by Stephen Faller
“Such a thing is not meant to last…”
This is the second installment of “The Matrix and The Mater” — a series of five articles that deal with feminist themes spanning the Matrix trilogy. Hopefully, each of these little essays will help nuance and complicate our understanding of the Matrix. The Wachowskis display an awareness of feminist thought and by examining the Matrix universe, we can see how deep the rabbit hole goes. I am a Matrix fan, and I don’t think these movies perpetuate the same, tired stereotypes against women. But these movies invite fans to ask the hard questions and at the same time acknowledge that accepting the truth often is not easy.
If we look at the Matrix trilogy under the magnifying glass of feminism, we will also find some hard truths. I believe that one such truth is that Trinity had to die. I don’t mean to suggest that the trilogy is a science-fiction snuff film. But I do think that the Matrix mythology is woven together out of Western culture, and that Western culture has had a poor track record when it comes to women’s issues. Therefore, if the Wachowskis story is going to tell us about the world we live in, then when it comes to the matter of Trinity’s death, we might have to concede that her death was “inevitable.”
But first things are always first. It’s worth asking the question: How much was Trinity really alive to begin with? To what extent is she really her own person as a character, and to what extent is she a foil for Neo? It would have helped if we could have seen how and why she fell in love with Neo. This would have established the autonomy and vitality of her own love and her own motives. Some readers may think I’m crazy: What do you mean Trinity is not a strong character — she knows all that kung fu? It takes more than physical power and violence to create character. It could be argued, in fact, that Trinity is a neo-Pygmalion (no pun intended). Pygmalion is the story of a woman who is created around the personality of a man, by him, and for his enjoyment. Maybe this is Trinity — not that she was created by Neo, but that maybe she represents the new ideal of how nerds like their women. Are her qualities really hers, or does she represent the epitome of what nerds really desire? She knows her computers. She’s physically fit. She’s lusty and aggressive about satisfying her desire. She resorts to violence to solve her problems (in that she’s more concrete than emotional in problem-solving). She’s jealous. And she’s devoted.
Maybe. But we’re going to give her the benefit of the doubt. I’m sure she’s not the only woman with that constellation of attributes. And after all, she’s the one who told Neo that “the Matrix cannot tell you who you are.” So we are going to assume that she has taken full responsibility for who she is.
As we look at her death, we are going to peel the layers of meaning and cultural attitudes that required the Matrix mythology to unfold this particular way. Like an onion, we’ll try to go deeper and deeper, offering possibilities to explain her death. And let me just say that these critiques have more to do with Western culture than the Wachowski Brothers.
At the first layer, she died because she is a great hero and therefore deserved a tragic and heroic ending. This is the kind of impression you get when she is the only human to have seen the sun. She has sacrificed and risked more than anyone else. She is willing to lay down her life and eventually this willingness deserves to be completed. And so, her noble sacrifice is achieved.
At the second layer — a bit more practical — her death solves a lot of problems plot-wise. What would she do in the machine city? It’s a long walk back… Could she cope with Neo’s death? Would Neo have risked his life if she were depending on him? If she survived Neo, would that have been too tragic to break up the couple? Would she in some way suffer more than he does and would that gel with the rest of the mythology?
We go deeper. If Neo is a Christ-figure, is it too scandalous to pair him off with a significant other? Are we willing to suggest, even loosely, that Christ had romantic feelings? Does it imply controversial things about the nature of Christ if Neo has a successful “marriage?” Is it so awful to suggest that Neo had emotional needs? As a side note, Jesus himself got into considerable trouble for his willingness to associate with women in his ministry. Also, tradition holds that Jesus first appeared to the women after the Resurrection — a significant note because of the second-class status that women held.
Even deeper, beyond any contradictions with the Christian tradition, patriarchy in general has been very afraid of female power. This is part of why goddess images are so problematic in the West. Some people suggest that goddess images were co-opted in Christian belief, art, and spirituality, but in every case the image became celibate and chaste. Trinity’s own name is an interesting footnote here, because she holds it as a feminized reference to the Godhead. In the broad spectrum of the entire Judeo-Christian tradition, perhaps this echoes with the Sophia tradition — a tradition that understands the Spirit of God as feminine. But the Wachowskis had fully established Trinity as a whole, sexual being and maybe historical contradictions between the sexual and the divine counted as another strike against Trinity surviving the trilogy. (I tend to doubt it — the Wachowskis seem unafraid to thematically explore sexuality and divinity.) But in so far as there is the cultural belief that sexuality is bad and dirty, and in so far as Trinity is unashamed of her sexuality as a character, there were some fans who were glad to see her fade out of the picture.
There is still another layer. It’s a bit complicated. But if the last two layers probed at spirituality, religion, and sexuality, then the very last layer has to do with our deepest understanding of love itself. You see, Western culture has such a limited understanding of love, and erotic love, that we really don’t know what to do with a story after lovers get together. The curtain either falls and fade to black, or somebody dies. This goes all the way back to Shakespeare and Romeo and Juliet, further back into the heart of Western myth itself. I first discovered this in my studies of Soren Kierkegaard who lamented that love stories of his day often end precisely where they ought to begin: with the marriage. He says that humanity knows all too much about sexual conquest and consummation, but nothing about possession or contentment. And he’s right. How many movies show sustained passion between a mature husband and wife? Not many. And we participate in this endless conquest, both as male and female audiences, whether it’s “Cold Mountain” or James Bond. Once the couple has been successfully mated, we tend to lose interest in their bedroom and move on to the next movie.
Would it have been so awful for Trinity and Neo to remain together? Is togetherness so bad? Personally I don’t think it is bad, but I think if the Wachowskis wanted their myth to be an honest overlay of our culture, then the conclusion is pretty obvious. Trinity had to die.
Stephen Faller is the author of Beyond the Matrix: Revolutions and Revelations and is a frequent contributor to the online Matrix community. He maintains a website at http://beyondthematrix.stephen-faller.com with additional information on his book, as well as other original essays and articles.