This post is adapted from a Pecha Kucha I gave at the Forum in Norwich last Thursday as part of the UEA in the City: A Festival of Student Research.
Today, I’d like to talk a little bit about a film I really love—and in some ways, really hate—10 Things I Hate About You (Gil Junger, 1999). I still remember the first time I watched the film. I was an impressionable 13 year-old, and in those pre-Netflix days I had rented the cassette from my local Blockbusters. The story was simple enough: Patrick Verona (see what they did there?) played by Heath Ledger, is paid by a third party to date Kat Stratford (see what they did there, again?), herself played by teen-movie darling Julia Stiles. Unfortunately, Kat is much too busy kicking ass at football, reading The Bell Jar, and generally fighting the patriarchy to be interested in Patrick… and yet, the two eventually fall in love.
I couldn’t have told at the time what it was about the story that I found just so compelling; but it was probably the fairy tale idea, that despite being a desperately dweeby teenager myself, I, too would end up at the prom with Heath Ledger.
Dreams do come true: my prom photo* (*not really)
Problem #1 and #2
The problem is, when I revisited the film as an adult, as a film student, and, as a feminist, it became increasingly unpalatable. It was obvious that the story I so lovingly remembered as a light-hearted, feel-good, romantic comedy was actually really dark and sinister. It was just another story of violence and submission packaged as ‘romance.’So that’s the first thing I hate about 10 Things I Hate About You: its dishonesty about the kind of story it is telling. The plot is actually borrowed from Shakespeare’s misogyny-fest The Taming of the Shrew.
However, the play’s Christopher Sly framing means productions can work to interrogate the play’s problematic gender politics. Even so, and even gender-flipped, it makes for an uneasy viewing. Problem #2: the film’s lack of framing, on the other hand, means we have to take the love story of 10 Things I Hate About You at face value.
Problem #3 and #4
Giving Shakespeare a teen makeover was all the rage in the late 1990s to early 2000s: Romeo + Juliet (Baz Luhrmann, 1996); Never Been Kissed (Raja Gosnell, 19999) incorporating elements of As You Like It; O (Tim Blake Nelson, 2001) based on Othello, and also featuring Julia Stiles; Get Over It (Tommy O’Haver, 2001), featuring a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream; I also like to think of Mean Girls (Mark Waters, 2004) as an adaptation of Julius Caesar. She’s the Man (Andy Fickman, 2006), a loose adaptation of Twelfth Night that Channing Tatum probably wishes he could forget, more or less marks the end of the cycle.
But that takes me to problem #3: 10 Things I Hate About You deploys its cultural capital so strategically that the film’s gender politics are seen as essentially ‘Shakespearean’ and therefore above critique. Bardolatrous much? This is related to problem #4, the film’s relentless suggestion that Shakespeare, a white man 400 years dead, is not just relevant today, but that he can be credited with ‘inventing’ everything, including feminism itself.
This is NOT what a Feminist looks like
Problem #5 and #6
In reality, the film’s celebration of Shakespeare trivialises feminism. At the beginning of the film, Kat embodies an excessive form of feminism known as the ‘Femi-Nazi’, her aggressive speech and masculine clothing signalling her abrasive, shrill, feminist personality. The message could not be more clear: being a feminist is really uncool! So that’s problem #5: the film claims to cash in on 1990s ‘girl power’ but it’s actively undermining it (spoiler alert: we call this disavowal postfeminism). In a typical postfeminist sleight of hand, the film reveals that Kat’s feminism was bankrupt all along: it is not the result of careful critical thinking but of an unsatisfactory sexual encounter in the wake of her mother’s infidelity to the father. The film thus dismisses feminism as a disruptive behavioural disorder originating from bad mothering that must be cured via the redemptive effects of heteronormative romance. In other words, the political is personal.
By the end of the film, Kat has changed her mind about (not) going to prom. She has undergone a makeover which has revealed both an essential, gentler, (postfeminist) inner self, as well as, exposed the girlie beauty that had been tantalisingly veiled by her unfortunate political and sartorial choices. This makeover is the sixth thing I hate, about 10 Things I Hate About You. It is also typical teen movie fodder: in Never Been Kissed and She’s All That (Robert Iscove, 1999), the geeky protagonists similarly transition into prom queen material. Problematically, their changed exteriors signify a necessary internal change, whereby they somehow require improvement in order to secure their happy ending.
At this point in the film, Kat reads a sonnet she has written for her English class:
I hate the way you talk to me, and the way you cut your hair.
I hate the way you drive my car, I hate it when you stare.
I hate your big dumb combat boots and the way you read my mind.
I hate you so much it makes me sick, it even makes me rhyme.
I hate the way you’re always right, I hate it when you lie.
I hate it when you make me laugh, even worse when you make me cry.
I hate it when you’re not around, and the fact that you didn’t call.
But mostly I hate the way I don’t hate you,
not even close… not even a little bit…not even at all.
Problem #7: that’s more than 10 things – that is 14 things she hates about Patrick. More seriously, through this poem, Kat, who has, until now, shown impressive independent thinking, gives up the very values which define her. When she says ‘I hate the way you’re always right’ she is not only authenticating male privilege, but also giving up her own agency and independent thought.
Problem #8 and #9
In the next scene, we have problem #8, as Patrick turns up, and literally buys Kat’s forgiveness by giving her a guitar. When Kat points out: ’You can’t just buy me a guitar every time you screw up, you know.’ He responds, ‘Yeah, I know. But then, there’s always drums and bass, and maybe even one day, a tambourine.’ Before she can protest any further, Patrick kisses her into silence— he literally stops her from objecting. This is known as the silencing kiss, and it’s problem #9: the way in which romcoms package controlling behaviour as a desirable aspect of ‘the chase.’ (See also Darcy’s
romantic incredibly insulting proposal in Pride and Prejudice.)
Silencing kiss: romantic resolution or controlling behaviour?
So that takes us to the final thing I hate about 10 Things I Hate About You—Just like Julia Stiles who can’t help but love Heath Ledger, most of all, I hate the way I don’t hate this film, not even close… not even a little bit… not even at all. And this cognitive dissonance is incredibly unsettling, because films are more than mere ‘entertainment.’ Films help us forge our identities, help us decide who we are, how we should behave, and what kind of relationships we should have. Stories matter because they shape the way we think.
This is why it’s crucial for people to study, untangle, and indeed frame, the kinds of message embedded within these stories, because in the end, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see.’
Further Reading (featuring brilliant awful academic puns)
Boose, Lynda E., and Richard Burt. ‘Totally Clueless?: Shakespeare Goes Hollywood in the 1990s.’ Shakespeare, the Movie: Popularizing the Plays on Film, TV, and Video. London and New York: Routledge, 1997. 8–22.
Burt, Richard. ‘Te(e)n Things I Hate about Girlene Shakesploitation Flicks in the Late 1990’s, or Not-So-Fast Times at Shakespeare High.’ Spectacular Shakespeare: Critical Theory and Popular Cinema. Ed. Courtney Lehman and Lisa Starks. Madison: Farleigh Dickinson, 2002. 202-232.
Clement, Jennifer. ‘The Postfeminist Mystique: Feminism and Shakespearean Adaptation in 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s the Man.’ Borrowers and Lenders. Vol. 3, No. 2 (Summer 2008).
Deitchman, Elizabeth A. ‘Shakespeare Stiles Style: Shakespeare, Julia Stiles and American Girl Culture.’ Companion to Shakespeare and Performance. Ed. Barbara Hodgdon and W. B.Worthen. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005. 478-493.
Friedman, Michael D. ‘The Feminist as Shrew in 10 Things I Hate about You.’ Shakespeare Bulletin 22.2 (Summer 2004): 45–65.
Hersey, Eleanor. ‘Love and Microphones: Romantic Comedy Heroines as Public Speakers.’ The Journal of Popular Film and Television. Vol. 34, No. 4 (2007). 146-158.
Hulbert, Jennifer, Kevin J. Wetmore Jr. and Robert L. York. ‘”Dude, Where’s My Bard?” Reducing, Translating and Referencing Shakespeare for Youth: An Introduction.’ Shakespeare and Youth Culture. Ed. by Jennifer Hulbert, Kevin J. Wetmore Jr. and Robert L. York. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. 1-42.
Klett, Elizabeth. ‘Reviving Viola: Comic and Tragic Teen Film Adaptations of Twelfth Night.’ Shakespeare Bulletin. Vol. 26, No. 2, (Summer 2008) . 69-87.
Pittman, L. Monique. “Taming 10 Things I Hate about You: Shakespeare and the Teenage Film Audience.” Literature/Film Quarterly. Vol. 32 (2004). 144–52.
—. “Dressing the Girl/ Playing the Boy: Twelfth Night Learns Soccer on the Set of She’s the Man.” Literature/Film Quarterly. Vol. 36, No. 2 (2008). 122-136.
Welsh, James M. ‘Classic Demolition: Why Shakespeare Is Not Exactly “Our Contemporary,” or, “Dude, Where’s My Hankie?”‘ Literature/Film Quarterly. Vol. 30, No. 3 (2002). 223–27.
York, Robert L. ‘”Smells like Teen Shakespirit” Or, the Shakespearean Films of Julia Stiles.’ Shakespeare and Youth Culture. Ed. Jennifer Hulbert, Kevin J. Wetmore, Jr. and Robert L. York. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. 57–115.