The dark legacy of the Red Pill: How The Matrix was co-opted by incels and the alt-right

Morpheus wearing reflective sunglasses. In them, you can see Neo reaching for the Red Pill

The Matrix is a subversively queer film: an allegory for the trans experience, made by Hollywood’s two most prolific and influential trans women. Which makes it all the stranger that it’s been co-opted by the alt-right.

In the original Matrix, released in 1999, Neo (Keanu Reeves) is presented with a choice: Take the Blue Pill, and live obliviously in the simulation. Take the Red Pill, “you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes”.

The scene after Neo takes the Red Pill, in which he “wakes up” in the real world, is key to the interpretation of the film as a trans allegory. But, out in our real world, the sequence was adopted as a symbol for a movement filled with violence, misogyny and hate.

In 2012, The Red Pill forum appeared on Reddit, cementing a bad faith interpretation of the scene that had been circulating for some years online. Its purported aim, according to the academics Pierce Alexander Dignam and Deana A. Rohlinger, was to “expose the ‘true nature’ of feminism as oppressive to men and to help men reclaim their ‘rightful place’ in society”.

Neo, bald and naked, in a pod of liquid with thick wires going into his body

Neo wakes up. (Warner Bros)

“These men long for a past where masculinity could be performed purely through physical, economic, and sexual prowess and explicitly push back against feminism by establishing a sexual strategy for men,” the authors wrote in their paper, “Misogynistic Men Online: How the Red Pill Helped Elect Trump”.

They quote an early post by the creator of the forum: “Feminism is a sexual strategy. It puts women into the best position they can find, to select mates, to determine when they want to switch mates, to locate the best DNA possible, and to garner the most resources they can individually achieve. The Red Pill is men’s sexual strategy. Reality is happening, and we need to make sure that we adjust our strategy accordingly.”

Though much of the forum – since closed down by Reddit – was dedicated to rallying against feminism, sharing advice on how to pursue women and spouting misogynistic, sexist bile, Dignam and Rohlinger credit it with helping to mobilise alt-right “men’s rights activists” who saw Trump as a “real man”, a proper leader.

Of course, we know how that one worked out: four years of chaos, bigotry and danger, culminating in the white supremacist assault on the seat of US power, the Capitol.

Capitol riots Log Cabin Republicans

Extremist Donald Trump supporters enter the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, in Washington, DC. (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty)

But the Red Pill’s impact goes beyond politics. It has become inextricably linked with incel (involuntary celibate) culture, where the Red Pill has given rise to the extreme, fatalistic Black Pill. Those who describe themselves as “blackpilled” believe they are too ugly to be considered attractive by a woman. According to Vox, the Black Pill “amounts to a fundamental rejection of women’s sexual emancipation, labelling women shallow, cruel creatures who will choose only the most attractive men if given the choice”.

In August 2021, it emerged that the gunman who killed five people in a mass shooting in Plymouth, England, had spoken of “consuming the Black Pill overdose” in the weeks before. Three years earlier, in 2018, a murdered who killed 10 people in a van attack in Toronto told police he’d been “radicalised” online by incels. A judge rejected the notion he had been compelled to commit murder for this reason, writing: “I am sure that resentment towards women who were never interested in him was a factor in this attack, but not the driving force. Instead… he piggybacked on the ‘incel’ movement to ratchet up his own notoriety.”

In spite of its origins, the Red Pill has torn through culture as a symbol of misogyny, white supremacy and violence, and yet in a sign of the times, remains so palatable that the world’s richest man and the president’s daughter see fit to swap light-hearted exchanges about it on social media.

“Tae the Red Pill,” Elon Musk tweeted in May 2020. “Taken!” replied Ivanka Trump, then an official advisor to her father.

Lilly Wachowski, co-creator of The Matrix, made her feelings on it all abundantly clear.

“F**k both of you.”

Lilly chose not to return for The Matrix Resurrections, directed and co-written by her sister, Lana Wachowski.

Without spoiling anything, it’s been reported that the new film addresses topics such as radicalisation, and co-writer Aleksandar Hemon has confirmed “we were mindful of is how to reclaim that trope – to renew the meaning of Red Pill/Blue Pill”.

Speaking to The AV Club, he continued: “We did not set out to get into arguments with right-wingers. I think, at some point, there was a joke about Red Pill and Blue Pill, and Lana decided that she did not want to give any credence to that position, even a semblance of dialogue with that. There’s nothing to talk about with that.

“My personal position is I don’t discuss things with Nazis and fascists. There’s nothing to talk about. One of us is just going to be left standing, and I want it to be me and my people.”