The first time I watched 10 Things I Hate about You (1999) I was a sophomore in high school at a sleepover with some friends. We were scrolling through Netflix and it seemed interesting enough; little did I know that by the end my friends would be content while I sat there angry and perplexed. This event coincided with my burgeoning feminism therefore I was biased (and still am) but this gave me a lens that exposed many of the movie’s flaws. Upon watching it again I can’t say that my view has improved, especially since most revere it without being aware of the harmful messages it sends. It seems as if Heath Ledger distracts them from the fact that the conflict is solved by a young woman subduing her own opinions (many of which aren’t problematic in the first place) and becoming less autonomous.
Many probably know that the movie is based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, falling into the Shakespeare play-turned-teen-movie trend that was prevalent in the late 90s. It was a strange phenomenon that turned out some great movies like Romeo + Juliet (1996) but also some that are truly bizarre like Never Been Kissed (1996) and 10 Things. In a way it makes sense that you would adapt Shakespeare’s plays with a teen cast since many of his comedies involved adolescents. Plus high school as a setting is fitting for absurd drama, making the choice doubly advantageous.
What baffles me is that out of all Shakespeare’s plays, The Taming of the Shrew was chosen to adapt. Not only is it one of his earlier works but it also has a very problematic theme: that it’s acceptable for an unconventional woman to be verbally and physically abused in order for her to become socially acceptable. There were 14 remaining Shakespearean comedies that could’ve been chosen for an adaptation, so why this one? In the play not only does Petruchio deceive Katherina by posing as someone who he isn’t but after they’re married he withholds food and water from her while contradicting everything she says. Keep in mind that this is all for comedic effect. By the end of the play the audience learns that Katherina has been “tamed” and she gives a nauseating speech which boils down to “women make sure you don’t have opinions and never question your husband”. Even people in Shakespeare’s day did not react to the play favorably, this is evidenced by the sequel A Tamer Tamed which was written by a different playwright and involved Petruchio becoming tamed by his second wife.
Now there are some who read the play as satire, especially since there’s a framing device in which the main story is being told to a drunken man, leading some to conclude that the story is intentionally poor. Some scholars also say that since Shakespeare was not this misogynistic in his subsequent plays, it’s obvious that he’s condemning Petruchio’s acts. Yet many of Shakespeare’s earlier plays were somewhat sexist in the depiction of their female characters, many being vapid or one dimensional. This is outlined in the book Women of Will: Following the Feminine in Shakespeare’s Plays by Tina Packer. She chronicles how Shakespeare wrote more developed female characters as he got older, a turning point being visible around Romeo and Juliet.
One of the largest problems with 10 Things is that it gets rid of the framing device altogether and although it is a comedy, we’re meant to take its message seriously. The movie could’ve taken the sartorial subtext that some interpret in The Taming of the Shrew and fleshed that out in a high school setting. Instead the writers misinterpreted aspects of the source material and decided to make the modern version of Katherina an angry feminist. Though both of these things can, and do, exist separately of one another, it was an easy trope to adopt because by the late 90s many believed they were living in a postfeminist society. Not only was it believed that feminists had achieved all their goals but also that any who dared to complain about sexism were playing the victim card. Sound familiar? The misandristic slant the media used to characterize the Riot Grrrl movement was still present in the popular consciousness, making it even easier to paint Kat as a man-hater with her indie girl music and Sylvia Plath books.
The movie has a lot of recognizable 90s staples, from the alternative rock music to the scribbled font used for the title card. Music itself acts as the narrator in this movie, though sometimes it can be blatantly obvious (“Bad Reputation” by Joan Jett comes on when Kat pulls up in her car next to some popular girls). We first see Kat defying convention by ripping down a prom poster as she walks into school. Though this establishes her character fairly quick, we go on to learn that this movie isn’t going to handle her with much nuance. Later it’s revealed that she’s rebellious because earlier in high school her popular boyfriend was pressuring her to have sex and she refused. From then on she decided she would never do anything just because people wanted her to. Her reasoning is entirely valid so it doesn’t make sense that the movie paints her as someone antagonistic who needs to change. Especially since it seems like she’s being a rebel just for the sake of it, rather than depicting her as a person who acts on her convictions. She’s rebellious in all the ways the writers could think of, as if they made a list of things (plays loud music, hits people’s cars, rips down posters, is a vocal feminist) and dumped them all into one character.
Though she can be annoying and prickly, most of the time when Kat speaks up she does have something interesting to say. In her English class she is quick to condemn Hemingway for being misogynistic and asks her teacher why they can’t read something from a female author like Sylvia Plath, Charlotte Bronte, or Simone de Beauvoir. Although she gets chided by the male students in the back of the room, she does have a decent point. Classic literature that’s taught in high school classrooms is often by predominantly white male authors. I didn’t even know who Simone de Beauvoir and Charlotte Bronte were until I started reading their books on my own. After Kat tells the black teacher this he remarks that her middle class suburban oppression must be difficult. This does highlight Kat’s lack of an intersectional lens when it comes to her feminism. She didn’t name any female writers of color and it’s easy to see why her teacher is annoyed by her privilege.
The truly odd thing about this movie is that although it condemns Kat for being a feminist, the best parts of the movie have qualities that a feminist would praise. Patrick (although deceitful) makes for a charismatic love interest who actually cares about Kat and sees her virtues. Kat’s sister Bianca learns that she doesn’t have to conform to other people’s expectations and becomes a better person because of it. But with Kat after she dances drunk on a table and then flashes a teacher we’re supposed to be happy that she “loosened up”? Though her romance with Patrick is sweet, there’s not enough time at the end of the movie for the problem of his deception be resolved. He sings on the bleachers to get her to go to prom with him but once she finds out he’s lying the next time we see them together she’s reading him a poem even though he hasn’t apologized. That poem in itself has issues “I hate the way you’re always right” this coming from a woman who just learned that the guy she was going out with was lying to her the whole time? Then he buys her a guitar and it’s all good? I guess this is the writers ideas of the “reformed feminist” who got rid of all her opinions in order to change into a “normal” woman.
The show Daria is a good example of writers succeeding where the ones in 10 Things failed. It has similar characterizations (rebellious older sister, vain younger one, stressed father) and is able to handle its main character with much more respect and nuance. Daria is misanthropic and defies convention (some might even say a feminist), but the show demonstrates how this isn’t wholly a bad thing. Students and adults around her are often clueless and like Kat, Daria prefers to read classic literature and spend time on her own. Though she’s not without her flaws (sometimes she’s too cynical and would rather complain than change things) the writers were able to handle this in a subtle way. She’s not condemned because she’s a feminist or because she expresses her opinion, but because of her own personal insecurities. This makes for a more compelling character.
Although there are elements I like about 10 Things, it’s hard to get past the fact that it handles its main character in a contradictory and offensive way. Although the movie condemns the angry feminist by making her shut up, the fact that people viewed the movie positively and continue to do so proves that feminism is something that we still need. We’ve come a far way from The Taming of the Shrew but it may not be as far as we think.