Sensing Transgender: Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s "The Matrix"

Upon the 20th anniversary of its release and with a new book on the Wachowski sisters, "The Matrix" has become a key film of trans cinema.
Caden Mark Gardner

“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.”

This is what Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) tells Neo (Keanu Reeves) in Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s The Matrix (1999) when proposing the red pill, that will begin him on his hero’s journey as “The One,” or the blue pill scenario, returning him to his former, average life.  In recent years, “red pilled” went from an Internet meme to crossing over into a popular political identity and discourse revolving around MRAs (men’s rights activists) and the alt-right. Pieces written on the 20th anniversary celebration of The Matrix will likely include its unintentional associations with that repulsive political current that co-opted the idea of taking “the blue pill or red pill?” But this same scene has another, entirely different reading and one that should not be ignored when remembering The Matrix was directed by two trans women.

The Matrix is a film by two transgender filmmakers and can be read allegorically and aesthetically as a film about transness. Trans Academic Cael M. Keegan writes on this exchange in Lana and Lilly Wachowski: Sensing Transgender (University of Illinois Press), stating that Morpheus’ dialogue “captures a trans* affect for which language barely exists. Something is wrong with reality. The gendered structure of the world does not seem true, but others live within it as if it were presocial, coterminous with nature.” Keegan continues that gender dysphoria “is rendered invisible or irrational,” because this world cannot reflect such a personal sensation. The Matrix has resonated with many trans and non-binary people long before either one of the Wachowskis were out as transgender women.  Much like those viewers, Keegan’s read of this film’s “real” is a construct or rather, “the matrix,” a virtual simulation that we take to be the film’s reality, is a construct—much like gender. Keegan’s book is built on the entire Wachowskis’s career, focusing on the representation of queerness and gender with The Matrix as the foundational text.

The signifiers and images are irresistible. Neo starts as Mr. Thomas A. Anderson, who in this ordinary world is accused of living a double life when confronted by Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) for his computer hacking. The protagonist is already breaking from his normal, boring, and soulless office desk job in conscience and action. Thomas Anderson then becomes Neo, the name he will be referred to as for the remainder of this film and its two sequels, while Agent Smith and those tied to the matrix will continue referring to him as Mr. Anderson.  Neo comes into contact with fellow hackers who advise him what he considers real is a lie, the product of a computer code, a virtual reality simulation programmed by artificial intelligence who heavily surveil and enslave humanity. These hackers perform surgery on Neo to remove a phallic-like insect from his body and give him the red pill that fully unlocks his consciousness as well as physically alter him, much like the process of hormone replacement therapy does to a trans individual. Neo is reborn from a pod plugged into cables and covered in goo. Once out of the pod, Neo is medically treated with acupuncture for his side effects while transitioning into his “new body” as he adjusts to his movement and motor functions in what we now know is the actual real world. After his recovery, Neo is taken by Morpheus to their training program called Construct, that according to Morpheus can load anything, “from clothing to equipment, weapons, training simulations; anything we need.” The oppressively white, minimalist space is the start of the passing Neo needs to enter back into the matrix without detection. This passing also includes intensive training of the body to modify Neo and the hackers’s knowledge and difference when entering the matrix, whose system that they are working to dismantle. This is the basis for The Matrix as a film trilogy and brand that includes a comic book series and an animation anthology film directed, written, created, and produced by two artists now known to be trans women. It is difficult at this point to ignore these connections and to not explore them on a deeper level.

A Women and Gender Studies Professor at Grand Valley State University, Keegan has written the first critical book published on the Wachowskis that centers their transgender identities. He presents The Matrix, and many other films and elements in the Wachowski sisters’s oeuvre, under the lens of trans allegory or trans codification. There have been trans writers who have written on the topic of The Matrix as trans allegory. The Wachowskis being the most visible trans filmmakers have made that reading incredibly appealing, and that reading has only proliferated since Lana Wachowski (after years of invasive and transphobic print media and Internet speculation) publicly disclosed that she was a trans woman in 2012, and when Lilly later disclosed her trans status in 2016. When writing on The Matrix, trans people have spoken and written about their personal connections as viewers, finding the film to be an outlet for their struggles, a visual language when there was no language available for them to describe their dysphoria and individual trans journeys.  The world of science fiction, one full of “unnatural” alien forms, centered otherness, and synthetic bodies, has long serviced the trans allegory. Those stories are often more embraced by the trans community than an issue drama with a trans character, because the narrative of that trans character is a compromised vision from casting—often a non-trans in a trans role—to a failing of visual imagination and characterization of that trans character. What makes Keegan’s book one of significance in both scholarship of the Wachowskis’s cinema and of trans cinema is that he goes far deeper than the illustration of an allegory. Keegan argues that the Wachowskis can be looked back upon beyond retroactive codification and allegory of their work, even as he argues the queering of genre, characters, and themes were always there in the films. What the Wachowskis are responsible for, according to Keegan, is creating trans aesthetics built on the senses and that includes their biggest and most influential hit, thanks in part to the evolution of film technology that expanded the possibilities in visual storytelling through the digital image and digital manipulation of celluloid.

Released in 1999 with Y2K alarmism and anxiety being a heavily discussed topic, The Matrix became one of the most financially successful films grappling with the end of the century and ushering in the possibilities of the new millennium. What should not be lost in discussing the Wachowskis are their vein of optimism and open-mindedness of what future worlds offered in fiction. In their filmmaking the Wachowskis also embraced in new technology and the various new possibilities in visual storytelling had opened for them to present such fictional worlds. Keegan posits that the trans aesthetics that form under the Wachowskis are interconnected two-fold: the transition of the 20th century into the 21st century and the technological film materials going from celluloid to digital in that time period.

Keegan looks back at celluloid as the material of film stock that to be presented as a feature film had to be cut and re-pieced together, all films being a Frankenstein’s monster to their creators. The techniques of the fragmented image has in Keegan’s estimation disproportionately been used to represent the trans image negatively. This is best displayed with the heightened, hyper-stylized cutting in Brian DePalma’s Dressed To Kill (1980), with its trans woman serial killer of cis women, and that film’s antecedent, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), with the twist being cross-dressing Norman Bates murdering motel patrons while in states of alternating personalities between himself and “trying to be his mother.” These fragmented images also convey a fragmented psyche and disorientation of the mind and body for not just the viewers but these trans figures themselves on-screen. Heavily quoting from fellow trans academic Susan Stryker, Keegan sets the dichotomies of the transsexual image tied to analog and celluloid in the 20th century versus the transgender image tied to the fluid, digital of the 21st century.

The dominant trans image of the 20th century, one that was the inspiration for so many visual media representations post-World War II of trans people, was Christine Jorgensen, who became famous for being the first widely known American to get a sex-change operation, better known today as sexual reassignment surgery (SRS), in 1952. Jorgensen became a media spectacle. Stryker deemed Jorgensen “an avatar of the atomic age,” making her subject in the montage short, Christine in the Cutting Room (2012), a commentary on Jorgensen’s celebrity and the transsexual body being seen as a technological construction re-pieced together as to be reborn—much like celluloid film becoming reborn as narrative after re-cuts and edits—vis-à-vis the post-war anxiety of Red Scares, the atom bomb, and civil rights struggles. Jorgensen’s body, the transsexual body, is portrayed by Stryker and Keegan as industrial: the reconstructed body is centered but the personality beyond that body was so often absent or pathologized by who was looking at Jorgensen. To the public at large, what Jorgensen did was presented as a destabilizing and norm-altering reconstruction and became a threatening monstrosity. That transphobic reaction extended into how filmmaking has depicted trans people post-Jorgensen.  Trans subjects have largely been presented as unstable for their transformations, seen as having “unnatural” bodies, and rarely were these subjects given the voice, much less a film camera, to control their subjectivity to a viewing audience.

In presenting the Wachowskis’s use of digital world-building and a camera that while shot on celluloid was manipulated digitally, Keegan ties their storytelling into the concept and identity of transgender evolution in the 21st century. Transgender is more than a re-wording or revision of transsexual, a term that came from the medical community in dealing with trans people. Transgender was a term developed by the trans community to define themselves, prioritizing the trans consciousness as opposed to the material body, as a response to transsexuality being deemed a disorder and pathology that was a stigmatization for many.  Transgender is an umbrella term more defined by gender identity, perceptions, and senses of what is going on between the ears than what is necessarily going on in the outside. Gender itself is not just about the biological sex but tied to personhood and every system of life management. Part of the transgender evolution has been having trans people more in control of the conversation around gender identity and telling their stories. Film in that respect is lagging behind in trans visual modes in subjectivity and authorship. What Keegan finds valuable from the Wachowskis’s cinema, that which makes them key contributors to trans cinema as opposed to their trans identity being happenstance to their body of work, is building a consciousness within a digital film framework.  The gender identity and perception of an individual’s gender identity is not fractured or materialized simply by how one’s body is represented. The Matrix does not have a trans character in the way later works by the Wachowskis like Sense8 (2015-2018) had a trans character.  But where the trans aesthetics in The Matrix come from is by the visual invention of the Wachowskis, one that is defined by the omnipresence of an impossibly moving camera and characters who are moving at impossible angles and speeds. The fluidity of the Wachowskis’s camera is everywhere, in places that would previously be impossible for such tech to be present or capture, hyper-conscience of the camera that extends to the characters and their stories in The Matrix.

Being trans often means your consciousness extends to not just yourself but your awareness in how you are presenting yourself to others. To be in this world means interacting with people and systems that make presumptions about your identity. This conflict with identity often weighs heavily in how presentation, one of either compromise or affirmation, can place trans people in the world. The cultural and social present do see more people transform themselves into the identity that matches their internalized conscience. But that process and transition often begins in a compromised position. As Thomas A. Anderson, Neo was already inching towards a different way of life by being a hacker when within the world of the blue pill. There were no words he could put towards this purpose he was pushing himself more into, but the thrill and feeling is something he could understand and embrace. For Neo, Morpheus, Trinity, and other hackers in The Matrix, their role in the simulation is presenting as a means for survival and interacting within the world in order to find others to join their cause. But just because it is a simulation does not mean it is a game where their opportunities are infinite. Death within the matrix can still kill the physical body, the oppression and weight of the constructs and systems clamping down on a non-conforming minority who cannot be so easily spotted. This is where the construct of gender can take physical tolls on trans individuals, be it violence or psychological trauma. But how the body functions in the matrix is more than violent inflictions. Hyper-consciousness in characterization does involve aesthetics of the digital world where knowledge and awareness allows Neo and the rest to break the laws of physics. This is a world where Neo can bend around bullets. That moment is one of many scenes where characters acting within these worlds are breaking the rules of time and space itself much like the Wachowskis’s cameras do. Trinity is astonished by the feat when she sees from Neo’s escape from death. She asks him how he did it, as Neo has the skill-set she had only seen from villainous programs inside the simulation. Neo’s new identity is equal or even more powerful than the sentient constructs of the program. This has revealed more possibilities of his body and mind, ways he never thought possible and never could articulate before until that consciousness was reached and opened. But this is now who Neo is and was destined to be.

In the first film of the trilogy, Neo defeated the program but the film’s ending has an open-ended conclusion that teases more to come. It can easily be read as a cynical ploy, a cash-in that is only there to promise moviegoers more adventures from Neo and company against the matrix. But it is important to consider what Neo’s final lines are as he speaks into a pay phone, connecting himself into a conversation with the program he has—for now—defeated:

“I know you’re out there. I can feel you now. I know that you’re afraid. You’re afraid of us. You’re afraid of change. I don’t know the future. I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin. I’m going to hang up this phone and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world without you, a world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries, a world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.”

That same feeling Morpheus told him about at the beginning of the film has been realized and identified. Neo has gained the awareness and put together what has previously been out of reach for himself and the world he lives in. He is combative with this world and seeks to upend it, unafraid and unapologetic. The trans reading of this final piece of dialogue also exists, doubling as a salvo against those afraid of change and express disdain for trans people for challenging their norms and world views. Even when in moments of no confrontation, trans people will maintain their awareness of hostile forces out there and never forgetting that. Where “we”go from here in facing these problems is not an onus placed on the individual but on the old, outdated systems. And if those systems fail or continue to be oppressive towards difference, they need to be changed.

Lilly and Lana Wachowski may have not been out to the world when The Matrix was made (still, it must be noted that Lana herself began making public appearances on red carpets for the film’s sequels in a more feminine presentation many years prior to her disclosure), but through science fiction and the cyberpunk and dystopian genre and subgenres, they laid out a film framework in aesthetics that are informed by a consciousness that speaks and resonates to the trans experience. As Lana Wachowski has been rumored to be retiring from filmmaking and the sisters’s Chicago production company has closed, it is time to analyze the Wachowskis’s significance in the popular culture and in being the most visible trans filmmakers and producers.  Cael M. Keegan’s book is a good start and is hopefully the first of many more published works.

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