Goose Masondo explains the significance of trans allegories in our favourite films.
When you think of queer cinema, what comes to mind? Perhaps Brokeback Mountain, the classic gay cowboy romance? Or Blue is the Warmest Colour, the catalyst for lesbian awakenings everywhere in the early 2010s? Or perhaps even more recent additions to the canon, such as Moonlight and Call Me by Your Name? Well, how about The Matrix?
Earlier this year, The Matrix co-director and co-writer Lilly Wachowski made headlines for confirming what fans had been theorising for years — that this trilogy, which forever changed the way science fiction is made and consumed, was intended to be an allegory for the trans experience — or at least, for the Wachowskis’ own experiences as transgender women.
The first Matrix film follows computer programmer Thomas Anderson as he discovers that his reality is a simulation, and as he creates a new, truer identity for himself by the name of Neo. The parallels between the plot of The Matrix and the trans experience are easy to spot when you’re intimately familiar with both, and many trans and cis fans alike had come to this same conclusion, particularly after the Wachowskis’ gender identity was made public. Many fans welcomed Lilly Wachowski’s official confirmation of the fan theory — beyond the satisfaction of having been right, to have the director of a huge blockbuster that is consistently named as one of the best sci-fi films of all time publicly own the transness of this story is huge. The Matrix won four Academy Awards, which is three more than all nominations for any trans person combined (I’m not counting A Fantastic Woman, as the writers, directors, and producers are all cisgender and Daniela Vega was not nominated for her performance). The Matrix is also one of the most influential science fiction movies ever made — it began the trend of blending martial arts and sci-fi, and established the concept of “bullet time”; you know, like The Matrix’s bullet scene. The content of The Matrix being inseparable from its transness not only disrupts the cis patriarchal narrative that science fiction is made for and by straight cis men, but also the cis patriarchal narrative that huge commercial success in film is for and by straight cis men.
But not everyone was as overjoyed as I was. You see, The Matrix has unfortunately found a fanbase amongst an online community of violent misogynists that call themselves “incels”.
Incels refer to the moment that they are radicalised into believing that feminism is the problem with modern society as being “red-pilled”, a reference to the red pill in The Matrix that causes Neo to be enlightened to the true nature of his world. Instead of an unsatisfied, closeted trans person who finds the freedom to be his true self in the Matrix, incels see Neo as a cool hacker who punches bad guys. These fans of the franchise were awfully upset that they now had to think about trans people when deluding themselves about their favourite movie — they could no longer ignore the fact that the lived experiences and identities of the writers and directors had influenced the content of their art.
For those fans, I have some terrible, terrible news: every movie you love is trans.
Blade Runner is set in a dystopian future in which humans and robots are completely indistinguishable, even to themselves. Robots created to look, think, feel, and dream exactly like humans — replicants — are hunted down and “retired”, even though some replicants have memories, emotional responses, and experiences identical to those of humans. The morally nebulous antagonists are a group of replicants who, after discovering that they are not human, demand to be given more life (as they were built with a four-year lifespan) in order to live like humans. The film asks, in a very direct way, what the essence of our humanity is — the ability to bear children; the existence of years of childhood memories; or perhaps a lifespan of a little less than a century. It also answers that question very directly, furtively denying that it is the biological mechanics of our bodies that make us human — or at the very least, worthy of life.
In Fight Club, protagonist Jack (spoilers) hallucinates a manifestation of everything he wishes he was in Tyler Durden — hypermasculine, spontaneous, controlling — not realising that he and Tyler are the same person. This hallucination destroys him and everything around him as he unknowingly keeps up the act that he is Tyler Durden, alienating himself and becoming abhorrent to love interest Marla, the one person he values. It’s only when Jack “kills” Tyler by shooting himself that this stops. Some have theorised that Marla is another of Jack’s hallucinations, personifying the self-destructive, feminine, chaotic side of Jack that he attempts to repress, and can only embrace once he does away with Tyler. Either way, Fight Club presents an image of a man unsatisfied with his masculinity who destroys everything in an attempt to overcompensate. It is the feminine — whether Marla is a hallucination or not — that ultimately saves him.
Similarly, in Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger takes the allegorical role of transfeminine dysphoria, relentlessly chasing the protagonists without end until the masculine dies and the feminine overcomes. In Inception, Leonardo DiCaprio has a woman in his brain.
The truth is, it doesn’t matter whether or not the creator of a piece of art has a specific and closed meaning in mind when making the piece, or whether or not most people agree on one reading. Art is in the eye of the beholder, and if a trans person finds a story like their own in The Matrix — or any of these movies — then that reading is no less valid than the reading of someone who thinks Fight Club is just about fighting. The only thing that isn’t valid is transphobia, and policing anyone’s interpretation of a piece of art because it doesn’t fit your own.