“I just wanted–needed some time to get my head right, to feel comfortable… but apparently I don’t get to decide this.”
Last month, news broke of the other Wachowski sibling’s status as a trans woman. Lilly (nee Andy) joined her sister, Lana, as part of the out-and-proud crowd, and there was much heaping of adulation upon her, for it’s a very difficult thing for anyone to have to go through and anyone who makes it to that other side of transition is a brave and battered soul worthy of congratulations. So hooray, right?
Let’s hold up a bit. You see, Lilly didn’t get the chance to prepare for her coming out. She didn’t get to hem and haw over who she could tell and when. She didn’t have the time to attempt to stabilize her future employment prospects, or notify family members and friends, or get out ahead of the dozens of other things that have to be done to make the choice to come out publicly as safe and stress-free as possible. She didn’t get to do these things because a reporter from UK tabloid the Daily Mail showed up on her doorstep one day and threatened to out her unless she gave them the exclusive exposé on her gender transition, even hinting vague threats about continued invasions of privacy by tabloid paparazzi if she refused to comply. Knowing that her options were limited and time was now running short, Wachowski called up her local queer advocacy news paper, the Windy City Times, and gave them the scoop. In the same interview, she denounced the tactics of the Daily Mail, reminding readers that the tabloid was linked to the 2013 suicide of Lucy Meadows, an English elementary school teacher who killed herself a few months after the Daily Mail outed her as trans in an op/ed piece insisting Meadows’ gender identity status made her unsafe to work around small children.
The British tabloids have of a lot maturing to do in terms of reporting on LGBT issues; their coverage often makes TMZ look like Ken fucking Burns. The Daily Mail itself is notorious for using salacious headlines and sensational bullet points in articles featuring trans people, wallowing in extraneous sexual details that have little or no bearing on the story reported. Their response to this is even disgraceful, insisting that Lilly is essentially making it all up. Not only is it very likely an outright fabrication, given their history and the fact that Lilly Wachowski has little to gain by coming out as she has, but worse yet, it’s just more of the same tabloid culture of total strangers feeding off the private lives of others with absolutely no concern for the ramifications.
The Daily Mail, of all damn things, has no business being the arbiter of who comes out of the closet or when they choose to do it, and neither does anybody else. Coming out is different for everyone, but it’s often an extremely painful and difficult process where you could lose close friends and family members, your job, your house, your marriage or children or all of these. With such potential for lifelong disruption, the choice to press this nuclear launch button should be at the discretion of one person alone–the one who decides comes out.
Being transgender is an often terrifying shotgun blast of insecurity, instability, and vulnerability. We owe all people, certainly those marginalized by society, the freedom to be the author of their own life stories.
If Lilly Wachowski felt burdened by pressure around the coming out process, I can only hope there’s even a small weight lifted by what she’s been forced to do. But who knows if she is at peace with having to come out when she did? It’s her life, and we’ll likely never know, but it’s not difficult to think that there might be a friend or family member or business partner who may have been blindsided by this news and spurred into a negative reaction they might not have had if they had been told when Lilly was ready and in the way Lilly wanted to tell them. I hope the Wachowski sisters continue long into their careers living their authentic selves and enjoying the fruits of their labor as well as all people can; they seem like lovely people and they certainly deserve it as much as anyone. Being whole–being who you really are–is the most freeing thing anyone can strive for, and while that process can be a slow and rocky path, no one gets to walk it except you, and no one should ever push you out the door before you’re ready.
Something I had to consider once the dust began to settle around this story was how this revelation affected my assessment of Lilly and Lana’s prior releases. Regrettably, I may not be appropriately well versed in their ouvre to really tackle that re-evaluation–I’ve seen the required Wachowski CV, your Matrices and Vees for Vendetta and whathaveyou, but I have not seen their two projects that deal most directly with queer issues, Bound and the Netflix show Sense8. But I’m interested in digging into those works, especially through this new filter. What themes and subtext would I see in these works, knowing that both Wachowskis were dealing with their own personal journeys exploring gender identity? How would I view the lesbian relationship at the heart of Bound knowing the writer/directors were part of the LGBT community? How would I view the portrayal of the trans woman character in Sense8 knowing that both siblings were writing from at least some avenue of personal identification? How much leeway would I give the material if I saw an experience that didn’t feel authentic to my own? I want to see these as soon as possible. If you get to know me a little bit from my columns, you’ll find that I’m not a subscriber to the idea that you can wholly separate art from artist; creation doesn’t happen in vacuum, and context is what separates “art” from the merely “artful.”
While I assure you that a Bound/Sense8 marathon is in my future, I do want to take the time now to poke around some of the themes and motifs in the works of theirs that I have seen, now filtered through this lens of the siblings’ authentic selves.
Most prominently, I feel that knowing the identity issues going on with the directors gives a new facet to their work on The Matrix series that I hadn’t really picked up on before. When we meet our protagonist, a man named Thomas Anderson, he lives in a world that he feels is wrong in some deep part of his being. Not just feels, but knows, though he may not yet be able to articulate it. When he’s not at work, he lives a second life under a different name–not the one he was born with, but the one he gave himself: Neo. Now, lots of hay has been made since day one about “neo” being an easy allusion to the concept behind its Latin root; newness and rebirth is the essence of Neo’s journey. If that’s not enough, there’s a very overt allusion to his being “reborn” when the Nebuchadnezzar plucks his naked form from the goop shortly after his awakening at the hands of Morpheus. A large part of Neo’s “rebirth,” however, is about his choosing authenticity over simulation and what happens after you make that jump down the rabbit hole. I’m not suggesting being transgender is a choice, but living your authentic self definitely is, and it can be a painful awakening–as disruptive as, say, breaking out of your digital prison and finding out the real world is a dying shithole full of flying murderbots and the only food is runny protein slop.
Still better than North Carolina though
Looking at this through the process of exploring one’s gender identity, the parallels seem obvious, no? Neo feels detached, separate, unreal, when he’s in the Matrix, even though many other people don’t notice a single thing wrong. Despite giving up virtually everything (and everything virtual), he’s happier outside in the real world, with the people who care about him as his real self. He rejects his apparent reality, takes a magic pill, and is reborn in his true form. The connotations to gender transition and actualization seem pretty overt in that context.
V for Vendetta is an interesting film to tackle from this angle, since it’s not an original property from the Wachowskis, but rather a fairly straightforward adaptation of an existing story. However, I find it interesting that Wachowskis selected this work at all, considering at that point in their careers they could have done just about anything. Yes, I know this was directed by James McTeigue, but the sisters served here as producers and screenwriters, and it ends up laced with their hallmark thematic concerns, including rebirth and “self-expression vs. conformity,” as well as being a overt bit of agitprop against fascism and othering. Both Evey and V experience a spiritual rebirth into the world–V before the film starts, and we never even learn about his prior life before the fire at the prison, and Evey once she finally overcomes her attachment to the superficial comfort of conforming to society’s expectations (a bit hamfistedly, albeit, by making the Shawshank pose out in the rain). The symbolism is clear in both instances. V is first seen naked and rising from the flaming ruin of the sins he was born from in the facility, and Evey seems practically natal, wet and shorn and crying in the joyful belonging to this new world of truth and beauty.
The fate of Stephen Fry’s Dietrich is a little more on-the-nose, as the spiritually-tolerant and closeted homosexual is taken away and never seen again for the crime of making the government look silly on a TV show. The price for aberration and social incongruence is quite high, and now I’m going to have trouble not seeing that as an allusion to the fate of real-world LGBT members of society, especially trans women, who are far more likely than any other group to be harmed or killed simply for existing. V for Vendetta is a rallying cry against hateful ignorance, and not often subtle, but don’t mistake that for clumsiness. It’s still a stirring work, with its heart bright and bold on its sleeve, and it remains one of the rare few movies where I absolutely lose my shit by the end and sob like a baby.
Cloud Atlas seems like a no-brainer to chew into from this angle, since the whole film is not shy about its messages of interconnectivity and tolerance and the endurance of the impermanent through the lives we touch. Plus, half the characters get into drag at some point, so…
Here the Wachowskis play with the idea of malleable identity and notions of expression, not so much on a specific character level, but within the greater metatextual context that argues that people are more defined by their identities than their appearance. Ben Whishaw can be a nice middle-aged woman or a love-lorn young man, but what we in the audience care about are the characters and not any concern that neither role is what it appears underneath. Whishaw is an actor, and our knowledge of his artifice doesn’t ever break our immersion in our engagement with his character. Every time I think of this it seems such a blatant remark upon transgender identity, this notion of being who you say you are and not being defined by what others think you are.
So it’s virtually impossible to unsee many of these parallels viewed through this new facet of the Wachowskis’ personal lives; and it seems that their status as trans ambassadors extends past their roles as directors. Eddie Redmayne, who played the lead villain of the sisters’ Jupiter Ascending, came to them for advice on his work in The Danish Girl, where he played the role of Lili Elbe, one of the first people to ever undergo gender reassignment surgery. Lana Wachowski is even thanked for her efforts in the film’s credits.
Currently, the Wachowski sisters are working on a second season of Sense8, and while their feature release schedule is empty right now (and maybe with good reason, *cough cough Channing Tatum wolf ears cough cough*), I’m actually looking forward to their output, at least from an academic standpoint. From here on out, both siblings are out of the closet and can be overt or nuanced as they like when taking on the issues that are most important to them. Even when I don’t love their work, there’s always something about their work to love.
Good luck, ladies. We’ll all be watching.