Red pill and blue pill
The terms "red pill" and "blue pill" refer to a choice between revealing an unpleasant or otherwise life-changing truth, represented by the red pill, and remaining in blissful ignorance, represented by the blue pill. The terms reference the 1999 film The Matrix.
In The Matrix, the main character Neo is offered the choice between a red pill and a blue pill by rebel leader Morpheus. The red pill represents an uncertain future—it would free him from the enslaving control of the machine-generated dream world and allow him to escape into the real world, but living the "truth of reality" is harsher and more difficult. On the other hand, the blue pill represents a beautiful prison—it would lead him back to ignorance, living in confined comfort without want or fear within the simulated reality of the Matrix. As described by Morpheus: "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." Neo chooses the red pill and joins the rebellion.
The Matrix (1999)
Reality, subjectivity and religion
The Matrix (1999), directed by the Wachowskis, makes references to historical myths and philosophy, including gnosticism, existentialism, and nihilism. The film's premise resembles 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 Matrix very clearly references Alice in Wonderland with the "white rabbit" and the "down the rabbit hole" phrases, as well as referring to Neo's path of discovery as "Wonderland".
In The Matrix, Neo (Keanu Reeves) hears rumors of the Matrix and a mysterious man named Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). Neo spends his nights at his home computer trying to discover the secret of the Matrix and what the Matrix is. Eventually, another hacker, Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), introduces Neo to Morpheus.
Morpheus explains to Neo that the Matrix is an illusory world created to prevent humans from discovering that they are slaves to an external influence. Holding out a capsule on each of his palms, he describes the choice facing Neo:
This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. 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. Remember: all I'm offering is the truth. Nothing more.
As narrated, the blue pill will allow the subject to remain in the fabricated reality of the Matrix; the red 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. Once one chooses the red or blue pill, the choice is irrevocable.
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 been lying unconscious. 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.
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
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, the predominant transgender hormone therapy involved Premarin, a red pill. Lilly Wachowski confirmed that this theory was correct in August 2020.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)
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 you recognize 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."
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.
In the 2004 book The Art of the Start, author Guy Kawasaki uses the red pill as an analogue 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.
- In Total Recall, Paul Verhoeven's 1990 space action film, Arnold Schwarzenegger's character is told by a doctor to take a red pill as a symbolic action to “awaken himself” from a simulated dream which the doctor says Schwarzenegger‘s character is trapped in. In reality, the doctor is an agent in a state-sponsored effort to neutralize Schwarzenegger‘s character.
- The Blue Pill rootkit ("malware")—named in reference to the pill, as are the Red Pill techniques used to combat it—is a special type of software that utilizes the virtualization techniques of modern central processing units (CPUs) to execute as a hypervisor; as a virtual platform on which the entire operating system runs, it is capable of examining the entire state of the machine and to cause any behavior with full privilege, while the operating system "believes" itself to be running directly on physical hardware, creating a parallel to the illusory Matrix. Blue Pill describes the concept of infecting a machine while Red Pill techniques help the operating system to detect the presence of such a hypervisor. These concepts were described by Joanna Rutkowska in 2006.
- In cybersecurity, a red pill is any means of detecting hooking or virtualization. It is frequently used by anti-cheat, antirootkit software, malware, and digital rights management, etc. Red pills usually make use of real-time clocks to measure the time it takes for critical operations and interactions with peripheral hardware to occur, and compare the length of them with the expected length of such operations as they occur without virtualization. If the clock is compromised, the hypervisor can hide its presence by slowing the clock down in a controlled way, to hide the extra time imposed by virtualization.
- 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.
- Leo the pig is given a red or blue pill choice in the 2003 short animated documentary The Meatrix, a parody of The Matrix.
- The choice between taking a blue or red pill is a central metaphor in the 2011 Arte documentary film Marx Reloaded, in which philosophers including Slavoj Žižek and Nina Power explore solutions to the global economic and financial crisis of 2008–09. The film also contains an animated parody of the red/blue pill scene in The Matrix, with Leon Trotsky as Morpheus and Karl Marx as Neo.
- In some parts of the men's rights movement, the term "red pill" is used as a metaphor for the specific moment when they come to the belief that certain gender roles they are expected to conform to, such as marriage and monogamy, are intended to solely benefit women, rather than for mutual benefit. In 2016, a documentary titled The Red Pill was released, which deals with the men's rights movement.
- In 2017, political activist and commentator Candace Owens launched Red Pill Black, a website and YouTube channel that promotes black conservatism in the United States. The term is used as a metaphor for the process of rejection of 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 Wachoski, a director of The Matrix, responded to this exchange with "Fuck both of you".
Because of the phrase's close association with the manosphere, a couple of music acts have found themselves in controversy over the term "red pill". Maroon 5's 2017 album, Red Pill Blues was brought to the attention of social media - to which group members were unaware of its association with the men's rights movement. Guitarist James Valentine stated “We’re like, ‘Oh man, of course, like 2017 is the worst.’ We were talking about the scene in ‘The Matrix’ ― do you take the red pill or the blue pill? And the fact that seeing the world for what it is in 2017 can be kind of rough … We had no idea about the association with men’s rights,” Valentine said. “Hopefully, everyone knows from all of our pasts that from our statements on the issue and our actions in the past ― that we are all hardcore feminists in the band. So that’s a horrible association, ugh, to have. The internet trolls have to ruin everything".
In 2018, Mello Music Group rapper Red Pill decided to go by his birth name Chris Orrick to purposely distance himself from the phrase. Orrick revealed the reason for the change on social media, stating: "Over the last couple of years, I've noticed a growing movement on the internet called "The Red Pill" that continues to gain momentum. They spew hate and ignorance, in a totally misconstrued interpretation of the famous scene in the movie "The Matrix" that we both draw inspiration from. I tried to ignore it, but given my own values and principles and especially given the current political and social climate that we live in, I couldn't live with myself being associated with their bullshit. From now on I'm going by my real name. You can call me Chris".
- Allegory of the cave
- Baader-Meinhof effect
- Experience machine
- False dilemma
- Incel § "Red pill" and "black pill"
- Malo periculosam libertatem quam quietum servitium
- Páthei máthos
- Quid est veritas
- Reality principle
- Simulated reality
- The Social Construction of Reality
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