Just a day after the trailer for The Matrix Resurrections dropped, fans on Twitter are relitigating the original trilogy of films. At the center of the conversation is the somewhat recent reevaluation of the trilogy of films as an allegory for being transgender, with filmmakers, critics, and fans all weighing in.
The Matrix As Trans Allegory
The reading emerged in the popular consciousness a few years ago after both directors, Lilly and Lana Wachowski, both came out as trans women in the 2010s.
Lilly Wachowski herself invited such speculation in her 2016 GLAAD Media Award speech, and later reaffirmed the reading in a 2020 Netflix Film Club interview, saying “That was the original intention…but the corporate world wasn’t ready for it.”
It solidified what some fans already saw in the movie’s themes of identity and nonconformity as a trans experience, though its popularization is also in part a reaction to “men’s rights activists” (re: terminally online misogynists) attempts to co-opt the imagery of the film (like the red pill).
Further, we know from a 2012 profile of Lana in The New Yorker that her personal struggles with understanding her gender and coming out came to a head during work on the second and third films.
But intentionality and the art that gets made are two different things, and it’s well known that more direct allusions to transness like Switch’s different gender presentations in the Matrix and IRL were removed from the final product audiences are now discussing.
The current conversation was sparked by a tweet problematizing the critical reading that the films are an allegory for being transgender. While some fans would hold that understanding the films as such is central to making sense of the iconic sci-fi dystopia world, Dan Olson poked some admittedly pedantic holes in the reading.
Olson, a film critic and video essayist whose YouTube channel, Foldable Ideas, has over 480,000 followers, argues in his initial thread that allegories are one-to-one connections between meaning and symbolic representation in a text. Olson offers the example of the red pill, which reveals the truth of the Matrix’s virtual reality to the characters in the films. The pills, he argues, do not “literally [represent] spironolactone,” a common hormone blocker used in some hormone replacement therapies.
His example is a bit fraught, however, as the red pill has also been speculated to represent another drug used in hormone replacement therapies: estradiol. Olson and others probably recognize the hormone in the form of tiny blue tablets, but at the time of filmmaking, estradiol was commonly made in the likeness of red pills.
This doesn’t really settle it, though. Is that the only meaning of the films’ red pills? Was the color intentionally chosen? If it seems pedantic, it is! If arguing about it ruins the films for you, then stop reading about 300 words ago! But this kind of critical conversation can be fun in the realm of ambiguity left by the Wachowski sisters’ comments.
In the aforementioned Netflix interview, Lilly states “I don’t know how present my transness was in the background of my brain as we were writing it…we were existing in a space where the words didn’t exist so we were always living in a world of imagination.”
Given her comments, maybe the standard of allegory diminishes the affordances the sisters had personally and in Hollywood at the time, and takes something away from what can be considered a premier work of trans art. Lilly herself admits that what trans themes are present are from the perspective of someone in the closet.
Whether the films are technically allegory or not, it’s clear that the meaning of the films, to cis and trans fans, emerges somewhere after the directors’ visions, and continues to be actively made as we discuss the films together through time.