‘She’s the Man’: Disseminating Queer into the Mainstream

Amanda Bynes in She's the Man. Viola-as-Sebastian walks to school through a courtyard. He has short brown hair and wears boys' school uniform, a navy blazer and red striped tie. He holds a football in his hands, and looks around nervously.

The teen cult comedy She’s the Man (2006) is a modern retelling of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night that incorporates androgyny, sexual ambiguity and gender confusion. Through slapstick humour and its cross-dressing lead Amanda Bynes, this film unconsciously created a space for transgressive sexualities and gender identities at a time when neither were present in mainstream culture. 

Much has been written about the disruption of gender in the film. Viola (Amanda Bynes), captain of her soccer team at Cornwall, learns the girls’ team has been cut and her coach and boyfriend laugh at the idea of her playing on the boys’ team. Meanwhile, her brother Sebastian (James Kirk) secretly goes to London for two weeks with his band when he is meant to be starting at Illyria school. Viola seizes the opportunity to pretend to be him, cross-dressing as a boy and becoming Sebastian, so she can make the boys’ team at Illyria and play against Cornwall. 

The concept of gender as a performance resulting from gendered socialisation, rather than something innately natural or biologically predisposed, is a classic piece of feminist theory. She’s The Man illustrates gender performativity perfectly by positioning masculinity as something performed by Viola, in ways that she never successfully performs femininity. This leads us to question the gender/sex identity that is behind the expressions of gender – in Gender Trouble Judith Butler suggests that actually sex and gender are one and the same, rather “that identity is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are said to be its results”. In this way we see that it is not the inherent sex that defines Viola’s gender, but rather her/his repetitive gender performance. Viola is ‘she’, but also ‘he’ when Sebastian (I will be using the pronouns they/them from now on).

She’s The Man shows that “a gender cannot be said to follow from a sex in any one way.” Rather than being women or men, individuals act as women and men, thereby creating the categories of women and men. When we theorise gender this way, as radically independent of sex, “gender itself becomes a free-floating artifice, with the consequence that man and masculine might just as easily signify a female body as a male one, and woman and feminine a male body as easily as a female one.” Our protagonist Viola introduces the idea of gender fluidity, suggesting a radical interpretation of sex that has never been seen before in the mainstream. This is captured in the carnival scene, where the rapid sex changes and code switches literally dizzies the audience. Like Shakespeare’s play before it, the film nods to the carnivalesque and uses humour to liberate the audience’s thinking to truly establish transgressive gender ambiguity. 

Amanda Bynes in She's the Man. A close up of Viola playing football at the beach. She is wearing a bikini top and has her long hair up in a ponytail.

Like Butler, I aim to show how when one stops looking with a “pervasive heterosexual assumption” at She’s The Man, one can see how it warps the boundaries of gender – because the sex binary was created to consolidate heterosexual society. The film unintentionally does this through the subtext of lesbian, pansexual and gay sexualities which I will now explore. 

The male gaze

The film opens with a montage of Viola playing football on the beach in a string bikini and kissing their conventionally attractive boyfriend. This establishes the male gaze from the fore. Bynes is unnecessarily and unrealistically objectified for sexual gratification targeted towards the heterosexual male. Because really, who would play soccer in such flimsy, unsupportive gear? Where’s the bloody sports bra? Just in case it wasn’t obvious enough, Laura Mulvey’s theory is played out onscreen too – the group of boys aren’t playing with them but just oogling the girls in their tiny bikinis. This clearly establishes that male equals ‘looker’ and female equals ‘looked at’. But what happens to the sexual politics of the gaze when the looker is not male, but female? She’s the Man had the target audience of teen girls which, when paired with the overt sexualisation of Bynes, unknowingly enables a queer, sexual gaze. This sexualised portrayal of the female body was possibly director Andy Fickman’s attempt to establish Viola’s ‘femininity’, but rather it allows for a ‘transgressive’ queer gaze and the possibility that some teen girls will experience lesbian attraction to Bynes. 

Butch representation

Viola-as-Sebastian is hyper-masculine, due to them not wanting their gender performance or previous female identity to be revealed. This suggests butchness to our teen girl audience, most obvious in the restaurant scene which Fickman used to improve Viola-as-Sebastian’s social status and acceptance among other men, by characterising them as a womaniser with sexual experience. Through positioning Bynes’ masculine persona as an object of feminine desire, the film unconsciously spotlights femme-butch relationships. The girls are quite clearly femme, wearing heels, short skirts, dresses, and a bare midriff, while Viola-as-Sebastian plays up their masculine performance grabbing the girls’ bums and their own crotch. They perform hyper-masculinity perfectly: holding onto their belt and leaning back with an unfaltering assurance while objectifying their female conquests. Eleven-year-old me felt a whole type of way about this scene, then watching it ten years later I had a gay eureka moment – butch-femme relationships were so attractive to me as a baby bisexual. 

A scene in a diner: a girl in a short skirt and crop top throws her arms around Viola-as-Sebastian, who responds by putting his hands around her waist.

Terms like femme and butch were used by the lesbian community to describe a gay woman’s gender expression, and were identities that were mainly expressed in underground lesbian bars. Butch-femme pairings made the lesbian community very culturally visible. For this reason, in the 1970s, many radical feminists and lesbian separatists distanced themselves from femme-butch ‘roleplaying’ which they believed was aping heterosexuality. Joan Nestle argued in defence: “butch-femme relationships, as I experienced them, were complex erotic statements, not phony heterosexual replicas”. Nowadays, many queer kids see butch/femme as less of a binary and more of a fluid spectrum. As for myself, I warred for a while about whether I wanted to be butch or whether I was attracted to butchness – then I realised I didn’t have to decide and I’m pretty happy swinging between the two whenever I feel like it.

She’s The Man’s unintentional representation of butchness is refreshing. When lesbian characters or encounters are historically depicted in films, their images are stereotypically feminine-looking. This delineates back to the male gaze – femmeness provides the most pleasure to heterosexual male viewers’ fantasy of lesbians. Think Desert Hearts, Fried Green Tomatoes, D.E.B.S., etc. There were little to no true representations of butch lesbians or butch-femme relationships in mainstream cinema at the time She’s The Man was released. Now, Viola-as-Sebastian would probably be classed as soft butch, and they weren’t explicitly attracted to women, but a win is a win and eleven-year-old me identified with the queerness that this film unconsciously incorporated. 

More gayness!

Many watchers have embraced the hint of WLW in Olivia’s (Laura Ramsey) attraction for Viola-as-Sebastian and numerous fan edits on YouTube include comments like “this duo triggered my lesbian awakening at the age of 7”. Though Olivia’s infatuation is included for comedic effect, She’s The Man actually validates the existence of pansexuality through her crush. Pansexuality is defined as sexual, romantic, or emotional attraction towards people regardless of their sex or gender identity; it explicitly includes people who are transgender, intersex or who exist outside of the gender binary. 

Amanda Bynes and Laura Ramsey in She's the Man. Viola-as-Sebastian stands on the wooden bleachers wearing a red Illyria sweatshirt, next to Olivia, a pretty blonde girl who looks at him with obvious interest.

The film depicts Olivia as attracted to gender performance, not sex assigned at birth. She is also attracted to aspects of Viola that are appealing regardless of her gender performance (which code-switches rapidly between masculine and feminine in the film). For example, Viola-as-Sebastian forgets to lower their voice when they first meet Olivia and immediately compliments her ‘cute shoes’, then later they admit to disliking dissecting in labs and promptly faints. This kind of behaviour is punctuated with the hyper-masculinity that Viola-as-Sebastian adopts. Olivia is romantically attracted to their personality and interests like writing music lyrics. In fact, the only comment she makes on Viola-as-Sebastian’s appearance is: “he’s a delicate, refined handsome”. This indicates an attraction to more androgynous features, reinforced by Olivia complementing their smile, an obviously genderless characteristic.

Then there is the close, homoerotic friendship between Duke (Channing Tatum) and Viola-as-Sebastian which results in many queer moments in the film; like when the two are lifting weights together or talking in their shared dorm. Viola-as-Sebastian even confesses their love for Duke while still in masculine drag which hinders the film’s attempt to characterise them as a heteronormative pairing. 

Not only does the film bring the queer into the mainstream through the suggestion of these sexualities, but also through the subtle trans representation in the main character. While not actually a trans male in the film, Bynes portrays difficult situations that will be familiar to trans individuals. From uncomfortable binding, casual ‘shirts/chests’ teams (lack of space for trans comfort in sports), to the anxiety of communal showers, and of having feminine products (that infamous tampon scene).

Channing Tatum and Amanda Bynes in She's the Man. Duke and Viola-as-Sebastian are in the middle of a football match, and Duke approaches Viola-as-Sebastian angrily, who shoves him in the chest.

Body Parts: back to Butler 

Now we are going back to Butler’s academic theory to examine the ending of the film: the big reveal scene at the soccer game. Fickman attempts to resolve the Shakespearean tangle of confused identities by resorting to the essential ‘facts’ of biology. Viola and Sebastian are driven to confirm their identities at the final match and both do so by seemingly revealing sexualised and gendered body parts: Sebastian drops his shorts and Viola lifts her shirt. However, to retain its PG-13 rating, the film cannot display these sexual anatomy markers onscreen, so they are cropped out of frame. Thus, this film unintentionally threatens gender essentialism through overtly absent biological body markers. That absence of a penis or breasts leaves a visual black hole for the viewer – Viola and Sebastian’s anatomies are mysteries. This consolidates the film’s alignment with Butler’s argument that sex is just as fluid as gender.

We have already disproven a binary gender system – Viola’s gender expression is fluid – thus we cannot believe in a binary of sex either because it assumes “the belief in a mimetic relation of gender”. Butler highlights the variety in chromosomes, genitalia, and hormones that don’t always align with a binary viewpoint. Indeed, biologists (see Anne Fausto-Sterling) increasingly argue that a binary view of sex is inaccurate and simplistic and that it should be viewed as a spectrum rather than a dichotomy. Then, even if the film were to show fragmented body parts in a cropped shot, “even ‘seeing’ the body may not answer the question: for what are the categories through which one sees” if a binary is no longer stable? The reality of sex and gender is then in crisis, and so we see that our naturalised knowledge of these concepts is changeable and revisable. Viola and Sebastian’s bodies are free, fluid and an “instrument through which an appropriative and interpretive will determines a cultural meaning for itself”. In other words, they may choose both their sex and gender, and biological essentialism is refuted in She’s the Man.  

In these ways, teen comedy She’s The Man disseminated queer into the mainstream. Both through unconsciously creating a space for young queer kids to feel seen, situations that they identified with and a film for them to embrace and ascribe their own meaning to, and through its accidental radical alignment with ground-breaking queer studies from academic Judith Butler. 

by Caitlin Thomson

Caitlin Thomson is a writer, poet and Bristol graduate. She is a staff writer and editor at Candid Orange and runs the Ooh La blog . She will study Gender and Women’s Studies (M.Phil.) at Trinity College Dublin in September. Check out her blog and more of her work here.

2 replies »

  1. No, this is one refined, refreshing take on what most will call ‘just another cult hit’ ; having watched it with a neutral viewpoint, your essay does enrich its properties as a mainstream work that breaks grounds beyond its comedy of errors trope.


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