Escaping the Matrix: On “Nanette”

I spend a lot of time referring to movies and analyzing them in part because they are so accessible. Movies take a much shorter amount of time to consume than books or television shows, and often are more widely viewed. And in the science fiction community, there are few movies more widely viewed than The Matrix.

But the story of the Matrix is a story of speaking truth to power, and it’s a sort of insidious one. The morals of the first movie are very different from the morals of the series when taken as a whole. Most people are only familiar with the first of the films, but very few stuck through the mess that was the second film to find out the ending. Despite this it is, arguably, one of the greatest metaphors for systems of hegemony in our world that exists.

I began to compose this blogpost in my head after watching Nanette late one weeknight. The Netflix original begins as a comedy routine and becomes something more. It is a clear example of speaking truth to power, of the raw perseverance and loss that such a path requires. Hannah Gadsby thoroughly examines the illusion of choice in one memorable moment in this show, when she says: “There’s only been two options for a little girl to grow up into, a virgin or a whore. We’re always given a choice.”

nanette.jpg

At what point does a choice within a system that allows only two outcomes cease to become a choice?

In the Matrix, Neo is given two options. The blue pill allows him to live compliantly in the system set up to contain him. The red pill, however, requires awareness, requires the loss of safety for freedom.

(If I speak nicely, if I am quiet and soft and sweet, then I can stay safely in this role that society has created for me and never need question. But if I become aware, if I speak out, if I take up space, if I am myself, I give up my safety.)

The safety of the blue pill is an illusion. We know that, in the Matrix, the blue pill means that our bodies are being farmed for energy, for meat, for whatever our overlords require. The things that ruin us happen at a whim, and it’s not ours. We have no control over them.

But there is no safety in freedom, either. Less of it. Now the machines target you. Now they fight against you. We know, because the Matrix tells us, that we are a danger to the system. Our existence, once we have swallowed this red pill, becomes a threat. That’s a good thing, though, right? If we are a threat, we can change, we can resist.

The reason the Matrix is so insidious as a narrative, however, is that if you watch that third movie, there was never any hope at all.

Look, I know what you’re thinking. Neo was nearly all-powerful in the first movie. How could he lose? But he does, he loses everything. He was a product of the Matrix all along. All of the red pill society is wiped out, to start again at some predetermined time, when the Matrix decides it needs to release the pressure of those rebellious members of its population. The Chosen One was an illusion. He could never lead those like him to a new life. The only path for those taking the red pill was to die.

There is a disturbing trend, amongst holders of power, to point to freedom and say that it looks a certain way. There have been many writers who discussed the nature of power and the many flavors it can take, but there is only one narrative where certain kinds of power are concerned. Absolutist systems construct choice on their terms. The dichotomy is a loaded one. As in the Matrix, there is no safety in it even when you are being told otherwise.

In Nanette, we learn the truth of that choice for those who cannot fit into either option is violence, but if you’ve been paying attention you should realize that the truth of that choice is always violence, no matter who you are. Whether it’s the violence against the “pure” woman who submits entirely to her partner, who is quiet and demure and voiceless even if he beats her, or the violence of the “sullied” woman whose rape and abuse are justified by her choices, the choice is merely how you want to negotiate your own subjugation. Whether it’s the option of living life as a withered shell addicted to dreams of possibility or as a starving, dirty refugee in the bowels of the world, your options aren’t glorious. As long as the Matrix exists, you have to live with its power over you.

And that’s a lie.

Oh it may be true for individuals. It may be true for Neo. But one day, the Matrix crumbles. One day, the machines fail. It may not be forever. It may not be soon. But all things end. As Ursula Le Guin said so memorably:

Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art, the art of words.

Those who hold power would like for you to believe that there are only two options: to submit, and to be ostracized. But we can change the options on the table. Indeed, change is the only constant. Until you believe that, there is no hope.

Once you believe that, there is no chance of failure.


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Queer representation through romance

Before Thanksgiving I mentioned the “queering beards” panel, which is not what it’s called but how I keep referring to it in my head. It’s got to be the internal rhymes.

Anyway, above is the link to the post last week. Suffice to say for new readers, I went to World Fantasy Convention and got to listen to a lot of cool thoughts about LGBTQIA+ representation from various industry professionals. So here I am, reporting back to you, my readers, who didn’t get to go listen to this awesome conversation.

One of the questions that came up in this panel was about how queer stories are marketed predominantly through romance. Typically, there is an idea that an adult story with a queer main character, of any orientation, needs to have a romantic or sexual subplot as a way to firmly establish their queerness. Audience members also expressed pressure they had felt in young adult and middle grade writing to include a coming out story, often dovetailing with a romantic or sexual plot element. The moderator, Sara Megibow, asked how this had impacted the current panelists and their thoughts on it. The panelists each had different lived experiences which they articulated. One panelist felt that he had been pigeonholed into these projects as a voice actor; another felt that marketing for her books was sometimes difficult because of her publisher’s reputation for romance, when she herself did not write romance. They agreed that this could be problematic for queer authors trying to tell stories that didn’t revolve around romantic or sexual subplots, though they didn’t use those words.

So I raised my hand and asked how they felt it impacted asexual and aromantic representation in books. The panel felt there was an impact, but it felt to me that they didn’t know how to speak to this issue since none of them identified as such. But when a Twitter mutual who is active in the ace and aro communities posted a thread, I was reminded of that conversation and chimed in.

 

We had a great discussion. Honestly, this is one of my favorite things about Twitter, the ability for me to constantly encounter people who have more experience than me and learn about their expertise.

One of the things the panel didn’t really explore in their answer to my question, and one of the things that I didn’t explicitly tease out, is that there is a difference between asexual and aromantic and that difference could result in differing challenges in the publishing industry. Claudie quickly corrected my thinking here, specifying that, while getting asexual stories published was still not easy, it was becoming more common than aromantic stories because romance-focused publishing houses were uninterested in aromanticism. After all, you don’t necessarily need sex to have a romance that can titillate readers.

I urge you to check out our conversation if you would like to. We kind of went in several branching directions, so you may need to flit about from tweet to tweet to find it all. You also might check out some of her work documenting and recommending asexual and aromantic stories. And you could always buy her a coffee.


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