Feisty Feminism: Dissecting the Stereotype in 10 Things I Hate About You

When I was 15, Kat Stratford (the one and only Julia Stiles) was my hero. I couldn’t wait for the day when could back my car into one belonging a sexist schoolboy, speak out about inequality in English class and accept my scholarship to a British version of Sarah Lawrence. 10 Things I Hate About You (Gil Junger, 1999) was incredibly popular with my friends and I at that age, not just for heart throb Heath Ledger, but for our idol Kat and her feisty feminism. I saw myself as Kat, my sister as Bianca and I loved the way in which they negotiated each others opposing attitudes towards boys, clothes, education and femininity. Revisiting the film at the age of 23 however, I became increasingly confused. It’s discussions about feminism and Kat’s witty retorts are still hilarious and true, but the way in which the film is constructed left me feeling that Kat was actually a stereotype – another ‘angry feminist’ trope. When we remember that the film is based on Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, and Kat is the shrew that needs taming, it seems that the idealistic representation of feminism may actually be a bit of sham.

Kat’s transformation from feisty feminist to potential girlfriend material has been widely accepted as a metaphor for the cultural shift from second to third wave feminism. Kat embodies many qualities of a second wave feminist (career focused, concerns about women’s image in the media, equality in the workplace) and it seems that by the end of the film, that Kat the-angry-feminist has been transformed into something a lot sweeter and easier to handle. Whilst Kat doesn’t explicitly denounce feminism (she is totally still going to Sarah Lawrence okay), she makes subconscious changes to her attitude, image and her independence which leads the audience to view previous Kat as a bit of a… shrew?

10 Things works it’s subconscious pro status quo/pro patriarchy message in various ways. Kat’s autonomy & sexuality play a huge part in defining how the audience views her – either as a joke or as someone who stands up for what she believes in. On a side note, the 10 Things brand of middle class white feminism is entirely problematic, and this is of course is what Kat ascribes to (highlighted by her black English teacher). Having said that, below are a few ways in which Junger and 10 Things I Hate About You works to ensure that feminism in any form remains a bad word, and that conforming to gender roles is the natural and correct outcome of high school life.

Riot Grrrl & Third Wave Feminism

‘As a pop culture phenomenon, Girl Power is really about preserving patriarchal values and particularly about protecting heterosexual masculinity’ 
– Deitchmann on Girl Power.

Girl Power. What a time to be alive. In 10 Things I Hate About You Kat is truly living it. Her signature song (the first time we see her it is playing) is Joan Jett’s Bad Reputation, and this truly says it all. Whilst it’s true that Kat embodies many attributes closely linked with second wave feminists, she is also the image of a Riot Grrrl – in terms of her dress and attitude. Riot Grrrl and the subsequent Girl Power were both subcultures that derived from third wave feminism, in an attempt to get younger generations of girls pumped up and ready for change. Clearly, the music encourages young women to think outside the box, not to care about their looks or image or what men think. Deitchmann, however, believes that Girl Power is actually more to do with preserving existing patriarchal values, and less to do with women gaining autonomy.

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Whilst Girl Power allegedly gave young girls and women their own power to be sexy, free and independent, in 10 Things we can see Deitchmann’s theory at work. Kat, whilst fiercely anti-conformity, ends up using her sexuality in a similar fashion to Bianca, to get what she wants. In the house party scene, Kat gets steaming drunk and ends up dancing on the table.This is out of character for Kat, but the implication is that she is far more exciting and fun when drunk. Kat conforms, drinks, dances and attempts to kiss Patrick. Although she is embarrassed, the implication is that ‘loosening’ up had made her more fun. Loosening up, in this context, means throwing away her morals and turning against the very codes that Kat lives her life by. Girl Power may mean women can be sexy and free, but it shouldn’t mean they have to be in order to fully embrace their ‘femininity’. The Girl Power slogan, for women to embrace their sexuality, does end in a revival of patriarchal values for Kat – because although Patrick doesn’t kiss her, she has become the ‘desperate girl’ seeking a boyfriend.

As Hentges points out, ‘most of the [female] protagonists end up conforming to the dominant cultures expectation is some way’ (Pittman). Hentges goes on to say that this conforming usually ends up in the female protagonist sacrificing their individuality. Kat fulfils this. It may seem like it was her choice, but what we have to remember is that the whole film is a metaphor for taming the un-tameable woman. If, by the end, Kat remained ‘untamed’ then the film has failed. When you look at it this way, it hardly seems like the empowered woman’s choice that Girl Power would have you believe Kat is making.

Sexuality & Autonomy – Kat & Bianca

This leads very nicely into my next point – Kat’s sexuality. It is interesting to watch the dynamic between Patrick and Kat throughout 10 Things. Both Patrick and Kat are outsiders, destined to live on the edge of high school popularity forever. Neither of them really care, and so it is of great discomfort and embarrassment to both of them when they must sacrifice their ‘cool exterior’ (or shall we say, autonomy) in order to win each other over. We could say that Kat and Patrick are each others opposite. They are the technically the same in terms of their outsider status and disregard for the rules but the way in which they are made vulnerable by the film is wholly different. Also, seems wholly based on their gender.

Patrick, in order to win the money offered by Cameron to take Kat out, has to first win her over and break through her icy exterior. The only slightly humiliating thing that he does is to serenade her in front of the school’s sports team, by singing ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’. For a big macho rebel man, the feat would seem to be humiliating but it isn’t. Patrick comes off charming, comedic and still overtly masculine; helped by recruiting the marching band to assist him and also patting the security guard on the bum as they try to detain him. Patrick successfully ‘reduces the threat of his objectification’ (Pittman).

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Kat, on the other hand, uses her sexuality and gender to help Patrick. In one of the classroom scenes, Kat flashes the teacher to help Patrick escape unnoticed. Here, her gender is her defining attribute, her sexuality is something she can trade. Whilst this is not inherently a bad thing, it’s interesting to note that Junger can reduce Kat to her sexual organs, but Patrick is not so easily diminished.

It’s also true that Kat’s autonomy is never really her own, considering 10 Things I Hate About You is bookended by a scheme between two men (boys) to gain either money, or the love of a woman (girl). The men of the film are the catalysts, the decision makers and they are the ones who drive the plot forward. There is an epistemological power that Cameron and Patrick have over Bianca and Kat, they are far more knowledgeable than the girls as to what is actually going on.

Bianca is less of a case study here, as she fits into the idealized notion of what teenage girls should be. It is worth noting however, that Bianca doesn’t get to utilize her autonomy either – in much the same capacity as Kat. Kat doesn’t want to date…she ends up with Patrick. Bianca wants to date Joey, but this decision is not hers to make. Bianca ends up with Cameron, almost entirely because he wanted to date her. Bianca is seen as passive and naive throughout, and it is strange that she is never seen as the active agent in her own story.

I would have loved to see the sister’s reconcile both their ideas about gender and feminism, in an ending which culminates in a new wave of feminists – you can be both, you can have it all! What 10 Things teaches us is that we simply cannot have it all. The films central narrative – taming Kat Stratford – works against Kat’s pre conceived notions of her own identity. Kat, and ‘feisty feminists’ must at some point ‘grow up’ and accept their gender roles within society. It’s not to say that I dislike the film; it’s a simple and sweet retelling of a Shakespeare play. It’s just 10 Things works hard to ensure that everything is in it’s right place by the time the credits role – a man and a woman together, devoid of independent thought outside of the pre-determined patriarchal system.

(Although it has provided me with some fantastic comebacks over the years… )

3 comments

  1. Thanks for this excellent balanced review. I just watched ’10 things…’ again after 17 years as a Sunday night guilty pleasure… and have been left with a very uncomfortable feeling about the politics of the film. I remembered the film as being a lot more progressive than it actually is… I remember admiring the character of Kat and enjoying her wit and feistiness … What I didn’t remember is how she is so powerless, and how misogynist and manipulative all the men in the film are… And how the movie unabashedly maintains the status quo… I don’t think this film could have been made today and considered remotely feminist… I still enjoyed the chemistry between the two leads, and the energy and warmth of Ledger and Stiles, but I am glad that more complex and better written female characters have graced our screen since then.

    1. thanks for your comment! I totally agree, when I watched the film years and years ago, I thought of Kat as independent and as a character who ‘bucks the trend’ that is expected of female characters in rom-coms. But looking back it seems like she actually just goes exactly down the same trajectory, and her feminism is more parody than serious! thanks for reading!

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