Wow. 20 years. I had no idea we were 20 years into The Matrix’s release until I started noticing an unusually high number of articles talking about it last year. I wasn’t going to write about the film at all until I noticed something that irritated me about what I was reading. I hate to be “that guy” (or “that girl”, in my case), but it really does seem to me that the younger generation is completely out of its depths analyzing older movies. Most if not all fail to even grasp them on even a fundamental level, and yet there’s this incredible amount of arrogance when they try to “break movies down.”
I think that one of the worst examples of what I’m talking about has to be BBC Culture’s The Matrix’s Male Power Fantasy Has Dated Badly. It’s so obnoxiously stupid and so off the mark that it prompted me to write this essay. The Matrix (1999) is the last thing from a “male power fantasy”, and the article’s assertion that the movie has “dated badly” is laughable. The Matrix not only hasn’t dated badly, it’s become even more relevant with each passing year. But before explain why–and deconstruct the film–I have to talk briefly first about a few philosophical concepts that the movie is based around.
The Question of Reality
Throughout human history, one of the biggest philosophical questions has always been, “What is reality, really?” This seems like a stupid question initially because it seems so obvious. Of course you know what reality is. It’s what you can see, feel, taste, touch and smell. It’s the world around you, the grass under your feet, the birds up in the sky, the people that you see.
But when philosophers ask, “What is reality,” they’re asking about reality with a capital R, not the small R. What is the difference between reality with a small “r” and Reality with a “Capital R”? Okay, so here goes:
Reality with a small R is stubbing your toe on your bedroom dresser. It’s eating a slice of cake and recognizing it as key lime pie. It’s looking up at the sky, seeing that it’s gray outside, and pulling out an umbrella.
Reality with a Capital R is about the part of reality that goes beyond every day, normal day to day experience, or–in other words–the Big Picture, as in, “Who am I? What’s my purpose in life? Why are things the way they are?”
More often than not, the answers we are told when asking about Reality With a Capital R are defined by what’s known as a “social construct.” A social construct are those notions that a society believes is true, even if those notions are sometimes arbitrary and may not even reflect reality at all.
For example, imagine that you’re a 16th century peasant farmer named Johann. At the time you would’ve been living in a hierarchy in which the king ruled with an iron fist, the Church was involved in every aspect of your life, and you ranked below everyone–the church, nobles and the king. If you had started to ask yourself questions about reality with big R, the answers you would’ve come up with would’ve been shaped by what society at the time felt was true. You would’ve immediately said, “I am a farmer. My name is Johann. King John the IV is my ruler. I am a Christian. The royals are above me; I am below them.”
Social constructs are very important, because they help provide structure by making sure that everyone isn’t doing their own thing, especially in a way that could undermine society. For example, once upon a time, if you were born out of wedlock, you were considered a “bastard” and disgraced as a result. The point of making up this construct was to encourage people to have children the “right way” (as part of a family unit), so broken homes were kept to a minimum and family trees didn’t become such a mess that it was impossible to keep track of which lineage everyone descended from.
As useful as social constructs are, there’s a down side. The first one is that there’s a tendency for human beings to take them for granted as being “reality.” A famous parable in Western philosophy that illustrates this problem is known as “Plato’s Cave.” It’s not strictly about social constructs per se (something far more abstract), but the analogy applies. Plato, the Greek philosopher, asked his students to imagine a group of people who have spent their entire lives in a cave with their heads chained so that all they saw were shadows on the wall. If these shadows were the only thing that these people saw, they would mistake those shadows for reality.
Social constructs can be like that–“shadows” in which people live and die believing things that were made up as being the “ultimate truth”, when all they are is an idea dreamed up by society. For example, going back to “bastard,” that is really only a construct that was created to label people with. But if you and the society you grew up in saw it as more than just a label (and something negative), your entire life would’ve been defined by it. People would’ve treated you differently as soon as they found out you were one, and you might have grown up feeling “less than” as a result. And why? All because of something that was made up.
Besides living a life in illusion, there is another downside to social constructs. If a society doesn’t have anyone’s best interest at heart, The Powers That Be (the people who are in control) can make up whatever constructs they want to keep the people they’re enslaved under control. Let’s go back to Johann the Peasant Farmer once again to see how this can happen.
Johann lives a horribly oppressed life in which people above him on the pecking order can do whatever they want to him. They can tax him to hell and back, take away his property, even condemn him to death over a minor infraction. What happens when he starts questioning Reality with a Big R? Does he think, “These kings and nobles are douche bags; to hell with them!”? No. He just thinks, “Kings have divine right over me–that’s what The Church says. Besides, this is just the way things are. Some people are born peasants, some people are born nobles, some people are born kings. It’s just a luck of the draw what life you were born into, so I might as well accept my fate.”
Since he believes all of this stuff to be reality, Johann–because of a social construct that the kings, nobles and church made up–never becomes anything more than an oppressed peasant his entire life. He simply takes it for granted that it’s “reality” that these people have complete and total control over him. He becomes what Marcus Garvey referred to as a victim of “mental slavery”, in that he’s become mentally enslaved by others by allowing their ideas about who he is to define his reality:
In summary, social constructs are necessary in human society, but they’re a necessary evil, in the sense that though they create structure and order, they can also be used to maintain a hierarchy in which those in power can use these constructs to maintain control over those beneath them.
Got all of this down? Great. Now let’s see what The Matrix had to say about all of this.
The Matrix as Metaphor for Social Construct
In The Matrix, the human race is harvested by machines for energy. Because humans are resistant by nature, The Machines run the risk of the humans rebelling against them. To counter this problem, they came up with a brilliant plan. Rather than only enslave the bodies of the humans, The Machines decide to enslave their minds as well. By being put in this virtual reality simulation, the humans became deluded into thinking that life was no different from before they were enslaved. Since they believe that nothing has changed, they never suspect that there’s anything wrong.
In The Matrix, the virtual reality simulation that the machines have created is a metaphor for the social constructs that we all live and die by. Just as the human race is plugged into a virtual world that forces them to live a pseudo-reality, we all collectively “plug into” a collection of cultural and social ideas and beliefs–a social construct–that makes up a pseudo-reality. And, just as The Machines created this pseudo-reality to give the human race the illusion that it isn’t being enslaved by anyone, the Powers That Be in The Real World create social constructs to convince us that we’re not being enslaved by them.
Where Do the Matrix Characters and Story Line Fit In?
Okay, so you’ve read what I said and are thinking, “I get it!” But now you’re probably wondering this: if The Matrix is a metaphor for social constructs, what on earth are Agent Smith, Morpheus, Neo and all of these other characters all about? Where does the actual story line of The Matrix fit into all this? Are they at all relevant to the metaphor or are they just all for the sake of plot? Well, believe it or not, they are incredibly relevant. What these characters and story line do is explain why it’s so darned hard for the human race to shake itself from social constructs.
So, let’s ask the question. Why is it so hard then? Why can’t the human race just wake up out of social constructs and live a life of mental freedom instead of mental slavery?
Because, as you may have guessed already, it’s simply not that easy. There are several hurdles that the human race has to overcome, each one more difficult than the last. Let us start with the most basic hurdle and work our way up to the most difficult:
Hurdle #1: Complete Unawareness
The first basic hurdle that the human race faces when it comes to overcoming social constructs is even realizing that they exist in the first place. The reason why is that like the virtual reality simulation in The Matrix, social constructs are so convincing as the real thing that most people don’t realize how fake they are. Since people don’t know they’re fake, they don’t know enough to question them. Consequently, something like 95% of the human race simply goes from cradle to grave taking social constructs for granted as being “reality.”
Hurdle #2: Consensus Reality
A second major hurdle that the human race faces when it comes to shaking itself of social constructs is what’s known as “consensus reality.” Because social constructs are shared by everyone, whenever anybody starts asking what reality is all about, everyone will echo the same constructs back to him as an explanation. The questioner will then believe these constructs to be the truth, since human beings have a tendency to believe that something must be true if everyone is on the exact same page about it.
A perfect example of consensus reality reaffirming social constructs as truth is the song, “The Way It Is,” by Bruce Hornsby & the Range. In it, Hornsby sings as someone asking everyone why nothing much has changed for blacks in the post-Civil Rights era. What happens is that everyone gives him the exact same answer of, “That’s just the way it is; some things will never change.”
In The Way It is, Hornsby is smart enough to realize that just because everyone keeps giving him the same answer, it doesn’t mean it’s true. By the end of the song he tells listeners, “But don’t you believe them.” He becomes one of the few people to see through this consensus reality of racial discrimination being the natural order of things.
Unfortunately, most people in real life will never be this aware about the so-called “truths” that society seems to be agreeing on. Once they’ve heard enough people repeat the same consensus reality over and over again, they just shrug their shoulders and say, “This must be the way it is, because so many people wouldn’t agree with each other about it if it weren’t true.” Then they join the rest of the 95% of humanity that goes to its grave believing constructs to be reality by virtue of everyone believing in them.
Hurdle #3: Road to Awareness Fraught with Difficulty–and Danger
Besides the powerful illusion of consensus reality, there is a third hurdle that the human has to overcome in order to shake itself of social constructs. There are some individuals who are sensitive enough to realize that most everything they were told about Reality with a capital R is merely shadows on a cave wall. Unfortunately, being aware that most of reality is an illusion isn’t the same as being mentally or emotionally capable of knowing what the truth is or even understanding the complex nature of why people are being misled in the first place. Consequently, some people walk around for the rest of their lives in limbo with a vague feeling of unease that something is off about the world.
Not everyone remains limbo, though. Some break past this feeling of unease and try to bravely tackle the thorny issue of figuring out the nature of reality (and unreality) all for themselves. However, they face a serious danger in going it alone. Going back to the Plato’s Cave analogy, what happens when you’ve been in a dark space for a long time and go out into broad daylight for the first time? The light becomes harsh to your eyes–almost painful–because you didn’t give them enough time to adjust.
If you find the light so harsh that you can barely stand it, you may run back indoors and never venture out into sunlight again. In the real world, something similar to this phenomenon happens to people who are on the verge of finally figuring out that all is not all it seems. Reality with a capital R is so harsh that they run back to the comfort and safety of the illusion of constructs and never risk questioning reality again.
For other people, a far more cruel fate awaits. Once again, returning to the Plato’s Cave analogy, what would happen if–after you stepped outdoors for the first time–your eyes not only failed to adjust to the light but because you didn’t know any better, you directly stared into the sun? Your eyes would be permanently damaged and you’d go blind.
In the Real World, a similar thing can also happen, except instead of going blind, the person confronting Reality with a capital R isn’t able to mentally or emotionally process what they’ve discovered. Consequently, some people become so completely disillusioned that they experience an existential crisis that drives them to despair, if not suicide. They become, in other words, like that robot in the age-old B movie sci-fi trope that starts short-circuiting while babbling, “Does not compute…does not compute…”
Other people go stone cold crazy. Reality with a capital R is just too much to handle and unfortunately, they lose their minds trying to make sense of it all. They become the textbook example of a crackpot, inventing wild theories about various made up, shadowy “entities” allegedly controlling people’s minds through innocuous means:
Hurdle #4: False Prophets
Not everyone sensitive to the illusion of social constructs walk around in limbo, run back to the comfort of unreality, go crazy or become disillusioned. Some people are smart enough to realize that the path to discovering the truth behind the illusion isn’t something they can easily do on their own. So, what they do is seek out so-called “gurus” to help them understand the nature of reality, as well as orient themselves so that they don’t blow their minds or fall into despair. In Neo’s case, he finds Morpheus, who is not only able to give him the answers that he seeks but helps him grasp the complexity that is the matrix.
As great as things turned out for Neo, unfortunately, for most people in the Real World, this path rarely goes anywhere because most “gurus” are just as in the dark as they are about Reality with a capital R. Consequently, truth seekers never really find what they’re looking for and wind up walking away disappointed, disillusioned or worse.
For example, The Beatles famously tracked down the Maharishi Yogi in 1967 for enlightenment, only to return back home none the wiser. Others looking for answers turned to people like Timothy Leary, Alan Watts and other New Age figures.
In the worst case scenarios, some people seeking answers wound up being led astray by evil cult leaders like Jim Jones, David Koresh and Marshall Applewhite. It was this scenario that Star Trek: The Original Series warned about in the much-maligned episode, The Way to Eden, in which a group of impressionable young aliens follow a crazed cult leader to their doom:
Today, people looking for a guru to help them see past the illusion of social constructs turn to the likes of Alex Jones and other conspiracy theorists–or false prophets–only to be led even further down the rabbit hole of untruth, unreality and insanity.
Hurdle #5: Countering Resistance from The Powers That Be–and Zealots aka “Fanatics”
From everything I’ve said so far, it seems as if it’s virtually impossible for any one person to break out of social constructs. Luckily, that’s not true. In spite of these obstacles, some rare and exceptional individuals–like Neo–are able to finally find the perfect guru (Morpheus) who has all the answers, can help them break out of the spell of social constructs, realize what’s going on and free the rest of the human race. For the sake of clarity, let’s call people like Neo “beacons,” as in “beacons of enlightenment.”
You would think that once someone like Neo emerges, it should easy to free the human race. But guess what? It’s not. Why? Because now comes one of the biggest hurdles of all when it comes to breaking down constructs–resistance.
Going back to the unfortunate “necessary evil” of social constructs, sometimes constructs are created to establish and maintain control of a society in the hands of despots. In a case like that, the last thing despots would want is for people to wake up to the truth of those constructs. If too many people realized how the constructs were enslaving them, the despots would lose power.
Consequently, whenever there is the danger of a beacon like Neo threatening to do just that (expose the social constructs as fake), the despots do everything in their power to prevent that person from doing so. One of the most common tactics despots use to stop beacons from waking society up from social constructs is employing “agents” to neutralize them. On the surface, these agents always look like their purpose is to enforce law and order but in reality, they’re really there on behalf of the despots to keep the social constructs from being dismantled. Agents like this in the Real World–like the inquisitors of the Spanish Inquisition, the Gestapo of Nazi Germany, the secret police in Stalinist Russia and McCarthyites of the Red Scare– are represented by the Agent Smiths and law enforcement officers in The Matrix.
You think facing resistance from agents is bad? It gets worse! From the sounds of it, it may seem as if the worst thing a beacon ever has to worry about are agents and law enforcers working on behalf of The Powers That Be. But believe it or not, there are people besides despots who pose an even more dangerous, direct threat–zealots.
Who are “zealots”? These are people who believe so blindly in social constructs that they don’t even have to be asked by the despots to do anything. They will protect the constructs at any cost, even if it means killing a beacon. The reason why is that they see this person as both a personal and existential threat. To expose something they’ve believed in their entire lives as completely untrue would completely turn their lives upset down and make their lives meaningless, so they will stop at nothing to neutralize a beacon to keep that from happening.
Zealots like this are why there’s a rule in The Matrix to not free someone past a certain age and also to not trust anyone who approaches you while you’re jacked in. When people have been plugged into the matrix too long, some will believe in the false reality to such an extent they will attack you as soon as you try to dismantle it. Since there’s no telling who in the matrix is trustworthy and who isn’t, the rebels of Zion have to assume that anyone is a potential zealot and therefore an enemy of resistance.
Hurdle #6: Social Construct as Endless Cycle
Now, I know what you’re thinking: this all sounds very pessimistic, if not fatalistic. Hasn’t there ever been a time in history when a society somehow rose above its constructs and freed itself from mental slavery?
Yes. Societies can “snap out” of a set of oppressive social constructs. When that happens this is what’s known as a “paradigm shift.” For example, once upon a time people thought that the sun revolved around the earth. Then advances in science changed all that. Now we know differently.
But here’s an unfortunate thing about paradigm shifts. Just as society ditches one oppressive set of social constructs, it gets replaced with another set of constructs no less oppressive. Then the process repeats itself ad finitum. The reason why is that, like I said earlier, constructs are a necessary evil; they are needed to help maintain order in any given society. Because of this necessity, no matter how many times the human race tries shaking them off, it just creates a new set of constructs to replace them with.
This fact of life is why, after all is said and done, the Matrix is reset in the last movie of the trilogy–Matrix Revolutions (2003)— and the majority of the human race is still just as trapped in the simulation as in the first movie. This ending isn’t meant to be defeatist but to show the reality of the human condition when it comes to shaking off constructs. Try as it might to eliminate them, the human race is doomed to live and die according to an endless cycle of destroying and creating new social constructs.
Everything discussed so far covers the single most important core concept behind The Matrix. Below, I will cover some of the other things that this movie explored that flies in the face of the idea that it’s nothing more than an outdated “male power fantasy.”
The Matrix as Warning About Modern Day Technology
Let’s once again go back and visit our 16th century peasant, Johann. Sadly, besides living under a social construct in which he believes that his destiny is to live and die as an oppressed serf, he lives in a world of superstition. He believed that a black cat meant bad luck, that comets were bad omens and that the lines of your palms could predict the future. He believed that if milk went sour or crops went bad, a witch in his village most likely cast an evil spell on him.
In the 21st century, we are a purely scientifically-based society. We didn’t grow up with superstition and half-baked ideas about how the world works. So, it’s very easy to look down at earlier time periods like Johann’s and think, “Well, of course he was blinded by social constructs. People like him lived in a world shaped by religion and superstition. But we’re not. We have a firm grasp on reality. Both feet are firmly planted on the ground. We’re smart enough to not be fooled.”
The problem with this line of thinking is that whether we’re living in caveman days, ancient times, the medieval period, today’s world or some futuristic world like something out of The Fifth Element, every single society is shaped by social constructs. No, we may not believe in far-fetched goofy constructs such as, “God gave our king the right to oppress us,” but we believe in silly constructs that are no less true or enslaving.
In fact, we are far more susceptible to these social constructs today than we were 300 years ago because we’ve allowed our advanced technology to fool ourselves into thinking that we’re smart enough to not be fooled by anything. Not only that, our technology has reached a point where we can fool ourselves in a way even worse than someone like Johann the Peasant was. At least people in his time could at least begin to question and even debate the so-called “fake reality” of Divine Right of Kings. But how to question fake reality if the technology to create it is so much like the real thing that we’re no longer able to tell the difference?
The Matrix as Predictor of Social Media, Fringe Groups and Disinfo
There’s a controversial theory floating around about the last two movies in The Matrix trilogy. It theorizes that the people of Zion never escaped the Matrix, that Zion is itself another matrix. In other words, Zion is a sub-matrix within a meta-matrix.
Let’s say for the sake of argument that Zion is just another sub-matrix. What possible purpose could it serve The Machines to create a matrix within the matrix? As it’s eventually explained in the franchise, no matter how perfect the matrix is, there is always going to be a small number of people who will see through it.
Now, they may seem harmless initially because of how small they are. Nevertheless. this small minority will always be a threat, since they have the potential of freeing the rest of the human race. So, how to deal with this rogue minority? Easy. Create another matrix called Zion that gives them the illusion that they’re now “really free”. In other words, make them become part of another simulation in which they imagine themselves to be fighting the good fight against The Machines when the cruel reality is that they’re still as hooked to the meta-matrix as before.
A lot of Matrix fans have trashed this theory of a sub-Matrix to hell and back. Even if this theory about Zion is just that (theory), I think it’s a perfect metaphor for what’s going on right now with social media. Many people still see social media and internet platforms as harmless forms of communication. But over the years, it seems as if they’ve become something far more dangerous–places for delusional people to escape the social constructs of the Real World by inventing even more delusional constructs which they imagine has made them “freer” as a result.
For example, anti-vaxxers have created an intricate set of sub social constructs that have allowed them to believe that they’ve “escaped” the meta social constructs created by “Big Pharma” about the importance of vaccination. Neo-Nazis and Rightwing extremists have done the same, inventing elaborate sub social constructs in which they imagine has”freed” themselves from the larger meta social constructs spun by a “Jewish/liberal-controlled” media. Paranoid conspiracy theorists and Incels have taken their lead, using social media to delude themselves into thinking they’ve been freed from the meta social constructs of the “Deep State”, “corporate-controlled” media and “feminazism.”
Fittingly and perhaps not coincidentally, many of these fringe groups have referred to themselves as “Red Pills” or as part of being a “Red Pill” society. They believe they are like Neo, Morpheus and the other members of Zion who have escaped the matrix. But if the “Matrix Within a Matrix” theory is true (which argues that Zion is really a sub-matrix), then social media in the Real World is the equivalent of Zion. It’s a place where people have been tricked into believing that they have finally “escaped” social constructs, when all they’ve done is escaped into another set of social constructs, but even less attached to reality than the ones before.
The Matrix as An Answer to Complacency
One of the things that used to bug me about The Matrix is how mundane the scenes of Neo at his job were compared to the rest of the film. I used to think they were dull because the Wachowskis just wanted to get these scenes over with and move on to the cooler parts of the film. Now, looking back on how the 1990s were, I finally get it.
Let me try to explain. As someone who lived through the 1990s, the thing that I remembered the most about that period was that there was this pervasive sense of complacency, to the point where it felt as if everyone was sleep walking. Everyone just quietly lived their lives without really getting overly concerned or agitated about any social or political issues. This was in sharp contrast to the previous decades. In the 1960s, 70s and 80s–even the 1950s–it seemed as if there was a major issue to rail and rebel against, some problem to concern ourselves with or something to get angry about, be it Civil Rights, the environment, women’s rights, nuclear proliferation or social ills like homelessness, AIDs and the crack epidemic. But in the 1990s, all of that agitation, concern and rebellion pretty much stopped.
A large part of the reason for the complacency is that it seemed as if the worst was finally behind us. The Cold War was over, so no one lived under the fear of nuclear annihilation. Major social issues of the previous two decades–like drugs, AIDs and crime–were either dying out or no longer near crisis levels. There were very few military conflicts in the world, and of the few that existed (The Iraq War), Americans were pretty much shielded from them or felt safe from any attack. The feeling at the time was, “It’s okay now. There’s nothing to get upset about. Everything’s hunky dory.” There was, in other words, a false sense of security because life–in the aftermath of all of this insanity– had become so uneventful to the point of becoming mundane.
Meanwhile, there were plenty of things to get riled up about. They just didn’t happen on a visceral level like in the 1960s, when there there was television footage of blacks getting hosed in the Deep South or photos of naked and screaming Vietnamese girls running down a road after a napalm attack. Everything was done more on the down low–behind the scenes or in ways too subtle for most people to catch on to. To make matters worse, in the rare instances when something major did happen, the mainstream media reported it with a level of calmness that had you thinking, “Well, it’s bad, but it’s not that bad,” or, “Don’t worry. It’ll all blow over soon.”
I don’t know if it was by pure accident or intentional, but The Matrix seemed to perfectly capture the frustration that many politically aware people of any time period feel when they see people walk around in a complacent fog thinking that everything is still okay because everyday life has reached an even keel. There is just something about the movie that says in so many words, “It doesn’t matter how calm everything looks. Things are as bad as they ever were. It’s just all beneath the surface now. Got it? Now wake the hell up!”
The Matrix is One of the Most Important Movies of the 20th Century
If you’ve been reading a lot of essays trying to downplay the significance of what The Matrix was all about, don’t buy any of it. The franchise made a huge splash for a reason. It didn’t just dazzle audiences because of its special effects; it created enough food for thought to inspire countless articles, college courses, lectures and books. What I talk about in this one essay doesn’t even come close to scratching the surface of what The Matrix was all about or trying to do. So, my suggestion is that when you come across articles like The Matrix’s Male Power Fantasy Has Dated Badly, do what I do–take them with a grain of salt.
My favorite social construct is when we people constantly say “It is what it is” Which is a form of surrender. Or like the last stage of dying, acceptance of their existence and fate.
It took a novel virus and the torture and murder of a Black man in broad daylight to finally end over 30 years of complacency from the general public.Better hope it’s not too late to make social constructs that everyone can live with. Like that pursuit of happiness thing that a bunch of men once wrote about
I see all the protests going on right now, but I’m not really feeling confident that it’s all sincere. Too many of the protesters seem like fringe groups and agent provocateurs riding off BLM to cause chaos, spread various toxic agendas or discredit legit complaints. Others are the typical privileged freshman year brats going through their anarchist phase before turning Rightwing and spouting the classic talking point of, “I used to be liberal…”
I guess we’ll just have to wait and see how this pans out in a year or two–i.e., if we see legitimate activism or if everyone just goes back to their Facebook and Instagram or whatever as if nothing had happened.