Gender roles in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Fickman’s She’s the Man

Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is adapted into Fickman’s She’s the Man which further explores the key concerns of love and gender roles presented in the original text. The change in form from play to film alters the way that these ideas are presented and the changed audience also impacts the transformation of the text. The different ways in which these texts exhibit male and female stereotypes, social norms and the multiplicities of love through a variety of literary devices and film techniques illustrates the impact of form on how meaning is conveyed. The depiction of Olivia in She’s the Man as the pinnacle feminine character wearing tight dresses, make-up and having long blonde hair aims to portray her as an antithesis of Viola but also in the process, this emphasis of her muliebrity loses the forthright and strong demeanour she maintained in Twelfth Night. Olivia’s strength in Twelfth Night seen through her announcing herself into seclusion as a nun for “seven years” and her “smooth, discreet, and stable bearing” characterises her against the prototypical woman of Shakespearian time which instead would be obedient and behaviour in a restricted manner, not ruled by her emotions. This quality of Olivia adds layers of depth to her character but her rejection of the societal roles and expectations imposed on her, particularly through marrying a man of lower class, is lost in She’s the Man as Olivia falls directly into her stereotypical role as the prized female character and the change in context loses the difference in class aspect to her relationship with Sebastian.
On the contrary, in both texts Olivia is presented as an “obsessed love-struck teenager”, sighing of how “wonderful” Sebastian is in She’s the Man and exclaiming in Twelfth Night her desire “would they were blanks, rather than filled with me!” This utter infatuation comments on the nature of women and love, misogynistically suggesting that women need men as they always talk about them, cry over them and fight over them as seen in particular in the scene in She’s the Man where Viola, Olivia and Monique all fight over men at the Debutante practice session. This scene is made comical and demeaning with the film’s use of Bizet’s classical piece of music Carmen which heavily contrasts the heavy metal music used in male fight scenes which attribute a serious atmosphere and a sense of power to the men. This ultimately delineates the different treatment and view of women in society as opposed to men. Lastly, to juxtapose Viola in She’s the Man, Fickman aligns Olivia with the stereotype of the perfect woman to accentuate Viola’s struggle to fit in with the oppressive gender norms of her time. Viola’s passion for soccer and her tomboyish nature depicted in her “total lack of curves” and unlady-like behaviour of spitting out popcorn and having to be told to “chew like [she] has a secret” further illustrate the fact that she is not a woman when disguising herself as her twin brother Sebastian. Her disinterest in feminine activities like the debutante ball which her mother desperately tries to involve her in with “pink ruffled dresses” and which Olivia clearly embraces depicts the gender expectations of women, however this is not explored in the original text Twelfth Night as instead of a conflict of gender roles, Viola disguises herself as a man in order to operate in the foreign country of Illyria and become the Duke’s pageboy Cesario which would be denied of her if she presented herself as a woman. Although these are different circumstances that Viola must become a man, the underlying reason for this disguise, whether it be to play soccer or enter society freely, illustrates society’s misogyny towards women and the denial of women from being able to truly be themselves.
Unlike Twelfth Night, the film adaptation She’s the Man ceases the opportunity to discuss the gender roles of men as well as women through Viola impersonating her brother in an overly exaggerated male depiction which causes the audience to question what it truly means to be a man or woman as the exemplar stereotypes are challenged throughout the film. Fickman’s cinematography and use of mis en scene, all the elements of composition in a particular frame, are utilised strategically to establish the behaviour of men and further differentiate Viola from them, highlighting the distinction between gender. This is seen in particular when Viola first enters the boy’s dormitory in her disguise as Sebastian where all the boys behind her are throwing footballs, shouting, playing with silly string and running around in a sporadic manner. This scene sets up our expectations of what boys are meant to be for the rest of the film, and they heavily contribute to Viola’s interpretation of masculinity and therefore make her disguise the quintessential stereotype of a man. We see however, that despite Viola’s understanding of this stereotype her character of Sebastian repetitively saying “bro”, “homie” and “dawg” while being disrespectful to women with phrases like “I’d tap that” and in a kind of masculine demonstration at the restaurant Cesario’s, elucidates that these stereotypes or gender norms we are exposed to are in no way realistic but false and illusory exaggerations. Beyond this, Duke who appears to be the ideal man, is however like Viola who doesn’t align with feminine gender norms, failing to fit into his masculine gender roles as he is “sensitive” and a “man with real feelings”.
Like Twelfth Night, in She’s the Man Fickman explores the multiplicities of love, primarily being homosexual love, unrequited love and true love. The homoerotic subtext presented through the gender ambiguity of each text between Duke Orsino and Cesario/Sebastian and Olivia and Cesario/Sebastian communicate the confusing nature of love and attraction especially when one’s true identity is concealed. These elements of homosexual love are however only hinted at and not explicitly analysed considering the political contexts of both Twelfth Night and She’s the Man as despite She’s the Man being a more modern text, the homosexuality is still subdued and treated as awkward and “a little weird”, with the ending, like the original text, having purely heterosexual couple pairings like Viola and Duke, Olivia and Sebastian, Toby and Eunice and Justin and Monique result. In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare to a large extent uses poetry and free verse to examine the nature of love as through Duke Orsino’s lamentations “if music be the food of love; play on” he creates imagery and a kind of literal meaning of love being a sweet yet sorrowful sentiment which contrasts the primarily visual techniques used to convey meaning in She’s the Man.
Through comparing the discussion of gender roles and the nature of love in Twelfth Night and She’s the Man, we see how form influences and contributes new layers of meaning to the text through varying literary techniques, characterisations and film techniques.