The Real Red Pill: What Men Still Get Wrong About 'The Matrix' and 'Sense8'
The cancellation of the Wachowski sisters' humanist scifi series highlights the diffuse boundaries between politics and pop culture at a turbulent time in American history.
Photo courtesty of Murray Close/Netflix, Overlay via Flickr User Tony Werman
I learned that Sense8 had been cancelled from my network of transgender women on the internet. They wrote angry Facebook entries admonishing Netflix for doing away with one of the most positive media representations of LGBT and racially diverse characters. But they also admitted embarrassment for caring deeply about something as decadent as television. The cancellation of any TV series may feel unimportant, but Sense8 is an example of the counter that art and culture make to divisive political turmoil—the kind that we are currently living with in 2017.
The Wachowski sisters' Netflix series ran for two seasons and made major strides for diversity on film: shot in countries around the world, Sense8 featured a cast so diverse it echoed the triumph that Star Trek had been in the 1960's. Sense8 represented racial and ethnic backgrounds from around the world, as well as sexual orientations and activities that radically bent the bar of sex and gender norms (the all-cast psychic orgies made great headlines). But the series staked hearts in the trans community largely due to the seamless inclusion of a transgender lesbian blogger and hacker named Nomi, portrayed by Jamie Clayton, an actor who is actually transgender.
As one trans girl on Facebook put it: "Nomi from Sense8 is a lot of the girls on the internet."
Before the Wachowski sisters created Sense8, the Wachowski "brothers" created one of the most successful and iconic science fiction films in history. The Matrix debuted in 1999 to critical acclaim and its impact on culture is still evident today, nearly 20 years later.
In the film, the Matrix referred to a simulated world that seemed to be real but wasn't. Mankind had been plugged into it subconsciously by fascist machines that fed off their unconscious imprisonment. For many transgender men and women, this symbolism has always resonated; we grew up in a gendered world designed by other people's imagination, imprisoned in bodies with illusory boundaries that we were falsely told could not be crossed.
In The Matrix, one could escape the simulation by swallowing a red pill—but though taking that pill would wake you, the real world beyond the Matrix was traumatic. When we watched the film more than a decade ago, trans people were reminded that we had our own red pills to reckon with; would we be willing to spend the rest of our lives asleep inside someone else's reality, or would we take the painful risk to obtain autonomy—however brutal our lives became?
The red pill symbolizes an awakening from brainwashing by the status quo—and though it has been an iconic emblem within trans communities since The Matrix's release, it has also been appropriated by a community of cisgender heterosexual men who have perverted the concept by casting themselves as the unwitting victims of a master plot in which they have been subordinated by social progress.
This has taken on specific pertinence in 2017, as the red pill concept has splintered off into the lexicon of politically conservative men. According to New York Magazine, "To the alt-right, [the red pill] means revealing the lies behind multiculturalism and globalism, and realizing the truth of isolationist nationalism." This is poignant in its irony; men of the far right are using the language of trans women to name the misguided concept that they must escape from an oppressively progressive political future.
In its own way, Sense8 is a red pill for an artificial industry dominated by white, straight, cisgender characters written by white, straight, cisgender men. The same could be said of Washington, where white men possess disturbingly expansive control. The boundaries between pop culture and politics have always bled together, but today—with a reality TV star as the President of the United States—those boundaries have become difficult to discern at all.
The Red Pill has been appropriated by cisgender, heterosexual men.
In addition to being the brainchild of two genius sisters, Sense8 is in part a product of the cultural changes that preceded it. The series arose in the wake of Orange is the New Black and Transparent. In the last few years, trans actors have begun to appear throughout the film industry with more frequency than ever before. At the same time, the Obama administration worked actively for the rights of transgender Americans—bringing this population out of obscurity and into the mainstream.
But these cultural touchstones were set before the 2016 US Presidential election. When Laverne Cox was on the cover of Time, many of us were naive enough to believe that social progress moved in one direction; the political clock couldn't turn backward. Yet today there are powerful forces working against the liberty of trans Americans in states across the nation. The aid offered by the Obama administration has been withdrawn by Trump's, and there are growing fears that the needs of one of our nation's most vulnerable minority groups will be, once again, neglected.
Culture moves much more quickly than politics and the entertainment industry has a powerful ability to shape public norms. At the GLAAD Awards this year, president Sarah Kate Ellis wagered that Will & Grace had done more for gay rights in the US than anything else. Would the legalization of gay marriage have been possible without the combined efforts of pop culture and political activism?
All of this may be irrelevant to Netflix, which may have canceled Sense8 solely because it is so expensive to shoot—but that's not why the cancellation has disturbed so many people. Sense8 tapped into something bigger than ourselves and boldly advocated unity across borders of country, race, or sex.
Transgender Americans have been erased from history. Our population's greatest needs intersect with communities of color, immigrant populations, and the economically disenfranchised. Sense8 may just be one show in a capitalist machine, but the humanist values that the Wachowski sisters coded into their program can silence viral political powers that threaten communities around the globe.
At times, I fear that the transgender tipping point may have been upturned—and this fear is linked to something more meaningful than anyone's attachment to fictional entertainment; the transgender Wachowski sisters created a series about the unbreakable unity between global circles of diverse people who were more powerful together than they could ever be apart.
Before we changed our sex we lived in the shadows of powerful people who told us how to be. The world seemed real—our bodies seemed real—but in the end it was an emulation. When the Wachowski sisters offered us the red pill, we took it. And we're awake now.