A Primer on Pills


So there’s this new documentary out called The Red Pill. It’s from the point of view of a feminist who starts researching the men’s rights movement, and gradually starts to realize the movement may be in the right. Thus the film’s title: She “took the red pill,” or at least she did from the point of view of a men’s rights advocate.

The phrases “red pill” and “blue pill” have seen an upswing in use as of late, and they’re often associated with certain social and political movements. But given the potential of the expression, it shouldn’t be tied down to any one specific mindset.

The terminology of red and blue pills originates from the hit 1999 cyberpunk sci-fi movie The Matrix, written and directed by the Wachowski… Well, let’s just call them the Wachowskis. It may seem odd for a motion picture to serve as inspiration for an idiom, but it’s hardly unheard of: You may have heard that someone who abandoned their moral principles in their pursuit of wealth or prestige has “gone to the dark side of the Force.”

On the off chance you haven’t seen The Matrix, here’s a recap of the relevant details with spoilers minimized as best I could. Keanu Reeves stars as office drone Thomas Anderson, though he prefers to use his hacker moniker “Neo.” Neo has been getting subconscious urges to seek a mysterious figure known as Morpheus. When the two finally meet, Morpheus compares Neo to Alice on the brink of the rabbit hole, and offers to show him “the truth” about something known as the Matrix. He presents Neo with two pills, one red and one blue, and offers him a choice:

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 wouldn’t be much of a movie if Neo took the blue pill. After ingesting the red pill, Neo is shown the shocking, devastating truth about his entire life: It was a complete lie.

It was a computer simulation the whole time, to keep his mind occupied and unable to see the world for what it really is. Nearly everyone he knew was also trapped in the Matrix, created by sentient machines to harvest humans’ body electricity. (So why, you ask, do the machines bother farming humans and setting up this simulated reality to use their body electricity for energy, instead of just burning whatever they’re feeding them for fuel directly? Well, that will have to be a story for a different time.)

Morpheus introduces Neo to others on his team, most of them former Matrix inhabitants who have presumably taken the red pill themselves. They live a rather miserable life, manning a futuristic hovercraft and roaming a wasteland devastated by the war between man and machine that machine won. Their mission is to “unplug” more people from the Matrix and give them the red pill, so they too will be awakened and realize the truth about the world. But Morpheus explains this will not be easy:

The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But when you’re inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.

It would seem that not everyone would be open to the idea of leaving the reality to which they have grown accustomed and start exploring the real world. In fact, not all those who have already been unplugged are satisfied with their choice. One of Neo’s shipmates confides in him that he wishes he took the blue pill. He’s aware that he would be living a lie if that were the case, but at least he wouldn’t be stuck in a vast dystopia eating food of dubious origin on a tiny ship. “Ignorance is bliss,” he moans as he savors a bite of juicy steak that by his own admission is really nothing more than a few lines of code.

Such is the choice to be made by the inhabitants of the Matrix. Do they take the red pill and learn the bitter reality of the world around them? Or do they take the blue pill, and remain in a comfortable dream world, avoiding unpleasant truths at the cost of their own freedom?

That dilemma is central to the expressions regarding red and blue pills. When you are offered the chance to see the world for what it really is, do you accept, and risk facing unpalatable realities, but gain enlightenment and the ability to improve the world? Or do you refuse, and continue to live a life that is fake but comforting, being part of the problem as you allow the state of the real world to stagnate?

It is rather obvious that this allegory feels relevant to those who believe the common consensus about society does not reflect the actual state of it. It’s especially useful when the speaker believes that people believe falsehoods about their reality because they have been brainwashed by a malevolent, powerful force, and the truth is difficult to take in and handle.

Therefore, to “take the red pill” is to accept the knowledge of how the world really is and how it functions. To “take the blue pill” is to be offered a chance at the truth, but to refuse, as they are so helplessly lost in lies that they refuse to consider they have been lied to, or they prefer a comforting lie to an inconvenient truth.

Here are some ways the terminology of pills can be used:

“James has suddenly started questioning the effectiveness of the 12-step program the court ordered him into. He must have taken the red pill.”

“Of course it’s in the Rothschilds’ best interests that everyone keep taking the blue pill.”

“I didn’t really consider the possibility that Jews control the banks and the media until I took the red pill.”

“Don’t send your kids to public school — they’ll be force-fed the blue pill every day they’re there.”

“A redpilled group on campus is challenging the gender studies majors who claim that gender is just a social construct.”

“Bonnie still refuses to read about how the world is really run by a cabal of humanoid lizards. She really must have swallowed that blue pill hard.”

The speakers in each of these situations may or may not be correct in terms of these statements, but they are using the expression of red and blue pills correctly in the context of their beliefs.

The same cannot be said of some I’ve seen using these sayings. The most glaring error is attempting to adopt the action of taking the blue pill as a badge of pride: “I’m glad I took the blue pill.” This makes no sense, just as you would not say, “Well, I guess ‘not being the sharpest knife in the drawer’ must be a good thing!” If someone accuses you of taking the blue pill, the proper counterargument is that the pill allegory does not apply to the topic at hand, or that it is in fact they who have taken the blue pill.

So there you have it. The allegory of pills can be useful when discussing matters of censorship and unpleasant truths. Just don’t assign the idiom to any specific movement.

Also, if you really haven’t seen The Matrix, you should. But do yourself a favor and take the blue pill — pretend the sequels don’t exist.