In the years since Lana and Lilly Wachowski — the filmmaking sisters formerly known as the Wachowski brothers — both came out as transgender women, fans and film pundits have speculated about the potential themes of gender identity woven into their most famous and widely celebrated cinematic contributions, The Matrix trilogy (1999-2003).
“Trans women have claimed The Matrix as an allegory for gender transition since at least 2012, when Lana Wachowski publicly came out,” noted Vulture’s Andrea Long Chu in a 2019 analysis of the piece (Lilly followed suit in 2016).
The writer pointed to that its hero Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) lives a double life — programmer by day, hacker by night — and chooses the alias “Neo” for the latter. There are comparisons of the red pill — the choice that sends Neo on an eye-opening (and eye-popping) odyssey from the shackles of a machine-generated virtual dream world to the futuristic reality — to red estrogen pills. The description used by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) of the Matrix’s warnings that something is wrong, “like a splinter in your mind,” is looked at as a play on gender dysphoria, the distress a person feels when their gender identity contrasts with their sex assigned at birth.
The Wachowskis have rarely discussed the interpretations, until now.
“I’m glad people are talking about The Matrix movies with a trans narrative,” Lilly says in a new Netflix Film Club video commemorating the 21st anniversary of the first release (watch above). “I love how meaningful those films are to trans people and the way that they come up to me say, ‘Those movies saved my life.’ Because when you talk about transformation, specifically in the world of science fiction, which is just about imagination and world-building and the idea of the seemingly impossible becoming possible, that’s why it speaks it to them so much. And I’m grateful I can be a part of throwing them a rope along their journey.”
Asked specifically about the theories surrounding the trilogy’s trans allegories (via overlaying Matrix-y green computer font), Lilly confirmed that she and Lana were indeed commenting on gender identity.
“I’m glad that it has gotten out that that was the original intention,” she says. “The world wasn’t quite ready for it. The corporate world wasn’t ready for it.”
The Matrix was released by Warner Bros. on 31 March, 1999 and quickly exploded into a pop culture phenomenon, earning close to a half-billion dollars worldwide. Its two highly anticipated sequels, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, were both released in 2003. A fourth film is in the works for 2022.
Lilly also discussed the character of Switch (Belinda McClory), who in the original script was intended to be gender fluid before the idea was ultimately scrapped.
“The Matrix stuff was all about the desire for transformation, but it was all coming from a closeted point of view,” she says. “We had the character of Switch, who would be a man in the real world and then a woman in the Matrix, and that’s where [both of] our head spaces were.”
The co-writer and co-director says it’s hard to describe how present her trans identity was at the time of the trilogy’s conception, especially given the term not had yet been popularised before the turn of the century.
“But it all came from the same sort of fire that I’m talking about,” she says. “Especially for me and Lana, we were existing in this space where the words didn’t exist, so we were always living in a world of imagination. It’s why I gravitated toward science fiction and fantasy and playing Dungeons and Dragons. It was all about creating worlds. And so I think it freed us up as filmmakers because we were able to imagine stuff at that time that you didn’t necessarily see on screen.”