“You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” Lilly and Lana Wachowski’s trilogy of Matrix films were considered a triumph in the late ’90s and early 2000s, and a fourth movie is scheduled to be released in 2021. The series launched hundreds of imitations and has been invoked in cross-genre film and television, including Scary Movie (2000), Kill Bill: Volume I (2003), and numerous Simpsons episodes. Though everything from wire work to conspiracy theories has sprouted from the Matrix’s tree, the “red pill” moment still remains central to its legacy. In the first film, The Matrix (1999), office drone Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is offered a choice: Wake up to the reality of the cyberpunk world he lives in, where human bodies are cultivated for use as an energy source, or go back to sleep and return to being a brain in a jar. His memorable choice to take the red pill launches him into an action-adventure—and he gets a new name, Neo.
But the film also launched a movement of another kind, embedding the symbolism of the red pill so deeply in society that Elon Musk and Ivanka Trump referenced it on Twitter several decades after the original film’s release. Their exchange departed from the original free-spirited Matrix by both referencing the so-called “alt-right” implications now associated with the red pill. “Take the red pill,” Musk tweeted in May 2020, seemingly implying to his followers that they need to wake up to the dangers of government overreach and paradoxically adding a red rose emoji—even though that icon is more closely associated with the Democratic Socialists of America. Ivanka retweeted the sentiment, adding a perky “Taken!” for emphasis. “Fuck both of you,” Lilly Wachowski responded, reflecting what must be a deeply entrenched frustration with how the red pill metaphor has evolved.
During the 2016 GLAAD Media Awards, Lilly Wachowski said, “While the ideas of identity and transformation are critical components in our work, the bedrock that all ideas rest upon is love.” Seeing an instrumental part of their landmark film turned into a symbol of hatred is a heartbreaking illustration of what happens when creators lose control of the culture they’ve created. It also raises an essential question: How did the red pill go from being a critical component of a film created by two trans women to being a popular term used by men’s rights activists (MRAs) and white supremacists?
More Things in Heaven and Earth
The deeply philosophical Matrix trilogy draws upon centuries of white Western thought. For example, the film riffs on René Descartes’s suspicions that the world we live in might not be real. It also evokes Plato’s cave allegory, in which people live underground, watching shadow puppetry and believing it to be the real world. Should they manage to break free, they’re met with a perplexing and terrifying reality. Anderson lives in the cave, but Neo breaks free of it. Similar explorations also exist within a broad swath of 20th-century science fiction, from the pretentious musings of Neal Stephenson and Robert A. Heinlein to the feminism of Annalee Newitz and N.K. Jemisin, but The Matrix presented them in clear, digestible chunks calculated to fill the popular imagination. The red pill was an irresistible, easy-to-understand symbol that spoke to an entire generation of misfit nerds. If the unhappy kids of the early ’90s had Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, those of the late ’90s had The Matrix and Neo.
Being immersed in the world of The Matrix was itself a wake-up call. For fans of the cyberpunk explosion of the ’80s featuring decaying, demoralized high-tech societies—think Blade Runner (1982), Akira (1988), and writers like William Gibson—the film was a throwback to that beloved decade. The Matrix also introduced many others to the genre for the first time: Disaffected young men felt seen by the movie, with its mix of a heroic loner lead, technological flash, dramatic shoot-outs, and pseudo-intellectualism. Some fomenters of the “culture war” even seized upon the violence in the film; in 2003, ABC News linked the popularity of the franchise to a number of mass shootings, including the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, and the 2002 Beltway sniper shootings in the D.C. metropolitan area. While it’s misguided to conclude that the Matrix franchise is responsible for acts of violence, the connection hints at deeper and uncomfortable truths behind the red pill: Sometimes violence is an apt response to being awakened to injustice.
At the time, the red pill was seen as a symbol of a growing awareness of the complexities and cruelties of the world. It represented a necessary suffering in search of the truth. This simplistic sense spread rapidly throughout pop culture and found its way into a variety of geeky settings, where it also became evidence of superiority. Those who had taken the red pill were more awake, more aware, and more sophisticated; those who weren’t awake were sheep, doomed to wander with no sense of self-integrity. While the Wachowskis say the red pill has been appropriated, pop culture isn’t value-neutral and it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. By introducing the red pill into the world, the directors also created an opening for it to be exploited. They can’t be blamed for this, but the Matrix films themselves planted the seeds; they appealed to a very specific kind of frustrated white youth, and it’s inevitable that the values of that frustration followed the mainstream interpretation and use of the red pill.
The Ballad of the Sad White Man
Fight Club, another striking film released in 1999, explored similar themes about waking up and violently retaking control. Both Fight Club and The Matrix are routinely identified as cult films, and many who lived through high school at that time can likely remember the profound impact both films had on high-school masculine culture, setting the stage for the trajectory for some men of that era. Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) and Neo became not just characters but role models; you didn’t have to be a jock to be cool, and superficial intellectual pretensions and philosophical meanderings began carrying a certain cachet in some subsets of society. “You are not,” Durden told viewers, “a beautiful and unique snowflake,” setting the stage for a world where pathetic men, the “all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world,” would get their revenge through gonzo violence. These weren’t the only 1999 films that drew on themes of toxic masculinity: American Beauty, a film tense with undercurrents of white male entitlement that eviscerated the idea of the middle-class American dream, took on the bland, joyless office worker.
American Beauty swept the Oscars, while Fight Club and The Matrix battled it out for Best Sound Editing (The Matrix prevailed). Though the Fight Club and The Matrix failed to land the most prestigious awards, they left a deep mark on society, laying out a framework that would be gleefully picked up by hate groups alongside marginalized people who saw themselves in pop culture. While all three films may appear superficially different, they have a great deal in common, tapping deep into a late-’90s masculine ethos on the verge of the dot-com boom, in the sunset of the Bill Clinton administration. All three also hold up in the eyes of many critics, though subsequent revelations about Kevin Spacey add an additional unsettling element to American Beauty. Notably, and commonly in pop culture, all three revolve around white male characters, speaking to a fraction of the population many treat as universal, which inevitably positioned the red pill for its evolution into a symbol of antifeminism and the MRA movement. Beginning in the 2010s, the red pill was adopted to “[provide] antifeminists with the metaphor for waking up to society’s [gynocentric] evils,” wrote Jie Liang Lin in a 2017 paper on Men Going Their Own Way, a virtual antifeminist group.
MRAs believe that feminism has rendered the world hostile to men, a sentiment for which the red pill and its embedded metaphor of waking up and becoming aware of injustice is ideally suited. MRAs rail against feminism—the root of all evils—arguing that society discriminates against men in family court, relationships, reproductive rights, and many other areas of public life. At the same time, many MRAs believe they’re trapped in a feminist prison, reluctant to be freed. In 2012, this connection was deeply cemented in the Red Pill, a Reddit community so rife with toxicity and abuse that it was ultimately quarantined because of its misogynistic content: Visitors must affirmatively consent to view its contents. Meanwhile, sprawling message boards and meme factories such as 4chan and 8chan, now known as 8kun, became breeding grounds for vile content and a host of red pill references along with QAnon and the boogaloo movement. Unchecked misogyny and white supremacy online has very real consequences: In 2014, Elliot Rodger, who killed six people in Isla Vista, California, specifically cited men’s rights ideology in his manifesto.
The red pill represents a false promise, radicalizing without substance and doing untold damage in the process.
According to these would-be philosophers, men who haven’t taken the red pill are useless, weak beta males with limited opportunities for getting laid. MRAs drove movements like Gamergate, a 2014 campaign that targeted prominent women including developers Anita Quinn and Brianna Wu and critic Anita Sarkeesian. Aggressive sexist harassment resulted in these women being doxxed and threatened, behavior that still persists through the present day. MRA organizers also expanded beyond gaming and into the science-fiction and fantasy community and other elements of popular culture, notably trying to game the 2015 Hugo Awards ballot in order to “protest” the inclusion of women and people of color on the ballot. Their attempt at undermining some of the most prestigious awards in science fiction and fantasy backfired: Voters opted for “no award” in five categories rather than vote for any of the so-called “sad puppies.”
Deep in the tangled roots of these political movements, there was a red pill, a sense of “look what you made us do”: They had a moral imperative to expose the dangerous influence of women in order to protect the integrity of society. And then the men’s rights movement began more openly expressing its white-supremacist elements (the alt-right), taking the red pill with it, where it turned into something even darker, a sign of exposing the lies of “globalists,” disavowing multiculturalism, and embracing xenophobic, isolationist views. The red pill as an inflection point and a conscious choice for someone who wants to be more aware of the world turned into a verb, redpilling, and one who has been awoken is said to be “redpilled.” The flowering of white supremacy that emerged after the 2016 election accelerated the aggressiveness and stakes of these politics and the push to “redpill” friends and family who were not yet on board with their racist, sexist values.
It’s perhaps darkly fitting that a central element of a film about transformation, directed by women who themselves radically transformed, should be turned into a symbol of transformation. The red pill has power in its simplicity and crudeness: Anyone can turn it into something, playing into the larger context of philosophical exploration in The Matrix. It has also spawned a flight of associated philosophies, like the “black pill” embraced by men who identify themselves as “involuntary celibates.” Incels, as they’re known, have become a prominent part of white-supremacist culture, insisting that they’re owed sexual relationships with women and filling internet forums with resentment, bile, and plans for revenge. The Southern Poverty Law Center regards the larger surrounding culture of “male supremacy” as a hate group, and the stakes were illustrated in 2018, when a terrorist in Toronto citing incel ideology—and referencing Rodger—killed 10 people and injured 15 others.
The red pill invites viewers to rethink reality, breaking through the surface to become more aware of what’s really happening. But it’s not the only place in The Matrix where the films challenge the characters’—and the viewers’—reality; the entire trilogy is an extended exploration of the real and unreal, pushing the boundaries of understanding. When Neo first encounters the Oracle (Gloria Foster), a clairvoyant (and archetypal “magical Negro,” a thinly realized Black character who exists primarily as a guide for a white hero’s journey) who becomes a crucial guide, he also meets a young boy who bends a spoon with his mind, boggling the newbie with something that shouldn’t be possible. “Do not try and bend the spoon. It’s impossible,” the boy says. “Instead only try to realize the truth. There is no spoon. Then you’ll see that it is not the spoon that bends, but only yourself.” The boy’s words prove to be a critical moment of awakening for Neo and unwittingly present the option of another path: Rather than taking the red pill to wake up, perhaps viewers need to do the work, bending themselves and their understanding of the world to break free. It’s a longer, messier path, but ultimately a more rewarding one. The red pill represents a false promise, radicalizing without substance and doing untold damage in the process.