In 1999 Hollywood achieved peak teen film. It was known as 10 Things I Hate About You. It featured young Heath Ledger, Julia Stiles and Joseph Gordon Levitt, plus the always delightful Allison Janney and was a modern update on a Shakespearean classic. It was everything pre-2000 America wanted and it gave us an iconic “big gesture” scene in the form of the bleachers serenade. We had only fond memories, so of course, we decided to hold it up to a modern, feminist lens and see what shook loose. S, take us away.
S: B, you forgot to mention that this movie is also our imagined prequel to 500 Days of Summer – Cameron (JGL) grows up, inexplicably changes his name (maybe spurred by a restraining order from a future object of his affection?) and continues putting women on pedestals – and also to the Bourne movies – Kat (Julia Stiles) gets recruited to Langley from Sarah Lawrence, learns to channel her anger into espionage, changes her name because she’s a straight-up spy, and keeps having run-ins with some dude named Jason.
Oh wait…omigod. I just figured out something else! 😱😱😱 Maybe Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger) goes through some sort of trauma post-high school and he spins out and becomes – wait for it – THE JOKER!!! Which makes 10 Things I Hate About You ALSO a The Dark Knight prequel. This movie has layers.
Before you accuse me of going off on a tangent that has nothing to do with feminist analysis of this movie, let’s get back to one of the points made in my only slightly tangential rant.
Cameron, we have beef.
I see what you are doing, movie producers, in casting Joseph Gordon “Look at My Puppy Dog Eyes You Can’t Look Away” Levitt in this role. We are to believe that Cameron is a hopeless romantic. We are to be on his side. We are to ooh and ahh and swoon and say to our girlfriends as we leave the theater, “why can’t [insert name of boy we dated in the late 90s] be more like that?”
I’m not on board.
Cameron puts women on pedestals. It’s a problem. To Cameron, women are not his equal. Women are not real people with real feelings and real intellect. Women are prizes to be won. His love for Bianca is not based on friendship, trust and mutual understanding. Instead, it’s based on her looks and his idealized image of who she is. And Cameron’s behavior is downright creepy. First, he lies about knowing the French language, just to get close to her (creepy. and also, rude!). Then, he helps Padua High School’s resident sexual predator, Joey, prey on Bianca (creepy) in order to get Joey to pay Patrick to date her sister, Kat (double creepy). When Bianca then shows interest in Joey, and not Cameron, Cameron is furious at her (uber creepy). After all, he is the one who put her on a pedestal (that she neither asked, nor wanted to be put on) and proved his love for her. Doesn’t she owe him her affection? Big. Fat. Nope.
Because this is a teen movie (and also a re-imagining of a Shakespeare comedy), the guy gets the girl in the end. But at what cost? I fear for poor Bianca when the reality of who she is does not align with Cameron’s idealized version of who she should be. Sometimes you just want to wear the same pajamas all weekend long, forget to shower, watch bad reality TV, be a dick because you’re in a bad mood, and still be loved. Can Bianca do that? I fear that she’s found herself a relationship where she can never truly be herself, but instead, has to live up to the idealized expectations of her “hopeless romantic” boyfriend.
(Semi-related, it’s worth hitting Google and reading some of the articles on the interwebs re: why chivalry is a bad thing. As the mom of a boy, I enjoyed this take on why you shouldn’t teach your son to be chivalrous.)
Though I contend that Cameron and Cameron-like characters (cough, 500 Days of Summer, cough) are highly problematic, this film is also chock full of characters who got a resounding “yass!!!” from me. B, who were your faves?
B: Before I get into my non-problematic favs, an aside about Cameron. Ouch, S, ouch. There’s still a part of me that falls pretty much directly into those JGL eyes, here and in 500 Days of Summer. Every bit of your point is valid, but I won’t pretend that 11-year-old Brooke isn’t devastated. 29-year-old Brooke is still low-key sad that four-years of high school French never once afforded the opportunity to demand someone ask her out in a foreign tongue.
But I digress, I’m here to do my own take on the 10 Things We Don’t Hate, Not Even A Little Bit, Not Even At All, About Kat. Kat Stratford, “the Shrew” she’s dubbed. So, of course, that difficult woman is our queen. With her classic car, her affinity for Angry Girl Music of the Indie Rock persuasion and her dedication to subverting expectations she might have been a manic pixie dream girl in a picture that cared less for her, but in 10 Things I Hate About You, she’s the sharp-tongued, intellectual, feminist match that sends even bad-ass Patrick Verona head-over-heels and the Joey “Eat Me” Donners of the world scurrying for cover.
While Bianca pines for a night of teenage normalcy (fair and totally understandable), Kat longs to get out and away, to become her own woman off on the east coast. She has her father as flabbergasted as she does most of the men around her and she’s gloriously self-possessed even before she’s earned a diploma. She’s the hero this picture desperately needs to keep it from veering into a regrettable interpretation of the Bard’s work. And may I say, while S built out our fan theory about the unofficial-official sequels to this picture, I started one of my own that says this: ol’ Willy Shakespeare knew how to write a woman who was truly the equal of her lover.
I mean, Kat had me signed, sealed and delivered not 10 minutes into this picture. Between her Hemingway rant and the defense she makes of said rant, “Expressing my opinion is not a terrorist action,” she proves early on that she’s the woke bae of Padua.
And while we’re on the subject of Kat’s visits to the guidance counselor, I don’t know that I can say that she does much for the feminist cause, but I have to give a shout out to Allison Janney as Miss Perky. There’s a woman I would have gone out of my way to visit. Okay, S, let’s talk about Patrick Verona, is he a stud worthy of our main gal, Kat?
S: I have very mixed feelings about our pal Patrick Verona…which I now plan to explore in detail in a list I’ve entitled “10 Things I Hate (and Love) About Patrick Verona.”
- Hate: The fact that he was down…at all…with accepting payment to take out a girl.
- Love: The bleachers serenade.
- Hate: The gaslighting of Kat when she (rightfully) questioned his intentions.
- Love: I think I prefer a raven-haired Heath Ledger to the blonde we know and love.
- Hate: “So, I’m supposed to buy her some noodles and a book and sit around listening to chicks who can’t play their instruments” (To be clear, I take issue with the use of the word “chicks” and the assumption that angry girl rock musicians don’t know how to play.)
- Love: He doesn’t take it easy on Kat when playing paintball. #equality
- Hate: “Someone still has her panties in a twist.”
- Love: He uses his earnings from the whole sordid affair to buy Kat a sweet, sweet axe.
- Hate: Presumably, he pretended a bratwurst was his junk in front of a group of freshman girls. Classy.
- Love: He wouldn’t kiss Kat when she was drunk.
My verdict? No, Patrick circa 1999 is not worthy of the feminist icon that is Kat Stratford. His willingness to participate in the “guy takes payment/makes a bet/does some other godawful thing and then falls in love” trope, his language when speaking about the ladies and his sausage-based harassment of 14-year-olds all smack of immaturity and misogyny.
However, I do think he could become a man that is deserving of her love. His refusal to kiss inebriated Kat speaks to his regard for consent, and his choice to spend the money he earned to help her achieve her dream of starting a band shows that he is redeemable. Get this kid to read that copy of The Feminine Mystique and banish a few key phrases from his lexicon and we may have ourselves a worthy suitor.
And now, B, I’m curious to hear your take on Mr. Stratford. What impact has this overprotective obstetrician had on his daughters’ lives?
B: I am so pleased you brought it around to Mr. Stratford, but before I get into my thoughts on that particular patriarch, I do have to impart a sort-of defense of our pal, Patrick. We only know that the bratwurst bit happened in front of the lunch lady who wasn’t there for it (hence his appearance in Perky’s office) and not necessarily freshman girls, but either way, it was in poor taste.
Okay, back to Papa Stratford. Here’s a guy who seriously, seriously needs to rethink some things, namely the degree to which he attempts to control his daughters. Sure, as a man who is “up to his elbows in placenta all day,” he is keenly aware of the teen pregnancy rate, but instead of educating his daughters about birth control, he just decides to make a blanket declaration that they can’t date until they’ve graduated from high school. This is a wildly unreasonable decision, mainly because you don’t have to be dating anyone to get pregnant. I’ll say it once more for the old man who makes his daughters wear a fake pregnancy belly to “feel the full weight of their decisions” — YOU 👏 CAN 👏 HAVE 👏 SEX 👏 WITHOUT 👏 DATING 👏. Listen, I’m not saying that many high school girls are more keen on just getting it in rather than making a go at a first epic love, but this rule has an absolutely gaping loophole. And just in case we thought this rule had anything to do with his daughters and not his need for control, this early exchange clears everything up.
Kat: Stop making my decisions for me.
Mr. Stratford: I’m your father, that’s my right.
And while part of me would sorely like to consider the topic of Mr. Stratford done and dusted, I have to say that he comes around. It’s a satisfying moment of character development to see Mr. Stratford crack a smile as Kat tells him Bianca has run off with a bunch of bikers, “Big ones. Full of sperm.” And further to hear him say that he’s impressed when he learns that Bianca took a page out of her sister’s book and punched the grin right off of Joey Donner’s face. In a schmaltzy, but no less endearing chat, Mr. Stratford explains that he was the worst because he was scared by how strong and self-assured Kat was, but as he explains that he’s sent a check to Sarah Lawrence, it’s clear he’s come around to a new way of thinking. For all of that, I’d Mr. Stratford’s journey earns him a pass. He wasn’t always the dad he should have been, but he’s trying, and that counts for something.
S, I daresay I sense some stray observations in our near future, but before we get there, talk to me about Bianca. What do we make of Kat’s desirable little sister?
S: You do keep giving me the toughies, B. I also have mixed feelings about Bianca, which are mostly wrapped up in my uncertainty about the moral of her story. At the beginning of the movie, Bianca is basically, well, basic. If she’d been born a decade and a half later, she’d profess her love for Uggs instead of Skechers and have a PSL in hand 24/7. Over the course of the film, she undergoes a transformation, taking a page from big sister’s book and beginning to think for herself. Cut to Bianca spurning the popular crowd in favor of JGL and a boat, brushing off her friend who clearly does not know the meaning of “sisters before misters,” and slugging Joey Donner in his oh-so-punchable face.
Here’s where I’m not sure what to think. Though Bianca is clearly learning valuable lessons from her feminist guru of a sister, her 10 Things storyline would certainly not pass the Bechdel test, and the boy she chooses in the end is the guy who spends the entire film projecting his unrealistic expectations onto her. But, here’s the thing. It’s high school, and didn’t we all make terrible decisions in high school? Ultimately, I think Bianca has promise. Get this girl a hobby that has nothing to do with boys, a new girl group with more supportive friends, and a subscription to Sassy magazine, and she’ll be just fine.
Hey B, hit me with your stray observations, then we’ll do some math.
B: I’ll start my stray observations with a pair of confessions. 1. I have never heard of Sassy magazine and feel that I’ve really missed something. 2. I spent more time than I care to admit trying to think of a good Shakespeare reference to kickstart this list and I failed miserably. Failing anything of true wit, I’ll just get into it:
- As a professional word person, I am forever upset that Bianca and Chastity’s conversation about simply being “whelmed” always makes a certain kind of sense to me.
- I looked up the Taming of the Shrew character list, and Bianca doesn’t have a gal pal in the play … is it a bit too much that her (created for the film) DTF pal is named Chastity?
- Why did our high school not look anything like a castle?
- I probably owe the music director of this picture a thank you for helping me find my way to “angry girl music of the indie rock persuasion” earlier than I would have done.
- This movie is set in Seattle — but does it ever rain?
S, air all of your random thoughts and start us down the proverbial math path.
S: I love me some stray observations. Here goes!
- Kat’s English teacher deserves all of the awards. If only every teacher I ever had in high school could drop truth bombs like he does on the Joey Donners of the world.
- Another of Papa Stratford’s gems: “My insurance doesn’t cover PMS.” Ah, pre-menstrual syndrome jokes: the subtle form of gaslighting that makes me want to punch a wall.
- Kat Stratford’s wardrobe is everything I wanted mine to be in the late 90s, but couldn’t quite get there.
- If it tells you anything about my high school experience, I ALWAYS feel bad for the kid in the movie whose house gets trashed at the party.
And now, on to the math.
- -4 cringes because 10 Things I Hate About You was written by two ladies.
- +4 cringes because it was produced and directed by two men.
- -5 cringes for the feminist icon herself: Kat Stratford.
- +5 cringes for the Cameron problem.
- -2 cringes because the modern reimagining corrected many of the problems of the source material.
- +4 cringes for all of the times Kat, a woman who dares to think for herself, is referred to as a “shrew” or something of that ilk.
That leaves us at two cringes. 10 Things is not a problematic flick overall, but definitely has a few cringe-worthy moments and characters, and that’s enough to earn two cringes from me.
So what say you, B? Is my math correct?
B: I think you’re pretty dead on. The base plot is built on a problematic conceit, but there’s a good heart at its core. Here’s what I’d add.
- – 1 cringe each for Kat’s: Rant about Hemingway, English class declaration “Stating my opinion is not a terrorist action,” and pointed observation about the potential suitors at Padua – “Have you seen the unwashed miscreants that go to that school?” (That’s a total of -3)
- +1 cringe for this Cameron statement “I’m sure there are some guys who wouldn’t mind going out with a difficult woman.”
- +3 cringes for Joey Donner’s creepy friend who announces Bianca’s arrival with, “Virgin alert: Your favorite.”
- -1 cringe for Monique Powell and several other members of Save Ferris cameoing as the prom band and Letters to Cleo appearing as Kat’s favorite band.
Like our girl Bianca, 10 Things I Hate About You, has a little bit of work to do, but it’s ultimately a sweet teen comedy of the kind they just don’t make anymore.
Next time, we’re sticking with the theme of beloved teen films of the 90s. We’re revisiting Clueless. There will be Baldwins, there will be Betties, there will be a lot of complaints about Elton. Join us, won’t you?