It was the summer of 2000 when my parents decided to change all the windows and paint all the rooms in our house. I was 11, my brother 17 and we both helped as much as we could. We spent a few weeks covering white walls with exciting colours - yellow, blue, green, and even lilac. At some point, we had to sleep on mattresses in the living room because the bedrooms were under construction. One evening, after dinner my brother asked if I wanted to watch a movie with him. He set up his computer - a big grey PC with a decent monitor - along with two massive loudspeakers on the floor.
The movie started. Before you ask, I want to come clean, it was an illegal copy downloaded from the internet. There were no streaming services and buying a DVD was simply out of our budget. There was also no awareness of copyrights whatsoever. The first scene scared me. An electric woman in a black leather coat fought with a group of police officers, then with a man in a suit who was more skilled than anyone else. After a chase on a roof, a phone booth started ringing, she sprinted to answer and puff.. she was gone. The woman appeared again in the club to warn the main character, Neo. In a brief chat, she introduced herself: My name is Trinity. Neo seemed surprised: Trinity? The Trinity that cracked the IRS d-base? Jeez... I thought you were a guy.
Most guys do, she replied.
When I rewatched this film recently, that scene made me sigh. Must every woman in tech experience this kind of reaction? Even one who can kick the bottoms of two police units? Oh, you’re REALLY a programmer? Astounded men ask all the time. Why did you choose coding and not law, business, psychology, you name it? I will postpone talking about men in tech for some other time. Now let’s go back to my parents’ living room where the 11-year-old me was watching The Matrix for the first time.
I was completely mesmerised by the story, Neo’s path to becoming the chosen one, and Trinity’s skills and kicks. Their fight against the system blew me away, and I spent the rest of the summer imagining that I too was fighting against an invisible operating system with a paint roller in my hand. My brother and I ended up watching The Matrix a dozen or so times over just a couple of months. I learned some parts of the dialogue by heart and started wearing dark and black clothes.
I remember asking my brother to show me Linux. I remember learning how to use a command line. I remember copying basic scripts from a computer magazine and running them on my PC. I remember the thrill of seeing “What’s your name?” printed on the screen. I remember typing my long name. I remember the purest joy when the computer returned “Hello, Wiktoria”.
The Matrix became my favourite movie. But even my favourite movie had one big flaw. A flaw that brings me bitter disappointment even after 20 years. I see it as a missed chance to make an impact.
To refresh your memory, Trinity was said to be an extremely talented and dangerous hacker. Outside of the Matrix, we can see her being a caring, warm person. She encourages Neo to be honest and explains the state of the world to him. She brings him food after deadly training sessions. We watch her comforting Tank after Dozer’s death. What a great person, we may think, she can fight and be nurturing to the crew of Nebuchadnezzar. A fighter and a mother in one.
The missing scene
What’s not to like? Well, even though Trinity is this great computer programmer, she never touches a keyboard in The Matrix. She uses different tools and even flies a helicopter but it is only due to a program installed in her by a man. She never hacks, which only perpetuates the idea that programming belongs to one gender. We need to wait 242 minutes (over 4 hours) to see her finally using her coding skills in the second part of the franchise, The Matrix Reloaded - a worse movie, and that scene is not powerful enough to break the glass ceiling. The opportunity to inspire women to learn how to code was there but unfortunately, the Wachowskis overlooked it. And why does it matter? Well, I won’t be the first who said: Representation matters. Look around. The popularity of crime shows has encouraged many women to study and pursue a career in forensic science. This phenomenon is known as the CSI effect. I wish to live long enough to see more women portrayed as software developers in movies and series.
On the other hand, acting as a devil’s advocate, does everything need to be fair and inspiring to the underrepresented groups? Probably not, and I accept it. The Matrix is still one of my favourite movies. Having known the role it played at the time, it’s tempting though to imagine what could have happened if more women had wanted to be like Trinity. What would the tech industry look like if 50% of it was women? Right now companies settle for 20% as if it was a great success. Over the course of my career, I only once had a chance to work in a team of 5 women and 3 men. Only once with another backend woman developer (I’m a backend dev too) over a decade. This experience has changed me. But that’s a story for another time.
For the 11-year-old me, who had started learning TurboPascal (a basic programming language) seeing Trinity code anything would have established her as a role model and a source of hope. I needed both, especially when it was pointed out to me that as a girl I didn’t fit into the stereotype of a coder and I should find another hobby. But that’s again a story for another time.