I’m sure you must be wondering why a movie in which there is a scene where Amanda Bynes, playing a girl pretending to be her brother, screws up her face to stridently declare in a cartoonishly male voice, “I am a dude. I am a hunky dude! I’m a badass hunky dude!” was not lauded for being an example of comic excellence. OK, maybe you’re not wondering that but I certainly am. This is one of the most spectacular moments of hilarity in She’s the Man, the 2006 adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, a stone-cold teen comedy classic that deserves far more recognition than the mediocre reviews gave it.
She’s the Man is a high-spirited repurposing of The Bard’s gender-bending play which situates the action at a posh American high school where its female protagonist Viola (Bynes) has taken the place of her brother Sebastian, who is secretly awol for two weeks in London, so she can play on the boy’s football (soccer) team after her own school’s girls team is cut. As with the play, chaos ensues thanks to mistaken identities, misunderstandings and physical comedy that climaxes with a big event, in this case, two big events (a football match and a debutante ball) and ultimately a happy ending for the central players.
Is it believable that Viola would get away with her disguise for so long given the circumstances of her deceit? Of course not! Just as it’s completely unbelievable that Portia could get away with pretending to be a knowledgable judge in front of her new husband Bassanio in Michael Radford’s 2004 adaptation of The Merchant of Venice. But that’s Shakespeare! One has to suspend one’s disbelief in order to enjoy his brand of comedy and the writers and cast of She’s the Man understood that so well.
Had Bynes not gone on to struggle with fame and the toxic spotlight under which many a child actor has withered, her name might have been ranked alongside Melissa McCarthy or Kate McKinnon for her excellent understanding of slapstick comedy. So much of what makes this movie pop is the frenetic energy she brings while navigating the line between masculine and feminine in disguise as Sebastian: the way she takes apart a tampon and pops it in her nose to save face in front of her teammates or her inconsistent accent that makes every line delivery a Russian roulette for ridiculousness. Similar to Sanaa Lathan in Love & Basketball and Parminder Nagra in Bend It Like Beckham, she maintains the lovable, relatable appeal of a girl just wanting a level playing field to achieve her dreams and date a dude who supports that.
That dude is Channing Tatum playing Duke Orsino. At 26, Tatum looked far too old to play a teenager but still had enough boyish charm and awkwardness to set him up as a non-threatening leading man for the film’s young teen demographic to lust after.
Co-writers Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith had already primed this audience for more palpable feminist messaging with their acclaimed 1999 adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew, 10 Things I Hate About You. Their progressive reconfiguration of the central romantic story, heavily influenced by the Riot Grrrl feminism of the 90s, laid the groundwork for She’s the Man to explore and dismantle antiquated ideas about masculinity and femininity.
Of course, both films are very white, heteronormative depictions of young love, as were the factory settings for Hollywood high school films at the time. The latter could certainly have better understood the rules of football (I’m sure Vinnie Jones was livid with that second-half substitution plot device) and the writers probably didn’t need to borrow its boob-flashing gender reveal from the earlier gender-swapping teen comedy Just One of the Guys. Still, She’s the Man manages to deliver an important questioning of the toxic social norms that dictate how men and women are meant to act or be treated, at a time when young women in the media, like Bynes and fellow former Disney stars Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, were frequently being tarred by a misogynistic brush.
It’s a shame Bynes would struggle with her own self-image after seeing herself in the role. “I went into a deep depression for four to six months because I didn’t like how I looked when I was a boy,” she told Paper in 2018 and you have to wonder if she would have felt that way had the film been received by critics as well as its target demographic. Many male critics skewered Bynes’s effeminate representation of manhood rather than focusing on why Viola’s impression of manhood, which is dismissive of women and male emotions, is initially so toxic. Not since Tootsie has a gender-swapping comedy challenged the subject with quite so much comedic vigor, emotional heart and both male and female empowerment.
She’s the Man is available to rent in the US and UK