My Name Is Neo: Transgender Self-Discovery In THE MATRIX

Twenty years makes a real difference in understanding the Wachowskis and myself.

I first saw The Matrix when I was about ten years old. Like pretty much everyone else at the time, I was blown away by the special effects, and my pre-adolescent mind gripped steadfastly to the solipsistic notion that our world might not be as real or concrete as we were told or would like to believe. As a gamer kid who loved superhero power fantasies, the idea of The Matrix was revolutionary, and the film and its sequels helped introduce me to the interconnectivity of online friendships based on hobbies and fandoms. In some minuscule way, it might even have been the seed that germinated into writing articles like this one.

But there was a layer of subtext to the Wachowskis’ breakout film that I certainly didn’t latch onto at the time, one that has since become pretty widely acknowledged as a legitimate reading of a work that turned out to be more personal to the Wachowskis than any of us knew in 1999. Lana Wachowski came out as a transgender woman in 2010, and Lilly Wachowski came out in 2016. The Matrix, for all its talk of enforced reality and system-smashing anarchism, was likely never just about power fantasy and combating feelings of insignificance in the daily grind of corporate America. It is a film about transition into a truer, freer version of oneself in a world that resists you doing so, and it is informed by the Wachowski sisters’ experiences as closeted transgender women.

I can’t claim to know the minds of Lana and Lilly Wachowski, but as with any work of art the viewer brings as much to the interpretation as the artist, even when the artists’ intent is clear. I don’t take my own transgender identity to be any sort of authority on anyone’s experiences but my own. I also recognize that many of my takeaways from The Matrix as an adult are by no means original in light of two decades of academic study on one of the most philosophically-mined films in popular culture. (The basis for this article was inspired by points made by Bob Chipman in a video that has since been taken down on YouTube.) I come to you today with a series of observations, things that a ten-year-old me did not grasp for want of exposure to a world I did not know existed, a world both within myself and in the world at large. The Matrix did not help me know myself in this way, but knowing myself now makes me appreciate The Matrix in ways I never did before.

The first thing that sprung out to me upon my recent rewatch was how isolated Neo is at the start of the film. He’s a hacker, spending his life in solitude in front of a screen building programs for extra cash. Neo is a pseudonym adopted for the anonymity of this faceless, online lifestyle, but during the day he puts on an ill-fitting suit and is known by his boss and coworkers as Mr. Thomas Anderson, emphasis on the “Mister” for the sake of depersonalizing the man from any sense of individuality or uniqueness. But as with many who work in office jobs, Neo’s passions are directed into a life outside of work, so much so that this professional version of himself is more rightly an alias than the self-crafted persona Neo has in the hacker community.

This echoes a fairly common way by which many transgender folks discover their own sense of self-identity: through online personas. Particularly in the infancy of the internet’s popular proliferation, pop cultural understanding of transgender identity was largely limited to fringe independent films portraying drag culture – a distinct gay subculture that is often conflated with the transgender community – and broad comedies where transgender characters served as the butt of dehumanizing jokes. Safety in public has always been an issue for the trans community, but the advent of the internet allowed for an exploration of self that could exist independently of physical space and allowed people to connect with others who shared particular needs and experiences. Agent Smith says to Neo that “it seems you’ve been living two lives,” and for many transgender folks that is just their reality, presenting their true selves in anonymity or in private while going back to work or school every day as “Mr. Anderson.”

And often times, that search for community is a craving for something ill-defined and intangible. As Morpheus says, “What you know you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life, that there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad.” Neo knows there’s something wrong with how he fits in with the world, something about himself that doesn’t feel right, and the internet has been his refuge from that “real” world. But Morpheus and the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar see in Neo something they see in themselves, a potential to break beyond the constraints of societal norms and embrace one’s true self. Maybe this is best expressed when Neo first meets Trinity, telling her he thought she was a guy. “Most guys do,” she replies. On surface, this is a cheeky nod to the assumed default maleness ascribed to anonymity, but from a queerer point of view, Trinity is signaling to Neo and the audience that true selves and social assumptions are a gulf apart.

So once Neo takes the red pill and becomes the Alice of Morpheus’s metaphorical tumble into Wonderland, he is subjected to a near-literal rebirth, a slippery, naked slide out the mechanical canal from a womb he never knew he needed to vacate. Rebirth is probably a bit of a strong term for how most trans folks experience transition, but as a metaphor for starting one’s life over with a new understanding of the world and your place within it, it’s fitting. Neo’s training revolves around a mastery of the mental to manipulate the apparently physical, or, to put it another way, he is coming to understand himself so as to make his body within the Matrix the best and most versatile version of itself. This, of course, manifests in the fight choreography and superhuman maneuvering the film is famous for, but it also comes across in more subtle ways. Neo walks with notably more confidence and seems at home with a social circle that he shares more in common with than anyone he interacted with in his previous “real” life. His clothes are more form-fitting and his hair no longer looks unkempt. He starts to revel in the reality he has discovered, the newfound goal of shattering the strictures that kept him from discovering his true self. Trinity tells Neo that “the Matrix cannot tell you who you are,” and instead he has found a community that allowed him to discover for himself who he is, just as many trans people did and do in the anonymous safety of chat rooms, blogs, and FAQ sites.

The most telling portrayal of transgender identity in The Matrix comes from Agent Smith’s iconic insistence in calling Neo “Mr. Anderson.” The agents of the Matrix are shown to be enforcers of a world order, determined to stamp out nonconformity at all costs and with seemingly limitless power for the sole purpose of keeping people ignorant to their potential. When society at large is constantly reinforcing that your identity is false, that your self-perception is a deviation that needs curing like a virus, the world can feel a lot like it’s run by hostile forces even without the personification of a white man in a dark suit. Even when you have started the journey of self-actualization, there might be that voice in your head telling you that you’re a fraud, a faker, that you don’t deserve to be happy because society will never accept you as you are or who you want to be.

In 2012, Lana Wachowski gave a speech where she revealed that, as a teenager, she battled with depression brought on by feelings of gender dysphoria and an inability to express those feelings. She once nearly committed suicide by throwing herself in front of a subway train.  In The Matrix, Agent Smith, the ever-present symbol of social order within the Matrix, holds Neo in front of an oncoming subway train, telling Neo “That is the sound of inevitability. That is the sound of your death.” Neo only is able to resist Smith and the oncoming train after resisting Smith’s insistence on calling him “Mr. Anderson,” stating:

“My name is Neo.”

Of course, this parallel might not be consciously related to Lana Wachowski’s experience, and it would be disingenuous of me to say with absolute certainty that this translation of life experience into allegory was intentional, but I think the parallel at least serves to demonstrate how The Matrix functions as an allegory of transgender empowerment. Neo’s realization as The One is an embrace of his truest self – an embrace of his chosen name – a notion so radical that he is able to bend reality to his whims and destroy the agents of oppression that keep others imprisoned as he was. As a child, I understood this to be a sort of Randian ideal, an affirmation that I could do anything so long as I took it upon myself to change the rules that constrained me. As an adult, I see myself in Neo in a different way, as someone with the strength to stand up and be myself, to fight back against a world that resists my presence for the simple sin of existing. The Matrix serves as one of the very few examples of transgender narrative in mainstream popular culture to be informed by the writing and direction of transgender auteurs, and it does so through an allegory that is potent enough that multitudes found it relatable even without the context of who its creators really were. Knowing myself better now than I did as a child has led me to appreciate that inherent queerness all the more, and maybe Lana and Lilly Wachowski woke up a few Neos and sparked a revolution of their own by showing us that we don't need to be confined by our own Matrix.