The 25th Anniversary of ‘The Matrix’: Liberation and Co-optation

A quarter century after its release, the film is not just an inspiration. It’s also a cautionary tale about how even the most liberatory dreams can be adopted by the mainstream—and the opposition.

Keanu Reeves and Hugo Weaving face off in The Matrix. Ronald Siemoneit/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)

On the 25th anniversary of The Matrix, the movie remains a cultural touchstone. Its mix of gravity-defying, phenomenal CGI enhanced stunts, martial arts choreography, awesome sunglasses, and Philip K. Dick-esque paranoia set a new standard for cool badass action movie myth-making. 

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If you peel back the layers, though, there’s a bleaker, darker truth under all the shiny success. After a quarter century, the film is not just an inspiration. It’s also a cautionary tale about how mainstream expectations and demands have a way of fitting even the most liberatory dream into a familiar, oppressive matrix. 

As even casual pop-culture fans know, The Matrix (which was released on March 31st, 1999) is set in a far future in which AI has gained sentience and conquered humanity. People are stored in vats where the machines feed off their bioelectricity. To keep humans dormant, their consciousness is inserted into a simulation of life on earth circa 1999. 

Fan cosplay the Matrix
A fan cosplays as Morpheus during the 2018 New York Comic-Con at Javits Center in New York City. Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

Only a few rebels, led by Morpheus (LAurence Fishburne), resist, occasionally entering the Matrix to find others for their cause. Their latest recruit is Neo (Keanu Reeves). Morpheus believes Neo may be the One prophesied to free them from the machines.

The film espouses a generalized rebuke to sterile conformity and authoritarian rule, personified by the malevolent Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving.) The rebels hope for a “world without rules or controls, without borders and boundaries.” They want, like Neo, to toss off their desk jobs, don a lot of leather, and gain the power to run up walls and keep their own hours.

If you’re willing to read the film’s buried codes, though, there’s a good bit more going on here than just generalized anarcho-libertarian-chic. Directors Lana and Lilly Wachowski had not come out as trans when the film was released. But Lilly has since acknowledged that their movie is in many ways allegories of trans experience, trans oppression, and trans liberation. 

Keanu Reeves in The Matrix. Ronald Siemoneit/Sygma/Sygma via Getty Images)

Neo has felt his whole life that he has a “splinter in [his] mind”—that something is not right with the world. And sure enough, he learns that he is not who he thinks he is, and that he is out of place in his own body and society.  Morpheus gives Neo the choice to take a blue pill, which will return him to “normal” life, or a “red pill,” which will allow him to live authentically, even if that authentic life means he will be targeted by the forces of reaction.

Like many trans people, Neo chooses the medical intervention that will allow him to be a true self, despite the dangers and difficulties. The only person who continues to call Neo by his old name, “Mr. Anderson,” is Agent Smith, who wants to insert Neo back into the Matrix of cisheteronormativity, which is also death.

The movie, then, is, directly and intentionally about the homophobic repression of queer people. The Matrix is not just generalized conformity; it’s the closet in particular. In the original script, one character, Switch (Belinda McClory), was supposed to be played by two people—a man in the Matrix and a woman in the real world. But, according to Lilly Wachowski, “the corporate world wasn’t ready for it.” The Wachowskis were not openly trans at the time, and their film wasn’t allowed to be either.

Many trans people in 1999 and since have caught the references to trans experience. But thanks in part to mainstream intervention, trans characters aren’t present in the film, and that means that non-trans people have been able to ignore the film’s politics and paste on their own. The references to oppression have been generalized, and by some fans even inverted.

In his 2021 book Reverse Colonization: Science Fiction, Imperial Fantasy, and Alt-victimhood, scholar David M. Higgins argues that stories like The Matrix are ripe for appropriation by some of the worst people in the world. As Higgins says, The Matrix offers “fantasies that invite audiences to identify with prisoners struggling to achieve liberation in the face of vast systems of manipulation and control.” Since the fantasy isn’t tied tightly to the marginalized experience of any oppressed people, it can be picked up by anyone. Agent Smith can be a part of whatever conspiracy theory you’d like.

In the case of The Matrix, that has meant that the story has been adopted and repurposed by far right misogynists. The Men’s Rights Movement has embraced the phrase “take the red pill.” 

As in the film, for MRAs taking the red pill means confronting and understanding the real world, and the real power structures undergirding the world. In this case, the misogynists believe that evil feminists are the oppressors, and men (especially white men) are unfairly controlled and discriminated against. The Matrix’s storyline is no longer about the way that prejudice poisons the lives of trans and queer people. Instead it’s a paranoid fantasy about the oppression of straight men.

Without doubt the Wachowskis are horrified at far right misuse of their work. When reactionaries Elon Musk and Ivanka Trump joked about taking the “red pill” on Twitter, Lilly Wachowski showed up in their mentions to say, succinctly, “Fuck both of you.”

If the Wachowskis had been allowed to include positive images of trans women in the film, or if they’d been able to make their allegory more pointed and clear, it’s likely that MRAs and Elon Musk would not be attracted to the film. The right has not embraced Get Out, as just one example. 

Jordan Peele’s success suggests that Hollywood is changing in some respects. But in 1999, and still, for big budget blockbusters, the movie industry prefers to downplay content about marginalized people. The powers that be want something less specific and (supposedly) more assimilable by the mainstream. Last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy 3, as just one example, could (like the Matrix) be read as a queer allegory, but (like the Matrix) it was careful not to include actual queer characters.

This doesn’t mean that The Matrix is actually a right-wing film, or that the MRAs are right to view it as such. But it does show how the real-life Matrix that is Hollywood adjusts its program to make sure its viewers’ dreams don’t get too revolutionary or too emancipatory. Even for The Matrix, there were still rules and controls, still boundaries that the Wachowskis weren’t allowed to cross. Someday—maybe before another 25 years pass—we’ll have a trans hero at the center of an action blockbuster. But Agent Smith, and his studio bosses, will fight it every step of the way.

 

 

 

 

The 25th Anniversary of ‘The Matrix’: Liberation and Co-optation