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Gender Ambiguity In Twelfth Night And The Movie She Is The Man

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The play ‘ Twelfth night’ by Shakespeare, makes us question ourselves, is gender really matters? Is gender defining who am I? many questions and ideas spins in my mind while reading this play. Gender ambiguity is one of these ideas. First, I’m going to define what gender ambiguity is, ‘It applies to a person that looks both male and female, in other words u can’t tell which they are. It most commonly occurs when someone is wearing clothing that would be suitable for both males and females, but it is not restricted to this.’ (Urban dictionary), Twelfth Night puts a light on the nature of gender and sexual identity, the play promotes gender ambiguity and sexual duality.

It is important to mention that sexuality and gender trouble were subjects that people in Elizabethan era did not have direct information or deep knowledge of. Casey Charles in his article ‘ Gender Trouble’ said, ‘ Shakespeare play including Twelfth Night, were writing in early modern culture, in which the categories of homo- and bisexuality were neither fixed nor associated with identity’, ‘ Twelfth Night’ is centrally concerned with demonstrating the uncategorical temper of sexual attraction.’ As Charles explains, we can’t label Shakespeare character in a specific category because they are themselves did not know that such thing is exist. However, as modern people who got exposed to such sexuality attraction and got knowledge of, we can understand and try to classify these manners on gender and sexuality attraction.

In Elizabethan era, women were not allowed to act, so male actors were disguising themselves to a woman and play the role as a woman, this action also raises the concept of homosexuality and gender identity. Viola was constructed of three characters, first, the boy who is doing the role of female actress as ‘ Viola’, second, Viola who is disguising as a male, to Orsino. This raises the assumption that gender is really a choice, it is only a chosen role. Anyone can perform this role if he is believing in this role, exactly as the actor believing in himself while acting on the stage. Stephen Orgel said,’ the basic form of response to a theatre is erotic’ (1989,17) so the idea of sexuality ambiguity begins from the theatre stage itself.

Orsino said: ‘one face, one voice, one habit, and two persons,

A natural perspective, that is and is not. (5.1.214-215) ‘

From Orsino’s words, it can be understood as Shakespeare sending a message, that human does not have to label themselves in a specific gender, a human has two identities in his inner self, masculine and feminine. This idea actually corresponds with William W.E. Slights article ‘ Maid and Man’,’ … In the union of a man and a woman in the enterprise of loving'(327). This classic myth of the Androgynous is showed in Plato’s Symposium. ‘half male, half female. The males were said to have descended from the sun, the females from the earth and the androgynous couples from the moon. These creatures tried to scale the heights of Olympus and planned to set upon the gods (190b-c). Zeus thought about blasting them with thunderbolts but did not want to deprive himself of their devotions and offerings, so he decided to cripple them by chopping them in half, in effect separating the two bodies.'( Wikipedia, Symposium -Plato) “their punishment at the hand of Zeus was to be sliced in half, like an egg or apple, the severed skin being pulled together by a sort of pucker string at the belly-button” (Charles 331) In this case, Viola and Sebastian are a perfect example of this myth, In addition according to this myth, humans should not classify themselves as male and female. A female can have in her inner self male qualities and male merits, and it applies on males also, they can have female qualities inside of them. Charles in his article commented on Butler’s statement,’ Her attack on the concept of biological inherence is followed by an equally strong indictment of the ‘ metaphysics of gender substance ‘- the unproblematic claim that a subject can choose a gendered identity, that the self ‘ can be woman ‘ or a man. (21)

Viola’s gender duality caused both Orsino and Olivia to fall in love with ‘ her’, she describes herself as ‘poor monster’, as Charles said, ‘unnatural prodigies (P.127), Viola is confessing to herself that she is a ‘ monster’. Viola knows that this gender duality is not something normal, she is admitting of her hermaphrodite.

‘ Thou shalt present me as a eunuch to him.’ (1.2.51-54) Viola said. At this point she is not defining herself as a young boy, nor a girl, she starts to recognize and define herself as a person who has an exceptional quality. Moreover, she defines herself as a rid of her sexuality not only as a female figure disguising to a young male, but she also got rid of something valuable for each male in order to gain peace. Viola sharpness gained her survival by erasing all Orison’s doubts about her/him being an opposition for Olivia’s heart.

When Viola meets Olivia, she does everything and says everything to make her fall in love with Orsino, but she did not expect that Olivia will fall in love her – Cesario.

This is an example of Viola’s charisma and wittiness, ‘ Olivia’s desire for Viola becomes apparent as a response to this speech and is inspirable, in its articulation form the material expression of belief that would exempt the unknown stranger from providing the heraldic display that would put ‘ his’ gentility beyond doubt…’

“What is your parentage?”

“Above my fortunes, yet my state is well.

265I am a gentleman.” I’ll be sworn thou art;

Thy tongue, thy face, thy limbs, actions, and spirit,

Do give thee fivefold blazon. Not too fast! Soft, soft!

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Unless the master were the man. (1.5.293.-98) (On not being deceived)

Olivia has fallen in love with Cesario, she adored his androgynous look, she did not care about all men who tried to win her heart. This make us also questioning Olivia’s sexuality, she loved how Cesario talks to her, how he perceives her, he talks to her and respects her intellectual self. She does not need someone to praise her for her beauty nor someone bragging about his wealth. As Casey Charles said,’ Olivia immediately catches the plague of lovesickness, a sickness which, from the point of view of gendered identity in the play, casts her as an unwitting lesbian.'(p. 131)

I am all the daughters of my father’s house,’

And all the brothers too–and yet I know not.'(2.4.120-121)

Viola combines her two gender identities by saying that she is the daughter and the brother too, she can be both, it is changeable, she can change and switch to the other gender. Viola also means here that she can combine the two gender qualities into one, she can format a character which have a mix from both genders. Although this is considered outstanding and great, but it stands in the face of her romantic life, she can’t confess to Orsino about her emotions because it will be awkward.

Elizabethan women role in society was very limited. The male took control on almost everything, without the women’s involvement. Men were considered leaders while women are inferiors, ‘ Women were not allowed to enter the professions i.e. law, medicine, politics, but they could work in domestic service as cooks, maids etc. Women were also allowed to write works of literature, providing the subject was suitable for women: mainly translations or religious works. Women were not allowed to act on the public stage or write for the public stage. Acting was considered dishonorable for women and women did not appear on the stage in England until the seventeenth century. In Shakespeare’s plays, the roles of women were often played by young boys.'(Elizabethan Women, Women in Tudor History.) We can understand that the status of women was very low. Gender roles during the Elizabethan era were clearly defined, Men had a huge influence over women. While a man was the only breadwinner of the house, a woman at that time was only expected to take care of the household; to stay at home and manage the domestic duties in the house and take care of the children. The Elizabethan women was taught from her childhood on domestic duties and how to manage a house, it was a necessary part of her childhood, in addition, girls were taught obedience and showing respect. The idea of teaching this to girls was to prepare her for marriage. Casey Charles claims that the misogyny against women was very common in Elizabethan era. The laws and restrictions on women job were to build a masculine society ran by men. They hid the truth that male and females are equivalent,’ a decided anxiety about what is feared to be the actual fluidity of gender.” (Charles, p.124), ‘ Commenters like Thomas Lacquer have argued convincingly that sixteenth century anatomist viewed female gentile as merely an inverted male penis.'(Charles P.124) This indicates to the way the two gender are being classified by tasks, behavior and roles in society is only stems from cultural and traditions, but the actual hidden truth is that males and females are equal.

The concept of gender is still debatable in our modern society, and still people have diverse opinions about it. Some of the society are believing in homosexuality and sexual duality, but some are against.

The movie ‘ She is The Man’ is an appropriation for Shakespeare’s play ‘ Twelfth Night’, it presents an issue that Shakespeare himself presented in his plays, an issue that still prominent even in our days in 21th century. It is true that the movie is an appropriation for the play, and that both return to a different period. There are many things which went on a drastic change, but there are things that won’t change, like how society looks and perceive gender.

Viola in the movie succeeded in playing masculine role because she chose to, she believed in that role and convinced her inner self about her new identity. Viola is a great contemporary example about gender ambiguity. Elizabeth J. Meyer in her article, Deconstructing the Gender and Sexuality Curriculum at ‘Hollywood High’ says,’ … illuminates how same-gender desire is marked as scary, gross or threatening and is to be avoided at all costs.’ She continues ‘ using same – gender desire as a comic device that encourages the audience to laugh at these situations exposes the homophobia in the text.’ The purpose of these movies is to show a negative picture of homophobia, that it is unnecessary, funny and gross.

Another example of gender restriction by society is when Duke confesses to Viola that he can’t speak to a girl, Duke is raised on masculine concepts, he is not raised on expressing emotions and showing love because he is a man. Society still teaches men on not crying, nor expressing emotions because it is feminine thing.

We see this when Viola and Duke were talking, and Duke said to Viola:’ Shut up! I’m not blushing!’ Duke fears of how Society might look at him, it is almost like a disgrace if a man showed emotions. This is how society’s laws and cultural traditions restricts gender and prevents gender ambiguity.

‘Inside every girl there is a boy’ This is what Viola’s friend told her, he confirms the statement about ‘gender ambiguity’ and he puts a light on it. Inside every one of us there is the opposite gender. Gender is a choice, it is not biological, it’s more social and it is in the hand of society and culture. This point is more assertive when Olivia was attracted to Sebastian/ Viola. Her admiration was not physically but it was to Viola’s inner self. She loved the way he speaks, acts and moves. This means that we as humans fall for someone’s performance, not to what he looks like nor his gender. The play and the movie draw in front of our eyes the gender complexion and puts a light on things which I previously did not notice. Although the concept of Homophobia’ wasn’t known in the time of Shakespeare but now we can relate to it because it is relevant to our days now.

The fact that Viola was constructed from three characters; the male actor, Viola itself, and Sebastian her brother raises a question about the play being about sexuality ambiguity. Viola in both the play and the movie proves that gender is only a choice, it something that was determined by the society and traditions, but certainty it is something we can determined, we can choose how to act, how to look and how to appear and most importantly we can determine our gender and sexuality.

Humans labeled themselves under the name of gender and classified what each gender should do and should not do in order to men get control over women, and to have a society ruled by men. However, men’s and women’s qualities are equivalent, each gender can behave and perform as the other gender easily, it is ‘as something changeable as clothes’.

Most importantly, inside every one of us lays down the opposite sex, it is only activated when we want to, it is a choice, we can decide which gender we are but only in believing in the other gender. The prove for this statement is how Viola succeeded in acting and performing the other gender without being noticed.

Work Cited

  1. Charles, Casey. “Gender Trouble in ‘Twelfth Night.’” Theatre Journal, vol. 49, no. 2, 1997, pp. 121–141. JSTOR,
  2. Meyer, Elizabeth J. “CHAPTER 15: ‘She’s the Man’: Deconstructing the Gender and Sexuality Curriculum at ‘Hollywood High.’” Counterpoints, vol. 392, 2011, pp. 231–245. JSTOR,
  3. Slights, William W. E. “‘Maid and Man’ in ‘Twelfth Night.’” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol. 80, no. 3, 1981, pp. 327–348. JSTOR,
  4. “Elizabethan Women.” Queen Elizabeth 1,

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Gender Ambiguity In Twelfth Night And The Movie She Is The Man. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 9, 2022, from
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