the matrix

What We Can Learn About Gender From The Matrix

Keanu Reeves as Neo from The Matrix. Photo: Pari Dukovic for New York Magazine

Trans women have claimed The Matrix as an allegory for gender transition since at least 2012, when Lana Wachowski publicly came out as a trans woman while doing press for the film Cloud Atlas. (Her sister Lilly followed suit in 2016.) The symbolism is easy to find: Thomas Anderson’s double life (he’s a hacker by night), his chosen name (Neo), his vague but maddening sense that something is off about the world — “a splinter in your mind,” Morpheus calls it. Neo has dysphoria. The Matrix is the gender binary. The agents are transphobia. You get it.

And then there’s the red pill itself, less a metaphor for hormone therapy than a literal hormone. Many have pointed out online that, back in the ’90s, prescription estrogen was, in fact, red: The 0.625-mg. Premarin tablet, derived in Matrix-like fashion from the urine of pregnant mares, came in smooth, chocolaty maroon. Twitter users now gleefully brandish this fact as a “well, actually”–style rejoinder to the alt-right’s recent co-optation of the red-pill scene as a parable for “awakening” from feminist brainwashing.

There’s something to this kind of reclamation. Taken seriously, it suggests that the red-piller’s resentment of immigrants, black people, and queers is — and this is no metaphor — a sadistic expression of his own gender dysphoria. He is, after all, an abortive man, a beta trapped in an alpha’s body. Those around him assume he is a leader, a provider, a president, but his greatest fear is that they are mistaken. He radicalizes — shoots up a school, builds a wall — in order to avoid transitioning, the way some closeted trans women join the military in order to get the girl beaten out of them.

But let’s face it: Allegorically is the least interesting way to read anything. Nothing ruins a question like an answer; the world is weirder than that. Consider, for instance, that the most common form of orally administered prescription estrogen today is probably the beveled, flat-faced 2 mg estradiol pill supplied by the Israeli pharmaceutical company Teva. It is, as it happens, blue.

Technically, it’s aquamarine — a tiny, coarse lozenge that turns to powder on my tongue. I take the blue pill twice a day, once in the morning and again before bed, sending myself back into the dream. In this version of the story, the hidden trans woman is not Neo but Cypher, the Nebuchadnezzar’s own Judas, who agrees to hand Morpheus over to the machines in exchange for being reinserted into the Matrix. “Ignorance is bliss,” he tells Agent Smith, mouth full of juicy, nonexistent steak. “I don’t wanna remember nothing. Nothing. You understand?”

For to exit the Matrix is not to know the truth but to discover the poverty of knowledge. “Welcome to the desert of the real,” Morpheus intones after Neo takes the red pill. There’s a reason the real is a desert. What good is the truth if nothing grows there? The notion that gender was socially constructed, instead of biological fact, was intended to free people like me from our assigned sexes. It did this, perhaps, but only at the cost of the very categories into which we sought entry. As a good feminist, I know there’s no such thing as a woman. As a woman, I resent this.

I’m saying I don’t wanna remember nothing, either. That’s a better definition of reality than most: the things we get to forget.

Adapted from Andrea Long Chu’s Females: A Concern, coming out in October 2019, from Verso Books.

*This article appears in the February 4, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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What We Can Learn About Gender From The Matrix