Flinging 21st-century action films into total chaos, the 1999 science fiction film The Matrix suggested a new era for the genre of gun-slinging, action hero cinema with a brand new way of approaching filmmaking from both a narrative and technological level. Though, perhaps more than its legacy as an action film, The Matrix should be more widely recognised for its confirmed transgender allegory.
When The Matrix was released in 1999, sisters Lana and Lilly Wachowski publicly identified as male, even if under the skin they felt far different. Coming out as transgender in 2010, it is highly rumoured that Lana Wachowski had felt as such since 2003, whilst her sister Lilly came out in 2016 after a long internal battle with their own identity. Throughout this time, not only did the sisters make the iconic Matrix trilogy but they also brought the likes of Speed Racer, Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending.
Whilst they are known for many films, it is the Matrix that remains their magnum opus, concealing a far more personal story than the story might suggest. Subtextually following a man who breaks free from his oppressive confines and finds enlightenment through finding himself, the plot of the film mirrors the breakthrough of a transgender person from their inner self into the outer world.
Speaking to Netflix in 2020, co-director Lilly Wachowski stated, “The Matrix stuff was all like about the desire for transformation but it was all coming from a closeted point of view”. Noting that “the corporate world wasn’t ready” for such an allegory, Lilly reports that she is pleased the deep message of the film got through to so many people. Approached by fans of the film who thank her for her film, Lilly believe it is the strong subtext of the film that acts as The Matrix’s strongest element, noting, “When you talk about transformation, specifically in the world of science fiction which is just about imagination and worldbuilding and the idea of the seemingly impossible coming possible…that’s why it speaks to them so much”.
Such can be clearly demonstrated in the character of Switch in the original film, played by Belinda McClory, a character who shows “where our headspaces were” as Lilly states. An androgynous character, Switch “was a character who would be a man in the real world and then a woman in the Matrix,” well reflecting the state of mind of both co-directors.
Once the characters of the film itself are freed from their shackles they reject their names of the Matrix and assign themselves new gender-neutral names, with Morpheus, Trinity, Switch, Neo, Cypher, Tank and Mouse cladding themselves in androgynous black clothes. Transcending the limitations of their physical body, whilst evading the control of society, personified in the antagonist Agent Smith, the lead cast of characters each represents the urge of the director’s to properly identify themselves.
The Matrix gave directors Lana and Lilly Wachowski a platform in which they could express themselves and their true feelings toward their own inner identity. Where popular media was still reluctant to discuss such topics, the Wachowski’s chose a bombastic cosmic tale to tell their story. As Lilly explains, “Because trans people exist in this, 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 towards science fiction and fantasy”.