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The Gender Politics and Complex Sexual Identity Issues of Amanda Bynes' She's the Man

By Dustin Rowles | Film | July 27, 2010 |

By Dustin Rowles | Film | July 27, 2010 |

Several weeks ago, it appeared as though we might have lost one of the better actresses of our generation, after Amanda Bynes (What a Girl Wants) announced her retirement in the most official manner imaginable: On Twitter. After several weeks of thoughtful consideration, a little soul searching, and a great deal of introspection, Bynes once again took to the Twitter and announced her un-retirement, recognizing — perhaps — that an acting world without Amanda Bynes is like the Milky Way without the sun. Hollywood revolves around Ms. Bynes’ orbit, and without her, we’re all only seconds away from veering off into space.

To mark this celebratory occasion, I felt it was incumbent upon us here at Pajiba to look back on what is arguably her greatest contribution to cinema, a little underappreciated gem called She’s the Man (I say “arguably” because many would contend that Sidney White is Bynes’ finest accomplishment, and it’s hard to take issue with that assertion).

She’s the Man is a cinematic experience like few others. It deftly dives into the muck of gender politics; it is at once pro-feminist, pro-gay, and yet it still manages to get to the center of how difficult it is to be a woman dressed as a man in our contemporary society. Indeed, She’s the Man contains more thematic weight than any one critic could properly unpack, and I’m sure that this review will only begin to scratch the surface of what’s underneath.

The film follows Amanda Bynes’ Viola, a high-school soccer star who receives some very unwelcome news at the beginning of the film: She’s told that the male-dominated administration of her school has ended the women’s soccer program, ostensibly due to lack of interest, but if you read between the lines, it’s clear that there’s more at play here, namely male chauvinism disguised as bureaucratic red tape. When Viola suggests to the coach of the male team that she should be able to tryout, she is roundly mocked by the coach, the players, and even her boyfriend, who scoffs at such a suggestion. Viola rises to the occasion and abruptly ends her relationship with Justin, though it won’t be the last she sees of him.

Thus, in order to demonstrate that women can compete with men on the pitch, Viola takes advantage of the fact that her twin brother is in London for two weeks, and — by means of some furtive subterfuge — Viola undergoes a male makeover, disguising herself as her brother in order to enter an elite boarding school and tryout on the men’s soccer team. The stratagem is a success, and she finds herself playing for the boy’s squad.

But that’s only the beginning of Viola’s harrowing ordeal. For the next two weeks, she has to live as a man and share a dorm room with star soccer player and dreamboat, Duke (Channing “Solanum tuberosum” Tatum). Initially, Viola offers dating advice to Duke, but she eventually develops a romantic attraction to him, a notion made difficult by the fact that she’s dressed as a very convincing teenage boy. What’s more unsettling is that Duke has a crush on an attractive blond who has a crush on the male version of Viola, creating a gender vortex that threatens derail the entire enterprise. And just to throw another wrench into the romantic interplay here, Duke also develops a repressed romantic affection for Viola-as-a-Man, not realizing that she’s actually Viola-as-a-woman, with whom he’s also developed feelings.

It’s a lot to wrap your brain around without a proper graph, but suffice to say, She’s the Man prays on our collective bisexuality urges, and its astute exploration of gender politics and sexual identity is nothing short of penetrating. Part of its success lies in the ability of Amanda Bynes to convincingly and often abruptly switch genders throughout the film, constantly blurring the lines between male and female, and effectively confusing our own sexual impulses.

Many have criticized She’s the Man for being a reverse Ladybugs, but that misses the entire point. The genius of She’s the Man is that, besides being an entertaining and enlightening film, it manages to impart some important lessons about ourselves, about our own struggles with sexual identity, and about what it means to be a woman dressed as a man living in a man’s world. It’s a struggle, and I think that anyone who has been in that position will readily understand what’s at stake. It’s more than about winning a soccer game. It’s more than the burgeoning relationship between Viola and Duke. It’s about humanity, tolerance, and acceptance. And if it takes a film like She’s the Man to finally prove to the world that a woman dressed as a man can compete in a man’s world, then we owe it to Bynes to take note of this complex motion picture. Indeed, it is my hope that Bynes has put her existential crisis behind her, and that she can once again embark on a successful career in which she continues to bring us thought provoking and challenging cinematic fare like She’s the Man.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.