The concept of She’s the Man was instantly interesting to thirteen-year-old me. It was Shakespeare made contemporary and palatable, a comedy from Amanda Bynes, whom I considered one of the funniest people ever). It had the classic dynamic of tomboy proving her worth in a world dominated by boys. Viola Hastings (Amanda Bynes) was the new and improved grown-up version of my childhood heroes. I was raised on Julie “The Cat” Gaffney and Becky “Ice Box” O’Shea, so this idea of a girl rejecting the traditional idea of femininity was something I clung to.
In March of 2006, when She’s the Man was released, I was twelve. I was the youngest person in my seventh grade middle school class. I had a bowl cut, braces, and a baby face that I still haven’t entirely outgrown. Things regarding gender were very binary back then (and, despite the progress made, still are pretty binary now). There were “boy clothes” and “girl clothes,” “boy toys” and “girl toys.” I kept finding myself drawn to the “boy things.” All of my clothes came from the boys’ section of Target because I didn’t want sparkly or frilly or skintight. I wanted loose jeans, baggy t-shirts, and shorts pretty much all year round. I didn’t want things to be neat and clean. I wanted short hair and to be reckless in a way that didn’t seem to line up with how girls were “supposed to act.” Scraped knees, bloody elbows, and scars were badges of honor. Feeling like the antithesis of what was expected made me feel disconnected from my own body.
When I talk about my perceptions of gender and societal expectations from this time in my life, I’m doing it knowing full well that gender is a social construct and that nothing is intrinsically tied to gender. Of course, that’s a revelation that took me many, many years to truly understand and even more to unpack the years of conditioning I didn’t even know had been happening. My parents were great about never forcing me to wear dresses or have long hair or do things that made me uncomfortable, but I could tell that how I dressed and how I looked was at odds with the world I was living in. When I used public restrooms, women would comment about how they couldn’t believe that my mom let her son use the ladies’ room at my age. I was going through this massive disconnect that I couldn’t fully put into words. I didn’t feel that how I dressed or acted was wrong by any means, but I was acutely aware that a lot of the world was bothered by it.
So where does She’s the Man fit into all of this?
Adapted from Twelfth Night, a less-known work of William Shakespeare, She’s the Man is about Viola Hastings, a teenage girl who played soccer on the Cornwall Academy girls’ team. She has a boyfriend, Justin (Robert Hoffman), who plays soccer on the boys’ team at the same school. Because of a lack of funding, the girls’ team is cut. When Viola asks to try out for the boys’ team, the coach and all the boys, including her boyfriend, laugh in her face. She’s livid and breaks up with him on the spot. When Viola gets home, she sees her brother, Sebastian (James Kirk), sneaking out of a window. His band won a lucrative spot in a music festival in London, and he’s skipping town to play. The only problem is that he’s due to begin classes at Illyria, a fancy boarding school and soccer rival of Cornwall, within the next few days. Viola agrees to cover for her brother and begins to hatch a plan: she’ll pretend to be her brother at Illyria, try out for the soccer team, and make the team in time for the Cornwall game. That way, she can show all those boys who rejected her how much they had underestimated her.
There’s also the added wrinkle of who’s crushing on whom and the tangled web of high school feelings. Viola likes her as-Sebastian-roommate Duke (Channing Tatum), who likes Olivia (Laura Ramsey), who likes Viola-as-Sebastian. Olivia is using Duke to make Viola-as-Sebastian jealous. Viola-as-Sebastian is being followed around by actual-Sebastian’s ex-girlfriend, Monique (Alex Breckenridge), who doesn’t know Sebastian is in London. Plus, there’s also Malcolm (James Snyder) who likes Olivia, Justin who wants Viola back, Eunice (Emily Perkins) who likes Viola-as-Sebastian, and Toby (Brandon Jay McLaren) who likes Eunice. It’s a mess of Shakespearean proportions.
At its core, the movie is a comedy of mistaken identities, the balancing of two lives, and the awkwardness of being a teenager with a crush. It’s no wonder I loved it and rewatched it constantly throughout high school. There was always something new to appreciate, and as I got older, the reasons I cherished the movie changed as I changed.
I think I was fifteen years old when I knew I was gay, but I didn’t say those words to anyone until I was eighteen. Part of the reason it took me a while goes back to how much these societal expectations weighed on me. I didn’t realize the full extent of it then, but looking back now, I very much thought everyone in the world had a specific box they had to fit into. I was okay with being gay, but I was presented with only two extremes of gay women. One was super-butch women who wanted to fix things, go camping in their Subarus and used that hammer loop in their jeans. The other was the super-femme lesbian, and I knew very well that I wasn’t suddenly going to care about make-up and fashion. That left me nowhere, or so I thought.
Viola-as-Sebastian represented me. We played sports, had short hair, and had the same type of awkward charm. And while the characters in the movie didn’t know Viola-as-Sebastian was a girl in a bad wig, I knew, and somehow it felt like I had finally found the box I belonged in. Here was a goofy, endearing, and, most importantly, a desirable girl who looked like me. When we’re young, we use pop culture to figure out social cues, friendships, and romantic relationships. She’s the Man was the first time I saw a glimpse of myself as a romantic lead, and it may sound implausible, but it was a large part of why I felt a sense of belonging. It was a confidence boost and quite possibly (and embarrassingly) how I learned to flirt with girls.
She’s the Man is decidedly not as queer as it could have been. There’s not even an explicitly queer character. I’d seen a few LGBT movies and shows around the time of She’s the Man. I’d stumbled across Celine Sciamma’s Water Lilies, there was Olivia Wilde’s brief appearance on The O.C., and Glee was right around the corner. But none of these felt like relatable representation, except for Viola-as-Sebastian in She’s the Man. Here was a character who could simultaneously have short hair and play sports, but also compliment a girl on her cute shoes and be seen as a romantic partner. As much as I saw Viola-as-Sebastian as a box I could fit into, it was liberating, not confining. I didn’t have to reject parts of myself to fit the only stereotypical ideals I knew – there was a whole world of boxes to fit into. Which means that there are no boxes to fit into, just that we should all simply be who we are.
Around the time I had this revelation while watching my She’s the Man DVD for the umpteenth time, I started letting my hair grow long. It was flowy and wavy, a complete departure from the bowl cuts I’d grown up with. I started caring about dressing nicely in my own style and learned that everything in life is a spectrum. I could like buying bath bombs and face masks from Lush and take pride in my scabbed knees and have long hair or short hair, and all of these things could coexist in the contradictions that are my personality. We’re all made up of feelings and likes and dislikes that are forever at odds within us and make no sense, but that’s what makes people interesting. It was a world-altering conclusion brought to me from the ghost of Shakespeare by way of Amanda Bynes in a wig, and I think that’s exactly what Shakespeare intended.