I’m 10 years old and running for the soccer ball, pulling up the new athletic shorts I’d recently purchased from the boy’s section of Target. The waistband is folded over a few times so that the shorts hit above my knees. I can feel bruises forming on the flesh uncovered by my shin guards, and after the game, someone asks if I want to “play with the girls instead.” When I get home, my dad asks, like clockwork, “Hat trick?” (noun: the scoring of three goals in a game by one player). I laugh and say, “Next time.”
My fifth grade class is split up into two teams: the good and the better. Not to brag, but I’m on the better team. And I am the only girl on the field. The boys in my class are not much bigger than I am, but they still frequently ask if I’m OK. One says he thinks it’s cool I’m playing “with the guys.” Some refuse to pass the ball to me, but not out of malice, I’m sure.
I didn’t see my experience reflected in any sports or coming-of-age films at the time. So when I watched the 2006 cult classic She’s The Man for the first time after a weekend game, I felt like it was made for me. The movie follows Viola Hastings (Amanda Bynes), a plucky soccer-playing tomboy, whose girls’ soccer team gets cut by her high school (a familiar disappointment to those of us who attended public schools). Viola decides to go undercover as her twin brother, Sebastian, to prove she can keep up with her rival high school’s boys’ team. I saw the story’s moral rather simply as a pre-adolescent: A young woman can play as hard—if not harder—than any man. Viola’s spirit, grit, and blatant lack of “ladylike” manners felt like a reflection of my younger self, clad in brown Nike 6.0’s, knee-length shorts, and equipped with a pretty solid slide tackle.
In honor of the World Cup 2018, I decided to return to the movie that both deepened and reaffirmed my love for soccer (along with Bend It Like Beckham, another family favorite). I admit: I was afraid. Rewatching beloved childhood movies often results in rage-slamming my computer shut by minute 35. Now privy to the demeaning stereotypes that so frequently haunt popular culture, I see too many of them in the stories I once loved. But I was pleased to find that She’s The Man (for the most part) remained the story I adored: one about the determination of a young girl facing delusional and vicious expectations from the people (and institutions) closest to her. Further, the movie explores the ways young men understand, challenge, and perpetuate toxic masculinity, while also depicting the vulnerability and intimacy of male relationships. She’s The Man is simply a hilarious reflection of how we interpret, perform, reinforce, and break gender roles.
After Viola’s soccer team is cut, she demands a tryout for the boy’s team—but the coach scoffs in her face. “Girls aren’t as fast as boys. Or strong. Or athletic,” Coach Misogynist says, laughing with the rest of his team. “Girls cant’ beat boys. It’s just as simple as that. It’s a scientific fact.” These rather heartbreaking words—that many of us have heard before—become our hero’s “a-ha!” moment. We can see her thinking, “Yeah, dickhead. You just watch!” (Not a direct quote from the movie.)
Between pleas from her mother to quit soccer to participate in the debutante ball and comments from her (now ex-) boyfriend to just “be a girl for five seconds,” Viola decides to attend her rival high school and play on their soccer team as her brother Sebastian. She binds her breasts, glues on some sideburns, and steps into her new life as a high school boy.
We watch “Sebastian” enter the complex world of masculinity, bolstered by the encouraging words from a friend: “Inside every girl, there’s a boy.” That is to say that gender and its expression are fluid and nonbinary.
To fit in, “Sebastian” performs masculinity in the only way he knows how: through the degradation of women. In trying to win the admiration and companionship of his roommate, Duke, and his two sidekicks, “Sebastian” often defaults to commenting on the quality of a girl’s ass or how much he wants to see a chick naked. These comments—so unnatural and forced—show us how much of male bonding happens at the expense of the women unlucky enough to get caught in its crosshairs.
When “Sebastian” just can’t seem to get the guys to like him, he gets his two best friends from his old school to pine after him in public, in front of Duke. Once the guys see that women are literally falling at “Sebastian’s” feet, they reconsider their stance on him—and just like that, he’s in. All “Sebastian” needed to be a respectable man was to disrespect a couple of young women.
As “Sebastian” and Duke become closer, “Sebastian” develops a huge crush on his roommate. We watch as their relationship deepens, depicting the intimacies of their friendship—and the ways young men open up to each other—that we rarely see elsewhere. Of course, we know that “Sebastian” is actually Viola—but Duke doesn’t. He softens around “Sebastian,” and their moments of vulnerability only become more frequent.
In the privacy of their room, Duke expresses his insecurities and struggle to balance the pressure of being “manly” with his less aggressive and dominant qualities—like his instinct to run away from spiders and nervousness about talking to girls. “Sebastian”—and the audience, in turn—learns from his relationship with Duke that “manliness” has no true prescriptions, confines, or rules.
For all the gifts it gives, She’s The Man is definitely not a perfect film. It intentionally exaggerates prescribed gender roles in order to bring them to attention—so it doesn’t really manage to escape all of the tropes it’s trying to defy. The principal’s public outing of “Sebastian” as Viola on the soccer field, for instance, is far too reminiscent of transphobic violence that often plagues our schools, teams, and communities.
In the end, Viola reveals her identity on the field and is allowed to continue playing the game. The rival team, led by Coach Misogynist from the beginning of the film, cites “the manual” in an attempt to ban Viola, but her new coach tears the book out of Coach Misogynist’s hands and rips it in half. “What manual? We do not discriminate based on gender here,” Viola’s new coach yells, and I’m suddenly 10 years old again, hearing those words and believing them with renewed intensity.
Viola goes on to score the winning goal on her goalie ex-boyfriend, and celebrates as he screams “I never want to see you again! You suck!” The scene is a perfect showcase of the fragile male ego, with Viola’s ex reduced to a lowly catcaller who whiplashes from “hey baby” to “fuck you, dumb slut!”
She’s The Man was, and continues to be, an unforgettable tale of shattering the gender roles that try to bind an existence that we know is unbindable. It teaches us that gender cannot delineate a soccer field, a relationship, a feeling, or a talent. It reminds us that language affects power—and that it’s easy to tell your guy friend to cut the ass talk because it’s simple and crucial to respect women. This absurd, cheesy, hilarious, feminist, pro-LGBTQ 2006 “rom-com” taught me that what I love, and who I love, is not defined by gender. And although my soccer career didn’t take me to the pros, this movie made me believe it could.