watched The Matrix when it first released in theaters. In the years since, it's one of the few movies she's rewatched over a dozen times.
Termini recalls the story sticking with her after she left the movie theater. "I was lying there in bed, thinking to myself: this is exactly how I feel," she says. "I feel like there is something wrong with the world and I don't know what it is, but I feel this way and I've always felt this way."
There's a famous quote from Morpheus, Neo's mentor in the movie. "What you know you can't explain, but you feel it," he says as he introduces the idea of the Matrix to Neo. "You've felt it your entire life, that 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 she first watched The Matrix, Termini didn't know she was trans. But she credits the movie as one of the influences that provoked her to search for answers about why she felt so out of place in the world, eventually leading to the realization that she was trans.
That feeling, of knowing something is out of place in the world, can be a common one for trans folks. Often, the feelings of discomfort can come from the way other people perceive them or knowing that their body doesn't align with their gender – a form of gender dysphoria.
"If you are a trans person, there is sort of this idea that you are living in a muffling cocoon that is keeping you from seeing the reality of yourself," Emily VanDerWerff, the critic at large for Vox, tells NPR. VanDerWerff wrote an article about the trans themes in The Matrix in 2019. Like Termini, she cites the movie as one of the rare films that she has rewatched over twenty times.
"And that cocoon, to some degree, is the idea of fixed gender identity, which is one that society is very like built atop. And to be trans, you have to sort of assail that idea. And in the process of doing so, you may question other things about reality, including whether you live in a computer simulation, which is robots using humans as a way to power their existence."
The universality of The Matrix
In many ways, this struggle of self-actualization against a dominant system is a universal one.
Though the concept of "redpilling" has been co-opted by groups who are often virulently opposed to trans identity, the fluidity of The Matrix's central themes is arguably one of its strengths.
VanDerWerff agrees. "It does weirdly speak to this movie's cultural ubiquity, to this movie's ability to speak to all sorts of people in a similar way but to different ends, that I think often marks the most important and greatest movies ever made."
Some trans people, especially those in the early stages of questioning their gender, can have trouble putting words to their experiences. These experiences can also be difficult to understand for people who have never questioned their gender. But The Matrix can provide a common shorthand to bridge either gap.
Despite the term being co-opted, an example of this can be the red pill metaphor. Termini remembers a moment in her life where she had to finally accept her own trans identity, and equates that to her "red pill moment."
Take the red pill, and you take the first steps toward living a more authentic existence, but at the potential end cost of upending your current life – potentially facing obstacles to accessing gender-affirming medical care, disproportionately higher rates of homicide, systemic discrimination and cultural prejudice. Take the blue pill, and live in the relative safety of the establishment – but is that comfort worth the isolation of suppressing who you are?
That's a hard choice that many trans people still have to make when choosing to accept their identity.
VanDerWerff concurs, adding that it can be a difficult process to talk about, but The Matrix can give us language to describe it.
And that shorthand can be important in terms of conveying the trans experience to outsiders.
Zoe Wendler, an associate professor at Ferris State University, agrees. "One of the cool things about The Matrix and the way it talks about this trans allegory is that it does connect with cisgender people so extensively," Wendler said.
Wendler first saw The Matrix as a young teenager, shortly after it was released on DVD. She could never get the idea of the splinter, of something being wrong with the world, out of her head afterwards. Her appreciation for the film has evolved since then, especially since coming out and transitioning in recent years. She recalls a recent watch party with a bunch of other trans friends, where they excitedly screamed over the obvious parallels in the movies.
"I think it's a really healthy thing, both for trans people and cis people, because it helps break down this idea that there's this incredible division between what makes a person trans or cis, because there isn't."
Trans themes and representation in The Matrix
The nuance here is that The Matrix is so beloved by many trans people not because it's solely a trans allegory, but also because the movie is so many other things – a critique of capitalism, a philosophical meditation on identity and an expertly crafted science fiction action movie. Though the trans themes are undeniable, they do not make up the entire backbone of the movie.
In essence, it's a great story that also happens to be about being trans, which is the kind of nuanced trans representation that is still rare in mainstream media today.
Even now, over twenty years after its release, The Matrix still remains arguably the biggest piece of media ever made by trans creators. While more movies are starting to include trans characters and stories, many of them focus on or even define their trans characters by extreme tragedy or hardship. Others lean on offensive stereotypes.
That is, if they include trans characters at all – a 2020 GLAAD study reported that no film from a major studio included trans or non-binary characters that year, for the fourth year in a row.
Many Matrix fans wish the film franchise would break this pattern.
"It would mean the world," says Karen R. Karen first saw The Matrix with friends, some time after it had come out. She had already known she was trans, but she was and is still closeted to the majority of her friends and family, so she couldn't admit to them the fantasy of wanting to be woken up from her own Matrix.
"The stuff I want to read, the movies I want to see, are movies like the original Matrix, that can speak to our experience, but don't fetishize our suffering or our hardships," Wendler adds.
Wendler, who came out publicly this year and started teaching while presenting as a woman, described her transition as a time of "overflowing joy," despite any obstacles along the way.
"We struggle, we grow, but we don't do this because it hurts. We do this because it makes us really, really, really happy."
NPR's Tori Whitley-Berry contributed to this piece.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.