A month or so ago, my dad and I watched The Matrix. I hadn’t seen it since since I was in college and lived in the dorms. That was 2010. I remembered not caring for the film anymore the last time I sat through it. The Matrix (and, to a lesser extent, its sequels) had defined action filmmaking in my early teens and preteen years. Then, I watched it with some friends my sophomore year of college and found it unwatchable. It turned out my childhood instincts were right… sort of.

The Matrix is a deeply problematic allegory about being white and realizing that you’re both trans and that your politics sit somewhere on the spectrum of revolutionary socialism. Mr. Anderson is Neo’s dead name. It’s the one he has to adopt to survive in the corporate blue collar cishet world he inhabits by day. At night, he escapes to a world of genderqueer ravers and hackers seeking valuable corporate data. But, by day, Neo wears the mask of a person who is forced to exist past their death. Keanu Reeves plays Neo with a soft, feminine sincerity and warmth. It’s what he brings to many of his best roles. He falls in love with the masc Trinity, embodied by Carrie Ann Moss’ lean vulnerability and strength. The sapphic undertones of The Matrix are only slightly less apparent than the Wachowski sisters’ crime drama, Bound.

And as Morpheus — the black, middle aged leather queer — offered Neo his ticket to revolutionary class consciousness and gender consciousness, I muttered “I can’t believe how gay this movie is.” I had never picked up on it as a kid. It went over my head. I knew I liked the genderqueer leather aesthetic that dominates the film. I’ve had a things for leather jackets ever since and… I’m trans. But I didn’t have the self-awareness to process the ways in which the film constantly subverts gender.

My dad heard what I said. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

And then Neo took the red pill and woke up in a nightmare.

I paused the movie. And I almost tried to tell my dad what I meant. That the film was marrying wuxia martial arts with transfeminist Marxist theory. That it wasn’t a mistake that Keanu Reeves isn’t a more traditional, more muscular and masculine man. Neo is shot like a woman as often as not, and there is almost no aggressive or defensive posturing in Reeves’ performance. How they spend half the film killing cops. Positively massacring them in some scenes. How the matrix is boring and suffocating but safe and then the real world is hellish suffering and desperate survival. How much the film leans into 90s artqueer aesthetics. It’s nearly a bondage film. How one day you wake up and you decide and you see the world and it looks nothing like it ever did before and you can’t go back to how it used to be

Instead, I sat quietly for half a minute. “Don’t worry about it.” I turned the movie back on.

I wanted to write something about that moment. I sat down and hashed out a couple hundred words on it once but threw it all away not long afterwards. It wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t well enough to do something good enough. It was when my depression was at its worst.

It also wasn’t good enough cause, six months ago, I wrote the essay I wanted that first essay to be. I had already written about how They Live posits the justification for violent revolutionary political action but falters because, sadly, magic sunglasses don’t exist that automatically transfer the mantle of radical consciousness. A person has to make that choice for themselves. Rowdy Roddy Piper can’t make Keith David wear the sunglasses. In its defense, I think They Live knows its limitations.

It will never cease to be a real-life cosmic horror story that “red pill” is a phrase used by the alt-right to describe their indoctrination into vocal white supremacy and explicit patriarchal oppression. It isn’t just an awful perversion of intention because the phrase references a film made by two trans women. It’s horrifying because it references the moment in The Matrix where Neo takes off the goggles of cishet patriarchal capitalism and recognize that he decides who he is and what his body is (and there is so much body horror in The Matrix; rebirths and modifications and irremovable scars) and lives with the choice even though it marks him for extermination. When Neo takes the red pill, he sacrifices his old life and what little comfort it offers because he can no longer live with the contradiction of life as untruth. And that truth that he can no longer ignore is the ugliness and crushing bore of masculine American capitalism. The heroes of The Matrix are hardscrabble and poor in reality but glammed up genderpunks among the unitiated and still jacked in.

That moment with my father forced me to seriously reckon with how useless symbolism can be when others lack the context for your symbols. I was sitting there slack-jawed wondering how trans communists in 1999 felt watching that film. Trying to figure out how the Wachowskis got away with it. And then realizing that it went under the radar because they couched the truly radical content of the film in symbols that would feel just innocuous enough to slip by the majority of cishet viewers.

Everyone in that film is canonically straight or at the bare minimum, potentially ace. The characters aren’t actually queer or trans. They just have fundamentally queer stories and queer aesthetics. The film warps gender with gleeful abandon but nobody talks about pronouns. It wouldn’t have been made if it did. It wouldn’t have been given the budget it was given if it said “We’re murdering cops by the score not because they’re pawns in a computer program (who die in real life when they die in the matrix) but because they’re capable political actors responsible for the upholding of capital and white supremacy and are therefore legitimate targets by those fighting for liberation from oppression and anybody who doesn’t willfully support our campaign against them is a potential traitor to the cause that can’t be trusted.” Literally every person in the matrix that isn’t one of the liberated heroes is a potential vessel for Smith and the other Agents (the anthropomorphized version of law enforcement both cultural and capital) and a threat to those who perceive and live the truth.

It’s hard to square my current feelings about the film with the ones I had before I knew I was trans or someone whose political ideals align more closely to Gramsci than Bernie Sanders. How little I took away from it in my youth. Coming back to it with the red pill flowing through me. Finding myself frustrated at the way the film centers a white man (even if the manhood is just literal canon and not the subtext of the character) in a narrative about revolutionary liberation when white men are the unapologetic oppressors of queer and trans history and the history of people of color.

What did I love about the film as a kid? Were there things that spoke to me in ways that I didn’t recognize when I was youngest but then I learned too much of the worst of masculine capitalism and began to dismiss The Matrix as goofy, pseudo-religious nonsense as a late teen? Was I only interested in the wuxia cyberpunk action fantasy?

I love The Matrix, but it also feels like masturbation, both at the expense of Hollywood but in direct collaboration with it to make money. It winks at the people who know what’s going on and then gladly profits off of the others. I suppose I respect the hustle. But it’s also so close to giving a trans revolutionary what they want without actually doing that. It’s a frustrating duality. Thank Christ then that Sense8 exists.

Like The Matrix, the pilot of Sense8 is a dizzying, virtuosic genre mash-up: transfeminist empathy played against psychic, telepathic global political drama. It plays like Lost Highway-era David Lynch sending up urban seinen anime. It’s magical realist, it’s melodic and rhythmic, it’s unapologetically and unmistakably queer and trans.

Also, like The Matrix, it’s the definition of White Wachowski Wokeness. The bits in Chicago where the folks willing to casually let a child die are people of color while a White Cop is the voice of empathy and heroism. There was supposed to be something honest and raw about the fatalism of the Hispanic Cop and Black Lady Nurse that challenge White Cop’s idealism but it just comes off as extremely short-sighted and misguided in the face of the reality of white police brutality. The Wachowskis have a bad habit of not staying in their lane.

Yet, twenty minutes after I watched the episode, I laid in bed and tried to fall asleep and couldn’t and started crying. I didn’t stop for ten minutes. I remembered the sequence where Freema Agyeman’s Amanita Caplan threatened to kick the ass of a TERF that was disrespecting her girlfriend. The girlfriend, Jamie Clayton’s Nomi Marks, starts crying in this park because nobody has ever stood up for her in that way before. And Amanita comforts her with total, unashamed affection in the middle of a crowded park. Later in the episode, they go see a dance performance piece about the devastation of the worst years of the AIDS epidemic all in the midst of Pride.

I just couldn’t believe I had seen something like that on television. So much of prestige queer television is centered around men. Six Feet Under, Looking, Queer as Folk. They’re stories about the experiences of gay men. The queer lead of Glee was Kurt, not Santana or Britney or (later) Unique. Sure, The L Word existed and Willow and Tara are probably TV’s most famous queer couple, but men dominated queer storytelling. Alan Ball, a queer man, was chosen to run True Blood, which he turned into a tale of queer feminine sexual empowerment and I love its first two seasons, but you have to wonder what that show could have been in the hands of a queer woman. What if Lana Wachowski had a go at it?

Because here is Sense8, and it is so aware of its history and trauma and it is clearly made by a team that has suffered at the abuses of men and deeply feels the solidarity of womanhood. And everything with Amanita and Nomi felt so intimate and affectionate and sincere and free of bullshit that I couldn’t deal with it. And it has radical politics because if you’re trans and you aren’t a radical leftist, you’re a narcissist. If you desire radical expression and self-identity for yourself and not for other oppressed groups and you aren’t willing to make sacrifices that cost you something meaningful through the praxis of your political action, you betray everything that makes being a trans person worthwhile. It’s about believing survivors; it’s about speaking truth to power; it’s about affection (emotional, physical, intellectual); it’s about shouldering loss and pain when another you care for can’t; it’s about the boundless limits of freedom but the responsibilities it also bears.

The show’s brilliance makes the Wachowskis shortcomings as apparent in contrast. The trans and queer narratives are remarkable and gutting. The show emphasizes the history of the AIDS epidemic as a way to underscore queer/trans medical trauma that still exists today. Bullshit bureaucracy that keeps partners away. Laws that respect cis family wishes over the wishes of trans patients. In the second episode, Amanita tells Nomi she’d burn a hospital down if it was keeping her there against her wishes, and she meant it. It was like Dog Day Afternoon, but nobody needed to yell “Attica.” You just got it.

But then, nothing else in the show pops that well yet. The stuff with the white cop feels actively embarrassing. There is just so much white savior bullshit happening that what little patience I had with “The Matrix is the way it is because that’s what they had to do in 1999 to get it made” becomes exhausted. It’s the 2010s; the Wachowskis have fewer excuses. Important characters of color disappear for nearly entire episodes. The Wachowskis crafted a world that overflows with the most personal trauma of life played out against a kaleidoscopic, psychedelic conspiracy. But you just know watching the interlocking stories that unfold in Sense8 which are the ones that the Wachowskis really know and which are the ones they are faking.

And if the Wachowskis want to be the revolutionaries that the characters in their art aspire to be, maybe they could sacrifice some of the control of their art to a broader, intersectional dialectic. The Wachowskis have a platform that they can use to uplift voices other than their own and they don’t but they tell the sorts of stories those others voices are needed for telling and it borders on feeling counterrevolutionary. It defeats the purpose of socialist art because it colonizes it (it’s not a mistake that the show has a TERF use the word “colonize” but they have it used by a white TERF in regards to Nomi’s transness instead of a person of color who could rightfully make those arguments about the show).

I am extraordinarily grateful that something like Sense8 exists. It is precisely the unapologetically femme art/genre show I’ve been looking for… until it runs against the limits of the Wachowskis lived perspectives. Film and television and the “auteurs” that accompany both forms are deeply ingrained in white supremacy and the patriarchy and capitalistic notions of storytelling and structure. The Wachowskis tackle two out of three but when they go for the third, they fall on their face. It seems obvious that they could make queer and trans people of color equal partners in their creative process. But that’s not the show we get. Maybe their work will finally be truly radical and truly revolutionary when they cross that final hurdle.

Sense8

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