Arizona Public Radio | Your Source for NPR News
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Why 'The Matrix' is a trans allegory


After more than 20 years, we return to that monumental question posed in the original "Matrix" movie - do you choose the red or blue pill? Today, the fourth installment in the series, titled "Matrix Resurrections," is released. The first film, in 1999, was a huge hit, received four Oscars. Since then, the co-directors Lana and Lilly Wachowski came out as trans. Emily VanDerWerff is critic at large for Vox. She wrote about trans themes in "The Matrix" and noticed that, quote, "the movie follows characters who break free of the real life via the internet, creating online identities that feel more real than their physical ones."

EMILY VANDERWERFF: I think that the main sort of thrust of this argument is really the idea that the system that you have built your life upon is a lie and is made up. And obviously, that has larger applications beyond trans identities. I don't want to pretend it doesn't. But 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, 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.

MARTÍNEZ: When Lilly and Lana Wachowski came out as trans, both well after the original "Matrix" was released, how was that news received by the general public?

VANDERWERFF: Lana Wachowski struggled a lot. If you look back at some of the press around the sequels, there's really awful stories, like, sort of speculating and gossiping about her relationship to her gender. Lilly Wachowski had a similar thing. She was almost outed by an enterprising press outlet and ended up coming out sort of before she was ready to. But then once they came out, I feel like it was greeted quite positively. You know, the 2010s were this decade of trans identities becoming more mainstream. We've always been around. There have always been trans people. But in the 2010s, there was sort of this recognition on the part of the mainstream that we exist, and we have our own things to contribute to the world and stories to tell and all of that. And the Wachowskis, I do feel like, were a big part of that. They are by far the most famous artists to be openly trans, and I think that that is a huge burden that they seem to bear quite well.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, when it comes to a very different group outside of the trans community - Keanu Reeves' character Neo is given the big choice, the red pill or the blue pill, to determine how much he wants to know, ultimately, about what his reality is. Tell us about how the red pill has been interpreted over the years.

VANDERWERFF: The central idea of the movie is so elastic that it can apply to a bunch of different groups, including groups who are often violently opposed to trans identity. The red pill is this concept that if you take it, you can see reality, and you can understand everything and how it really works. And a number of online reactionaries who are particularly misogynist came up with the idea that if you took the metaphorical red pill, you could see that society was built atop structures that were meant to benefit women at the exclusion of men. Obviously, I don't feel this is accurate. But it certainly became this idea that really took over the internet for a while. Obviously, that's not the fault of "The Matrix." "The Matrix" did not invent this idea. But it does weirdly speak to this movie's cultural ubiquity, to this movie's ability to sort of speak to all sorts of different people in a similar way but to different ends that I think often marks the most important and greatest movies ever made.

MARTÍNEZ: Emily, have you seen the latest "Matrix" film?

VANDERWERFF: I have, indeed. It's wonderful.

MARTÍNEZ: No - any additional trans allegories teased in the film? Or is this something that maybe is being left for the first three?

VANDERWERFF: I think that the main thing that the fourth film is about, without spoiling it, is about the idea that these binaries that we've built our lives upon are often not as cut and dry as we'd like to think. And that goes beyond gender. There's all kinds of binaries we've built within our lives. You know, good-evil is a very obvious one. I do find interesting - early in this movie, there are characters talking about ways you can sort of interpret what's happening within the idea of "The Matrix," and there are people who bring up trans identities. And, like, the idea is sort of within this sequence that you can't actually boil any of this down to one thing, and I sort of appreciated that. As a movie critic who enjoys the trans themes of these films but also doesn't want them to be just about that, I appreciated that Lana Wachowski dropped that in there.

MARTÍNEZ: Emily VanDerWerff is critic at large for Vox and wrote a piece about trans themes in "The Matrix" series back in 2019. Emily, thanks a lot.

VANDERWERFF: You're so welcome. It was great to be here.


JEFFERSON AIRPLANE: (Singing) One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.