Rearview Mirror: “She’s the Man”

Looking back on a (sadly) bygone lit-adaptation teen movie tradition via a staple of the genre that probably couldn’t have been made today.

Welcome to Rearview Mirror, a monthly movie column in which I re-view and then re-review a movie I have already seen under the new (and improved?) critical lens of 2021. I’m so happy you’re here.

She’s the Man was gold. I don’t think there’s much debate about that. Eunice, the gouda, the tampons, that GIF of Amanda Bynes chewing with her mouth full. The catty, superficial, almost disgusting, but endlessly quotable “Girls with asses like mine do not talk to boys with faces like yours.” The better, smarter, kinder and truer retort: “When I close my eyes, I see you for what you truly are…which is ugly!” Do I need to explain more? It’s Twelfth Night at boarding school, plus soccer. It was a sleepover staple, and deserving of the honor.

But 2006 was a different time. It was the year that gave us Channing Tatum, who starred as the hunk both in this and a little film called Step Up. But it was also fifteen years of cultural conversations ago. In light of recent legislation and debate over trans kids’ participation in gendered sports, the plot has somehow both lower and higher stakes—on the one hand, who cares if Viola wants to play soccer “with the boys?” Gender is a spectrum! On the other, her fear of being outed, the potential violence of her being discovered in the boys’ dormitory bathroom, is less a relic of Shakespeare’s time and more an issue of our own. But I am not the person to do a trans close-read or interpretation of this or any text; I only bring it up to say that no, you really couldn’t, and maybe shouldn’t, make this movie now.

And I’ll posit a more sweeping generalization: they don’t make a teen comedy like they used to. There was a time when every work of classic literature got the high school treatment. Othello (O), Taming of the Shrew (10 Things I Hate About You), Emma (Clueless), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Get Over It), Pygmalion (She’s All That), Cinderella (A Cinderella Story), The Merry Wives of Windsor (John Tucker Must Die), and, finally, Twelfth Night were all grist for the teen rom-com mill. But since 2010’s Easy A, I can’t think of an example that went anywhere. So let’s talk for a second about Easy A.

Having made her teen comedy bones in Superbad, Easy A launched Emma Stone to stardom for a performance that holds up as well as, well, Amanda Bynes’ in She’s the Man. Bynes has a major supporting role in the flick too, as the pious Christian who nearly slut-shames Olive (Stone) out of school. Though by then, Stone had been playing a teen for so long, she wasn’t quite believable as someone who had a combination locker. This was three years after Sydney White, another adaptation, which was set at college. I won’t go too far into the “what became of Bynes and her career of it all” conversation except to say that A) I wish her the very best and B) when She’s the Man came out, she was poised to rule the world. Look at her staring down the barrel on the cover of Vanity Fair in 2003. She wasn’t screwing around.

But back to Easy A, which is quite good. Based oh-so-loosely on The Scarlet Letter, it’s more of a love letter to the John Hughes teen movies of the ’80s. And in retrospect, it was the last of the big teen comedies, at least for a while, because two years later the studios launched a much more lucrative path to selling female adolescent coming-of-age: The Hunger Games. Which begat Divergent, which begat Beautiful Creatures. Actually, you can argue it started earlier, right between She’s the Man and Easy A, with 2008’s Twilight. Suddenly there was just no money in a high school (or high school–age dystopia equivalent) movie that wasn’t also a book, clothing line, and Universal ride.

I hope that when every last drop has been wrung from the paranormal romances and comic book adaptations and dystopian thrillers and whatever Booksmart was, that we will once again see something that maybe looks something like She’s the Man.

Which is not to say that there haven’t been teen comedies in the decade since. Many of them have been movies about teens, but, in fact, geared toward adults who remember being a teen (Lady Bird, Eighth Grade, The Edge of Seventeen), or are more straightforward love stories (The Fault in Our Stars, To All the Boys), or put diversity front and center (Love, Simon, The Half of It—a Cyrano adaptation!). Which is also not to say that there’s anything wrong with any of those projects, and I certainly hope we never return to the days of token Black best friends and quirky gay-coded sidekicks. But in terms of big, sunny, funny high school flicks I grew up on, they’ve all been shunted to Netflix and are, I’m sorry to say, not very good (looking at you, The Kissing Booth).

Whither the She’s the Mans of the movie landscape? The goofy ball-busters and makeover montages set to iconically cheesy singles and the bitchy-bitches that don’t get a redemption arc because, dear lord, not everything needs to teach us the healing power of empathy? I don’t weep for Gen Z—they know how to torrent She’s the Man if they want to, heaven knows—but I do hope that when every last drop has been wrung from the paranormal romances and comic book adaptations (Spider-Man was solid, but your fandoms are getting to be kind of a lot, TikTok!) and dystopian thrillers and whatever Booksmart was (Feminism? Friendship? Quirky and gay, but also goofy and feminist? No shade, just seemed more like a cool project than a thing a teen would be into, but I could be wrong), that we will once again see something that maybe looks something like She’s the Man. Because it’s gold, I tell you.

Anyway, I’m writing a high school movie. FL


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