Anna Sandfield examines how The Matrix: Reloaded presents its female characters.
I have recently been to see ‘The Matrix: Reloaded’ and I loved it. I became engrossed and because I cared about the characters’ safety and in a film where people are frequently involved in high-octane violence that made for nail-biting viewing. There are many things that could be and will be written about this film, and its precursor ‘The Matrix’, from a feminist perspective. Here I am writing because I am interested in representations of women and because personally I want to analyse my fixation with these films and what, along with many other people internationally, I am taking away from them. I confess that I have only seen ‘Reloaded’ once, with no prior thoughts of writing about it, so my recollections may be shaky but here goes.
‘Reloaded’ is a complicated film, more so than the first one, it tackles some worthy philosophical issues – the nature of reality, fate vs. free will, love vs. intellect. Much has been made of these underpinnings and I must admit, I came out somewhat confused. However, don’t be put off, you don’t need to pick up every detail to enjoy the film. The film has clear mass appeal in spite of the intellectual aspirations. It looks good, the costumes, the artfully filmed sex and violence complete with famous special effects, it has amazing amounts of tension and adrenaline-soaked action, a love story, an apocalyptic future. Briefly it has a lot of threads and spans several genre. But what I want to talk about is the role of women in this film, and primarily the role of Trinity, the most prominent woman.
I am going to try not to spoil the film for those who haven’t seen it but there were a lot of very worrying moments for me, focusing on Trinity. In the first film ‘The Matrix’ Trinity is the first character from the real world and its rebel human population to meet Neo, the hero ‘The One’, in the artificial world of the title, the matrix. He has been mysteriously led to a rock club and she confronts him, immediately establishing her credentials as an infamous computer hacker Neo had suspected was male. She has knowledge (power) and she has a reputation, which makes her exciting. We already know, from the opening scene of the first film, that she also appears to have super-human combat skills. And she wears patent PVC catsuits (in the matrix), she is a form of male fantasy incarnate – the clothes, the power and mystery, the thrill of danger and she is interested in computers. So why am I interested?
There is nothing necessarily liberated about women hitting people, call it ‘kicking butt/ass’ if you like but, as if you needed proof, ‘Charlie’s Angels’ ably demonstrates that you can fight and still be just a nice, irritatingly harmless girl. In reality females who aspire to develop or display combat skills (such as female boxers) are confronted with resistance rather than regarded with admiration (Choi, 2000). However I do believe it is good to see female characters that are physically active.
Carrie Anne Moss, who plays Trinity, does not conform to stereotypical Hollywood images of attractiveness, in that she does not have huge breasts, she has short dark hair and though she is striking to look at (and I believe once modelled) she is not little-girl pretty. Martyn Palmer suggests that Trinity is a gay (sic) icon linking this to her catsuit, sunglasses and ‘mannish haircut’. I think she is an eminently qualified screen icon for lesbian and heterosexual women but I believe the writer is wrong to place all the emphasis on appearance. He makes a stereotypical connection between short hair and lesbianism, failing to examine the appeal of the role. Throughout both films she performs feats of great physical agility and exertion. She is where the action is, she runs, fights, drives, rides a bike – and it is my belief that portrayals of women who are active and involved in the business of life are positive. Trinity is not decorative (even in PVC) as women often are in the media, particularly women in action films – she is meaningfully involved.
In terms of the plot she goes from being Neo’s guide and mentor to his lover but I would not call her the ‘love-interest’. It is clear from relatively early in the first film that she has a soft spot for him. Then the question of her belief in his role in the larger political storyline is confirmed and towards the end of the first film they go in to fight together and she saves his life with a kiss. Fair enough the last bit sounds silly but in another way of looking at it she is taking a traditionally male role. Admittedly bring someone who has been shot dead in a virtual world back to life with a kiss is some way from Snow white and Sleeping Beauty but it’s a role reversal. Neo, wired into his chair and dead (passive), needs the princess to take some action this time and she takes it. Soppy bits on film are only irritating to me when that’s all women are there for (‘naked or dead’ as Matrix producer Joel Silver reportedly once said of women’s roles in action films, I could say more about this but I’ll save it). Trinity carries on making strides for the good team when in another film she might have fallen into a swoon and/or got captured.
Another thing I enjoy about Trinity and the other female characters in the Matrix films is that they do not smile. This ties in with my interest in women being free to express their emotions and displeasure, something feminist research has shown that women, and correspondingly those with less power in social situations, are often not permitted to do (LaFrance, 2002). I don’t really mean to focus on facial expression rather on demeanour. Part of the image projected by the Matrix good team is being seriously cool. Characters do not flinch or panic in the face of danger, including the women, which is something I wholeheartedly approve of. Fair enough they’re in a post-apocalyptic world fighting for a revolution, which isn’t cheery, but nowhere in Trinity’s role as Neo’s mentor/coach early in the films does she give him a cheery grin and tell him it will all be all right (the traditional female caretaker role).
In a review by Cosmo Landesman Trinity is criticised as being ‘more like an android than a guardian angel’. I presume that by ‘like an android’ he means she is not emotional, he would prefer to see her in a caring and female-identified role, an ‘angel’ to the leading man. I don’t want to offend any angel-lovers and I am aware of the theological materials suggesting that angels are male however I think this is a sexist comment referring to a common association between women and caring roles. I’m happy to see a completely serious driven woman on the silver screen. Woe betide anyone stop Trinity on the street and tell her to ‘Cheer up love, it might never happen’ to encourage the donning of regulation smiley-girl face.
As well as expertise and physical activity Trinity’s role in the films is as a committed revolutionary. Her part in the plot is as part of a team fighting literally and metaphorically to save the human race. She is a woman making a stand, something that I encourage on the screen and in real life. I think that one of the reasons that people get so wound up in the web of philosophical references found in The Matrix is that there aren’t many films around (I can’t actually think of any) that are about belief, and making a stand. I suppose people take a stand for their countries in war films, other than the cinema doesn’t give us, or certainly me, much to believe in. Much of what I like about myself is contained in my beliefs and I want to see people, and specifically women, with thoughts, with passions other than heterosexual romance, on the screen.
One thing I would like to make a minor complaint about in ‘Reloaded’ is the sex scene. Now I have read this scene slammed and discussed it with other, male, viewers of the film who find it embarrassing, silly, inappropriate for an action film and I couldn’t disagree with them more. I’m glad the lead characters, who are clearly crazy about each other get to have sex. It makes sense as a plot device – cementing our understanding of how their relationship has changed since the last film (where we saw one first kiss) without spending too much time talking about the subject.
There are two things I would like to record my objection to: the sexual position and the camerawork. It suddenly occurred to me while watching this scene that female TV and film characters are always lying underneath their male co-stars. I am sure many of you already noticed this and that it has cultural and historical meanings that I am unaware of. However I want to say here that it disappoints me to see portrayals of women routinely made sexually passive even when this is at great odds to their characters. Additionally in this scene the camera spends the majority of its time on Trinity’s face and almost none on Neo’s. I could explore this further but in summary I don’t think that this stereotyped focus on the female face, eyes closed, mouth opening, seems much like an orgasm and I don’t see that she alone should be made object of our gaze and his attentions.
The other female characters in ‘Reloaded’ were given a big fanfare when the publicity came out, which in this the second of three films I don’t think they have yet deserved. There were pictures released of the female actors that appeared in several pieces of advertising and here the press had an opportunity to make the women of the films into models in nice dresses. I am not trying to deny women publicity or expecting them to turn out for photo-shoots in boiler suits, however it does get to me that full-body shots in evening dresses are likely to be printed regardless of interview content. I didn’t see Lawrence Fishburne pouting.
In ‘Reloaded’ I am glad that some of the underground rebels were women, some of the council elders were old women and a key ship’s captain is a woman. There were women involved who weren’t there to look pretty, play the ‘love interest’ or cause complications by getting kidnapped which has to be good. The character Niobi is played by Jada Pinkett Smith and so far seems interesting. Besides the publicity she has gained personally (I’m sure the amount of this concerning her famous husband galls her as much as it does me) she is a ships captain, she volunteers for a dangerous commission, she does some heroic action deeds without any fuss. There is some sexual intrigue there but most of the time she has her head down and is there fighting for the good team, facing danger and playing an active role in the story. She is also black and, unless I am making a big oversight, black female action heroes are thin on the ground. This much is good.
The other two new and recognisable women in the film, Zee and Persephone were a little more problematic for me. Zee looks mournfully pretty, moans about her partner going away to do heroic deeds and engages in the dancing scene inter-cut with the sex scene I mentioned. I understand that ‘moaning’ is an unkind way to label a woman expressing her dissatisfaction with her partner which everyone has a right to do, and being honest I’m glad she told him she’s unhappy rather than keeping quiet. I can see that this character relationship demonstrates to the audience that the central characters have families (just like us), they are real people with emotional lives and problems. Nevertheless I wish that Zee hadn’t occupied the role of the archetypal woman behind-the-scenes of the action, waiting for her man to come home.
Persephone, I am hoping, has yet to fulfil her potential as a character. She and her received a level of publicity which so far doesn’t seem justified by her screen time, though it may well have been determined rather by her conventional attractiveness. In Total Film magazine the actress Monica Bellucci who plays Persephone calls the character ‘very dangerous’, which may predict further trouble for our heroes. Now as an emotionally-involved filmgoer I didn’t like Persephone (a big understatement) and I wasn’t supposed to. She is the foil to Trinity’s black catsuit wearing, dynamic, committed, loyal, heroine. Persephone wears a white dress, behaves in a manipulative and cunning fashion, is married to a baddie that she doesn’t care about and is styled to represent archetypal feminine sexiness (accentuated breasts, tight skirt, make-up and loose long hair). It is this overt sexuality she uses in a key scene against our heroine. Trinity impulsively reveals her fallibility and the chink in her ice-cool armour, of course it’s her feelings for Neo. We are faced with a dilemma that reoccurs throughout the film for the central characters in which personal feelings are weighed against need to succeed politically – are they prepared to sacrifice everything for love? You’ll have to go and see.
Now you may think I am wasting my time turning further attention to a film not made with feminist values in mind, which will break box office records anyway, it does not need further publicity. I also understand that there are worthy questions I have not addressed regarding this film, including the acceptability of violence and the role of religious metaphor. However, as I said in my introduction, in this instance I was interested to examine why I enjoyed ‘Reloaded’ so much and whether there is anything good, other than an adrenaline-high, that everyone seeing the film will take home. I liked ‘Reloaded’ on many levels, predictably some of them were not intellectual, but it is my contention that Trinity makes a worthy model for many of the things I want to see in media representations of women. She is active and involved physically and politically, she is committed to a cause and to people and her character is not decorative, all about looking feminine and smiling to please. Women getting up and doing things they believe in is what feminism, for me, is all about.
Anna Sandfield lives in Birmingham, adores the neon eyesore that is Star City multiplex and wants to be where the action is. She yearns for a dog and hopes that the ants living in her keyboard find a new, less perilous home soon.
References & bibliography
- Choi, Precilla (2000). Femininity and the Physically Active Woman. London: Routledge.
- Crocker, Jonathon, Eimer, David, Evans, Geraint, Magid, Ron, White, James (2003).
- The A-Z of The Matrix Reloaded. Total Film (77), June 2003.
- Goodwin, Christopher (2003) Sterling Silver. The Sunday Times Magazine, May 25th.
- LaFrance, Marianne (2002). Smile Boycotts and Other Body Politics, Feminism & Psychology Vol. 12 (3): 319-323.
- Landesman, Cosmo (2003) [Title missing as I accidentally recycled this!], Culture, The Sunday Times, Sunday 11th May.
- Palmer, Martyn (2003). She’s got it: Just for Kicks. Style, The Sunday Times, May 25th.