20 Years of Jacking In

By Penny Robo

Penny RoboToday, the 31st day of March, 2019, marks exactly 20 years since The Matrix hit theater screens and finally gave Keanu Reeves a new recognizable character to be identified with next to Ted “Theodore” Logan. No, “that guy from Speed” doesn’t count. Imitators sprung from the woodwork soon after, either fully informed by the film’s aesthetics (Underworld, anyone?) or quickly rejiggered in post for a quick buck (the Snipes vehicle Art of War and its freeze-frame bullet-time knockoff comes to mind) – but it’s safe to say that the core of the film, the essence that made its distinctive visuals resonate beyond the immediate visceral impact, was largely left alone by its half-baked clones.

As noted by countless thousands of people, many much smarter than me, The Matrix worked as a cyberpunk allegory for being, and coming to terms with being, transgender long before not even one but both members of the writer/director duo of siblings behind the film came out as trans. Introverted as they are, we don’t know if the film was informed by conscious awareness or merely nagging subconscious suspicions, but it’s difficult to escape either way: the overt presentation of unease with the world at large, and discomfort with predetermined avenues of being, that ultimately gives way to the discovery of reality as a construct built not of truth or even necessity but of convenience and comfort for groups you’re very much not a part of? Yeah, that’s dysphoria and depersonalization in sci-fi form.

Somehow, someway, The Matrix had managed to encapsulate the feelings behind gender dysphoria and present them to an audience in a way that was so readily graspable, people largely couldn’t see it as being allegorical until the tabloid-publicity of the Wachowskis’ transitions and the rise of social media permitting an ongoing commentary from the trans community.

Disguising socio-political issues in thin costumes to create a narrative capable of getting around ingrained ideological self-defense mechanisms was a sci-fi staple, but The Matrix managed to do that on a worldwide stage without giving away the game. Of course, it had a lot of help due to the sheer density of what was contained within the film, with so much referencing of philosophy and obvious homages to (or lifts from) other geek-oriented media, there were a lot of layers of much more obvious material to cut through without offering the primary theme of the film more than a passing glance.

The wonder of crafting such a broad and universally appealing disguise for the issues of gender dysphoria and depersonalization is that most people found a way to suddenly and unexpectedly empathize with a group that was, for the most part, merely hypothetical creatures. The cruel irony is that the message was so deeply buried that many were able to skip directly past the whole “human empathy” bit, and land squarely on projecting their own personal beliefs onto the shallowest layers of the allegory.

The most painfully obvious being the “redpill” movement, and how dickholes the world over have managed to convince themselves that a movie made by two trans women about how one’s path in life need not conform to the narrative assigned to them is actually about how equality is a sham. But then again, one must remember that whole groups of scumbags have adopted the Guy Fawkes mask sported by the titular V of the Wachowskis-penned film version of V for Vendetta… you know, the movie that painstakingly paints the torture and attempted eradication of underserved and underrepresented communities (most explicitly LGBT people) as evil acts, tools of an evil organization? The comic that, should you bother to read it, heavily hints that V himself is the product of forced HRT to “correct” a lesbian woman by turning her into a man?

That groups of people dedicated to being abhorrent and sexist/racist/homophobic/xenophobic/etc. should also prove itself to be populated almost exclusively by very, very, very ignorant people isn’t surprising, but stealing such explicitly pro-LGBT imagery as their own is still massively disappointing. We could be living in a world where awesome sci-fi getups are the default iconography of the LGBT community; instead we get drag queens. Are you happy, MRAs and internet edgelords? You’d never have to see RuPaul again if you just let us have the Wachowskis.

It’s a shame that the sequels never managed to hit those highs of the original; when the philosophical musings went from textural – something to give a sense of depth to the proceedings – to cornerstones of the plot and story at the expense of basic human feelings, even the slightest slip in VFX verisimilitude went from an annoyance at most to an immersion-shattering event. Strangely enough, their critically-panned box-office bomb Speed Racer managed to conjure up more genuine human emotion amidst the backdrop of life-size HotWheels car smashups than the climax of The Matrix’s three-film character arcs. Thankfully, I’m very, very used to ignoring disappointing sequels… my favorite movie is RoboCop, after all. So I can always enjoy The Matrix the same, whether it was the beginning of an empire or a forgotten flop.

It’s been 20 years now, and there’s still yet to be anything that has managed to tap into the same part of us, collectively, and also given our community such a glorious public face. But time flies, and when the next film or show comes along, we’ll be in a place where it can be truly appreciated and not subsumed by the darkest corners.

After all, next year not only will The Matrix be old enough to drink, but the same amount of time will have passed since Keanu Reeves first flew up into the screen as Neo, as had when Christopher Reeve did the same as Superman, 21 years before The Matrix. Time flies, indeed.

About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender healthcare, public health, psychiatry, and history of medicine, integrating these many perspectives and guided by the lived experiences of trans people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
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