Begin Transmission

You are probably all aware of the idea that parts of the Matrix films are a trans allegory; the most famous example being that the red pill actually represents Premarin, a common form of estrogen medication back in the 20th Century. Just how much else there is in the films is open to question, but the thesis of Begin Transmission: The trans allegories of The Matrix by Tilly Bridges is that the entire film cycle (including the animated shorts and the fourth film) form one massive and intricately crafted allegory of trans life.

Back in Emerald City days I found myself fascinated by books that claimed to reveal all of the clues hidden in Gene Wolfe’s massive New/Long/Short sun books. There’s no way I could verify that they were right, if only because I would have to become as obsessive as the books’ authors in order to check everything. But reading them was sure fun. Begin Transmission is a book in a similar vein. It is chatty rather than claiming academic rigour, but the issues are the same. I have not gone back and watched the films again, stopping them at each time mark to verify what Bridges says about them. But I did enjoy going down the rabbit hole.

The central thesis of the book is that Neo is a trans woman. The Matrix represents the false world that she’s forced to live in, and by taking the red pill (estrogen) she can enter the real world as her true self. But the path of transition is never smooth, and there are friends and enemies along the way. Trinity represents Neo’s post-transition self. Moebius (dream) represents her unconscious, the Oracle her heart and so on. Smith, with his constant misgendering (Mister Anderson) represents the forces of transphobia.

Other members of the cast represent various types of trans person. In particular The Merovingian is a trans woman who is afraid to transition and supresses her desires.

But wait, there’s more. Bridges suggests that the choices of colour in the film have meaning. Red represents truth, blue doubt, and yellow fear. By looking at how scenes and characters are lit, you can tell how Neo is feeling at the time.

The four films represent different aspects of the trans experience. The first one is about the initial decision to transition. Reloaded is about the post-transition experience. Revolutions is about dealing with the forces of transphobia in the world. And Resurrections picks up Neo’s story after she has had a crisis of confidence and decided to detransition.

Oh, and there are a whole lot of other visual cues as well, many of which are visible only if you are the sort of obsessive who keeps stopping the film to see exactly what’s on screen. My favourite example is that the length of Neo’s jacket in Resurrections keeps changing. The shorter it is, the more she is backsliding into detransition. The longer it is, the more it moves like a dress.

Oh, and there’s the whole ‘denial beard’ thing. Trans women often grow a beard in an attempt to masculinise themselves and avoid the pain of transition. (I couldn’t even manage a moustache, and hated facial hair, but that’s another story.) In Resurrections, the detransitioned Neo sports a denial beard. Once she has made the decision to retransition, the beard goes away.

Do I believe all of this? I certainly believe that the Wachowskis are smart enough to have done it. I’m not going to sit down and check every claim that Bridges makes. And I don’t think I have to. What I will say is that Bridges has provided a fascinating, in-depth reading of the films. What she says about them is absolutely a valid interpretation.

However, I would be very wary of saying that Bridges has uncovered “The Truth” about the films. First up, I think that the Wachowskis are smart enough to have layered other meanings into their work as well. Second, I believe that any work of art is a collaboration between the creator and the consumer. If a film has a particular meaning for you, that is a valid meaning. I do not subscribe to the idea that a work of art has one, and only one, correct interpretation, which is that which the creator intended for it. Indeed, the foremost champion of that type of literary criticism is one K*thleen St*ck, who also has some very extreme views about people having only one correct interpretation. No trans person should want to find themselves on her side in an argument.

Having said that, Begin Transmission is an amazing piece of work, and a great example of the sort of film criticism that can be done if you put your mind to it. It also has a Trans Mission. Bridges clearly hopes that her book will be read by many cis people, and has carefully explained a whole lot of key points about trans people and trans politics along the way. Quite how many cisgender readers she will get, I don’t know. Trans people are doubtless snapping up the book, but we are few in number. Whether it finds a wider audience is another matter. But I am reviewing it here because I think you should give it a try. If nothing else it will tell you a lot about how clever some filmmakers are.

book cover
Title: Begin Transmission
By: Tilly Bridges
Publisher: BearManor Media
Purchase links:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
See here for information about buying books though Salon Futura