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.”

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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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The inevitability of sexual assault

After a rather fluffy and upbeat couple of posts last week, we’re going down into the dark today. Trigger warning for sexual assault and spoilers for James Treadwell’s Advent and Anarchy. Also I’m going to slightly spoil my own book, Mother of Creation, because I can and because I feel like I can’t have this conversation without thinking about how it applies to my own work. Please read my book anyway if you can, because I’d like my writing habit to someday become more lucrative.

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Sexual assault is something that every woman experiences as an echo in her psyche, I think. It is so pervasive in our media and culture it is hard not to have that echo whispering at you from time to time, catching the edge of your attention. Many of my friends have experienced some type of sexual assault, sometimes violent. I carry their stories. I myself have been blessed enough to experience minor forms – the unwanted touches of older men, the catcalls and implicit threats, the pressure to say yes to intimacy and the uncomfortable knowledge that saying “no” was something being granted when it should have been something that was merely understood.

I remember vividly as a young woman being told by someone I loved and trusted very much that sometimes a man can’t stop, it wasn’t like it was for girls, so it was my obligation not to take it to that point. I carried this misinformation with me for years. It’s an insidious narrative, the idea that men have no choice in rape anymore than women do. That they are gripped by their overwhelming base urges. A rape is like a tree falling in a storm. It is like gravity.

Rape is the nature of man, this narrative says. You can’t blame him.

I encountered this idea very recently in the work of James Treadwell. I will hurry to say that the writing style of Treadwell is beautiful, the narrative pacing solid, the thematic content interesting. Yet I am not sure that I will finish the trilogy that this particular narrative occurred in, despite enjoying many other elements of the story, despite being solidly invested. The narrative arc in question, after all, occurred in the second book of this series, Anarchy. It had been some time since I read Advent, several years in fact, so any warning that this was the direction of the character, Marina’s, plot development had been forgotten. I remember enjoying Advent a great deal. It is, if you want to read it, probably a little bit like The Magicians, a grim approach to magic in the modern world.

Marina is the child of a siren and/or river nymph (the two mythological creatures appear to be confused in the text somewhat, not that they don’t have overlaps) and a human man. She is raised by that man, her father, in isolation. Her understanding of the world is hampered by the way that she is raised and by the fact that she is not entirely human and does not seem to think of things the way humans do. Most importantly, though, Marina is a child. She is fourteen, but seems to think more like a ten-year-old.

Early on in the book Anarchy, Marina is left alone by the men in her life, hidden for her own good, they say. It is established through reflections by other, male characters that she has inherited some supreme charisma or sexual attractiveness from her mother. Despite the fact that she is clearly an adolescent, and despite the fact that she clearly does not understand attraction or present herself in any way sexually, they are overwhelmingly attracted to her. She must therefore be kept shut away.

If you’re already getting skeeved out here, then you can join the club.

Most of the book, however, is not told from these other males’ perspectives. It is told from Marina’s, or from the perspectives of other women. Unsurprisingly, women do not seem to feel this same attraction – though the woman who appoints herself Marina’s guardian, Iseult, obviously senses that it is a possibility. The question of why this would be the case, or why, if Iseult does feel attraction towards Marina, she is able to resist it but men cannot, is never brought up. The most unfortunate part of Iseult and Marina’s interactions, however, is that it makes you feel that Marina might escape the fate the author has clearly planned for her.

She doesn’t, of course.

Why Treadwell felt the need to include the sexual assault of a child in his narrative, whether it contributed to the story, is not something I am interested in analyzing here. What does strike me so violently about Marina’s story, however, is not the rape itself, though that was traumatic enough. It is the way that it is described as natural and inevitable within the narrative. From the start, it is clear that men cannot be trusted with Marina. It takes a heroic effort for them not to assault her, in fact. This narrative so thoroughly parallels the worst and most entrenched ideas of rape culture that it is deeply destabilizing to read. It is even more destabilizing to question why a writer would include a rape in his narrative that was presented in such a way, especially of a child.

I myself have used sexual assault in my stories. I am not innocent of that. Liana’s rape was constructed as an inevitability in some ways as well. I would argue the inevitability was not, however, dependent on her nature, on human nature. Jei has a choice that is very clearly set in front of him. Yes, he is pressured and manipulated by his own power and position, among other things, but the choice always lies with him. It was important for me to explore the ways that power allows grievous crimes to become normalized. I sought to do that while making it clear that what had happened should not be normal. I can’t say whether or not I succeeded in this – I don’t have that distance from my own work.

That was not, to my reading of Marina’s tale, the way her rape was written. That is not the way that rape is often presented in narratives in our culture. It bothers me fundamentally that this is the case – that even in trying to represent sexual assault in story, to understand it, we replicate narratives that normalize it.

I call out Treadwell because his work allowed me to see clearly what bothers me most about depictions of sexual assault. He’s not alone in this, and perhaps I should be critiqued equally. It’s been a long time since I first conceived of Mother of Creation, and I can’t say there aren’t things I would have done differently. But I do know that in the future, I hope to read and create stories where sexual assault is not normalized as an inevitability, where men are decent and where women are not blamed for the happenstance of their bodies. If we don’t start telling that kind of story, we can never hope to live in that kind of world.

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