I really enjoy a good modern retelling of a Shakespeare play and, in general, I think She’s the Man is one of the best. There are a few moments that really do not age well (including a scene with some cringeworthy homophobia) but other than that and the whole aspect of cross-dressing (central to many of Shakespeare’s comedies), She’s the Man takes what I think is one of the more mediocre of Shakespeare’s plays and uses it to tell an empowering story about gender equity and blasting through gender stereotypes.
Also, when this movie came out in 2006, I was a junior in high school, and the message was really important to me at the time. These days we’re fighting hard for racial equity and reparations as a particular underline of social justice, but in the late ’90s and early 00s, gender equity was very much in the forefront and a film like this, showing a girl who could do “all the things a boy could do” was empowering.
She’s the Man takes most the character names straight from the Shakespeare text. We have our twins – Viola and Sebastian – as well as love interests Duke Orsino and Olivia. Unlike in Twelfth Night, Sebastian and Viola aren’t shipwrecked on a strange foreign land. Instead, they are metaphorically shipwrecked on their life paths, stranded on a course set for them by their rich, closed-minded parents. Instead of following their parents’ bliss, Sebastien runs away to London to play with his band, and when her own high school cuts the girls soccer team, Viola takes her brother’s place at Illyria High to prove that she can play soccer just as well as any of the boys.
Amanda Bynes is hilarious in her role as Viola, maxing out the awkward moments to build comedy rather than focusing too much on mistaken identities to create humor. While cross-dressing wouldn’t fly in films these days, I appreciate how director Andy Fickman used that aspect of the story (lifted directly from Twelfth Night) to show gender prejudice and to dismantle the stereotypical “macho jock” image from Channing Tatum’s character. Challenging these toxic gender roles and sowing a wide variety of what it means to be “feminine” or “masculine” was an important choice at the time this movie came out. If it were to be remade in the 2020s, I would like to see it including more shade of gender and non-binary characters at well, but for its time, She’s the Man took important steps.
So as far as adaptations go – yes, I think She’s the Man is a fantastic take on Twelfth Night. I also really appreciate that the more problematic “comedic” undertones from the Shakespeare play itself didn’t make the cut into the film. There’s plenty going on here with the twins and the love triangle that there’s no need to add anything else. Amanda Bynes carries the comedy well enough herself with her dramatic facial expressions and physical comedy.
She particularly shines in the scenes around becoming a debutante and neither the character nor Bynes’ performance is subtle about how outdated, sexist, and elitist the whole event feels. Since the whole idea of a debutante ball is from the historical tradition where wealthy families announced that their daughter is of marriage age and “good breeding”, the negative light in which the event is shown is progressive and commendable (debutante balls only still occur in the United States and are very much a status symbol and way of dictating what it means to “be a lady”). Like many other things in this film, it adds an element of comedy while really criticizing a concerning aspect of modern society.
From a cinematic perspective, okay, She’s the Man is pretty cheesy. There are a bunch unnecessary flips and acrobatics on the soccer field, particularly near the end of the film where Illyria is playing Cornwall.
The dual “grand reveals” during that game are also extremely cringy on a couple levels – one, because the characters decide the best way to prove their gender is through physical proof (yes that means what you think it means), and of course because of the implication that biology can prove gender in the first place. Considering all the transphobia that goes around members of the transgender community playing sports, this is a particularly concerning perspective. Props to the Illyria coach for shouting that “in Illyria we don’t discriminate by gender” when he decides to let Viola stay on the field – more coaches like that in the real world, please!
While I enjoy She’s the Man and generally appreciate both the gender empowerment and Amanda Bynes’ (I tend to love her in movies and while I understand why she got out of the business, I miss her)… I would hesitate to necessarily recommend this film to a modern audience due to some of the content that aged into being problematic.
If you’re looking for a light comedy with some love for soccer, sweet complicated romance, a hilarious performance by a talented leading actress and also starring a young Channing Tatum, then She’s the Man is absolutely for you… as long as you are willing to both acknowledge and overlook the problematic content. I definitely believe that this film is the most enjoyable cinematic modern retelling of a Shakespeare story, and the performances are spot on.
What other movies of modern Shakespeare retellings have you seen? Did you enjoy them? Recommend the ones you liked best in the comments and I’ll have to check them out!