What She’s The Man Taught Us About Gender Roles

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In 2006, when Amanda Bynes dressed up as a boy for She's The Man — very convincingly, at that — no one would have blamed you for ignoring it outright.

Or for assuming the teen sports comedy inspired by William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night was just a reverse Ladybugs, the 1992 film that had a young boy dressing up as a girl to make the soccer team. Or for just being tired of all the teen flicks inspired by Shakespeare that seemed to be hitting theaters hard over the course of the last decade, all declining in watchability. (Romeo + Juliet, 10 Things I Hate About You, O, Get Over It, Rome & Jewel, to name a few.)

In fact, Twelfth Night had already been remade for teens with Just One Of The Guys, a 1985 comedy about an attractive high school girl who poses as guy to make a point about being taken seriously at the school paper. And let's not forget that reviews for She's The Man wouldn't have encouraged anyone to go to the theater. (It has a 43% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.)

But as the film celebrates its 10th anniversary today, it's worth talking about what She's The Man got right — specifically, how it played with the idea of gender and the roles society casts based simply on anatomy.

Viola Hastings (Bynes) just wants to play soccer, but after her school cuts the girls team, she finds herself at the mercy of the boys team's coach, who laughs at the idea of her playing alongside the guys. “Girls aren’t as fast as boys. It's not me talking, it’s a scientific fact," the coach tells her. "Girls can’t beat boys. It’s as simple as that."

That sexist Dr. Seuss-like rhyme is what convinces Viola to pose as her twin brother Sebastian, whom she's been told she resembles thanks to her "total lack of curves." While her brother is out of town, Viola makes the soccer team at Sebastian's school — and then beats her own high school on the field. "If you can't join them, beat them," she says. But what the film really seems to be telling us is, girls can do anything boys can do better — but only while they're pretending to be boys.
Courtesy Paramount Pictures

This is a story we've seen a lot in comedy — a woman or man swapping clothes for laughs — but here, director Andy Fickman wants to make a bigger point. Sure, it's funny to watch Viola try to become a guy, but there's nothing funny about why she's becoming one. She's standing her ground and making a choice to be the kind of woman who takes action when others try to keep her down. Viola's powerful transformation proves that masculine and feminine are all in the eyes of the beholder. But ultimately, this is still a man's world. In order for a woman to be taken seriously, she has to be dressed as a man.

Bynes' character struggles to be feminine enough for her mom, who wants to see her as a debutante in frilly dresses — even though Viola has a "strict no-ruffles policy" and believes heels were invented by a man to make women's butts look smaller. Oh, and also to make it harder for them to run away. She rails against the idea that the pageantry her mom so wants her to be a part of makes her more of a woman than being powerful and strong on the soccer field would. Her ex-boyfriend says things like, "Be a girl for five seconds," when she begins to talk about soccer instead of their relationship.

But while posing as Sebastian, Viola hardly struggles to fit in with her male classmates, who include her roommate and teammate (and eventual crush), Duke Orsino, played by a pre-Step Up Channing Tatum. With just a wig, a little extra facial hair and an ACE bandage to tape down her breasts, she looks just like one of the guys. But can she act like one? Viola initially tries too hard to be what she thinks a man should be. She tosses off a little too much bro language, throwing in a "brah," "dawg," or "G-money" (remember, this was 2006). But her sensitive side gives them pause. When one of her teammates asks. “Is your sister hot?” her response — “I guess so, she’s got a great personality" — gets a very disappointed, “Ew."

But these guys come around once they realize "Sebastian's" ability to understand the opposite sex is a skill they don't have, but want. Here, being a woman actually gives her a leg up with these men. It also shows that she's perceived as male just by looking like one, not by acting a certain way. "Sebastian's" honesty is what the pretty blonde Olivia (Laura Ramsey) notes as being the reason she's attracted to him. Olivia likes the fact that he admits he doesn't have the stomach to dissect a frog. These traits that are often described as feminine make Sebastian a real man in Olivia's eyes.
Courtesy Paramount Pictures

Viola isn't the only character railing against the construct of gender. Duke, the sensitive jock, also struggles to be the kind of macho man the world expects him to be. He's the captain of the soccer team, but he's afraid of spiders and has trouble talking to girls. Duke is positioned as an exception to the usual teenage boy; even Viola is surprised by him. As "Sebastian," when she asks Duke whether he'd rather be with Viola or Olivia, she starts with, “What does your heart tell you?” only to course correct with, “Which one would you rather see naked?”

“Why do you always do that?" Duke says. "Why do you always talk about girls in such graphic terms?”

Now, this is pre-Drake, so a guy spilling all his emotions in 2006 is a sign of someone who's enlightened, evolved, and in this case, seems to understand something about men and relationships that a girl dressed as a guy couldn’t quite grasp yet. Viola commands respect when she’s dressed as herself, but couldn’t do the same when she’s dressed as Sebastian. She's too afraid to go against what is perceived to be normal male behavior, afraid it'll give her away. Viola's under the impression that all guys are interested in following one part of their body, and it's definitely not their heart.

“I just think relationships should be more than the physical stuff,” Duke says shyly, knowing this isn't the normal opinion of teenage boys. This is a big statement in a teen movie, a genre whose plot almost always boils down to: the guy wants the girl. Any epiphany the kids have is dependent on that girl changing the guy for the better (oh, the age-old "softening effect!"). But Duke didn’t have to learn to respect women; he was doing it all along. Viola didn't need to change him, but she did need him to help change her opinion of men. Duke's ability to share his true feelings is what makes him a better man. In fact, the “better men” in this movie are all a balance of being strong and sensitive, male and female. They move beyond the gender roles that society has placed on them, but they do so quietly.

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In the end, Viola gets to play in the big game as herself and prove she's just as good as the dudes, without having to dress like one. It's Viola, not "Sebastian" who ends up teaching her teammates about what it means to be a “man,” which really means being unafraid to go against what is expected of you. It's an idea that we've become more accustomed to now, when gender isn't considered so binary, but rather, much more fluid. "Female" and "male" aren't accurate terms to categorize all people, since so many individuals don't feel like they fit into these two categories. In 2014, Facebook added new terms, like "agender," "cisgender" and "transgender," to better describe users. Not many teen movies from 2006 questioned the accuracy of gender, and even fewer did so with subtlety.

She's The Man
is a feminist movie, but the word feminist is never uttered. It's a pro-gay movie that doesn't shudder at the idea that two men can have a close relationship, but does not address homosexuality outright. The movie seems to speak out against heteronormativity, but a decade ago, this wasn't a word thrown into general conversation. Instead, it refers to this concept through humor.

"Inside every girl, there's a boy," a friend (Jonathan Sadowski) tells Viola as she nervously arrives at school for the first time as "Sebastian." The double entendre is good for a laugh, but there's also truth in the idea that gender is a social construct, not necessarily a biological one. We have to move beyond labels and expand our understanding of what it means to be male, female — or just plain human. We need to ditch the stereotypes, since there should be no limitations to how either gender acts or behaves. Good for She's The Man for engaging in this conversation a decade ago.

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