Okay, so maybe William Shakespeare wrote King Lear in quarantine — probably while baking three loaves of perfectly golden banana bread and holding a warrior yoga pose, or something equally as obnoxious. But the Bard never came up with a line as quotable as: “When I close my eyes, I see you for what you truly are… which is UGLAAAY!”
That honour goes to Karen McCullah and Kristin Smith, screenwriters best known for their cult early-aughts movie adaptations of Shakespeare’s work, including 1999’s 10 Things I Hate about You (loosely based on The Taming of the Shrew), and 2006’s She’s the Man, directed by Andy Fickman, and inspired by the play Twelfth Night.
In She’s the Man, Amanda Bynes plays Viola Hastings, captain of the women’s football team at Cornwall High School, who is devastated when she finds out her team has been cut due to lack of funding. When Viola asks to join the men’s team, the coach laughs her off, mocking the idea that women could compete alongside men in sports. Her boyfriend, Cornwall team captain Justin (Robert Hoffman), is no better. Despite telling her in private that he thinks she plays better than most guys on his team, he too dismisses Viola, causing her to dump his ass.
Soon enough, the perfect opportunity both to play footie and get back at her old school presents itself: Viola’s twin brother, Sebastian (James Kirk), has booked a two-week gig for his band in London, just as he’s set to transfer to Illyria Preparatory School, Cornwall’s biggest football competitor. With the help of her three best friends, a wig, and some truly spectacular sideburns, Viola takes Sebastian’s place at the new school, posing as a boy so she can join the team and exact her revenge against her Cornwall naysayers. Perfect, right? Except… acting like a so-called “real man” is a lot more complicated than she first thought. Oh, and there’s also the small matter of Viola’s crush on her new roommate and fellow player, Duke Orsino (Channing Tatum).
The movie’s seemingly endless supply of recognisable soundbites, combined with an indelible performance by Bynes (not to mention Tatum’s debut as a leading man), has turned it into a favourite for millennial women over the years. But it also did well at the time of its release in March 2006, grossing $57 million worldwide, almost tripling its $20 million budget. And yet, the movie was mostly disregarded by the largely male critical body as yet another inconsequential teen comedy — after all, if the intended audience is not white men in their 40s, does it even exist?
Entertainment Weekly review somewhat astoundingly compared Bynes posing as her brother to the plot of 1986’s Soul Man, a blackface comedy starring C. Thomas Howell, who poses as a Black man in order to get a job. The AV Club’s review criticised Bynes’ transformation, writing that she “comes out of the makeup process looking more like a prepubescent boy than an athletic teen, which is a constant distraction. But it isn't as big a problem as its star's interpretation of teenage manhood, which for some reason involves talking like an effeminate Alabaman.”
Meanwhile, the Austin Chronicle’s review basically confirmed Viola’s worst fears in dismissing young women as potential football enthusiasts: “The inclusion of real-life footballer Jones (late of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, not to mention Chelsea, Sheffield United, and Leeds United, among other rough-and-tumble British football clubs) is a bizarrely appropriate touch, but She’s the Man’s optimal demographic of 'tween and teenage girls isn’t likely to recognise the hulking, hooliganistic Jones for the astonishing footballer he once was.”
Finally, the New York Times’ review completely failed to grasp the conclusion of Viola’s arc, which is that women might want to pursue their dreams and ambitions and also — gasp! — look fantastic in a great dress with eye candy on their arm: “She's the Man reminds us that girls can do anything boys can do, unless those girls happen to exist in a romantic comedy, in which case their ultimate ambition is to squeeze into an expensive dress and get it on with a dumb stud. Along the way, however, there will be girl power to the max.”
That the film was panned is not that surprising. Movies about teenage girls are rarely afforded the respect and consideration they deserve. What is, however, is the fact that the main thing critics seemed to take issue with was Bynes’ performance, which pointed out the harmful effects of certain behaviours expected of young men, especially in their attitudes towards women.
Are we really supposed to buy Bynes as a pinnacle of manhood? Obviously not. That is decidedly not the point of this movie. In fact, its charm and continued relevance explicitly lies in our suspension of disbelief. The fact that everyone believes Viola is who she says she is, solely because she swaggers around grunting, is exactly what the film is trying to criticise.
As Shannon Carlin pointed out in a Refinery29 piece pegged to the film’s 10th anniversary in 2016, She’s the Man was ahead of its time in skewering traditional gender norms. On its most superficial level, Viola’s impersonation of Sebastian provides a hilariously exaggerated perspective of how a woman thinks a man is supposed to behave to be accepted by his peers. Mostly, she overly sexualises and objectifies women, and refers to guys with a series of deeply embarrassing nicknames. (“G-Money”... never change, 2006!)
Ironically, Duke, who repeatedly shows in private that he is sensitive and respectful of women (“I just think relationships should be more than the physical stuff,” he tells Viola-as-Sebastian during a quiet moment) keeps getting in his own way in wooing Illyria popular girl Olivia (Laura Ramsey) because he thinks that makes him look weak. Viola falls for him precisely because she’s seen the side of him that other women don’t see. Tatum is perfectly cast here, demonstrating the too-good-to-be-true mix of shy fragility, goofy sense of humour, and unearthly good looks that would turn him into an overnight star. (The fact that Bynes used her own star power for him to get the part is a fitting reversal of an old Hollywood narrative.)
McCullah and Smith, whose non-Shakespearean collaborations include Legally Blonde, House Bunny, and Ella Enchanted, are masters of a brand of mainstream comedy that satirises the societal expectations that shackle women, and this script is no exception. From explicit reminders about the patriarchy’s power (“Heels are a male invention designed to make women’s butts look smaller — and to make it harder for them to run away,” to more subtle critiques of language we take for granted (“Can’t you be a girl for one minute?”), She’s the Man fires on all cylinders.
Unsurprisingly, none of the critics above took issue with the film’s absurd portrayals of womanhood, which are just as, if not more ridiculous as their male counterparts. “Remember, chew like you have a secret,” Viola is told during a rehearsal luncheon for the Junior League Debutante Ball in which her mother is pressuring her to participate. Not to mention Duke and Viola’s first kiss at a carnival kissing booth, a practice that continues to baffle me — encouraging young women to make out with strangers for charity, why?
Of course, She’s the Man now feels somewhat dated to the modern viewer. Our understanding of gender has changed drastically since 2006. It’s not a binary proposition, or a tradeoff between strictly “male” or “female” behaviours or physical traits. The idea that Viola or Sebastian prove their “real” gender by showing boobs (in the former’s case), or dropping trousers (in the latter’s) completely excludes trans and gender non-conforming people from this narrative. And though She’s the Man hints at an LGBTQ relationship towards the end, it still largely falls prey to heterosexual rom-com tropes, even as it subverts them.
No one is required to love a movie. In fact, some of the criticism I most enjoy reading differs from my own perspective, opening up worlds of thought I wouldn’t have considered. But what’s unforgivable in this case is these reviews’ inability to recognise Bynes’ singular talent as a performer. She deftly infuses Viola and Sebastian with individual quirks and personalities, making them feel like two different people, even if one of them happens to be a fake boy with an outrageous Southern accent. In fact, she does it so well that by the time she goes back and forth between the two characters during the pivotal carnival scene, I had almost forgotten that Sebastian was not Sebastian. As Viola, Bynes is confident and charming, the kind of Jennifer Lawrence-like cool girl who would gladly hand you a tampon in the bathroom — as long as she’s not already using it to stop a nosebleed. As Sebastian, she oozes an inexplicable form of awkward charisma, spitting out perfect line delivery after perfect line delivery, her facial expressions working overtime to nail the laugh. It remains one of her best, most challenging performances.
She’s so good, in fact, that watching her now feels bittersweet. Bynes, who started acting when she was just 7 years old, famously hasn’t appeared on-screen since 2010, and has reportedly struggled with substance abuse, body image issues, and legal problems. Once among the most popular stars of her generation, her biggest dramatic performances today play out in scandalous headlines. Even more tragic is the revelation that She’s the Man may have dealt a harsh blow to her mental health. In a 2018 profile for Paper’s “Break the Internet” series, Bynes called watching herself on-screen “a super strange and out-of-body experience,” adding: "I went into a deep depression for 4-6 months because I didn't like how I looked when I was a boy."
Bynes is far from the only comedian and performer to publicly battle a mental health diagnosis. John Belushi, Chris Farley, John Candy, and Robin Williams all battled lifelong mental health issues. Saturday Night Live’s Pete Davidson has opened up about having borderline personality disorder, even using it as a punchline in many of his jokes. In 2019, 12 comedians, including Sarah Silverman and Rachel Bloom, shared their mental health struggles in Laughing Matters, a documentary produced by The Office’s Rainn Wilson. But our reaction to Bynes’ pain and trauma does feel gendered. Like Lindsay Lohan — and for a time, Miley Cyrus — Bynes has been dismissed as an early-aughts child star gone bad, rather than a talented creative force whose fame exacerbated already existing wounds. It’s the polar opposite of the “tortured male genius” trope, which positions pain as a driving force of intelligence and ability.
Bynes’ ability to succeed in Hollywood — even though she wasn’t given the respect she deserved — was predicated on her suppressing her troubles, hamming it up for the camera. The second she veered off script, she was written off. In that sense, She’s the Man’s somber point sadly remains timeless: Girls can do anything boys can do — if only we’d let them.
Correction: This article mistakenly stated that Pete Davidson has bipolar disorder. He has borderline personality disorder.