Two Modern Films Based on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and the Enduring Theme of Gender Roles

Updated on January 1, 2018
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Jennifer Wilber is a freelance writer from Ohio. She holds a B.A. in Creative Writing and English from Southern New Hampshire University.

The themes of gender roles and relations between the genders have been popular topics throughout history. William Shakespeare explored these themes in many of his plays, including Twelfth Night, and these themes are still very much part of today’s culture. These themes are still so much a part of modern contemporary culture that there are still new works being created based on Shakespeare’s plays, including Twelfth Night. Two such examples of these themes in modern popular culture include the films Motocrossed and She’s the Man. The plots of both of these films follow a young girl who takes on the persona of a male to blend in to a male dominated section of society. Unlike in the original play, however, the stakes are not nearly as high for the girls in either movie as they are for Viola in the original play. In Twelfth Night, Viola presents herself as a man as a matter of survival after her brother’s alleged death.

In Motocrossed, the theme is presented in a similar way as it is in Twelfth Night. The protagonist disguises herself as a male in order to take on a traditionally male role. The protagonist, Andrea, takes on the identity of her brother, Andrew, after he sustains an injury that leaves him unable to participate in his favorite sport, motocross. Andrea disguises herself as Andrew so that she can compete in his place so he won’t lose his ranking. In this disguise, Andrea gains the respect of her peers based on her ability in the sport motocross because they think that she is her brother, much like Viola is able to gain Orsino’s and Olivia’s trust disguised as a male. Like in Twelfth Night, Andrea begins to have romantic feelings for a guy who has enlisted her help in winning over another girl. Because of her disguise, she is at first unable to reveal her feelings (Motocrossed). The idea that one’s gender determines who is a potential romantic partner is present in both Motocrossed and Twelfth Night in much the same way. As soon as the disguised female character is revealed to be a female, she becomes an instant love interest to a male character.

She's the Man

She’s the Man is another film that reinterprets the themes of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night for contemporary audiences. The theme of gender relations is also presented in a similar way in She’s the Man as it is in Twelfth Night. The plot of She’s the Man is also very similar to that of Motocrossed. Each character is named after their counterparts in the original play. Viola wants to play soccer, but the girls team has been cut so she is unable to do so because of her gender. While her twin brother, Sebastian, is out of town, she devises a plan that will allow her to play on the boy’s team in his place. She disguises herself as her brother and takes his place at his school in order to participate in an all-male soccer team. Everyone believes Viola to be Sebastian, including his friends, teachers, coach, girlfriend, and other potential love interests. Because Sebastian’s friend, Duke, believes Viola to be Sebastian, he trusts “him” to help him to win over Olivia, similar to the original play in which Duke Orsino employs Viola as Cesario to “woo” Olivia for him (She’s the Man). Had he known that Viola was really a girl, he likely wouldn’t have asked her to help him with another girl since boys and girls are seen as completely different types of people, which is an idea that was prevalent in Shakespeare’s time as well as in modern society. Once Viola’s identity was revealed, she and Duke became a couple. This is similar to the original play where Orsino fell in love with Viola the instant she was revealed to be a woman. As a girl, Viola became a potential romantic interest in both the original play and in the modern adaptation, She’s the Man.

Differences Between the Films and Twelfth Night

While the theme of gender relations is presented in a very similar way in these two contemporary works, there are some differences to how it is presented in the original play. In both of the contemporary films, the female protagonists disguise themselves as their twin brothers only because they want to compete in male-dominated sports, which the adults around them won’t allow because of their gender (Motocrossed, She’s the Man). In the original play, however, Viola’s disguise is a matter of survival. Viola takes on a male disguise because she believes her brother to be dead and that she wouldn’t be able to find work to survive as a woman. She takes on the persona of a male, not because she thinks she will be able to have more fun as a male, but because she thinks it is the only way she will be able to live (Shakespeare). In Elizabethan culture, women were valued primarily as potential wives and mothers, with little independence. While women are still frequently portrayed as little more than prizes to be won by male characters in today’s media, women do have more independence and are able to work in any type of job. While there are still expectations regarding what kinds of jobs people will take based on their gender, women are able to take on male-oriented jobs with few obstacles in today’s culture. These movies show the difference in the roles of men and women to be mere inconveniences to the girls (who just wanted to play their favorite sports), rather than a matter of life or death as it was with the original Viola.

Scene from Twelfth Night - Francis Wheatley February 1771
Scene from Twelfth Night - Francis Wheatley February 1771

Sources

Motocrossed. Dir. Steve Boyum. By Ann Austen and Douglas Sloan. Perf. Alana Austin, Trever O'Brien, Riley Smith. Disney Channel, 2001. Amazon Video.

Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night, Or, What You Will. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1996. Print.

She's the Man. Dir. Andy Fickman. Prod. Lauren Shuler-Donner and Ewan Leslie. By Ewan Leslie. Perf. Amanda Bynes, Channing Tatum, and Laura Ramsey. DreamWorks Distribution LLC, 2006. DVD.

© 2018 Jennifer Wilber

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