Beginning to Believe: A Reflection on The Matrix

A reflection on the transformative power of The Matrix. 
A reflection on the transformative power of The Matrix

Eliza Ruiz on cinema as self-actualizing thesis, experienced through the Wachowski sisters’ iconic sci-fi game-changer, The Matrix.

Content note: this essay contains mention of suicidal ideation, murder statistics, discussion of dysphoria, face, identity, feelings, hormones, anatomical markers such as body hair and breasts, detransitioning, healthcare affordability, workplace issues, family rejection, Elon Musk, and Ivanka Trump.

Statistically, most people look at themselves in the mirror around eight times a day; I prefer to go full weeks without seeing myself even once.

Mirrors have never been kind to me. Since first developing the pubescent consciousness that awakens an eternal comparison of the shapes of my body to others, reflective surfaces have spat at me with a kind of acidity that clings to and corrodes the skin. Nothing ever seems to be in the right place; my eyebrows are too thick, my forearms too skinny, my legs too hairy, my jawline far too pronounced… it goes on. On most days, I prefer wearing long-sleeved shirts and jeans that cover as much skin as possible—the less I have to be reminded of what I do not see, the better.

I was brought into this world with an ‘M’ on my birth certificate, given a biblical name that translates to ‘God with us’. Growing up in a traditional, evangelical household, it was a meaning I would be reminded of throughout my life. Often, though, The Lord felt just as absent as any father figure I would go on to have. If there was a God, a being of overwhelming power and warmth, how could such an entity be so cruel as to curse myself and millions of others into living the majority of our lives in bodies and names and expectations we were not meant to have?

I was sure of the feelings I had, but struggled to describe them exactly. Every reflective surface—windows, mirrors, polished car doors—showed me a face I didn’t recognize, a shape I didn’t want. Nothing was where it was supposed to be; I was like a puzzle assembled with pieces from several different boxes—technically complete, but dilapidated, unsightly. Leg hair felt to me like several thousand tendrils rising from my pores, and the faster I shaved them the faster they grew back; the more my body would punish me for getting rid of them too hastily, sprouting pale red volcanoes across my thighs and calves no matter how carefully I shaved or how thoroughly I moisturized. I wanted to get out of my body, the subcutaneous cell that bound me. If ripping the skin off would spell at least a temporary relief from the loathing, I would’ve torn at it without hesitation.

Answers wouldn’t come, but the Wachowski sisters gave me a blueprint with which to make my own. Watching The Matrix for the first time, I was finally gifted with the words to verbalize my dysphoria.

Rarely do I come across a fictional character that even slightly parallels my own anxieties and shortcomings: disillusion in relation to self and the structures that depend on a sanitized performance of it, sheltered skepticism, a daily dissatisfaction with social dynamics, a preference for screens over faces (a roundabout way of saying that I don’t often go outside, because it requires a voluntary desire for others to perceive me).

The Wachowskis’ conceptualization of Neo held a mirror to my life and forced my face into it; I didn’t want to hear what they had to say, but I may not be alive if they hadn’t compelled me to listen.

However, before I gravitated to Neo (Keanu Reeves), there was Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne):

“Let me tell you why you’re here. You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain—but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there. It’s this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I’m talking about?”

Not unlike the mechanized abstractions Neo confronts in the film, the concept of gender and its mostly unchallenged definition is so nebulous that questioning it can feel like a blasphemous act. To contend with traditional interpretations of masculinity, femininity, and the mannerisms by which one should abide if they hope to adequately “pass”—or to exist between and beyond these two ends of the spectrum—is to disrupt the basis of reality itself.

To prod that centuries-old foundation, to me, is not unlike Morpheus’ first conversation with Neo in The Construct:

“What is real? How do you define ‘real’?”

Change the word ‘real’ to ‘gender’ and it all begins to unravel.

Coming out as a trans woman was, ironically, the least climactic of my revelatory experiences concerning identity. When I came to the epiphany that I was bisexual, I was on a walk listening to Frank Ocean’s Chanel; I fell to my knees in tears, as sixteen years of repressed homosexuality began to come undone.

I fought it at first, as a naïve, scared kid who had been forced to watch pastors feverishly condemn homosexuality to the raucous applause of hundreds every other Sunday. Over the next three years, ‘I think I like men, too’ would become ‘I think I’m not so sure anymore’, to ‘I don’t think I care; most people are really attractive’. Then, a couple more: ‘I don’t think I like being a man, I would prefer using non-gendered pronouns for now’, which would eventually become ‘I want to live as a woman for the rest of my life’.

Notice how resolute that last one was.

I am sufficiently privileged in having access to a robust and compassionate support system. I had already been living away from my family, so the hypothetical threat of rejection and/or ostracization wasn’t as immediate as it would’ve been if I was still under their roof. Instead, my coming out was met with immediate congratulations from friends inside and outside the screen, and when I told my girlfriend of my glorious epiphany, I received a knowingly nonchalant “Okay, cool!”.

As it turns out, she knew before I did.

So much of those first couple months were defined by a kind of euphoria I had never felt. For the first time in my life, I was afforded the space to experiment with feminine clothing! I shaved just about every part of my body that was capable of growing hair, and the full-body chills I would have at all hours of the day inspired an intense warmth. I “borrowed” my girlfriend’s novelty earrings and wore them to work; it became such a frequent occurrence that if I didn’t show up with a pair of flamboyantly bedazzled fruits/​hearts/​hoops hanging from my ears, coworkers knew something was wrong. I ditched the Adidas running shoes I had worn since my sophomore year in high school and switched them out for boots that added another two inches to my already lanky 74-inch frame.

Nothing about me had physically changed, but I would become happier than I’d ever been. I’m sure that had a lot to do with the only thing that did change: my name, Eliza.

A completely random choice, plucked from a list of the most feminine namesakes I could find that retained my first initial. I felt drawn to it immediately; it epitomized the strong and simultaneously delicate air I hoped to emulate in my transition. Ironically, I still wouldn’t escape biblical allusion, as this name would have potent roots in spirituality as well. It originates from Hebrew, with a collection of translations that roughly mean “pledged to God”, which is about as loaded as definitions get.

Eliza is open to many interpretations, but what struck me first is that it seemed to encapsulate my entire life to that point: I had never been my own, the body I found myself in pledged to indoctrinations I had never permitted. I thought of how the name unified my past and future, the years stolen from me when immovable influences robbed me of a voice, and the years I would spend on restoring it.

Naturally, I thought of Neo, and how his chosen name literalizes renewal, that the journey he undergoes in the Matrix films is one of recalibration and reclamation in relation to the self. He is a character with whom I feel irreversibly intertwined, and I knew that in the early months of my transition that I would subconsciously and continually reference The Matrix as a blueprint by which to grow in my new life.

In the months since coming out though, a discouraging side of the film previously unknown to me began to rear itself. Not only does the film highlight the catharsis that comes with self-actualization, it examines how harrowing that journey can be.

In coming out as trans, I am meant to step into the shoes of some of the most unapologetic, uncompromising people to walk the Earth.

Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson, co-founder of the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) and the catalyzing force behind 1969’s Stonewall Riots (Tourmaline’s short doc that recounts the event is a must). Artists like Arca, and the late SOPHIE, whose intrepid experimentations within the boundaries of pop have manipulated and shattered them. Filmmakers like Lana and Lilly Wachowski, trailblazing directors who so breathlessly conflate their filmic influences to create works of supreme sincerity, stylizing action sequences with a kind of kinesthetic eccentricity generally exclusive to Eastern cinema.

In his own journey, Neo is promised salvation through unchained self-expression, and he finds it, but not before risking life and limb on the way. Just as Neo was meant to manage the gaudy expectations associated with being prophesied as The One, trans people are meant to drastically recalibrate the self after having their worldview uprooted.

On many days, the shoes I intend to fill feel too big for my feet. Each day brings a new saga of self-imposed isolation, indecision and dysphoria, with the lows often outnumbering the highs. Imposter syndrome is something I regularly struggle with; the pessimistic segments of my brain—the ones that aren’t me, but sound like me—can be especially vicious, working to delegitimize any progress I make and calling into question the validity of my identity.

On my worst days, the words of The Matrix’s Cypher (Joe Pantaliano) verbalize these feelings best: “Why, oh why didn’t I take the blue pill?” Statistically, my life expectancy was halved as soon as I committed to transitioning. I am endangered every time I step outside wearing feminine clothing. So, the question is, why would I and millions more pursue a path that—statistically—almost certainly dead-ends at a premature demise? Well, for me, compared to the closeted life I was leading before, death is preferable.

While the validity of The Matrix as an allegory for the trans experience is hotly contested in certain corners of the internet, it was immediately apparent to me. It’s no accident that the last thing Neo does before first leaving the Matrix is manipulate the boundaries of a mirror just before it attempts to consume him.

Concerning liberation, the goals of the LGBTQ+ community seem diametrically opposed with the intrinsic objective of authoritarianism: to uphold the status quo. “No cops at pride” is a recurring motif within the dialogue orbiting Pride Month, and that’s no coincidence; one need only a superficial knowledge of the Stonewall Riots to understand that police and all associative figures of authority are a microcosm for the greater societal structures that so gleefully oppress queer people of all variations, those who aim to disrupt archaic ‘normalcies’.

For most of us, breathing is in itself a form of rebellion, and the Wachowski sisters incisively articulate this conflict in pitting Morpheus and company—self-liberated deviants—against the Agents—representatives of authority operating in service to machines.

It’s rare that trans people get to tell our own stories. If they’re told at all, our influence is abbreviated or shut out entirely, our lives and legacies canonized through a cisgender lens. So often, these perspectives define our existence as one rampant with turmoil and suffering. While it’s not entirely untrue that turbulence is somewhat inherent to the trans experience, the simultaneous joy we feel is often omitted from these stories.

I find Xavier Dolan’s rendering of Laurence Anyways’ titular trans woman to be especially venomous in its refusal to characterize her beyond the archetypal, her transition utilized as little more than a narrative device to undergird the starring couple’s relational discord. Considering the many, many occasions in which her name is spat back at her, I almost feel uncomfortable engaging with the name Laurence at all; oftentimes, it felt as if Dolan were cycling through a discrimination checklist, narratively prioritizing everything that could possibly go wrong, and treating depth and insight as secondary.

We are not tools for mediocre writers to exploit to manufacture nuance (if Anyways was conceptualized as a standard cisgendered romance, there’d be nothing to distinguish it from the other million-or-so doomed-love dramas). While it’s undeniable that trans people indeed experience suffering, our lives must not be exclusively defined by it, but must also be complemented by our refraction and ascension above it, the euphoria and change we’ve catalyzed on an Earth that has sought to destroy us at every turn.

Therein lies the solitary magic of The Matrix and the permanent residence it has claimed within our culture. Not only is it rare for trans narratives to be autobiographical, it’s exceedingly rare for them to achieve mainstream immortalization.

What allowed for the film’s cultural embrace at the time, however, was the fact that it was told from a closeted perspective, meticulously imparted with its now-eternal subtext. As much as I would love for an unabashedly radical trans protagonist to spearhead a multi-billion-dollar franchise, Warner Bros—and by extension, the world—wasn’t ready for us to represent the forefront of a blockbuster like that in 1999. For better or worse, the film’s subtextual ambiguity would go on to define it.

For over two decades now, the film and the people who seek to reclaim it as an essential queer text have battled a flawed, heteronormative canonization. Even after its directors have both since come out as trans women, talks of red-pill simulacra still persist in the internet’s more undesirable corners. Corporate entities and people who perpetuate the very same institutions and systems the film aims to lambast identify with the text, blatantly naïve (or perhaps, willfully ignorant) to the broader queer context in which it more sturdily operates.

Evidenced by 2020’s infamous Twitter exchange between Elon Musk and Ivanka Trump (an exchange so lovingly moderated by Lilly Wachowski shortly thereafter), the iconic red pill has become almost synonymous with avenues of conservative thought, positioning their regressive rhetoric as an eternal ‘truth’ that must be pursued at all costs. They perceive the film as a revelatory rumination on the importance of self-expression and inevitability of rebellion.

That, it is, but not for the reasons they believe.

More than any other emotion in the months following my coming out, that time was defined by an anger I had never known before. It often coexisted with euphoria, too, but I struggled with a new, special kind of resentment. Customer-service employees would often mistake my name for ‘Elijah’; as much as I tried to regard it as an honest mistake instead of a malicious affront, it only served to confirm my fear that—barring drastic alterations to my appearance—strangers would always, always project masculinity onto me because I don’t appear traditionally feminine. I tried self-coaching to feminize my voice, but it seemed that no matter how hard I worked at it, people I talked to over the phone still defaulted to “sir”. When I attempted to debut the higher pitch around friends and coworkers, I was met with stilted laughter.

At work, they would selectively employ my pronouns; I try to forgive the occasional slip, but because success in sales positions is predicated on upholding a personality that customers project onto you, they were not willing to disrupt their comfort on my behalf (and I was broke, so neither was I). It got so bad that I gave up on correcting them. I quit the vocal coaching, too.

Try as they might, going to my cis friends for consolation often yielded none. Some of them operate from a position of sincere understanding—not of my plight, but of the fact that they had never experienced dysphoria. Sharing in my sorrow from an objective, well-meaning, yet ultimately impersonal perspective was the best they could offer. Many of them engaged in meaningless generality, attempting to alleviate emotions unknowable to them by emptily promising better days were ahead. Eventually, I stopped venting altogether.

Just as I had renewed a connection to my mother unknown to me since middle school, coming out to her catalyzed a devastating rescind, resetting all progress I worked hard to make when I told her I didn’t want to be her son anymore.

I’d never felt so alone.

Blasphemous as it may sound, I often pondered whether or not the isolation and incidental desecration of my treasured relationships was worth it. I thought myself selfish for it—willfully destroying everything around me just to have a chance at sincerely liking myself. Then, again, as if through divine intervention, another rewatch of The Matrix yielded what, at first, seemed an absentminded exchange between Morpheus and Neo:

“I can’t go back, can I?”

“No, but if you could, would you really want to?”

On the subject of gender, I usually shy away from generality based on nuances inherent to every transition. However, I believe that one of the most essential steps in transitioning is forgiving yourself for not having that epiphany sooner. To come out at twenty or 36 or 59 is not to say that I have wasted my first nineteen or 35 or 58 years of life (though sometimes it was difficult to feel like I hadn’t).

Just because I am now Eliza doesn’t mean Emanuel never existed—though it pains me to be reminded of it, that was the me I understood myself to be at the time. This is the me I want to be now, and for the rest of my days.




Not unlike Neo’s climactic struggle with Agent Smith in the subway, it wasn’t until I verbally claimed my name—my life—that I became invincible.

I knew from the first time my girlfriend called me by that name that I loved it, that I wanted to hear people call me by that name for the rest of my life. But it wasn’t a name I could immediately step into. She had to be welcomed. I now know that she likes white ruffled socks, and multicolored knee-highs that display anything from hearts to capitalized bold text that reads “MY CAT IS COOL AS FUCK”. Her listening habits vacillate between Kanye West and Charli XCX, Playboi Carti and FKA twigs.

She adores the sensitivity of Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women and also thinks Transformers are fucking awesome. She loves V6 engines, curses her own four-cylinder each time she’s meant to merge with interstate traffic, and thinks Michelle Rodriguez’s Letty from the Fast and Furious saga is one of the most quietly groundbreaking characters to grace the screen. I learned that these interests aren’t mutually exclusive, and discovered their seemingly landlocked association with gender to be just another internalized hurdle I was meant to clear in morphing the aforementioned ‘she’ to ‘me’.

I have been on estrogen for nearly four months now. If not for a follow-up appointment in September that I couldn’t afford to pay out-of-pocket for—interrupting my dosages for nearly 50 days—it would have been five. In that time, as my breasts got smaller and the sensitivity in them receded, my production renewed (I am above oversharing in some respects!), it was a deeply affirming period for me in spite of the suicidal ideation that paralleled it.

After three months of being plagued by indecision, wondering whether I had actually done the right thing, the regression only confirmed that I want this more than anything else in life.

With every six months that elapse, I find myself irrevocably divorced from the woman I was six months ago. I used to believe my transition—and by extension, the self—was a concept with a presupposed finish line. I regarded identity as something that needed to be ‘finalized’, and only recently have I realized that doing so is fruitless. I am a woman, a woman, with inimitable fluidity; to deny myself the right to unending change is to deny myself the right to a fuller life.

There are a great many films that have positively influenced me, shaped me into the woman I am today, and there will be more to come. But I can ardently say that no film has or will again transform me quite like The Matrix.

Though The Matrix Resurrections, the upcoming fourth installment, has yet to debut, I already find myself conceptually partial to it, as I expect Lana’s decade-plus experience as an out trans woman will have recontextualized the world of The Matrix and that of Neo’s story in a far more triumphant light. To have finally seen her name attached as director in the promotional material for the film brought me to tears! No doubt I will be a sobbing mess by the time I’ve made it through my first viewing.

I’ve yet to make a full year since coming out as a woman, but it has already been the most rewarding period of my life. I feel an instant camaraderie with every trans person I meet. Most of my days are spent feeling as if no one can understand the pain I experience—the isolation, the disillusion, the indecision—but when I see and meet trans family, I feel immediate comfort, and in those moments, I know I am not alone.

The tragedy in that connection, however, is understanding that some of us may not live to see the euphoria promised by transitioning. Recently, 2021 became the deadliest year on record for trans and non-binary people; 45 murders, outpacing the previous high of 44 set just last year—already high numbers that are likely underrepresented due to potential misreports.

To be trans is to commit to something far bigger than myself. It is to declare belonging among the millions of courageous trailblazers present and past who dared to exist in a world that aches for our annihilation. It is to live with a nuanced joy that few will ever experience, and with reverence for the angels that were taken from us before getting the chance to have it. I live for them, and I know they live in me.

Mirrors are a lot kinder to me now—I finally feel like I can smile back at the reflection I see.

This essay was commissioned as part of Letterboxd’s call for submissions during Pride Month 2021. Follow Eliza on Letterboxd and Twitter. ‘The Matrix Resurrections’ is scheduled for theatrical release on 22 December, 2021, and will stream digitally on HBO Max for a month from that date.

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