In our class, “Sex, Gender and Society,” we have focused much of our studies on the themes of sexual coercion, masculinity and femininity, sexual behavior and how they are perceived, portrayed and related to one another in our culture and society. Major motion pictures are a significant indication of our society’s perception of such themes and are thus, essential to consider and analyze when studying the parameters within which these phenomena occur. The complicated and intertwined plot of the 2006 romantic comedy, “She’s the Man,” is best summed up by its tagline: “Everybody has a secret… Duke wants Olivia, who likes Sebastian, who is really Viola, whose brother is dating Monique, so she hates Olivia, who’s with Duke to make Sebastian jealous, who is really Viola, who’s crushing on Duke, who thinks she’s a guy…” (Fickman, 2006.)
This film begins with the most prominent of the main characters, Viola, learning that the women’s soccer team at her high school, Cromwell, is being dropped from the school’s athletic program. Furious, she confronts the coach of the men’s team, informing him that the girls on her team would like to tryout for the men’s team. The coach laughs off her request as the men on his team, including the goalie, who is also Viola’s boyfriend, announce that girls are simply not allowed on their team. Soon after this confrontation, Viola’s brother, Sebastian, informs her that he will be ditching the first two weeks of school to travel to London for a music gig. In hopes of not being caught, Sebastian asks Viola to disguise herself as their mother and excuse his absence. Throughout the whole movie, both Sebastian and Viola use their parent’s divorce to their advantage, informing each parent that they will be staying at the house of the other parent. With the news of Cromwell’s women’s soccer team being cut, and armed with the desire to show the men’s team that she’s an entirely capable player, Viola devises a plan to mask herself as her brother, Sebastian, and try out for the men’s soccer team at his school, Illyria—Cromwell’s biggest rival (Fickman, 2006.)
Once successfully disguised as “Sebastian,” Viola arrives at Illyria and meets her roommate, Duke, a good-looking guy on the men’s soccer team. At tryouts, however, Viola does not perform as well as planned and fails to make “first string.” Initially, Duke and his posse do not think highly of “Sebastian,” which urges Viola to use her friends, in on the scheme, to help boost her popularity. At a restaurant, in front of Duke and his friends, “Sebastian” is confronted by “his” female friends one by one, successfully convincing Duke and his friends that “he” is actually quite admired amongst the ladies. During this gig, however, the “real” Sebastian’s girlfriend, Monique, arrives, thinking that Viola is truly Sebastian, wondering why “he” hasn’t been returning her calls, not knowing that the real Sebastian is actually in London. Viola, without showing her face, proceeds to dump Monique, who continues to think that Viola, imitating Sebastian, is her boyfriend (Fickman, 2006.)
Back at Illyria, “Sebastian” is now considered extremely cool as a result of his encounters and public break-up the night before. In class, “Sebastian” is randomly paired with a classmate, Olivia, as his lab partner. Duke then reveals to “Sebastian” that he has a huge crush on Olivia and wants “Sebastian” to put in a good word for him. While initially not wanting to do so because of “her” growing crush on Duke, she ultimately agrees when Duke offers to help “him” with his soccer skills in exchange. As the film progresses, “Sebastian” is promoted to “first-string” and “her” feelings for Duke grow stronger as “she” begins to spend more time with Duke. Meanwhile, Olivia begins to develop feelings for “Sebastian,” and when realizing that “Sebastian” isn’t interested, pretends to show interest in Duke to make “Sebastian” jealous (Fickman, 2006.)
While Viola’s life as “Sebastian” continues, she is simultaneously and minimally living her life as Viola on the side. Her primary duty is to please her mother by participating in a Debutante Ball and all the associated Debutante events. During these affairs, Viola frequently has to fulfill the roles of both herself and “Sebastian.” There are concurrently multiple run-ins between Viola, “Sebastian,” and Monique, and she eventually builds a friendship with Olivia, as herself, Viola. At the same time, another Illyria student, Malcolm, who is in love with Olivia, discovers the truth about “Sebastian.” Things become even more complicated when the real Sebastian arrives home from London early, and arrives at Illyria, where Olivia, whom he has never met, immediately kisses him. When he wakes up the next day, he is automatically escorted to the soccer field where he suits up and is thrown into the game. Unsure of how to play soccer and unaware that his sister has taken his place for the last two weeks, the real Sebastian is very confused by what is occurring. When Viola wakes up and realizes she is late for the game, she runs to the locker room and realizes that “Sebastian’s” uniform is not in “his” locker. She eventually recognizes that her brother is on the field playing and after desperately getting his attention during half time, she proceeds to explain the situation. The real Sebastian then hands over his uniform to “Sebastian,” who goes into the game in the second half. However, after having overseen Olivia kissing the real Sebastian, whom he believes is “Sebastian,” Duke becomes furious with “Sebastian” and refuses to pass “him” the ball (Fickman, 2006.)
Ultimately, Malcolm and his newly acquired sidekick, Monique, collaborate with Illyria’s principle in order to “out” Viola and Sebastian at the soccer game. As the events unfold, sparks fly between the real Sebastian and Olivia and Malcolm and Monique, while Duke continues to be angry at Viola for deceiving him. Finally, however, Duke forgives Viola and arrives at her Debutante Ball just in time to escort her for her official debut (Fickman, 2006.)
The main characters in this film are: Duke, Olivia, Sebastian, Viola and Monique. All are white, high school aged teenagers. Based on their private, college-preparatory schooling and their involvement in a Debutante Ball, they appear to come from upper-class families. All characters are heterosexual, with the exception of Viola’s good friend, Paul, who is homosexual and helps with her transformation into “Sebastian” (Fickman, 2006.)
According to bell hooks in her essay, “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators,” the majority of black women who attended and found pleasure in the cinema did so by adopting the idea of “the oppositional gaze”—a way in which to view a situation or media portrayal in light of the potential racism, sexism or other degradation or prejudice it might expose (hooks, 1992: 122.) According to hooks, however, these women were almost always concerned with the aspect of racism and rarely concerned with the presence of sexism (hooks, 1992: 122.) hooks further argues that, “[by] looking at films with an oppositional gaze, black women were able to critically assess the cinema’s construction of white womanhood as an object of phallocentric gaze and choose not to identify with either the victim or the perpetrator” (hooks, 1992: 122.) By using hooks idea of “the oppositional gaze,” one is potentially able to view a film in an objective light by essentially putting all personal views and opinions aside. Using this technique, we are prospectively able to consider how the aspects of sexual coercion, masculinity and femininity, and sexual behavior are portrayed in the film “She’s the Man.”
According to Struckman-Johnson, et al., sexually coercive behavior is defined as, “the act of using pressure, alcohol or drugs, or force to have sexual contact with someone against his or her will” (Struckman-Johnson, et al, 2003: 76.) In the film, “She’s the Man,” explicit sexual coercion tactics are not overly present, potentially because of the fact that this film is geared towards a younger age demographic. Also, because of the plot of this movie, and the fact that many scenes tend to be male dominated, we do not see much heterosexual interaction between men and women, unless one considers “Sebastian” as a woman. One specific point in which we see sexual coercion tactics more or less being used is when Olivia decides that she is going to kiss “Sebastian,” regardless of the fact that “he” has explicitly stated that “she is not his type.” While the viewer knows why in fact “Sebastian” believes that Olivia is not “his” type, we can assume that Olivia does truly believe that “Sebastian” is a boy, and therefore, decides that she is going to make a move on him (Fickman, 2006.)
Throughout the majority of the film, Olivia’s flirtatious advances are repeatedly shut down by “Sebastian,” to the point where she feels that in order for him to notice her, she must make him jealous by pretending to have feelings for Duke. One could argue that in this sense, Olivia is engaging in what Struckman-Johnson, et. al. would consider “postrefusal sexual persistence”—defined as, “the act of pursuing sexual contact with a person after he or she has refused an initial advance” (Struckman-Johnson, et al., 2003: 76.) Further, according to the authors of this study, “all acts of postrefusal sexual persistence are sexually coercive in that the receiver has already indicated that he or she does not consent to the action” (Struckman-Johnson, et al., 2003: 78.) Considering “Sebastian” had previously made it clear that “he” was not interested in Olivia, it is clear that she engaged in such persistence. In the film, Olivia engages in what Struckman-Johnson, et al. would consider level 1 and level 2 tactics of sexual coercion. Beginning with level 2 tactics, “tactics of emotional manipulation and lies,” Olivia tries to gain “Sebastian’s” interest by misleading “him” into believing that she has feelings for Duke (Struckman-Johnson, et al., 2003: 79.) After this plan does not succeed, Olivia reverts to level 1 tactics, “tactics of sexual arousal,” and decides that she is going to catch “Sebastian” off-guard and kiss him before he has the chance to decline. (Struckman-Johnson, et al., 2003: 78.) In the film, the real Sebastian arrives at Illyria after being away in London. Immediately as he exits the cab, Olivia runs to the car door and kisses him without looking at him first and with the assumption that he is “Sebastian.” Duke oversees the occurrence and as Olivia runs away, Sebastian exclaims, “I think I’m really going to like this school” (Fickman, 2006, 1:09:15-1:10:00.) Because the person engaging in the sexual coercion tactics is a woman, we are unable to relate this situation to those found in Tim Beneke’s, “Men On Rape.” However, it is interesting to consider how the situation would have been different had Olivia been the boy, and Sebastian, the girl. Potentially, instead of willingly and excitedly accepting the kiss from a stranger, the girl would have pushed the boy away and considered it sexual assault. On the other hand, however, we are able to consider Weinberg and Bierbaum’s, “Conversations of Consent,” and conclude that Olivia did not engage in their definition of “consent”—“the continual process of explicit, verbal discussion, a dialogue, brief or extended, taken one step at a time, to an expressed “yes” by both parties and a shared acknowledgment that at this moment what we are doing together is safe and comfortable for each of us” before kissing whom she believed to be “Sebastian” (Weinberg and Bierbaum, 2005: 93.) Olivia’s disregard of “consent” in this scene is indicative of her persistence to be intimately involved with “Sebastian” regardless of “his” lack of interest.
Finally, it is important to note that the situation between Olivia and “Sebastian” was semi-misleading in that “Sebastian” may have given Olivia more of an indication that “he” was interested simply in order to divert Olivia’s attention from Duke. By doing this, “Sebastian” believed that Duke would potentially give up on his long time crush, Olivia, and potentially become interested in “him,” or rather, Viola. It is also important to consider the fact that the real Sebastian, whom Olivia actually kissed, was more than happy with the encounter, whether it was consensual or not.
More so than the issue of sexual coercion, the presence of masculinity and femininity are extremely present and well represented in this film. From the very beginning, when Viola confronts the Cromwell men’s soccer team coach about playing on their team to the end when the Illyria coach exclaims that his team “does not discriminate based on gender” (Fickman, 2006.) The difference in opinions between the Cromwell coach and the Illyria coach are a true testament to the film’s desire to abolish hegemonic masculinity and femininity and more broadly, gender-based discrimination and stereotypes.
Further, Viola’s transformation into a male and her associated experiences as she engages with Illyria students is a very accurate display of our societies gender roles, or more specifically, hegemonic masculinity and hegemonic femininity (Smith, 2010.) As Viola, she is expected to “not play soccer as well as the boys,” and engage in Debutante related activities. Once she disguises herself as “Sebastian,” however, she is expected to assume an entirely new physical appearance, speak in a low-manly voice, walk “like-a-boy,” shave and talk about girls, all remaining consistent with her newly acquired gender role. The first scene of the film consists of Viola and the other girls on her soccer team realizing that they’ve been cut. They proceed to approach the men’s coach who says that he will help them out however he can. Viola says that he can help, and insists that he let the girls try out for the men’s team. At this, the coach exclaims, “anything BUT that.” Viola replies that he knows that she and the other girls are good enough to play on the men’s team, to which he responds that they cannot be serious and that “girls aren’t as fast as boys…. Or strong… or athletic… this isn’t just me talking, it’s scientific fact” (Fickman, 2006.) At this point, a few of the male players join in on the conversation, including Viola’s boyfriend. The coach explains to the players that the girls want to try out for the team. The boys all react by laughing. Viola responds to their laughter by recounting the time that her boyfriend told her that she was a better soccer player than half the men on his team, which he proceeds to deny ever saying (Fickman, 2006, 00:04:00-00:05:30.) This scene is a clear representation of the many stereotypes and more specifically, the ideals of hegemonic masculinity and femininity, which our society uses to determine “correct” gender-based behavior (Smith, 2010.) By proclaiming that women are simply not as good at sports as men, the Cromwell coach is basing his opinions of gender roles on the belief that men are inherently “faster, stronger, and athletic.” (Fickman, 2006.) It is this conversation that motivates Viola to join the men’s soccer team at Illyria, beat Cromwell, and prove that girls can play soccer just as well as boys.
From the start, Viola has a difficult time adopting “hegemonic masculinity traits.” In the film, “Sebastian” arrives at Illyria dressed as a boy. Before exiting the car, she turns to her friend Paul—who did her hair, make-up and dressed her—and asks for reassurance. He assures her that she can, in fact, “do this,” and she proceeds to get out of the car. Soon thereafter, a male student approaches her and says hi at which point she decides she can no longer “do this.” She and Paul have a “girly” banter at which point he exclaims that she is, “acting like a girl.” At this, she gets out of the car and Paul proceeds to show “him” that “he” is ready: “let me hear the voice, show me the strut, hack a loogie…” After completing her “masculinity test,” Paul shouts, “I’m so proud!” and the two hug just long enough for “Sebastian” to realize that everyone is staring at the two “boys” hugging, at which point she yells in a manly voice, “ew! Get off me!” (Fickman, 2006, 00:12:15-00:13:45.) This scene is a fairly accurate portrayal of our society’s idea of hegemonic heterosexual masculinity. The argument that Paul and “Sebastian” engage in is the type of quarrel that society would expect two females to appoint, and their hug before “Sebastian” departs is a fairly hegemonic feminine gesture as well. When “Sebastian” realizes that people are overseeing two “boys” hugging, “he” immediately tells Paul to “get off him.” Also, the “masculinity test” that Paul instills consists of behaviors culturally associated with men. (Fickman, 2006.)
While dressed as a boy and sporting a hair-do indicative of a boy, her small stature, feminine features, high-pitched voice, and womanly mannerisms are fairly indicative of a women, and as such, the boys at Illyria high school have a hard time accepting her as the boy, “Sebastian.” As indicated in CJ Pascoe’s essay, “Dude, You’re a Fag,” the sociology of masculinity entails a ‘critical study of men, their behaviors, practices, values and perspectives’” (Pascoe, 2005: 331.) And, further, “recent studies of men emphasize the multiplicity of masculinity (Pascoe, 2005: 331) detailing the ways in which different configurations of gender practice are promoted, challenged or reinforced in given social situations” (Pascoe, 2005: 331.) Before displaying the indicative hegemonic-masculine-heterosexual traits of being in-charge, desired by women, and vulgar (Smith, 2010,) as “Sebastian” did in the restaurant, the Illyria boys believed that “he” was un-cool and unworthy of any sort of friendship. And while Duke and his posse do not explicitly call “Sebastian” “gay,” “homosexual,” or a “fag,” all words, which Pascoe describes as ways to undermine one’s masculinity, it is clear they believe that, unsurprisingly, “Sebastian” is not as masculine as “he” could or maybe should be. While rocky at the start, we increasingly witness “Sebastian” “doing gender,” as described by Candace West and Don Zimmerman. “If we do gender appropriately, we simultaneously sustain, reproduce, and render legitimate the institutional arrangements that are based on sex category. If we fail to do gender appropriately, we as individuals—not the institutional arrangements—may be called into account, for our character, motives, and predispositions.” (West and Zimmerman, 1987: 146.) Throughout the film, we see “Sebastian” frequently interacting with “his” roommate, Duke. While on the surface Duke seems to exude an incredibly tough, ultra-masculine persona, it becomes clear after many conversations with “Sebastian” that he is actually much more sensitive than he seems. He even goes so far as to scold “Sebastian” for being disrespectful when talking about women. At the end of the film, when “Sebastian’s” true identity as Viola is revealed, Duke reveals that had he known she were a girl, he wouldn’t have exposed many of the things he did to her. Viola proceeds to tell him that it was those revealing conversations that made her like him even more, an indication that while “hegemonic masculine heterosexuality” is often perceived to be desirable to women, there are definitely situations in which it is not entirely. Backing up this claim is bell hooks argument in “Seduced By Violence,” in which she says, “when heterosexual women are no longer attracted to “macho” men, the message [‘that women will no longer function within the heterosexist framework, which condones male erotic domination of women’] would at least be consistent and clear… and females would be actively disempowering patriarchy” (hooks, 1994: 356.) Both the film, “She’s the Man” and hooks argue that the hegemonic ideals of masculinity—especially the inclination for men to overshadow other men, while at the same time subordinating women, must be socially reconstructed. Additionally, the hegemonic standards of femininity, the beliefs that women are inferior to men and incapable, must be eliminated as well in order to create a society and culture in which gender-based discrimination no longer exists.
This film is a fantastic representation of the gender roles and expectations our society places on men and women. While the issue of sexual coercion is not substantially present, “She’s the Man” is a fairly good portrayal of Struckman-Johnson et al.’s ideas of level 1 and level 2 sexual coercion tactics. In addition to possible changes to our law enforcement policies, it is clear that changing the ways in which our society views masculinity and femininity is probably the primary, and definitely a key step to diminishing the number of sexual assault incidents. As described in Naomi Wolfs’ essay, “Radical Heterosexuality,” “radical heterosexuality demands substituting choice for dependency” (Wolf, 1992: 361.) She explains that as women, we must fight gender inequality, however, this does not mean that we must abandon our heterosexuality all together (Wolf, 1992: 361.) Again, as stated in Rebecca Brasfield’s, Rereading Sex and the City,” “Sex and the City provides an excellent example of how hegemonic feminism looks, how it thinks, and what it does… ‘White middle-class women unwilling to be treated like second-class citizens in the boardroom, in education, or in bed’” (Brasfield, 2007: 132.) As indicated by these, and many of our other class readings, a very important step to ending sexism, and ultimately, sexual assault in our society would be to dismantle the ever-present gender hierarchy. As a key indicator of our society’s values and interests, it seems as though the media, such as films, should be one of the first industries to be reevaluated. As indicated by Tim Beneke in “Men on Rape,” “Rape signs pervade American culture. One can find them in pornography, advertising, song lyrics, album covers, novels, etc… and there is an important sense in which the rape fantasies of men (and probably women) constitute a kind of rape sign” (Beneke, 1982: 541.) Further, Rebecca Brasfield argues in, “Rereasing Sex and the City,” that “when we fail to critically read and reread media presentations, we run the risk of internalizing and reproducing our own oppression” (Brasfield, 2007: 138.)