Bound: Dawn of the Wachowskis
Analyzing their Freshman Effort, and Foreshadowing
Welcome back to our post-millennial analysis of the current state of fandom. With the Wachowskis both coming out as trans women, their breakout film Bound, a pulpy movie about a lesbian couple, takes on new significance in the conversation about the subversion and upholding of tropes about minorities.
Editor’s Note: When this series began, Zee Bowditch identified as a queer femme nonbinary woman. Today, Zee stands proud as a queer nonbinary trans genderfluid individual. We at The Unconventional are proud of Zee living his truth, support him completely, and will continue to do so in the future.
Bound is an odd contradiction, especially when it comes to the theme for this series [ 1 ]. On one hand, the film depicts lesbian relationships in a well-thought-out and well-realized manner. On the other hand? Holy gratuitous sex and violence, Batman.
That is the crux of the confusion about this movie. It has no qualms about being a neo-noir love story inspired by the likes of Frank Miller’s Sin City, and noir writer and director, Billy Wilder. Violence and sex, especially at the expense of women, are staples of the genre; this movie is no exception.
The two main characters are Corky, an ex-con who has started a job as a painter and plumber, and Violet, whose boyfriend, Caesar, is a money launderer and mid-level member of the Mafia. The viewer is introduced to Caesar through a rather graphic torture scene, which ends up with a minor character being murdered. As it becomes increasingly clear how trapped and threatened Violet feels by her relationship with Caesar, Corky and Violet hatch a plan to steal a million dollars that’s due to be handed over to Caesar’s boss later that day. As befitting any true noir film, things do not go according to plan.
The good, simply put, is that this is one of the most incredible portrayals of female desire ever seen on film. The Wachowskis hired Susie Bright, feminist sex educator and writer, as a choreographer and adviser for the film, and it really shows. There is no beating around the bush with the queer sex scenes and unlike many Hollywood same-sex scenes, it’s not at all coy. These scenes feel visceral and real in a way that most other queer sex scenes just don’t. The actors are clearly informed and fully committed, sharing some great, sexy chemistry, and the single shot camerawork of the main sex scene is lush, intimate and completely unrushed. The viewer gets this feeling of being in a soothing little bubble, separated from all the insanity and violence around them. It’s a celebration of both female intimacy and sexual passion, which is not something seen on screen very often. The noir formula allows for that raunchy, sexual energy that many women, regardless of sexuality, actually have; an energy that is so often underplayed or belittled.
However, for all the care put into the lesbian relationship on screen, it’s hard to wrap one’s head around the violence that is so pervasive and oftentimes gratuitous. Additionally, given both the nature of noir and the fact that the two main protagonists are women, a great deal of that violence is gendered. It’s difficult for many to feel comfortable with the film for this reason. The kidnapping and sexually charged torture and violence towards the end of the film leaves a nasty taste in one’s mouth, even though it is obviously a framing device for why these men are the villains. It feels like the audience is supposed to take pleasure from it in a weird way, as if part of the appeal and sexiness of the movie comes from those periods of helplessness and vulnerability. And while heroines Corky and Violet ride off into the sunset together alive, thankfully unharmed and inviolate, there is something doesn’t sit comfortably in regard to this issue.
It’s a Pattern and Not a Flattering One
This is a common reaction fans, especially women, have had to many of the Wachowskis’ films. Bad-ass women who are almost—but not quite their own agents—made sexy or powerful by brushes with the male gaze, include Trinity in The Matrix, who is much more competent and badass than Neo [ 2 ]. At least she is until she has to be the object of his brooding and unfulfilled desire, often considered the absolute worst part of The Matrix Reloaded. Additionally, Evey in V for Vendetta has no agency of her own, but is rather swept up, dragged along, and manipulated by V. Even Jupiter in Jupiter Ascending, which, despite being ostensibly a “girl power” inversion of the heroic narrative, is shown being rescued and helpless too many times for someone intended to be a heroic figure or her own agent.
One of the complexities of the Wachowskis’ work comes from the fact that narratives about change and agency, while often very compelling, are put in the hands of the main male characters instead of the female characters. This is despite the fact, in many ways, the female characters are a truer reflection of the stories; hiding those messages in more acceptable characters seems to dull their potential impact.
For example, The Matrix makes a strong case for being a story about coming out and transgender identity. From the beginning Neo is driven to Morpheus out of some lingering sense of wrongness with himself and the world around him. The way he sees the world simply isn’t in line with the way people say it is and how those people expect him to view it.
Morpheus says to Neo when they meet, “What you know, you can’t explain, but you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life—that there is something wrong. You don’t know what it is, but it’s there like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me.” As a trans person, this quote resonated in a new context. A common experience for young trans people is this feeling of wrongness, of otherness, of seeing something that the world says is true and right and unchangeable, yet thinking, “But that’s not how I see it.”
In the film, this conversation is literally followed with a conversation that boils down to, “Take a pill and discover the truth.” Pills provide Neo the escape from the world that is trapping him and a new perspective on who he is and what his role in the world should be. A great deal of the conflict of Neo’s character is the conflict between his desire to return to the safe lie of his life before and the need to come into his true self so he can change things not just for himself, but for everyone.
This is a conflict that Lana Wachowski, one of the directors, herself faced as she figured out how she was going to live her life, and whether or not she was going to come out. In a speech during the Human Rights Campaign gala in 2012, Lana talked at length about how difficult being in the closet was for her, including receiving beatings in school for not wanting to get in line with boys and her fears about how coming out would affect the possibility of her career in Hollywood. She even discussed an attempted suicide by train that reflects a scene from The Matrix where Neo almost suffers the same fate while fighting Agent Smith [ 3 ]. Knowing this, it’s easy to see The Matrix through the lens of a queer narrative, even though it’s never fully made explicit in the movie or in interviews. Lilly Wachowski herself has encouraged the reading of The Matrix as a trans narrative, saying in an interview that, “There’s a critical eye being cast back on Lana and I’s work through the lens of our transness. This is a cool thing because it’s an excellent reminder that art is never static” [ 4 ].
Transgender Stories, Cisgender Storytelling
This isn’t the only time where Lana and Lilly Wachowski have slipped scenes into movies that are immediately recognizable to queer people. There is an extended and rather funny scene in Jupiter Ascending, where Jupiter has to prove that she is able to truly claim the title of the reincarnation of intergalactic nobility [ 5 ]. This scene involves extended and various bureaucratic checks that require that she see many people, go through numerous convoluted tests, and is sent back and forth like a pinball before she can finally get her documentation in order. As someone who has experienced the process of changing my legal name, the queer underpinnings of this scene were exceedingly stark. Any trans person trying to get any sort of legal or physical change recognized knows the frustration Jupiter feels. It’s infinitely more difficult than most other folks attempting to simply change their name.
It’s clear that Lana and Lilly’s experiences as trans women have had a profound impact on their views as writers, even if the stories they tell aren’t overtly trans or queer narratives. The fact that their one explicitly queer movie is in many ways one of the most formulaic is rather hard to accept. Bound is a pulpy, violent movie that in many ways reads exactly like one would expect. It is about a butch woman and a femme woman falling in love and facing incredible violence, including violence of an explicitly sexual nature, in order to be together. It’s hard to call this movie a celebration of queer identity, even when Corky and Violet do escape and get to be together.
This almost-right type of film is intensely frustrating. While it may seem that success might require writing a character as if it were a guy and then slapping some tits on them, it’s also true that there is a difference in the life experience of men and women, which only gets increasingly complicated when one adds further layers such as race or sexuality to the mix. Violence, pain, and suffering are part of the queer experience, even more so for trans people. It’s estimated that 41 percent of trans people have attempted suicide, 19 percent have experienced family violence, 26 percent have lost jobs, and only 18 states have clear laws protecting trans people [ 6 ]. However, the reality is that transition provides a great benefit despite the struggles. Seventy-eight percent of people in one survey reported feeling more comfortable in their work lives after coming out and coming out can be a joyful and healing process even if it is difficult.
Far too often, movies about queer identity, and especially about trans identity, focus on violence and pain. To this day, it’s hard to watch movies like Bound, filled with violence and abuse, and then look out at the world and see the same reflected back. As a trans person, it’s difficult to see oneself as Neo, or as Jupiter. Real people don’t get to be superheroes and save the world. Hollywood says what awaits trans people is violence and cruelty and, if they’re lucky, a bittersweet, happy ending.
Probably the most successful and positive work the Wachowskis have done is Sense8, and it’s in no small part thanks to the fact that both Lilly and Lana were out when it was made [ 7 ]. It is an incredibly diverse show in most respects, including race, gender, and sexuality. While each character has their struggles, the show is ultimately about the love and connection these people forge despite the fact that very little would seem to connect them. In fact, the main antagonists are intent on breaking the bonds they share, leaving them more isolated and alone than they were before they found each other. This theme of connection despite differences allows honest exploration of struggle, including struggles dedicated to gender, sexuality, and race, without sinking into stereotypical angst and drama. It allows the story to be both visceral and sad, but ultimately also triumphant and joyful. This is another theme and trope that queer folks would be all too familiar with. The notion of found family is deeply resonant with the queer community, as many queer people find that the price of coming out all too often includes rejection from friends and family, thus resulting in the need for queer communities to provide much of the support, both emotional and financial, that a traditional family might provide. In Sense8, this is more than just subtext, but rather an integral part of how the story functions, especially as queer narratives are front and center for multiple characters.
Pain and struggle are part of life. But joy and goofiness and love are, too. Trans people deserve to have that part of their lives celebrated, as well. It’s heartening to see that as Lana and Lilly have stepped into their own true selves that their work is more explicitly and hopefully dealing with themes of queer struggle and identity.
- “The success of Bound (1996), while laudable for its subversion of tropes, may arguably lie in its leverage of male gaze.” mubi.com/fr/films/bound (Bound. Directed by Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski, Gramercy Pictures, 4 Oct. 1996.)
- “The Matrix, first film in the franchise, was arguably as much of a game changer in industry-innovation and pop-culture movements, as Star Wars.” Steve Troughton. Flickr. Matrix Original Theatrical Poster. www.flickr.com/photos/27842928@N08/17072638696/
- “Tom Tykwer, Lana and now-Lilly Wachowski at the Cloud Atlas German Premiere at CineStar in Berlin, November 5, 2012.” Joe Seer. Shutterstock. www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/berlin-germany-nov-5-tom-tykwer-118011451
- “Fans and cast alike reunited for the Sense8 Finale, a 2-and-a-half hour affair, with a unity they had not quite experienced throughout the series.” Netflix. Sense8 Season Graphic. www.netflix.com/title/80025744 (Straczynski, J. Michael, et al. Sense8. Netflix, 2015.)
Zee has shape-shifted across several genres, as a lover of all things geek. They’ve been a shop-assistant and sales rep for Steampunk props and accessories company Gartisan Works and a writer for Feminerdity. A recent graduate of Salem State’s English Bachelor’s program, Zee’s extracurricular and academics indicate a bright career in education. Since their recruitment to Steam-Funk Studios in 2016, they’ve transitioned from the core writing team to senior creative staff over just four years.
- Lana Wachowski (as The Wachowski Brothers), Lilly Wachowski (as The Wachowski Brothers). (1996). Bound[Motion Picture]. United States: Dino De Laurentis Company in association with Spelling Films.
- Lana Wachowski (as The Wachowski Brothers), Lilly Wachowski (as The Wachowski Brothers). (1999) The Matrix[Motion Picture]. United States: Warner Bros. in association with Village Roadshow Pictures and Groucho Film Partnership.
- Abramovitch, Seth. “Lana Wachowski Reveals Suicide Plan, Painful Past in Emotional Speech (Exclusive Video).” The Hollywood Reporter, Penske Media Corporation, 3 Nov. 2012. hollywoodreporter.com/news/lana-wachowski-reveals-suicide-plan-382169.
- Hale, Megan. “Watching ‘The Matrix’ Through a Trans Lens.” Comic Years, BPM Media, 8 Aug. 2020. comicyears.com/movies/watching-the-matrix-through-a-trans-lens.
- Lana Wachowski (as The Wachowskis), Lilly Wachowski (as The Wachowskis), (2015). Jupiter Ascending[Motion Picture]. United States: Warner Bros in association with Village Roadshow Pictures and Dune Entertainment.
- “End Trans Discrimination.” End Trans Discrimination, End Trans Discrimination. 1map.com/endtransdiscriminationorg. Accessed 12 Apr. 2021.
- J. Michael Straczynski, Lana Wachowski, Lilly Wachowski, creators. Sense 8. Anarchos Productions, Georgeville Television, Javelin Productions, Motion Picture Capital, Studio JMS and Unpronounceable Productions. 2015-2018.