The red pill and blue pill represent a choice between the willingness to learn a potentially unsettling or life-changing truth by taking the red pill or remaining in the contented experience of ordinary reality with the blue pill. The terms originate from the 1999 film The Matrix.
In The Matrix
In the film The Matrix, the main character Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) is offered the choice between a red pill and a blue pill by rebel leader Morpheus (played by Laurence Fishburne). Morpheus says "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." It is implied that the blue pill is a sedative that would cause Neo to think that all his most recent experiences were a hallucination, so that he can go back to living in the Matrix's simulated reality. The red pill, on the other hand, serves as a "location device" to locate the subject's body in the real world and to prepare them to be "unplugged" from the Matrix.
Neo takes the red pill and awakens in the real world, where he is forcibly ejected from the liquid-filled chamber in which he has obliviously been lying. After his rescue and convalescence aboard Morpheus's ship, Morpheus shows him the true nature of the Matrix: a detailed computer simulation of Earth at the end of the 20th century (the actual year, though not known for sure, is suggested within the original movie to be approximately 200 years later, though it is revealed through sequels The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions and The Animatrix that at least 700 years have passed). It has been created to keep the minds of humans docile while their bodies are stored in massive power plants, their body heat and bioelectricity consumed as power by the sentient machines that have enslaved them.
Later Matrix films
What we were trying to achieve with the story overall was a shift, the same kind of shift that happens for Neo, that Neo goes from being in this sort of cocooned and programmed world, to having to participate in the construction of meaning to his life. And we're like, "Well, can the audience go through the three movies and experience something similar to what the main character experiences?" So the first movie is sort of classical in its approach. The second movie is deconstructionist, and it assaults all of the things that you thought to be true in the first movie, and so people get very upset, and they're like "Stop attacking me!" in the same way that people get upset with deconstructionist philosophy. I mean, Derrida and Foucault, these people upset us. And then the third movie is the most ambiguous because it asks you to actually participate in the construction of meaning...— Lana Wachowski, Movie City News, October 13, 2012
In the 2021 film The Matrix Resurrections, the Analyst uses blue pills to keep Neo's true memories suppressed in the guise of therapy sessions. Later, Neo takes another red pill before being freed from the Matrix once again by Bugs and her crew. In Trinity's case, she does not have to take the red pill again because of the way that Sati is freeing her from the Matrix. The red pills also allow friendly programs to leave the Matrix, as seen with the program version of Morpheus.
An essay written by Russell Blackford discusses the red and blue pills, questioning whether if a person were fully informed they would take the red pill, opting for the real world, believing that the choice of physical reality over a digital simulation is not so beneficial as to be valid for all people. Both Neo and another character, Cypher (Joe Pantoliano), take the red pill over the blue pill, though later in the first Matrix film, the latter demonstrates regret for having made that choice, saying that if Morpheus fully informed him of the situation, Cypher would have told him to "shove the red pill right up [his] ass." When Cypher subsequently makes a deal with the machines to return to the Matrix and forget everything he had learned, he says, "Ignorance is bliss." Blackford argues that the Matrix films set things up so that even if Neo fails, the taking of the red pill is worthwhile because he lives and dies authentically. Blackford and science-fiction writer James Patrick Kelly feel that The Matrix stacks the deck against machines and their simulated world.
Matrix Warrior: Being the One author Jake Horsley compared the red pill to LSD, citing a scene where Neo forms his own world outside of the Matrix. When he asks Morpheus if he could return, Morpheus responds by asking him if he would want to. Horsley also describes the blue pill as addictive, calling The Matrix series a continuous series of choices between taking the blue pill and not taking it. He adds that the habits and routines of people inside the Matrix are merely the people dosing themselves with the blue pill. While he describes the blue pill as a common thing, he states that the red pill is one of a kind, and something someone may not even find.
Literary and philosophical allusions
The Matrix, and its sequels, contain numerous references to Lewis Carroll's 1865 novel Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and its 1872 sequel Through the Looking-Glass. The Alice in Wonderland metaphor is made explicit in Morpheus's speech to Neo, with the phrases "white rabbit" and "down the rabbit hole", as well as the description of Neo's path of discovery as "Wonderland". The concept of the red and blue pills has also been speculated to be a reference to the scene in Alice in Wonderland where Alice finds a cake labelled "Eat Me" and a potion labelled "Drink Me": eating the cake makes Alice grow to an enormous size, while drinking the potion makes her tiny.
The Matrix also makes references to historical myths and philosophy, including gnosticism, existentialism, and nihilism. The central concept of the film has been compared to Plato's Allegory of the Cave, Zhuangzi's "Zhuangzi dreamed he was a butterfly", René Descartes's skepticism and evil demon, Kant's reflections on the Phenomenon versus the Ding an sich, Robert Nozick's "experience machine", the concept of a simulated reality and the brain in a vat thought experiment.
The Wachowskis asked star Keanu Reeves to read three books before filming: Simulacra and Simulation (1981) by Jean Baudrillard, Out of Control (1992) by Kevin Kelly, and Introducing Evolution (1999) by Dylan Evans.
Red pill as transgender allegory
Fan theories have suggested that the red pill may represent an allegory for transgender people or a story of Lana and Lilly Wachowski's history as coming out as transgender. During the 1990s, a common male-to-female transgender hormone therapy involved Premarin, a maroon tablet. Lilly Wachowski stated in August 2020 that the filmmakers had intentionally included transgender themes in the film. Lilly Wachowski later confirmed this theory as correct in an interview with Netflix: Behind the Streams.
As political metaphor
The concept of red and blue pills has since been widely used as a political metaphor in the United States, where "taking the red pill" or being "red-pilled" means becoming aware of the political biases inherent in society, including in the mainstream media, and ultimately becoming an independent thinker; while "taking the blue pill" or being "blue-pilled" means unquestioningly accepting these supposed biases.
The first known political use of this metaphor was in the 2006 essay "The Red Pill" by University of Colorado sociology professor Kathleen J. Tierney, in which she argued that those who felt that the U.S. government had a poor response to Hurricane Katrina should "take the red pill" and realize that "post-September 11 policies and plans have actually made the nation more vulnerable, both to natural disasters and to future terrorist attacks."
The metaphor was then popularized in a different context by neo-reactionary blogger Curtis Yarvin. He first used it in a 2007 blog post written under the pseudonym Mencius Moldbug, and titled "The Case Against Democracy: Ten Red Pills"; in it he argues that trying to convince a Westerner that democracy is bad is like trying to convince "a Catholic in 16th-century Spain... to stop believing in Catholicism", but he then offers ten "red pill" arguments (along with their "blue pill" counterparts) to make a case against democracy.
In some parts of the men's rights movement and the manosphere, the term "red pill" is used as a metaphor for the specific moment when a person comes to believe that certain gender roles they are expected to conform to, such as marriage and monogamy, are intended for the benefit of women alone, rather than for mutual benefit. In 2016, a documentary titled The Red Pill, about the men's rights movement, was released.
In 2017, political activist and commentator Candace Owens launched Red Pill Black, a website and YouTube channel that promote black conservatism in the United States. The term is used as a metaphor for the process of rejecting previously believed leftist narratives.
In May 2020, Elon Musk tweeted "Take the red pill", agreeing with a Twitter user that it meant taking a "free-thinking attitude and waking up from a normal life of sloth and ignorance". Ivanka Trump retweeted this, stating "Taken!" Lilly Wachowski, a director of The Matrix, tweeted in response to this exchange, "Fuck both of you".
Black pill and white pill
The metaphor of the "black pill" was first popularized by the incel-related blog Omega Virgin Revolt. In this parlance, being red-pilled means believing concepts like male oppression and female hypergamy, while being black-pilled means coming to believe that there is little that low-status or unattractive men can do to improve their prospects for romantic or sexual relationships with women.
This metaphor was extended to political matters, where, after being red-pilled (recognizing, and then rejecting, the dominant political narratives), one can then become either black-pilled (pessimistic or apathetic about the future), or white-pilled (hopeful about the future or believing change is possible.) This metaphor has been embraced by commentators including anarchist Michael Malice, whose 2022 book The White Pill advocates the latter point of view. Malice defines the term as, “It is possible that we will lose, it is impossible that we must lose.”
- In the 2004 book The Art of the Start, author Guy Kawasaki uses the red pill as an analog to the situation of leaders of new organizations, in that they face the same choice to either live in reality or fantasy. He adds that if they want to be successful, they have to take the red pill and see how deep the rabbit hole goes.
- Until they were removed from the Maemo operating system application installer in January 2010, certain advanced features were unlocked by a "Red Pill Mode" Easter egg to prevent accidental use by novice users but make them readily available to experienced users. This was activated by starting to add a catalog whose URL was "matrix" and then choosing to cancel. A dialog box would appear asking "Which pill?" with the choices "Red" or "Blue", allowing the user to enter red pill mode. In "Red Pill" mode, the installer allows the user to view and reconfigure system packages whose existence it normally does not acknowledge. In Blue Pill mode the installer displays only software installed by a user, creating the illusion that system software does not exist on the system.
- In the 2013 movie version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, when Ben Stiller's character lands at Nuuk in Greenland, he asks the man in the airport booth: "Do you have any cars available?" "Yeah, we have a blue one and a red one", the man replies. "I'll take the red one", says Walter. This is also "the final scene in the trailer: a quirky and charming sequence on its own, even before the viewer recognizes the built-in riff on the famous "Red/Blue Pill" exchange from The Matrix". "The choice between the red and blue car at the rental car lot is worthy of mention, if only because it almost candidly pulls the idea from the red pill of The Matrix. Two jelly bean, or pill, shaped cars [Daewoo Matiz], red and blue; the only thing missing is Lawrence [sic] Fishburne working the counter". "The passage connecting reality to illusion is often visualised using tangible things and physical environments [as] Neo took the red pill in The Matrix."
- Poland, David (October 13, 2012). "DP/30: Cloud Atlas, Screenwriter/Directors Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski". moviecitynews.com. 18:49. Archived from the original on December 17, 2012. Retrieved December 10, 2012.
- Kapell, Matthew; Doty, William G (2004). Jacking in to the Matrix franchise: cultural reception and interpretation. Bloomsbury Academic. ISBN 978-0-8264-1588-2.
- Horsley, Jake (2003). Matrix Warrior: Being the One. Macmillan. p. 125. ISBN 978-0-312-32264-9.
- Breznican, Anthony (September 9, 2021). "The Matrix Resurrections Trailer: Decoding the Alice in Wonderland References". Vanity Fair.
- Rothstein, Edward (May 24, 2003). "Philosophers Draw On a Film Drawing On Philosophers". The New York Times. Retrieved February 8, 2021.
- "Journal of Religion & Film: Wake Up! Gnosticism and Buddhism in The Matrix by Frances Flannery-Daily and Rachel Wagner". unomaha.edu. Archived from the original on March 3, 2016. Retrieved November 29, 2015.
- Glenn Yeffeth (2003). Taking the Red Pill: Science, Philosophy and the Religion in the Matrix. BenBella Books. p. 152. ISBN 978-1-932100-02-0.
- "You Won't Know the Difference So You Can't Make the Choice". philosophynow.org.
- Dan O'Brien (2006). An Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge. Polity. p. 115. ISBN 978-0-7456-3316-9.
- "Skepticism". stanford.edu. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. 2015.
- Christopher Grau (2005). Philosophers Explore The Matrix. Oxford University Press. pp. 18–. ISBN 978-0-19-518107-4.
- "The Brain in a Vat Argument". utm.edu.
- Hazlett, Allan (January 15, 2006). "Philosophers Explore The Matrix". NDPR.nd.edu. Retrieved January 4, 2015.
- "The Books: Matrix 'Inspirations'". The Matrix 101.
- Long Chu, Andrea (October 19, 2019). Females. verso. ISBN 9781788737371. Retrieved July 7, 2020.
- Dale, Laura (September 13, 2019). "With The Matrix 4 coming, let's talk about how the first movie is a trans allegory". SyFy Channel. Retrieved July 7, 2020.
- Long Chu, Andrea (February 7, 2019). "What We Can Learn About Gender From The Matrix". Vulture. Retrieved July 7, 2020.
- "The Matrix was a metaphor for transgender identity, director confirms". The Independent. August 5, 2020. Retrieved October 30, 2020.
- "Why the Matrix is a Trans Story According to Lilly Wachowski | Netflix". Neflix. August 4, 2020.
- Cunha, Darlena (September 6, 2020). "Red pills and dog whistles: It is more than 'just the internet'". Aljazeera. Retrieved March 17, 2023.
- Madison, Caleb (December 13, 2021). "How We Swallowed Redpilled Whole". The Atlantic. Retrieved March 17, 2023.
- Tierney, Kathleen J. (June 11, 2006). "The Red Pill". Items. Social Science Research Council.}
- "Curtis Yarvin wants American democracy toppled. He has some prominent Republican fans". Vox. October 24, 2022. Retrieved December 18, 2022.
- Moldbug, Mencius (April 24, 2007). "The Case Against Democracy: Ten Red Pills". Unqualified Reservations.
- "Men's rights movement: why it is so controversial?". The Week. February 19, 2015. Retrieved April 1, 2015.
- Sharlet, Jeff (March 2015). "Are You Man Enough for the Men's Rights Movement?". GQ. Retrieved April 1, 2015.
- Ames, Elizabeth (September 13, 2017). "Liberals Sick of the Alt-Left Are Taking 'the Red Pill'". Fox News. Retrieved February 19, 2020.
- Bowles, Nellie (May 19, 2020). "Tesla Owners Try to Make Sense of Elon Musk's 'Red Pill' Moment". The New York Times. Retrieved May 23, 2020.
- Musk, Elon (May 19, 2020). "Red pill has become a popular phrase among cyberculture". Twitter. Retrieved May 23, 2020.
- Ball, Siobhan (May 18, 2020). "'Matrix' co-director Lilly Wachowski tells Elon Musk, Ivanka Trump 'f**k both of you'". Daily Dot. Retrieved February 14, 2021.
- Sonnad, Nikhil; Squirrell, Tim (October 30, 2017). "The alt-right is creating its own dialect. Here's the dictionary". Quartz. Archived from the original on March 7, 2018. Retrieved June 8, 2018.
- Williams, Zoe (April 25, 2018). "'Raw hatred': why the 'incel' movement targets and terrorises women". The Guardian. Archived from the original on April 26, 2018. Retrieved April 26, 2018.
- "Getting White Pilled With Michael Malice". Federalist Radio Hour. Ricochet. November 12, 2020.
- Kawasaki, Guy (2004). The art of the start: the time-tested, battle-hardened guide for anyone starting anything. Penguin. p. 92. ISBN 978-1-59184-056-5.
- "Red Pill mode". maemo.org wiki. Retrieved January 25, 2010.
- "src/repo.cc". hildon-application-manager. Line 153. Archived from the original on July 15, 2012. Retrieved January 25, 2010.
- "CNN.com – Transcripts". CNN. July 31, 2013. Retrieved February 15, 2018.
- Schaefer, Sandy (July 30, 2013). "'Secret Life of Walter Mitty' Trailer: Ben Stiller Goes on a Grand Adventure". Screen Rant. Retrieved July 23, 2020.
- Trailer: "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: watch the trailer for Ben Stiller's new film". The Guardian. July 30, 2013. Retrieved February 15, 2018.
- Gravano, Adam (September 17, 2017). "A Look Back at Walter Mitty". Highbrow Magazine. Retrieved February 10, 2018.
- Buckmaster, Luke (December 23, 2013). "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty movie review". Daily Review. Retrieved February 10, 2018.