Well, I hope you all enjoyed the frantic silliness of “She’s the Man” with its update of Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night. Did you catch the posters in the hallways of Illyria Prep announcing their high school production of As You Will? That’s the subtitle of the play and a nice, subtle nod to the source material.
I hope you also enjoyed the link to Viola’s Soliloquy from the Young Vic’s musical production of Twelfth Night. Gabrielle Brooks’s performance is amazing. This song stays true to the play while still adding a more contemporary quality to the famous aside where Viola reveals to the audience her growing awareness of both Olivia’s feelings toward her as “Cesario” (or “Sebastian” in the movie) and her own feelings for Orsino (Duke in the movie). Keeping the song as a private communication between the character and the audience works nicely in a musical.
Instead of a soliloquy, “She’s the Man” dramatizes these elements to alert us that Viola knows there is more going on with Olivia and Duke. These revelations happen in many miscues in dialogue between Olivia and Viola, where their vocal tones and facial expressions don’t match the charade these characters are playing. We know Viola knows what’s going on. The movie also adds a few scenes where Viola is out of her “Sebastian” disguise, so she can overhear things in the girls’ bathroom and share her emotions with her friends who are in on the ruse.
Much as I enjoy this movie as a light teen romantic comedy, its undercurrent of misogyny is troubling. Other than Viola and possibly Olivia, the female characters are portrayed as pretty ditzy. For example, Sebastian’s beautiful girlfriend, Monique won’t let him break up with her. The humor works, but she comes across as vapid and vain. Plus she’s mean. It’s telling that Monique is also entirely an invention of the movie. The rest of the female characters are similarly shallow and unflattering portrayals of women, who mostly exist as objects of desire for the male characters.
For their part, the male characters are similarly shallow with the basest of “locker room” attitudes towards women. Sadly, though perhaps not surprisingly, the movie also introduces a heavy dose of homophobia into its characters. Of course this attitude affect the relationship between Duke and Viola. It’s played for unenlightened, adolescent laughs while Viola pretends to be Sebastian. The dubious humor of dudes accidentally hugging while they squeal like girls about a spider on the floor can almost be forgiven as too typical to get upset about.
However, once Duke finds out his roomie is actually a chick – in fact, she’s even the chick he’s hot for – he must struggle to overcome his own fear of being gay before he can finally accept his love for Viola. It’s not a great moment for the film, partly because the silliness has suddenly taken a “serious” turn. The movie works better when it seems too light and unthinking to worry about such things. Obviously, Duke’s anxiety stems from a sort of collective cultural homophobia that pervades this film. But those are attitudes that are absent from Shakespeare’s play.
I’m almost surprised they don’t have the soccer coach calling his underperforming players “ladies.” They might as well. Viola’s soccer star storyline wants to seem empowering. It tries to argue that female athletes are just as good as their male counterparts, but that “girl power” message almost gets lost among all the other cultural muck.
But this movie is from 2006, if that’s an excuse. Maybe the filmmakers would do things differently if they tried to update it now. The funny thing is that we often consider our current gender politics as being more progressive than in past eras, but in this case, that’s not true. Shakespeare’s original play doesn’t put down its female characters, it doesn’t insist that real dudes can’t be gay, nor does it think that the highest compliment one can pay a female soccer player is that “she’s the man.”