by Stephen Faller
This one sent me back to the drawing board more than once. The difficulty is trying to manage a worthy discourse on the depictions of sexuality in the Matrix Trilogy. And the problem is that sexuality is very important. How we express our sexuality says a lot about who we are and what we hold as sacred. Furthermore, a movie series like the Matrix forces us to try to explore the mythic dimensions of sex, and any treatment of the subject needs to respect the Wachowskis ’ larger vision. All of this is complicated by the way in which the Wachowskis have explored sexuality in other projects and endeavors.
The easy question is “why go there?” And that can be asked everywhere. Why should I go there as a Matrix commentator? Why should the Wachowskis go there in their films? Why does this theme belong in this feminist-oriented series? To take the last question first, for better or worse our culture puts the burden of sexuality on women. Any supermarket can verify this. The condoms can be often found in the “feminine care” aisle. Or check the magazine rack. Women’s magazines are sold with pictures of sexualized women. And so are men’s magazines. Or look at popular fashion. Men’s clothes are getting baggier and baggier. The large T-shirt for men has turned into a tarp with a Nike logo. And women’s clothes are disappearing altogether. And the analysis can only be that men are uncomfortable embodying sensuality and sexual vulnerability (let’s see belly shirts for men), and that women are increasingly designated to that sociological function. And for that matter, why didn’t Neo and Trinity switch costumes? But let’s keep to the point: if we’re going to explore the sexual dimension in the films, the place for that discussion is here.
The Wachowskis had to go there as well. When you have a multi-dimensional myth that explores all of the different aspects of life as we know it, it would be remiss to omit it. If we’re going to talk about philosophy, spirituality, and psychology, then sexuality is unavoidable. It’s too much a part of humanity. Many of the great myths are unapologetically sexual in their subject matter.
Of course, the tricky part of it is: how do you tell it? How do you portray this intensely telling mystery of the soul? So there are two competing schools of thought on this, at least among the artists who appreciate the humanity of sexuality (there are many artists who disregard sexuality as something significant, and this is where porn and soft-porn come from, and here the point is to try to sell as many tickets as possible).
One school says we don’t need to see. The audience doesn’t need to know the intimate details. We can get the storyline when they go in the room and close the door. And there are some very sexual stories that follow this school. “The Graduate” is a story of how a young man takes ownership of his own life and sexuality and there is surprisingly little that we see. The idea is that if the audience does see, then the audience is forced to become some kind of participant which either interferes with the story, or spoils the uniqueness of what’s trying to be expressed. And this perspective makes a lot of sense. When we see the facial contortions that people make in the throws of passion, we are really learning more about the intimate habits of actors and actresses than we are actually learning meaningful information about the characters depicted. Less is more.
The other school says we need to see. There have been too many bad sex scenes and we need to create some alternative sexual cultural messages out there. Examples of some conventional cultural messages are those that suggest that sexual behaviors (and the watching of sexual behavior) exist for male enjoyment. Another message might be that male performance is the epicenter of the experience. Another message might be that women should embody all of the vulnerability (and so she screams, dresses sexy, and is revealed more than the male). You can find these in just about any date movie from “Jerry Maguire” to “Titanic”. Both sexes suffer from these messages. So this school says that sexuality needs to be depicted the right way. We need to create images of intense passion and equality.
Currently, it’s harder to make the argument for the first school of thought. When people are web-logging their sex lives, when people wear things that reveal every crevice and dimple of flesh, and having sex on reality TV, it’s hard to hold a realistic position for modesty. It’s not a lost cause; works like “Simulcra and Simulation” can force us to examine the importance of images of all kinds and virtual experiences. The images that we see are a part of our tapestry of experience, and reality has ultimate primacy over illusion. But let’s be honest: this is the minority view and probably not even the view of Baudrillard.
Each of the movies has a sexualized dance/mosh scene. Reloaded also expresses the consummated love between Trinity and Neo. These scenes are going to take the remainder of our focus. It’s true that a lot of the characters wear sexy clothes, but let’s set that aside and focus our attention on character actions and not character fashions.
The dance scenes all have things in common, but they also carry salient differences. The fetish clothing and mosh sensuality may simply be an interest of the Wachowskis, but I wonder if something more subtle is at work. Other recent movies have very similar club scenes. In the “Blade” series, there’s some kind of explanation of why this casual carnality is winding up in contemporary vampire movies, and this is a great articulation of sensuality within Goth-culture. Vampires need to feel intensely alive. They want their pulses to pound because so often, they feel nothing — and Goth-culture can fall into a sort of bipolarity of pseudo-melancholy and hedonism.
We see Neo first go into a club when he is “searching”. He spends his nights searching and trying to connect to others on the computer. Maybe these dance scenes are expressions of people who are lost and searching. One certainly wonders about who these people are at the Merovingian’s Club Hel party. Are they horny computer programs? Are they people who stopped searching because they found what they were looking for? Are they lost in a sea of sensuality? Some people think that the scene is merely gratuitous, but the Wachowskis are directors who try to depict the “real thing”. In their lesbian-noire movie “Bound”, the Brothers hired an actual erotica writer to try to capture an authentic encounter instead of a male-centered fantasy. The Brothers want to display the real thing, and the question is why.
The answer may come from the fact that these scenes take place within the Matrix. The Matrix is a fallen world. The scene in Reloaded takes place in the real world, in Zion. This seems to explain why the temple dance was intercut with Neo and Trinity’s consummate love. The tone is supposed to be different. In the temple we are seeing a celebration of humanity. While some fans were offended by the setting, there are reasons for this too. Interestingly, in some religious communities, ecstatic dancing is considered a vital part of worship. And not to overly invoke religious themes, but sexuality is such an intense part of humanity that it often reveals our best and worst traits, our greatest generosity and our deepest selfishness. Perhaps the scene in Reloaded is given a positive emphasis to offset the club scenes in the other two films.
When it comes down to the love scene between Trinity and Neo, there are some helpful observations to be made. First and foremost, the moment takes place in Zion. It’s real. Very little affection takes place in the Matrix. In some of the phony internet scripts of Reloaded, Trinity expressed that intimacy in the real world is more genuine and private. Further, the heroic couple establishes and maintains deep eye contact during the lovemaking. This stresses the quality of intimacy and tenderness. Finally, the scene is shot with an equal amount of exposure for both characters, both in terms of what is shown and not shown. And for these merits, the sex scene nakedly stands in contrast to many Hollywood values.
But all of this is still larger than life and glamorous on the movie screen. Most of us don’t make love with a soundtrack and special effects. What really distinguishes this scene is the very human qualities. For one thing, it doesn’t go on forever. It is sweet, but kept to human proportions. Afterwards, Neo has an experience of fear. This seems very human. Few people feel like doing a Tarzan yell. We don’t dig up the Queen and play “We are the Champions”. For a lot of people, when they experience true intimacy, they experience a sensation of panic about losing that intimacy. It’s nice to know that Neo is still human.
Sexuality is one of the most honest revelations of the human character. If the Matrix trilogy was going to try to capture the heroic myth of humanity, then it is inevitable that the sexual subject should spring forth. It is in our sexuality where we enact our deepest hopes and longings. This is the place where we hope to find human connection. It is this connection, this very real attachment to another that Rama Kandra speaks of. It is this connection that distinguishes Neo from the other Anomalies and makes him the One. And it is this connection that we find ourselves so often looking for, this delicate overlap of a kiss between love and purpose.
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.