by Stephen Faller
It ’s good to be writing again. Painful to think I started this piece a month ago. This is the third part of “The Matrix and the Mater”, a series of articles planned out months back. The webmasters of The Matrix 101 have been kind enough to me to afford this space and I do apologize to their readers for the delay. But the delay speaks to something else; namely, the delicate connection between writer and reader. This series is not pre-planned, but is an attempt to continue an ongoing discussion in real time and is therefore susceptible to all of the delays that might interrupt any conversation.
That said, we can return to the topic proper. One of the ways that a movie communicates cultural messages is through displays of power. Who has the power and who is powerless? Who needs to be rescued? How do people manifest power and influence over other characters and their environment? How do these manifestations of power match with other things in the story, for example, are the only powerful women evil? These days we are increasingly aware of these questions, careful to cast our new fairytales in ways that don’t diminish persons by accident (Shrek is a deliberate response to the fairytales of the past, both directly and indirectly).
One of the nice things about telling an extended story like the Matrix trilogy, there are a lot of characters to work with. We’re not going to look at an exhaustive list of female characters. Some of them don’t really stand out. And other characters do stand out — maybe like Switch — but there’s not all that much to say. Switch was one of the first characters we met who had an ambivalent reaction to Neo. She didn’t worship him but she risked her life to rescue him. She had some interesting lines, introducing the nickname of “Coppertop”, and also displayed a sense of honor about her death (“Not like this”), but otherwise there’s not much more to say.
Still, even the people around the edges have some pronounced character traits when you look at them together. Look at Switch, Zee, Charro, Kamala, and Maggie. None of these people would be described as demure or shy. They are all competent, confident, and outspoken. They are determined.
Trinity probably gets more screen time than any other woman. She is also the first hacker we meet; she is the first one to show us the kind of power that people have who are not jacked into the Matrix. So a lot of her power is physical. She is a woman of action. She is the sort of person who won’t let the chips fall where they may, she doesn’t leave things to chance (“what’s is going to be, Merv”). She has some of the most stunning action scenes in the whole trilogy, including the heartstopping freeway scene in Reloaded. I can’t underestimate the importance of this kind of power. She’s changed the way we think about female action heroes, and has opened the door for others, like in the runaway TV series Alias. Of course there have been others, like Linda Hamilton (Terminator) or Sigourney Weaver (Alienses). Weaver has done some very interesting things in her Aliens series, but I think Trinity offers something different.
Trinity manages to hold onto her femininity while she grabs onto power. This plays out in stark contrast to a film like “Thelma and Louise”. Part of the artistic merit of that film was to show movie women acting like movie men, to deliberately thumb noses at cultural double standards. But I didn’t like “Thelma and Louise” because, in part, it seemed so derivative, so utterly dependent on defying double standards for its very storyline, and if there were no double standards then there would be no storyline. Trinity shows us something else; she is able to exercise physical power and even sexuality while still seeming spontaneous and authentic. She has something that neither Thelma nor Louise can claim — she has purpose.
Niobe has many similar traits as Trinity, but she also has qualities of leadership. She is a Captain. Her name comes from a sorrowful myth, but she seems to lack a depressive mood. Perhaps the sad reference speaks to her difficulties in relationship with Morpheus and then Lock. As already indicated in the first article of this series, much of her power struggle with Lock happens right along the lines of gender politics. But here’s what Niobe illustrates most clearly of all: she embodies the formula for a strong character.
She is a strong leader and a good pilot and she has these traits of honor. She has her own themes and issues that she hammers out with Lock. She’s also capable of change and rekindling her relationship with Morpheus. But most important of all, she has her own quest. She has her own inner journey to follow as she decides what to make of Neo. This is a very important trait because this is what makes her so lifelike — she has her own journey and her own reason for being. This seems so far beyond the kind of characterization of someone like Princess Leia, who never seems to escape the plight of being a foil. This is something that the Wachowskis understand about character: if you want to make someone believable, give them layers of traits and issues and faith (like with Zee) and most of all, their own purpose.
Persephone has a different power. In the articles and interviews, Bellucci describes her as a vampire, someone who needs the energy of others. It is said that she cannot be lied to. This may be true and there’s no reason to doubt the actress who brought her to life. But we do not see these powers delineated. What we do see is a very tempting sexuality and sensuality. And the power of temptation is not exploited by anyone else (with the possible exception of Dujour, but we never really learn the extent or intent of her character). This is an archetypal power; sensuality has long been the psychological root of the vampire myth. And this is also one of the many ironies of the Western double standard — we have insisted that women embody the entire burden of cultural sexuality for the human race and then fear them for it.
The Oracle displays another power also associated with the feminine; hers is the power of intuition. She’s described as an intuitive program. Intuition is a subject that interests me greatly. So much of written philosophy is so entrenched in analysis and deductive patterns that it really has little appreciation for inductive thought. The easy move is to discredit intuition as irrational. More aptly, it is extra-rational; its thought patterns are not required to travel the thought patterns of logic, but rather it may freely jump around like a shorted circuit. The spellbinding part of the Oracle’s power is that she is never wrong. The more subtle part is that she never says too much. She is careful not to tell people how to interpret their own experience. For example, she never tells Neo that he is not the One (in the first film). In this way, she walks alongside experience inasmuch as ahead of it, knowing very well what’s happening in the moment and that just might have something to do with her fortunetelling.
Perhaps it’s little Sati who has the greatest power of all. In Sanskrit, her name means “being” or “existence”. And so, at the end of the movie we see her offering to Neo, the sunset. This is the power of creation This power of generativity has a childlike quality, and it should not be too heavily equated with fertility. If you’ve ever been around a child for more than five minutes, then you have seen that child make up a song, or a game, or an imaginary friend. This is the power of life and the power to renew life.
With our dualistic culture, we have narrowly defined what power is. We have defined it as a .45 Magnum in the hand of some hunk-oid, and we have limited who may wield such weapons. But when we turn to myth we can see a multitude of powers. In this way, we can offer a variety of heroes and heroines to choose from. We can explore different expressions of authenticity and agency. We can explore a world without boundaries or rules. We can explore a world where women can have power and still be women.
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.