The Matrix and the Failure of Diversity

Several years ago, I wrote a confessional and tongue-in-cheek poem about having watched The Matrix a full 13 years after its release.

My childhood and adolescence had been fully steeped in science fiction—including my mother’s love of mid-twentieth century B-movies that often blurred science fiction and horror as well as Star Trek. However, just as I resisted Star Wars, I somehow never gave into the cultural phenomenon of The Matrix trilogy until 2012 when the films ran on my cable service, and I became hooked.

That initial viewing, as I explore in the poem, left me focused on how The Matrix trilogy often has at its core the Hollywood compulsion toward relatively formulaic love stories, but the films also pay homage to nerdom—or what may (dangerously) be interpreted as an endorsement of misogynistic male fantasies often embraced by incels and social media trolls.

As a child and teen, I moved from science fiction B-movies to science fiction novels and then comic book collecting. I have left none of this behind, but I also have had to confront how science fiction and superhero comic book narratives are often deeply problematic in terms of gender, race, and sexuality.

The Matrix trilogy, however, may seem at first glance to be in many ways a revolt against these flaws. The Wachowski Brothers, now trans women identified as The Wachowskis, gained their fame for the film franchise. With the racially diverse cast and high-profile women characters, these films may appear to be bold efforts at diversity.

However, as I have been rewatching the films recently, the trilogy remains despite some of the surface features a white savior narrative—sitting among other movies such as The Martian and Gravity.

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Despite its iconic place among science fiction films, The Matrix trilogy remains a white savior narrative with Neo as the constant center. (Sygma via Getty Images)

One way to unpack a film’s gender diversity is the Bechdel test, and these guidelines help viewers recognize that many of the high-profile women characters remain merely in orbit around men—notably Neo and Morpheus. Expanding similar tests to race exposes that while the films are visually diverse (consider the slow-motion orgiastic scene in The Matrix Reloaded), the characterizations and narratives remain primarily normative because The Chosen One is Neo as white savior.

The Matrix trilogy proves to be the Ben Carson and Clarence Thomas of diversity initiatives because the films address only empirical diversity (not substantive diversity) while reducing that diversity to the service of racial and gender norms centered on whiteness and men.

Three Types of Diversity—and Why Many Diversity Initiatives Fail

In the U.S. where whiteness and being a man are centered, the first type of diversity is similar to how The Martian and Gravity as films work as if race and gender do not exist in any expressed way. In other words, the centering of whiteness and being a man are not acknowledged and rendered normal, and thus correct or best. Often the mask used in this type is to call a narrative or character “universal.”

A second type of diversity exists in organizational efforts designated as diversity initiatives, such as those commonly found on university campuses. This second type most often resembles The Matrix because the manifestations of these diversity initiatives tend to be limited to rhetorical outcomes (mission and diversity statements, etc.) and superficial goals (hiring or admitting people who can be labeled “diverse,” etc.).

This second type can be dangerous since it does not disrupt the status quo of centering whiteness or being male but seems to be diverse; this second type can also spur open hostility to diversity as well. Those who unconsciously or consciously oppose diversity as a goal tend to confront the superficial possibilities of diversity initiatives by asserting “We can’t just hire/admit diversity for diversity’s sake”—a claim that can seem credible if not fully unpacked (ignoring, for example, the long history of people being hired because they are white or men).

As I noted above, this superficial diversity allows lifting identifiable diverse people, Ben Carson or Clarence Thomas, to positions as a nod to diversity even as those so-called diverse people work against the interests of marginalized people. Carson claims racism no longer exists, and Thomas works to dismantle the affirmative action that he benefitted from in his career.

Yet, the Republican Party can point to these men as proof of diversity in the party.

A third type, the elusive type, of diversity in which both empirical diversity exists—we can see black and brown people, and women in roles and positions disproportionately dominated by white men—and their status actively de-centers whiteness and being a man.

During the current 2019 women’s World Cup, we may be witnessing something close to this third type in the person of Megan Rapinoe who is centering being a world-class woman athlete (deconstructing the “plays like a man” narrative and among women teammates demanding equal pay for their performance) and gay:

“To me, it’s literally all the same, insofar as I want people to respect who I am, what I am — being gay, being a woman, being a professional athlete, whatever,” Ms. Rapinoe said in the article. “That is the exact same thing as what Colin did.”

For films, or any art, and organizations claiming to seek diversity as a goal, then, there is much more involved than simple empirical diversity.

The Matrix trilogy remains an iconic work of cinematic science fiction, and much about the narrative breaths life into traditional frames, such as the white savior, in ways that we can enjoy and even praise.

But the success of The Matrix also depends on a lazy public, one awash in the first type of diversity and occasionally tolerant of the second type. There also is a great deal of flash and visual spectacle that makes The Matrix appealing—and ultimately dangerous like Ben Carson and Clarence Thomas.

Even for those of us who have affinity for The Matrix trilogy, and the resurgence of admiration for Keanu Reeves, we must be able to confront the failures in this series in terms of diversity and then admit we can, and must, do better.