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'The Matrix Resurrections' makes more room for trans identity in corporate Hollywood

Revisiting the significance of the original “Matrix” as a fixture of pop culture, and its role in a quiet revolution for trans identity.
Illustration: A floating pill with the transgender pride colors glowing in a dark room.
Many today have positioned "The Matrix" as a trans allegory.Anjali Nair / MSNBC

The first and last phrases to appear on the screen of the original “Matrix” film includes “trans” — a detail that many everyday moviegoers probably missed when the smash film hit theaters in 1999. But given what we know now about co-directors and writers Lilly Wachowski, who came out as transgender in 2016, and her sister Lana Wachowski, who transitioned publicly in 2012, many today have positioned the film as a trans allegory.

The movie’s premise — that everyone is living in a simulation whose rules can be bent and broken, and which can even be escaped entirely — is intimately familiar for anyone traversing the bounds of sex and gender.

It remains to be seen if the long-awaited sequel, “The Matrix Resurrections,” directed by Lana Wachowski and coming out Wednesday, will tackle trans conversations more overtly than its predecessor. Following a year of near-constant political and media attacks on trans rights in this country, it’s worth revisiting the importance of the original “Matrix” as a fixture of pop culture — and looking at the work we as a society still have to do when it comes to trans rights, visibility and culture.

“The Matrix” was groundbreaking for its time, with a cool visual style and a clever premise perfect for a world beginning its journey into the internet, which would ultimately become both a blessing and a curse for trans people. The film birthed terms like “red-pilled,” which in the movie is the process of waking up and seeing the world as it truly is, but in later years, it was co-opted by the right wing.

In May 2020, billionaire Elon Musk tweeted “Take the red pill.” Ivanka Trump, daughter and close adviser to then-President Donald Trump, quote-tweeted Musk, saying, “Taken!” (Lilly Wachowski responded to Trump’s tweet, “F-— both of you.”)

The movie’s premise — that everyone is living in a simulation whose rules can be bent and broken, and which can even be escaped entirely — is intimately familiar for anyone traversing the bounds of sex and gender. There are other points of resonance: In the late '90s, estrogen pills that trans women and transfeminine people would take as part of a medical transition were a light red, literally a red pill. Somehow, I don’t think that’s what the right wing had in mind when they appropriated the term for their own purposes.

The character Switch, played by Belinda McClory, was originally written as a trans character, being female inside the matrix but male outside of the matrix. But the studio ultimately nixed that idea, saying the movie world wasn’t ready for a trans character in a major blockbuster.

Lilly Wachowski, who isn’t involved in the new "Matrix" sequel, commented on the fan discussion of the original film as a trans allegory in a Netflix Film Club interview in 2020. “I’m glad that it has gotten out that, you know, that was the original intention, but the world wasn’t quite ready yet … at a corporate level. The corporate world wasn’t ready for it,” she said.

In that interview, Lilly Wachowski admitted she’s not sure how present her transness was in her mind at the time of writing and filming the movie. She said both she and her sister were “existing in this space where the words [for their transness] didn’t exist” — a common experience for many trans people who so often grow up without representation.

My first exposure to trans people was in daytime television shows like "The Jerry Springer Show," where, I learned later, trans people were often exploited for titillation and cheap ratings spikes. This created a warped idea for me of what being trans really meant. Being a trans woman in the '80s and early '90s, when I was growing up, most people assumed it was some form of sexual perversion. It’s traumatic to grow up with a weight like that in the back of your mind, and the good words for being trans were just not part of young people’s lexicon at the time.

Conservatives and their anti-trans radical feminist allies are currently trying to return to a world where trans people are literal social pariahs, assumed to be perverts or misguided souls who can’t see their “true existence” in their birth sex.

But trans kids today are growing up in a different world. More and more people have come out as trans in recent years. There are a great many examples of successful trans people, including the Wachowski sisters. And with the success of shows like Netflix’s "Orange Is the New Black" and Emmy Award-winning "Transparent," it seems as if the corporate media world is slowly waking up to the idea that trans people have a place in media.

Several trans actors — such as Laverne Cox, Alexandra Billings and Asia Kate Dillon — have seen their careers take off. Already-famous actor Elliot Page’s public transition has also made an impact.

Hopefully we’ll get to a place where most people react to a blockbuster trans allegory like “The Matrix” star Keanu Reeves did. In 2020, he was asked about the film’s trans connections in an interview with Yahoo Entertainment. “I think 'The Matrix' films are profound, and I think that allegorically, a lot of people in different versions of the film can speak to that. And for Lilly to come out and share that with us, I think is cool.”

You’re right, Keanu. That is cool.