In a new series, our writers explore their best worst film. They’ll tell you what the critics got wrong – and why it’s time to give these movies another chance.
An adaptation of Twelfth Night, here Shakespeare’s heroine is transformed into Viola Hastings (Amanda Bynes) who cross-dresses as her twin brother when the women’s soccer team at her high school is defunded and disbanded.
After donning a dodgy wig and sideburns and comedically lowering her voice an octave, Bynes passes as male soccer player, taking her brother’s place as he ditches school to travel with his band.
She’s the Man was a blatant attempt to capitalise on the success of 10 Things I Hate About You (1999). The high-school set adaptation of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew was a critical and commercial hit.
Dismissed by critics, I find She’s the Man a highly underrated teen film. Screenwriters Kristen Smith and Karen McCullah, best known for writing “chick flicks” like Legally Blonde (2001) and The House Bunny (2008), with director Andy Flickman, take a 400-year-old play about mistaken identities and deceit, and craft a cutting – and hilarious – commentary on gender roles in the 21st century.
One star reviews
Famed Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers gave the film one star: “There I sit, suffering total numbness of body and brain, no longer having to wonder what it might be like to be buried alive in gooey marshmallow.”
New York Times critic Nathan Lee wrote: “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.”
Roger Ebert echoed these critiques: “Can Amanda Bynes convincingly play a boy? Of course not.”
The distinction between the film’s critical reception and its cultural popularity can be seen in the Rotten Tomatoes ratings. While the critical reception accrued a rating of 43% (rotten), the audience response has been considerably more positive with a rating of 79%.
Many critics dismissed the film on the basis Bynes’ performance of masculinity was “unbelievable” – which completely misses the point.
Despite being dismissed by the (mostly male) critics, She’s the Man has gained a cult following among young women.
The film satirises the societal expectations that shackle women, while portraying expectations of manhood as equally absurd.
At the end of an aggressive soccer game in the opening scene, Viola’s boyfriend is compelled to reassure Viola of her soccer skills, but she doesn’t need the reassurance — she is confident in her abilities. In contrast, when Viola teases his kissing prowess, her boyfriend requires immediate and verbose reassurance.
It is the masculine characters who have a rigid sense of gender identity and performance. The young women see the possibility and malleability of gender. They understand the absurdity of gender performance.
As Viola says to her mother:
I will not wear high heels. Because heels are a male invention designed to make women’s butts look smaller and to make it harder for them to run away.
The appeal of She’s The Man is watching young women have access to the freedoms available to young men without having to completely surrender their femininity, silliness and passions.
Bynes delivers a complex and nuanced comedic performance which deftly explores how gendered facades shift and falter. A montage of Viola following men and imitating their walks and mannerisms has the bonus of highlighting Bynes’ talent for physical comedy.
Viola’s alter ego, Sebastian, performs masculinity in overt and stereotypical ways, rendering the performance (and masculinity itself) as absurd. In one scene, Viola-as-Sebastian emphasises her sexual desirability to young women: a display of heightened masculine prowess explicitly performed for other men.
The scene where Viola-as-Sebastian claims tampons spotted in her bag are kept on hand for nose bleeds is a great example of how the film plays with cultural and social anxieties around gender — in particular the bodily functions of people with uteruses.
Masculinity is repeatedly framed as more fragile than femininity, evidenced by how many of the male characters are threatened by the mere existence of Viola in what they perceive as “their space” — sport.
In the numerous instances where Viola-as-Sebastian is at risk of being “outed”, the men presume a crisis of masculinity. When the principal catches her playing with her wig, he assumes it is the result of male pattern baldness, not cross-dressing.
The idea gender is up for grabs is outside their worldview.
Girls to the front
Historically, cultural objects beloved by young women – pop music, boy bands, chick flicks – have been culturally devalued or dismissed. But ignore young women and their tastes at your peril.
As Harry Styles said of his fans:
They’re our future. Our future doctors, lawyers, mothers, presidents, they kind of keep the world going. Teenage-girl fans – they don’t lie. If they like you, they’re there. They don’t act “too cool.” They like you, and they tell you. Which is sick.
Young women don’t follow trends, they set them – as evidenced by then 19-year-old Bynes who encouraged the producers to take a chance on a then largely unknown Channing Tatum, giving him his first role as leading man.