After 20 Years, Do We Need to Reevaluate The Matrix as a Queer Classic?

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After 20 Years, Do We Need to Reevaluate The Matrix as a Queer Classic?

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

Remember, all I’m offering is the Truth. Nothing more.

The Matrix turned 20 years old this year. And for a movie all about car chases, parkour, violent gunfights, and that sweet, sweet bullet-time, it goes too far down the philosophical rabbit hole. Utterly convoluted when it was first released, the trilogy has made for some extreme scholastic obsession over the years over 70 research studies discuss, dissect, and analyse the religious emblems, literary references, psychological archetypes, mythologies, and both western and eastern philosophies present in the films. The Matrix is one big academic wet dream, but the world inside is a horrific nightmare. The humans in the virtual reality have no free will; their journeys are tightly scripted, shackled to the simulation’s code. And this inability to narrate one’s own life story is what resonated heavily with us queer people. This perspective gained traction when both the Wachowskis came out as transwomen in 2008 and 2016. They may have hidden their true selves from the world while making the trilogy, but their deepest longings were visibly integrated into their creations.

You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.

Imagine a world where you are alive lucid and breathing but nothing about it seems right. Buildings look weird, food tastes bizarre, even your body feels like an uncomfortable glitch. Everything around you is an unreliable frame of reference. Are you even real? This is the plight of those who become aware of the matrix while still plugged into it, their consciousness slowly unweaving from the tapestry of code that is allegedly their reality. Escape only comes in the form of a gelatin red pill. To help Neo truly awaken, Morpheus administers him the pill, which initiates an algorithmic disruption, and consequently culminates in Neo being surgically plucked out of the simulation and unceremoniously booted into his own body. The childbirth symbology does not even provoke subtlety: Neo’s awakening is a messy cyberpunk spectacle involving techno-organic tentacles and neon amniotic fluid. This reincarnation, by ingestion of the red pill, bases the entire narrative on one question: Do you want to be free?

Choice. The problem is choice.

To have freedom, we must first choose it. As The One, Neo is met with a plethora of decision nodes, implanted by the Architect to guide him along a predestined path. But every move Neo makes is of his own agency: to escape his counterfeit existence, to take on the role as The One, to save his love, to die for humanity. He chooses his own path, because every step he takes is with the deliberate certainty of freedom. The creators of The Matrix trilogy, the Wachowskis also made a choice that set them free. This candour of theirs has led to a recent reappraisal of their work through a queer lens.

The Matrix is a computer-generated dream world built to keep us under control in order to change a human being into this.

The Wachowskis’ narrative is infused with transcendental themes: mind to body, matrix to reality, bondage to liberty. Here, there is no clear villain, no antagonist. The fight is against the system itself. Every human who refuses integration into the matrix rejects the system for being unnatural. They are outliers, ensnared in a network; they struggle, they fight, they incite rebellions. They are pursued and suppressed by computer programmes which enforce the systemic norm. To those viewers who still haven’t seen the parallels, here is how the characters in The Matrix go through experiences analogical to real-life queer people.

1. The Deception: This world is real, don’t be afraid / I am normal, it’s just a phase.
2. The Turbulence: Why is everything around me turning strange? / Why am I feeling these wrong feelings?
3. The Escape: The matrix is a lie, this is the real world / I am here, I am queer, get used to it.
4. The Oppression: Agents are trying to hunt me down for escaping the matrix / The police are harrassing, blackmailing, and torturing me for being openly queer.
5. The Revolution: We will fight and die to protect our precious city from harm / We will protest, agitate, resist, and sacrifice everything for our liberation.

Tonight, let us tremble these halls of earth, steel, and stone, let us be heard from red core to black sky. Tonight, let us make them remember: THIS IS ZION AND WE ARE NOT AFRAID!

This matrix of meat is utterly sensual; in contrast with the machines’ cerebral matrix, everyone in the bed of bodies wants to be there.

Subtle analogies aside, The Matrix trilogy also brazenly displays queer pride. My favourite scene in all three movies is the tribal techno cave rave party in Matrix: Reloaded. Bodies blend, sweat steams, anklets clink; the shimmering lust shakes the core of the earth itself. De-coded bodies luxuriate in the one act that bifurcates existence into unadulterated human passion and sterile machine logic: fucking. And in Zion (the last human city), fucking includes everyone white, black, women, young, skinny, brown, smooth, men, fat, old, muscular, hairy a gigantic mass of flesh dissolving into an invisible matrix of desire. This matrix of meat is utterly sensual; in contrast with the machines’ cerebral matrix, everyone in the bed of bodies wants to be there. The Wachowskis really did the film good with this scene, even though (and maybe especially because) it made most of its hetero male audience uncomfortable. The rave and consequent orgy poses the age-old question: Does gender/sexuality/race/size/flavour really matter when demon robots are about to kill everyone in the world?

You can’t win, it’s pointless to keep fighting! Why, why do you persist?

Because I choose to.

At the end of the trilogy, Neo sacrifices himself to save Zion’s inhabitants from the machines and forces a permanent restructuring of the matrix. An idealistic closure, as most movie endings are, but how far does it mirror queer narrative? Without a Neo, we have no prime mover to sacrifice himself for us like Jesus on the cross. But that’s the thing: we are Neo, all of us. The responsibility is our burden to bear and to share.

This year celebrates the 50th anniversary of the first queer revolution in the modern era it marks the time a bunch of NYC drag queens decided “fuck the police” and took matters, along with their rights and freedoms, into their own hands (pride marches around the world are a commemoration of this rebellion). And like those beautiful drag queens, the one thing we can and should do is choose, to gouge our paths through the overwhelming blur of heteronormativity. And maybe one day our stories will be heard, and the system finally rebooted to give us our due. Only time will tell.