1999—it was a year that buzzed with excitement, as well as fears. The calendar flipped like it had something to prove: President Bill Clinton was acquitted by the Senate’s impeachment trial, The Sopranos began airing on HBO, and Michael Jordan retired from the NBA for the second time. It was a year where the youngest Gen Xer was turning twenty, just at the beginning of their journey through adulthood. A new century was racing towards us at a pace we hadn’t quite been prepared for, and we became a generation of angst. So, we immersed ourselves in what had allowed many of us to connect to the world at large since childhood: entertainment.
When The Matrix premiered in March 1999, it was one of several generation-defining films to debut that year. The story is simple: a small-time hacker, Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves), is recruited into a resistance against a system where those in power keep everyone asleep in a shell, slowly draining their life force, all in service to the machine. The rebel group led by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) gives Anderson a choice. “The Matrix is everywhere. It’s all around us,” he explains to our protagonist. “It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you to the truth, that you are a slave, born into bondage, in a prison that you cannot touch. Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself. You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the story goes.”
The film, as a whole, is a time capsule of how Gen X was feeling right at that particular moment. Much like The Matrix continues to live on today (a fourth film, The Matrix Resurrections, will be released in December), our Gen X wounds and ideals are resurfacing. As we came of age, we entered a world created by rich, white men who saw everything in black and white, without nuance or awareness (and certainly without sympathy) of the struggles of marginalized people. Our identities and our feelings, we were told, held no value because we were “just kids.” If we dared to speak out, the powers that be, whether it was government, media, or even our parents, immediately shoved us back into the closets they created for us. Binary, reductive, and provincial was the systemic modus operandi of the time. The tolerance rhetoric that was so often preached back then came with a pricey condition: keep everything that makes you unique out of sight. Who would know better about this plight than the trans community?
The trans community has long held that The Matrix is an allegory for the trans experience. Co-director Lilly Wachowski confirmed the theory to be true just a year ago. “The Matrix was all about the desire for transformation,” she states in a video released on Netflix’s Twitter account. “But it was all coming from a closeted point of view.” As the Netflix thread points out, trans writers have been delving into this topic in essays and books ever since the film premiered more than 20 years ago. Unfortunately, much like the trans community it hoped to represent, the movie was not spared from systemic oversight that curbed its true intentions.
Wachowski revealed that in the original script, the character of Switch was to be played by a male in the “real” world and a female in the Matrix to better represent the transformative identity issues at the core of the film. However, the studio decided against the idea. Hollywood loves to pretend it is progressive, but rarely does it ever actually stand behind progressive ideas.
In 1997, Ellen DeGeneres came out on her primetime TV show. She graced the cover of TIME with a headline that simply read, “Yep, I’m gay.” Over 42 million households watched the coming-out episode, a number networks rarely achieve. Yet, just a year later, the network canceled the show citing “low ratings.” DeGeneres’ quest to be her authentic self became a warning instead of a celebration. Yes, the nineties were a more progressive era than what came before, but how much progress was allowed when the buzzword of the time was tolerance instead of acceptance? The message for anyone who didn’t identify as a cisgender, white, heterosexual person was straightforward: stuff everything that makes you unique in a closet, or you too will be shunned.
The Wachowski sisters are Gen Xers themselves and came of age in an era where tolerance and inaction failed the emerging communities it was meant to protect. The war on drugs became a war on Black and brown communities. The country bore witness to law enforcement beating a Black man, Rodney King, on videotape, without ever meeting any consequences for the violent, racist attack. Gen X women scrutinized the way the government and society treated Anita Hill, a brave woman who spoke out against the still seated Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas for sexual harassment. Still, the message was clear: this was the machine we were meant to feed, and it would never release us willingly.
Gen X was never the slacker generation; we’re the Neos of the world—a little jaded, a little depressed, and a little slow to realize our power. There’s a reason so many of us related to The Matrix Resurrections trailer reveal that Neo is now in therapy—we see so much of our own journeys in this character. You see, Gen X took the red pill a long time ago. We slogged and slacked our way through the aughts, and passed on our ideas to the “one” generation that we birthed that continues to save us all: Gen Z. And they make being unplugged look good.