Love, scandal, epic bloodshed: there’s a reason that Shakespeare adapts so well into the teen movie genre. One overlooked gem is 2006’s Twelfth Night adaptation, She’s the Man, starring the troubled-of-late Amanda Bynes, an almost unrecognisably slight Channing Tatum and one particularly pesky tarantula. Slated by the critics as an unworthy adaptation, too simplistic and slapstick to merit much more than its current 43% Rotten Tomatoes rating, She’s the Man deserves a second chance.
Arriving on the scene two years after Mean Girls became an immediate classic, She’s the Man is an odd beast. Based on Twelfth Night, the source material is lifted into the 21st century by switching out a shipwreck and 17th century society for debutante balls and soccer teams. When Viola (Bynes)’s school women’s football team is cut, she decides to pose as her brother Sebastian at his new boarding school and play men’s football. Unsurprisingly, her quest for sporting equality has its fair share of problems, not the least being her hunky new roommate who thinks she’s a guy.
First and foremost: absurd as it sounds, the plot works. It really does. In a society sans dukes, stewards and counts, the hierarchy of a high school sports team is a fitting cipher for the pecking order of 17th century nobility. Furthermore, Twelfth Night itself was ripe for adaptation: the inherent ridiculousness of any kind of identity-swapping means the comedy works whatever time period it’s set in. She’s the Man doesn’t miss a moment to capitalise on Viola’s struggle to maintain her disguise, from seeing her accidentally stick her sideburns to small children, to attempting to change clothing on a bouncy castle, to faking the agony of being hit in the crotch with a football.
The male idiocy that recurs throughout Twelfth Night is also placed front and centre. Not only is the thrust of the updated plot centred on Viola’s fight against sexism, but She’s the Man time and time again takes delight in unpicking the fragility of teenage masculinity. When a box of tampons spills from Viola’s bag, her male roommates recoil in visible disgust. Viola-as-Sebastian quickly explains that they’re for “his” terrible nosebleeds and we later see Duke (Tatum) borrow one after being injured at practise. Honestly, when was the last time you saw a teenage boy use a tampon on film?
The humour is broad; there are a few offbeat Diablo Cody-type one-liners to keep the indie crowd happy. Instead, the hilarity is in the performances. Bynes brilliantly wields her Nickleodeon slapstick instincts, deftly creating Viola’s “Sebastian” persona through a hilarious drawl and effective gurning. On the romance side of things there’s Channing Tatum, fresh from Step Up and pre-Magic Mike, as the likeable leading man, all muscles and hidden sensitivity. You may have been surprised by his on-point comedic timing in the recent 21 Jump Street series but it’s already on full display in She’s the Man. David Cross is on form as the oddball principal whose leadership takes the form of reassuring pupils about early-onset male pattern baldness and stalking transfer students. And an honourable mention should go to Emily Perkins as Eunice Bates, a head-brace-wearing weirdo who likes cheese “more than almost any other animal by-product.”
She’s the Man was written by teen movie veterans Kirsten Smith and Karen McCullah Lutz whose joint resumé features classics like 10 Things I Hate About You and Legally Blonde. Their movies are solidly from the ‘90s school of “girl power” feminism and perhaps She’s the Man consequentially misses the nuances of the third wave movement… but you would be hard-pressed to find a noughties teen comedy that doesn’t. In actuality, She’s the Man is much funnier than their previous work, with a heroine equal to Kat Stratford or Elle Woods and a nicely oxymoronic title that addresses their films’ unifying message of gender equality.
As a member of the high school movie gang, She’s the Man ticks the boxes. We have the montage sequence, we have our jocks and our nerds, we have our climactic ball. But the clichés are subtly subverted. In the montage, Viola isn’t being dolled up; instead her femininity is being enthusiastically concealed. She already knows she’s hot, she just needs to figure out how to look like her brother. The jocks aren’t really the bad guys, they aren’t particularly mean to the nerds and there’s little mention of cliques. And, okay, the debutante ball might be straight from Teen Movie 101 but rather than the climax taking place on the dancefloor, it takes place earlier on the football field.
It’s not a moment where Viola is finally chosen by the hot guy and she doesn’t make a glamourous entrance to prove her hotness to her classmates or finally win prom queen. Instead, she defiantly reveals to the watching crowd that she is a woman and that she’s damn good at football. While the romantic plot does end conventionally, it’s not about how attractive Duke finds her but, rather, about their genuine emotional connection.
Throughout the entire movie, Viola is never in doubt about her self-worth, dumping her boyfriend the moment he proves himself to be an ass and going to extreme lengths to prove her footballing skill. No matter what its failings are, She’s the Man is the rare teen comedy where a young woman fights to prove to the world how great she already knows she is – and that’s always worth a second chance.