This review contains spoilers.
Remember Livestrong bracelets? Flip phones? The All-American Rejects? Luckily, one could find each of these distinctly mid-2000’s characteristics in She’s the Man, a 2006 gender-swapping Amanda Bynes teen flick. She’s the Man is now fifteen years old, and what’s even harder to believe is the idea that it aged surprisingly well for a comedy. Most of the film’s faults were present in 2006, such as the confused messaging, and it was clear even back then that Amanda Bynes improved the comedy of this screenplay. But what makes She’s the Man intriguing all these years later is its feminist gender-bent premise and the queer subtext that comes along for the ride, and how strongly it all holds up. She’s the Man is no groundbreaking piece, but these conversations (as well as its leading performance) make this nostalgic comedy worth revisiting.
Loosely adapted from William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, She’s The Man tells the story of Viola, a tomboyish soccer player and high school student at Cornwall Prep. When the school cuts the girls’ soccer team, Viola tries to convince the boys’ soccer team coach to let women play on the boys’ team. The coach rejects the idea, stating, “Girls aren’t as fast as boys, or as strong, or as athletic. That’s not me talking; it’s a scientific fact. Girls can’t beat boys.” The boys agree, including Viola’s boyfriend Justin, who fails to defend Viola’s position. Viola breaks up with Justin and decides to make herself over to look like her twin brother Sebastian, who is enrolled at the neighboring Illyria Prep but skips town to go to London, England, to play at a music festival. Viola plans to take Sebastian’s place at Illyria Prep and join their soccer team, which happens to be Cornwall’s archrival.
Viola shows up to Illyria with a comedically lower voice, a wobbly “male strut”, and a wig and sideburns to match her brother’s hair. As Sebastian, Viola enters her dorm room to find her roommate, a shirtless Channing Tatum in grey sweatpants named Duke Orsino. Hilarity ensues as Viola faces one obstacle after the other pretending to fit in with her muscular male cohorts; having to shower when everyone is asleep, having to change clothes when no one is around, and passing off her tampons as a nosebleed hack.
By far, the highlight of She’s the Man is its dual role lead, Amanda Bynes. It is fascinating to watch just how confident and how innately funny she was in this. Her comedic performance goes above and beyond what the screenplay has to offer her, and her melodic delivery makes each line funny, even if the line wasn’t meant to be funny. She’s like a campy animated character. Bynes seems to intuitively know how to exaggerate her entire physicality into each line and each action so that not one second of her screentime is wasted.
Amanda Bynes making fun of machismo characteristics for nearly two hours is the reason to see this film. She is so visibly excited in this role and seemed to know exactly how to deliver so that even the line “Hey dudes!” is hilarious. It’s a kind of comedic character work that is difficult to describe but simply a privilege to watch. Director Andy Fickman spoke of Amanda Bynes:
“The brilliance of Amanda was her ability to put the comedic spin and add something on there. So there would be a line there, but she would take it and add an extra Amanda-ism to it that made it even funnier. One of my first jobs was doing development for Gene Wilder, and so there was a lot of that type of comedy, a lot of Gilda Radner that I always remember seeing in Amanda at such a young age, thinking you don’t teach someone that.”
For a queer eye, Viola’s navigation of these heteronormative male-centric spaces feels rich with subtext. Viola dodging the revelation of her true identity between all the shirtless, chiseled masculine men feels akin to a queer “otherness”. I remember seeing this film as a twelve-year-old closeted gay boy and feeling a particular empathy with Viola (pretending to be Sebastian), uncomfortable in the showers, the locker rooms, and the bathrooms with near-nude males of the same age.
Very present is the idea that one has to pretend to be someone else to survive teenage social structures. Despite the premise of She’s the Man, it is quite an un-queer film, though a queer reading would certainly hold merit; relevant throughout the film is the subject of otherness, explored through the context of being a female discriminated against in a male-dominated field.
Viola’s conservative Junior League mother (Julie Hagerty) would like nothing more than for Viola to wear high heels and dresses, marry a man, and be a debutante. Viola protests these ambitions her mother has for her, saying, “It’s totally archaic”. This film’s conversation of discrimination against women begins with the idea that female athletes are inferior to their male counterparts.
The conflict to overcome is the general conservative notion that women should stick to traditional gender roles, playing less soccer and attending more debutante balls. Viola rejects these conventions and embraces her masculine traits without really giving them much thought until she pretends to be a boy. Played for laughs, Viola violently eats a chicken wing at a Junior League luncheon, surrounded by elegant ladies in pastel.
At the pivotal soccer championship game between Illyria and Cornwall, Illyria’s principal (David Cross) interrupts the big match to out Sebastian on the soccer field (who, in this scene, is the real Sebastian and not Viola). With a megaphone, the principal declares, “Sebastian is a girl. He’s actually specifically his own sister Viola, for reasons which will become very clear after extensive psychoanalysis.” This singular line is the most transphobic the film gets, which is surprising, considering its synopsis and the fact that this was 2006. During halftime, Viola takes the real Sebastian aside and switches clothes with him so she can play the game as Sebastian.
Later, still dressed as Sebastian, Viola tells Duke, “I love you.” Everyone around them pauses, and a confused Duke says, “What? That’s just a little weird.” Surprisingly, this is the most homophobic the film gets. Viola takes off her Sebastian wig and sideburns and explains her elaborate plan of disguising as her brother to join Illyria’s boys’ soccer team so she could prove a point. After that, for whatever reason, Duke recites a shoehorned Shakespeare quote: “Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great. Some achieve greatness. Some have greatness thrust upon them.”
Somehow, this alludes to Viola joining the boys’ soccer team. Illyria’s Coach Dinklage (Vinnie Jones) rips up the manual and tells the archrival Cornwall coach, “Here at Illyria, we don’t discriminate based on gender!” With the help of Duke, Viola wins the big game and beats her villain ex-boyfriend’s team from Cornwall.
However, this is not the story’s resolution, for no studio film can end without its female lead being granted a boyfriend. As the film wraps its feminist subject matter, the screenplay quickly tacks on another conclusion in which Viola attends the debutante ball after all, with Duke. It feels as though this additional ending in which each of the main characters gets coupled up was added before anyone who rejects feminist themes can leave the theater.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with Viola embracing her femininity as well as her masculine qualities, but the film wants to have it both ways: to start a provocative conversation but maintain safe traditionalism. It’s two steps forward, one step back as Viola embraces her mother’s conservative ambitions and happily ends up with the sleepy, mumbled charisma of Channing Tatum.
Perhaps it isn’t solely She’s the Man‘s lack of offensive jokes that helps this movie age well. The unremarkable screenplay may not have the long-lasting quotability of Mean Girls, but the unpretentiousness and casual handling of feminist themes and conversation of gender feel almost refreshing in 2021’s landscape of teen comedies where writers rooms and studios heads feel the need to insist upon how “woke” the work is.
In an era where being “woke” and up-to-date on political correctness isn’t just a moral conversation but also a trend in consumerism, I cannot help but imagine She’s the Man being written for Generation Z: overtly reminding its audience of how forward-thinking the film is with meme-ready one-liners about how much of a #girlboss Viola is for disrupting the patriarchy. Viola just wants to play soccer, and maybe that’s enough.
She’s the Man does not take itself too seriously, yet maybe it doesn’t take itself seriously enough. With a keener eye (and perhaps less studio interference), She’s the Man could have been a lucid, well-written commentary on toxic masculinity and female discrimination while also being a fun teen movie. Using sports for a conversation about discrimination to take place offers many possibilities, but in the end, the film almost apologizes for the strides it makes.
She’s the Man is the same adequate movie it was fifteen years ago, but unlike most 2000’s teen comedies, there are aspects of the film that have failed to age poorly. Amanda Bynes sharply carries the film and does so much calculation with this character that it is difficult to imagine this film working with anybody else as the lead. She’s the Man is worth looking back on as a relic from which to learn, with a leading performance that deserves credit for maintaining the funny nearly a generation later.
‘She’s the Man’ is available to rent on YouTube and Amazon Prime.
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