Read This Before You Watch “She’s the Man”

This week we continue the “Secret Shakespeare” media studies series with “She’s the Man” (2006), inspired by Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night, or As You Will (1600). I wanted to include this movie because it’s a fun and fairly faithful adaptation, and also because it features some characteristic elements you find in a lot of Shakespeare plays, especially the comedies. That said, the soccer aspects are entirely new. There’s no soccer in Shakespeare. But in both the play and the movie, our lead character Viola (Amanda Bynes) decides to cross-dress and pass herself off as a man, and for very much the same reason.

In the play, Viola decides to cross-dress because as a man she will be generally safer, more respected, and more able to get work. In “She’s the Man,” Viola can’t play soccer because the girls’ soccer team has been eliminated from her school. As an excellent and dedicated soccer player, Viola believes she should be allowed to try out for the boys’ team, but she’s turned away because supposedly women can’t play sports as well as men.

In both the play and the movie, Viola and Sebastian are fraternal twins who look uncannily alike. In the play, Viola believes her brother has died at sea and instead of impersonating him, she passes herself off as a young gentleman named Cesario (the name of the pizzeria in the movie). The town of Illyria in the play becomes Illyria Prep in the movie, and the town’s major nobleman the Duke of Orsino becomes simply Duke Orsino, the school’s star soccer player.

While impersonating her brother, Viola befriends Duke and convinces him to help her make the soccer team. In exchange, Viola will talk Duke up to Olivia, a girl Duke likes but lacks the confidence to approach. But as we saw in “10 Things,” courting by proxy leads to humorous romantic confusion and a series of unexpected results. It’s a device Shakespeare loved to employ in his plays in general and his comedies in particular. This movie stays true to the play with its complex romance plot, featuring interlocking love triangles between Viola, Duke, Olivia, and Sebastian.

As you watch the movie, notice how Twelfth Night and “She’s the Man” both make heavy use “dramatic irony,” where the audience knows things that one or more of the characters in the scene don’t know. This favorite theatrical convention of Shakespeare’s is actually one that comedy writers still love to use today. We’ll want to consider the effect that dramatic irony has on our understanding of the characters.

Viola’s cross-dressing as a young man works for good comic effect even when it doesn’t follow the action of the play. The movie is especially clever about inventing scenarios where Viola needs to change back and forth between the two in quick order. The original play doesn’t really have those scenes, but the added physical comedy works well in this movie and feels consistent with the overall Shakespearean mood.

As you may know, all the actors of Shakespeare’s day were male. Women were not allowed on stage. So, all the female roles were played by men and boys who could pass as convincing women and girls, or probably sometimes not so well if it helped the comic aspects of a play. This situation of male actors routinely playing women surely must contribute to the frequent use of secret identities and gender swaps in Shakespeare’s comedies. The movie plays on this aspect nicely.

For as light and fun as this 2006 movie feels most, it also introduces elements that are considerably more misogynistic and homophobic than the original play. Other than Viola, the movie chooses to portray just about every other female character in a negative light, with the possible exception of Olivia. The male characters also demonstrate some pretty questionable attitudes about women and towards gender roles. The end of movie gives Viola a victory over those who doubted her abilities as a soccer player, but I’d like you to watch for what you think the overall movie has to say about gender.

Published by Chuck Caruso

writer of dark fiction (crime, horror & western noir), literary & textual scholar (american gothic, noir, po-co, sf), and cultural critic

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