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The Twisted, Stolen Legacy of the ‘Matrix’ Red Pill

The story of how the Wachowskis’ philosophical-crossroads moment was co-opted by bad-faith actors and a political movement is a complex tale about semiotics, the internet, and modern pop culture

Jay Torres

In May 2020, Elon Musk tweeted “Take the red pill.” It was unclear precisely what he meant, but those with enough cultural context had a decent idea of what he was trying to say. That hunch was then affirmed by the enthusiastic response of Ivanka Trump, whose father became president at least in some minor part because of forces associated with the symbol that Musk was evoking. She quote-tweeted him cheerily: “Taken!” she said.

Less than an hour later, Lilly Wachowski chimed in. One of the two directors responsible for The Matrix—the film in which the modern concept of the “red pill” originated—Wachowski didn’t appear very pleased with these people, neither in general nor in regard to how they were continuing the strange legacy of her metaphor. “Fuck both of you,” she replied to Trump. The way they were tossing her symbol around was likely a lot different from what she and her sister, Lana, had in mind when, more than two decades earlier, they composed the indelible scene in which Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) has to choose between taking a blue pill, which would cause him to remain who he is in a fabricated reality, or a red one, which would officially transform him into Neo—the chosen one, who alone could take down the grand enslavers and illusion makers.

The widely viewed Musk-Trump-Wachowski social media dustup, a collision between celebrities of the industrial, political, and entertainment variety, traveled into territory where those three camps tend to get pretty muddied. The pill’s symbolic journey has been long and gnarly, and has led to more confusion than clarity. What, really, did the red pill signify anymore? What was it supposed to be telling us about the world? Musk’s Twitter feed is typically defined by his anti-tax, anti-regulatory libertarianism, or by his often overbearing—read: relatable—desire to be loved for posting clever memes. Ivanka Trump is a member of the family who was in the White House at the time and remains at the heart of the Republican Party. Wachowski is a prestigious transgender filmmaker whose largest work has become one of the defining cultural and political texts of the 21st century.

But this rhetorical clash between three very different, very famous people was only the latest occurrence in a long and still-active war of signifiers. For 22 years, there has been a semiotic battle over how to define the ideological import of the thing that Morpheus handed to Neo so that he could free his mind and fly. Wachowski’s only semi-direct response to how the pill has been co-opted for two decades by misogynistic and reactionary internet communities (and eventually by professional conservative media) is still just that terse response on social media. But promotional material for The Matrix Resurrections, out this week—the trailer, the posters, the music—has pills, both red and blue, everywhere. Beyond once again entertaining us in a singular way, Resurrections stands as a chance to reflect on the metaphorical chaos its predecessors inadvertently wrought.

The red pill was first presented to us 31 years ago. In Paul Verhoeven’s 1990 sci-fi epic Total Recall, protagonist Douglas Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is offered one in order to snap out of a professionally induced dream state. If he refuses, he is told, he will be stuck in a “permanent psychosis,” strapped down in a chair and lobotomized in the actual world as his consciousness remains trapped within his exciting-yet-horrifying fantasy. Quaid pretends to take the pill to assuage his enemy, but then whoops his ass, spits the pill out, and continues his fact-or-fiction odyssey in a way that is, by design, never resolved.

Verhoeven and his screenwriters’ intention in presenting us with this prickly ambiguity was, presumably, to craft a probing speculative narrative that inspires us to consider how blurry our sense of reality may become as technology advances to a point that can make absurd fabrications seem real. Such notions were first approached in the film’s source material, Philip K. Dick’s story “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale”; Dick’s story about the possibility of memory implant technology (which is ultimately less ambiguous than the movie’s take on the subject) does not contain the red pill.

The pill itself is one of the less-remembered elements of Total Recall—it’s hard not to be overshadowed by things like, you know, this. The Wachowskis, though, noticed the red pill, described in Verhoeven’s film as “a symbol of your desire to return to reality.” Nine years later in The Matrix, Neo takes one during a now-iconic philosophical-crossroads moment. When Morpheus offers him a choice between it and the blue pill—the numbing complacency drug to the red pill’s freeing, journey-starting powers—Neo does not spit it out like Quaid. There is no ambiguity about it: Our protagonist, by swallowing the red pill, will reveal for himself and the audience the true nature of this universe. And as it turns out, he has been trapped, along with basically every other person, inside of a giant energy-harvesting tower of goo chambers, pinned into a spell that convinces him that his boring cubicle-bound existence is real.

It’s a simple yet powerful premise: live a dreary life, meet a weird guy, take a drug he gives you, discover the truth that your mundane existence is all just a setup. Neo’s dismal day-to-day state was not his own fault; his life had been rigged this way. But the pill would show him how to begin reconstructing his reality. Neo’s pilled awakening leads to his becoming the baddest of all asses: the no. 1 cool fighting guy, a nobody turned messiah who learns to destroy all forms of enemies via flying, martial arts, an otherworldly mastery of weapons, and even the re-creation of elemental matter on the fly. By the end of the Matrix trilogy, he has defeated the ultimate malignant virus (Agent Smith) and brokered peace between man and machine with both his fists and his imagination.

Warner Bros.

The Matrix was a surprise megahit, netting more than $460 million worldwide. Roger Ebert called it “a visually dazzling cyberadventure, full of kinetic excitement.” But The Matrix didn’t immediately become a founding text for theories on our technocentric modern world. “Information didn’t move the way it does today,” Joshua Topolsky, a tech and culture journalist, says. “People were really concerned about the world ending because of the Y2K bug, which was probably a bigger part of the Matrix hype than anything about the red pill.”

But the presence of the internet grew massively in the wake of The Matrix’s 1999 release. In a kind of confirmation of what the movie presaged, the World Wide Web became what it still is: the closest thing that the world knows to those towering goo chambers. Here is where we place our brains daily to understand the world around us—a process that, paradoxically, often involves our becoming more confused about it. In the early 2000s, forums rose specifically to discuss one of the major components of the movie: ever-evolving artificial intelligence. There were now open-ended internet conversations that previously had happened only among academics who studied this subject full time. They wondered whether AI would come to enslave us—as it does in The Matrix—or enhance us.

The title of the seminal AI chat board SL4 is short for Shock Level 4. “A Shock Level,” an explainer page on the site’s archives says, “measures the high-tech concepts you can contemplate without being impressed, frightened, [or] blindly enthusiastic—without exhibiting future shock.” The site inventories these concepts, clarifying that “Shock Level Zero or SL0, for example, is modern technology and the modern-day world.” SL1 includes virtual reality and e-commerce, a.k.a. cryptocurrency and NFTs, which still shock and befuddle many today, including Keanu. The rest remain beyond our current day-to-day technological imagination: “SL2 is interstellar travel, medical immortality or genetic engineering, SL3 is nanotech or human-equivalent AI, and SL4 is the Singularity.”

The Singularity referred to by SL4 is the concept of a profound technological shift—a hypothetical inflection point at which artificial intelligence develops past the control of humans, and technological growth becomes irreversible, exponential, and infinite. This occurrence is embedded in the backstory of The Matrix and in a lot of popular sci-fi. In the world of Dune, for instance, the events take place thousands of years after a human rebellion against overgrown AI called the Butlerian Jihad—an antidote to a singularity of sorts, which results in a new moral code that bans the creation of thinking machines by penalty of death. (The full arc of the original Matrix trilogy can be understood, to some extent, as a kind of Butlerian Jihad.)

The tenor of debate on SL4 was dry, intense, humorless, and deeply under the radar. This community evolved, though, producing offshoot sites like Overcoming Bias and LessWrong, which launched in 2006 and 2009, respectively. These were blogrolls featuring voices who—unlike the authors of The Matrix, Dune, The Terminator, or Total Recall—advocated for the enthusiastic embrace of quickly improving technology. As the titles of the sites suggest, the ruling belief of the groups behind these sites was that AI presented a path closer to utopia and transcendence than to serfdom and suffering; should we accept and live by the terms of machine thinking, we might better marginalize ugly wars and the drudgery of our world. Though these sites didn’t exactly explode in popularity, their standard blog format and sense of authorial voice offered a presentation that made them more accessible than SL4.

Much to the chagrin of many in these communities, the sites’ increasingly appealing templates would soon be retooled. Silicon Valley software developer Curtis Yarvin (known online as “Mencius Moldbug”) launched a blog called Unqualified Reservations in 2007 that, while similar to these sites both linguistically and in its diagnosis of the problems that humanity faced at large, came to much different conclusions. One of Moldbug’s earlier, catchier posts was called “The Case Against Democracy: Ten Red Pills.” This screed merged AI theorists’ concerns about the human race’s collective irrationality with a gobsmacking cultural reference, as a way of introducing Moldbug’s neo-monarchist polemic to the world. Moldbug posited that the issue people face is not exactly that they are flawed animals whose thinking can be aided toward better patterns by machines, but rather that too much liberalism has maximized human stupidity rather than any kind of righteous will. As Robert Silverman, a journalist covering the online right for the Daily Beast, puts it: “Moldbug’s apparent solution to the problem wasn’t, ‘Well, let’s all put our heads together and try and figure out theoretical tests for a form of AI that doesn’t exist yet,’ but rather, ‘Actually, the answer is fascism.’”

Take one of Moldbug’s 10 red pills, and you will see that we ought to fully enable our executive branch—so much so that the president is actually a king. “At best,” Moldbug writes, “democracy is sand in the gears of freedom and law.” Imagine that the flying, demonic, squid-like sentinel robots that keep humans trapped within the Matrix are not born from the AI singularity, but from New Deal–style politics, and you will see what Moldbug is trying to say. Come 2009, Moldbug grew more specific about who the Agent Smith in his thought-voyage is: “We’ve all seen The Matrix. We know about red pills. Many claim to sell them. You can go, for example, to any bookstore, and ask the guy behind the counter for some Noam Chomsky. What you’ll get is blue pills soaked in Red #3.”

That Moldbug was coming so hard for a political theorist whose ideas were only lightly familiar to the larger public speaks to how niche Unqualified Reservations was. But Moldbug, the reactionary offshoot of a “Rationalist” school of thinkers who were determined to use technology to augment humanity’s shortcomings, was shockingly influential to a small and powerful group at the intersection between political eggheads and tech professionals. He has been linked to mega-billionaire tech investor and world-shaper Peter Thiel for roughly a decade. In 2013, tech entrepreneur and current cryptocurrency mogul Balaji Srinivasan gave an oddly political speech at a start-up event for young programmers that was believed to be directly pulled from Moldbug’s work. By 2017, it was reported that Steve Bannon was a fan of Moldbug’s. Most recently, Tucker Carlson had Moldbug on his new daytime talk show this past September, where he was called by his birth name and made some familiarly myopic appeals.

In contemplating the lasting impact of Moldbug’s red pill co-optation, the spectacle-stirring Bannon is probably the best comparison point to consider. Both men live by Moldbug’s truism that “nonsense is a more effective organizing tool than the truth”; people like Donald Trump, whose campaign Bannon managed, do better in a world where basic textual literacy is lacking. The Matrix trilogy is about insurgents in an oppressive system, but many of those still celebrating its imagery want the president to be much more powerful. “The comedy is that the people who want guys like Trump to be in power, [who want] Daddy Trump stepping all over them, are the guys who think they’re radical. ... It’s such an incredible perversion of the concept,” Topolsky says.

But as influential as he may be to bigger voices, Moldbug has never been anything like a household name. And although some of the tech-optimists who inspired Moldbug met him at his bespoke overlap of Silicon Valley, cool action movies, historical literature, and fascism, many also hated his co-optation: Slate Star Codex, the more contemporary bearer of the blog-torch for the rationalist movement, features him prominently in their Anti-Reactionary FAQ, which is designed to discourage further crossbreeding of their ideas and his.

The Wachowskis, meanwhile, have never formally responded to the use of their core symbolic imagery. (Hugo Weaving did, though.) In the late ’00s, such a measure would likely have been overzealous: Moldbug wasn’t big enough and neither were other remixes of their movie’s meaning. It is entirely possible, even probable, that the Wachowskis had no idea these ideas were even blossoming out there. But the Redditization of the red pill was on the way, and with it a reshaping of the emblem too large to ignore.

It’s worth considering one of the larger questions of the red pill’s symbolic life beyond The Matrix: Was the source material ready-made for these types of readings? The most logical answer to that question is that the Matrix movies are, like the work of Socrates that inspired them, or a Coldplay song, written vaguely enough to be a parable for just about anything you want. They do not demand to be interpreted in one definitive way. At the same time, though, there is no denying how some of the fundamental demographics at play might attract lonely men who want to believe that there is something more conspiratorial and insidious at the root of their personal failures, and that there is also a hidden network of truth that might make them powerful enough to fight back. What if an epic action movie showed these men a white single male computer hacker whose voyage was just this? The Matrix could be described as a movie about a Wojak (the term for the animated meme-archetype of an unremarkable man, which you have likely seen online) who takes a pill of enlightenment and becomes the ultimate alpha, or Chad—which just happens to be the name of Trinity’s fake Matrix husband in Resurrections.

That being said, The Matrix is one of the most popular blockbuster action movies of all time. Millions of people have seen it without going there with it. It can simply be, and for most people is, a riveting sci-fi adventure that, while a bit more serious and philosophically loaded than most, is not worth reinterpreting reality over. The Wachowskis bear no real responsibility for what happened next, just like comic artist Matt Furie bears none for his cartoon frog Pepe becoming a Photoshopped symbol of the alt-right.

Nevertheless, in 2012, r/TheRedPill was born. It’s not clear whether there is a bridge between the subreddit’s usage of the pill and Moldbug’s. That link is either nonexistent or too old, tenuous, and fleeting to fully trace. An exact etymology of a decade-old meme is an almost impossible task. It could be that these different usages of the red pill were totally separate islands, terraformed by different men, all trying to use the movie’s power to advance their own truth brands. Or it could be that the ideas within Moldbug’s dense, smarmy political science trickled down to more base messaging; most people don’t give a shit about Chomsky, but everyone cares about sex.

Warner Bros.

Anti-feminist evocations of the red pill had been organically trending for years before the subreddit was founded: In 2010, in a comment section on the men’s rights activism (MRA) blog A Voice for Men, a user named “redpill” stated that “Women are the natural enemies of men. No matter what anyone says and how good women claim to be, that is just the truth. This will never stop and men will continue under the tyranny of women.” r/TheRedPill went on to crystallize sentiments like this, aggregating animosity found in the columns and comments sections of wounded male pride blogs like AVFM and The Spearhead. MRAs merged with the pickup artists community (PUAs) to create a space that was hostile to women in myriad ways. Among the (sometimes incompatible) beliefs of the community: A woman’s rejection is not really rejection, women secretly want to be dominated, and women are biologically predisposed to cheating. A popular acronym, AWALT (“all women are like that”) emerged to lazily justify every essentialist claim. In 2015, alt-right figurehead Milo Yiannopoulos did an Ask Me Anything session on the subreddit, before going on to infamously say that “feminism is cancer” in the spring of 2016.

That same year, a documentary called The Red Pill was released, seemingly inspired by the subreddit (though the “Dispelling Myths” page on the film’s website denies any substantive connection, asking us to be credulous enough to believe in such a large coincidence). In the movie, a self-described feminist named Cassie Jaye changes her tune as she uncovers the ways in which a supposedly “gynocentric” world has failed men. Largely funded via Kickstarter, the documentary is believed to be bankrolled for the most part by MRAs from the subreddit and related communities—it is often, as a result, also discredited, and many of its initial screenings were canceled in reaction to protests of theaters planning to show it.

Before being permanently quarantined in 2018, the r/TheRedPill had close to 300,000 users at its peak. The community lives on to some formal extent, archived on its own webspace with the homepage sporting a Medgar Evers quote: “You can kill a man but you can’t kill an idea.” Tucker Carlson and Republican Senator Josh Hawley seem to agree: Both have recently taken to their soapboxes to deliver speeches that could have been lifted directly from r/TheRedPill about how masculinity is under urgent attack in America.

The r/TheRedPill archive space also stipulates in its FAQ that anyone whose posts are visible in the archive is free to contact the host and have any potentially identifying details scrubbed. This is because known membership on the red pill subreddit has proved to have serious consequences—its founder, according to the Daily Beast’s investigative reporting in 2017, was a Republican lawmaker from New Hampshire named Robert Fisher. Among the many misogynistic comments authored by Fisher was the claim that “Every woman wants to be attractive enough to be raped.” After initially resisting calls for resignation upon discovery of his internet activity, Fisher stepped down a little less than a month after the Daily Beast’s reporting. Upon his resignation, he said his behavior was misrepresented and that he would still “stand strong for men’s rights and the rights of all.”

Fisher’s downfall was part of a larger trend during the Trump presidency in which institutions attempted to grapple with the strange, angry forces spreading throughout the internet (that were often noted as a framework for explaining how Donald Trump won the 2016 election). The amount of causation that toxic new internet communities had in Trump’s victory is debatable; some pundits center it, while others prefer to lean on hard data, focus on stray comments overheard in rural diners, or argue about the supposed power of various slogans until they are blue in the face.

But there’s no question that the words “red pill” had taken on broad new cultural association by the mid-2010s. The emblem had traveled well outside of what the Wachowskis envisioned when they decided to wink at Total Recall. Now, it was the central metaphor for a huge hodgepodge of loosely affiliated online communities known as the “manosphere”: PUAs, MRAs, incels, the alt-right. “Taking the red pill” had come to mean opening your eyes to a world that was conspiring against men and empowering women, who were seen as fickle, savage, and evil by nature.

Over the past several years, the red pill metaphor has broadened even beyond the domain of men looking for allegorical explanation, taking on more widely reactionary qualities. Likely to Moldbug’s delight, it has come to be understood as a more general right-wing conversion drug. “It has kind of shifted to becoming this way to talk about making an intentional decision to reject liberal hegemony,” says Ryan Milner, who is the chair of the College of Charleston’s Department of Communication and the author of The World Made Meme: Public Conversations and Participatory Media. “It’s a really resonant metaphor, and lines up easily with a conservative worldview,” he says, because of how it can be presented as a counter-truth to what might otherwise look like a losing battle in a culture war.

Media personality Candace Owens produced one of the more famous “red pillings” of the 21st century when she formed a friendship with Kanye West. Owens was then the host of the YouTube channel Red Pill Black, one of the places where she presented her anti-liberal plan for Black Americans; she also founded the organization “Blexit” to organize a mass exodus of Black members from the Democratic Party. West was spending time with Owens around then and tweeting positively about her, and in 2018 he infamously said slavery was “a choice.” In 2020, he tweeted gushingly about her latest book, Blackout: How Black America Can Make Its Second Escape From the Democratic Plantation.

This racially inflammatory, ahistorical brand of red pilling is just one of the many radicalization variants that have grown from the original subreddit. In September of this year, Joe Rogan displayed another version: “I took Ivermectin and it’s part of my red pill regimen,” he said at a comedy club, invoking the symbol for no reason other than to own the libs.

Unlike the sobering effect it has on Neo as he discovers the sockets in his flesh, this pill tends to have the same effect as going too deep into any research hole on the internet without proper barriers. It is much more likely to create further distress, alienation, or just outright absurdity than it does clarity. “Have you just awoken?” asks Annie Kelly, a PhD student researching anti-feminism and conspiracy theories, with a focus on far-right communities online. “Have the scales fallen from your eyes? Or have you been dragged into this really deranged world that is just making things much less clear for you?”

Kelly’s question gets to the heart of the modern legacy of the red pill, and more broadly that of getting “pilled,” or ingesting something from some exciting new source (Morpheus, or just some guy on the internet) and going on a corresponding vision quest. Frequently, these sessions are more psychedelically paranoid than they are educational. And the internet offers countless opportunities for them. Hari Kunzru’s riveting 2020 novel Red Pill depicts exactly such an online neuro-excursion and illustrates a modern truth: To the extent that the World Wide Web is our Matrix, our various pillings tend to take us further into the goo as opposed to out of it. Spending more time online, as red pill warriors tend to do, is a lot different from what Neo did; when he takes his pill, he leaves the sludge to breathe real, fresher air. Much to the contrary, most contemporary notions of getting pilled result in getting lost in the sauce.

Misguided interpretations of the red pill continue to develop and lift the symbol away from its source and further into a right-wing context. A few months after her tweet at Musk and Trump, Lilly Wachowski showed just how far this retconning had strayed from her own creative intentions when she confirmed certain fan theories that the movie was actually composed as a metaphor for her and her sister’s struggle with gender identity. She said that at the time “the world wasn’t quite ready.” The character Switch, she explained, was initially meant to bring these themes to the surface—Switch was originally written as a man in the real world, but a woman in the Matrix.

Wachowski did not frame her explanation as a direct rebuke to the co-optation of her symbol, but, given the timing—and her aggrieved tweet reply—it is certainly easy to read it that way. Meanwhile, conservative media, to the extent that it cared about Wachowski’s reframing of her movie, held tight to their version. Breitbart called the red pill “a symbol of those who have seen past the mainstream media filter” and referred to the trans subtext as “bullshit … pure pandering to those who crave being pandered to: the shallow, stupid, and spoiled brats we call Wokesters.”

Based on Lana’s previous work with her sister Lilly (who is sitting out for The Matrix Resurrections), we aren’t in for a straightforward, didactic response to the unfortunate cultural mangling of the pills anytime soon. The Wachowskis prefer to work in more allusive and allegorical ways, and the consignment of two literary novelists (David Mitchell and Aleksander Hemon) as cowriters of the new screenplay won’t change that.

The closest we get to anything so direct in Resurrections is when Thomas Anderson—who must again discover his inner Neo—sits in a meeting with a group of people who offer up their hard takes on what The Matrix (a video game in Resurrections rather than a film) was “about.” It’s a transparently meta moment meant to emphasize the grand folly of audience interpretation.

But even if the new Matrix movie were to plainly reject the red pill’s current place in the culture, it’s hard to believe such a gesture would be very effective. There will always be room to impress a wide range of ideas onto mythologically powerful work. And that is what The Matrix is: In a richly realized fantasy, the Wachowskis portrayed anxieties about current and oncoming realities at the end of the 20th century. What if we lose ourselves to technology? What, in our rapidly changing world, can really be trusted? What is being hidden from us, or stolen? Is all of this progress … good? But parts of the audience took these concerns in their own directions and stretched the touchstones of the movies to graft them onto more irrational and pernicious fears about humanity. This is simply what some people do with epic, messianic works—have you heard of the Bible?

Whatever exactly Wachowski means to say about the red and blue pills in 2021—or about any other interpretations of her work—with the latest text of The Matrix, there will be no way to deter people from taking a movie that makes them feel something and glomming their emotions and ideas from elsewhere onto it; perhaps wrongly, perhaps collectively, perhaps in an obfuscating and destructive way. Simply put, there is no medicine for that.

John Wilmes is a writer and professor in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @johnwilmeswords.

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