Feminism in 10 Things I Hate About You

I recently watched 10 Things I Hate About You for like the fourth time. A modern remake of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, it is a love story that follows a senior in high school, her younger sister, and the various men who become entangled in their lives. I admit I have a soft spot for cheesy romantic comedies and there’s something about 10 Things that really resonates with me. Maybe it’s because I can relate to Kat, the protagonist.

You see, Kat is a feminist. A staunch one, at that. She’s an intelligent, witty, strong-willed woman who isn’t afraid to speak her mind, even if it gets her tossed out of her English class on a regular basis. And yet, even as I applaud her character, I am troubled by the way she (and her feminism) was represented. As always with these things, I’m putting a spoiler warning up for those who haven’t seen the movie yet.

I. The Making of a (The) Feminist

Kat is, in many ways, your typical middle-class, white feminist: she’s familiar with Simone De Beauvoir, has read The Feminine Mystique, likes indie girl bands, hates the rigid social roles of society… you get the idea. If that weren’t enough for the audience to label her has The Feminist, there is a scene (which I will deal with in more depth later on) where she goes on a diatribe in her English class about the exclusion of female authors from the reading list.

In addition to being The Feminist, she’s also The Bitch. Seen as an anti-social man-hater with a serious attitude problem. Sound familiar? Yup, that’s what all women who don’t play to the patriarchy’s tune get labelled, feminist or no. In any case, her anti-social tendencies, which are implicitly tied to her feminism, are shown to be a shield that she uses to keep people out (and therefore keep herself from being hurt). Not only is the whole “man-hater” stereotype invoked, but by showing her feminism as something she uses as a “keep away” sign, the movie isn’t doing the movement justice on what it really is about: recognizing and fighting oppression, especially women’s, in order to achieve a culture of equality.

But, the best is yet to come. How Kat became a feminist is never explicitly addressed, but it is revealed that she was popular one night and then gave it up for reasons unknown to those around her. What was the reason? Well, she had a night of regrettable sex with Joey, The Misogynist (who, at the start of the movie, is out to fuck her little sister), when they dated in ninth grade; then, when she refused to continue conjugal relations, he dumped her. It was then, she said, that she realized that she shouldn’t do things for anyone but herself. I like that her feminism is linked to doing something for herself, but we still have the movie playing into another stereotype: feminist consciousness can only arise when a woman has been burned by a man.

II. The Outsiders’ Views

Most of the people at the beginning of the movie view Kat as being, well, The Bitch (aka. The Bitter Feminist). Throughout the movie, that view changes (as hopefully the audience’s view of her changes) and by the end, she is portrayed in a mostly positive light. Of course, by that time she has also gone through some changes and has accepted Pat into her life. Of those who interact with her, it is her teacher (Mr. Morgan), her family, and Pat who are most important to her feminism (well, Joey as well, but he’s sort of cross-sectional so I won’t give him his own space).

Of all of the people, Mr. Morgan’s relationship with Kat is the most problematic. On the one hand, he always makes a point to jump down the throats of her detractors. Joey’s misogyny never goes undetected in his class, and he makes a point of shaming him at the end of the movie. I also felt that he had some kind of respect for Kat, because underneath his snark he seems to crave her usual analysis. Indeed, the one time she doesn’t offer any criticism, he is at a loss.

On the other hand, he publicly shames her as easily as her detractors and he sends her, and only her, to the office. He also always prefaces his calling on her to speak with phrases like, “here we go,” which I know from experience is hurtful because it carries the intent to shame. In the scene where she complains about the lack of women in the school’s reading list, he (rightfully) points out that there aren’t any people of colour, either. However, the way he does so not only plays the “hierarchy of oppressions” game (which I’m not too fond of because, depending on your angle, you can come out with a thousand different answers for the question, “which oppression is the root of all oppressions?”), but also invalidates her, her opinions, and her feminism.

His words are as follows:

I know how difficult it must be for you to overcome all those years of upper middle class suburban oppression. It must be tough.

But the next time you storm around the PTA crusading for better lunch meat, or whatever it is you white girls complain about, ask them why they can’t buy a book written by a black man!

I don’t know exactly how the audience is supposed to take Mr. Morgan (someone with real knowledge of oppression, as opposed to Kat? The Angry Black Man, as stereotyped and maligned as The Feminist?), but I have a feeling that most wouldn’t see that, while he stands there accusing her of white privilege, he is able to do so because of his male privilege. His ability to invalidate her (reducing her struggle against oppression to “storm[ing] around the PTA crusading for better lunch meat”) comes, not from his authority as a teacher, or his minority status as a black person, but from the power conferred to him by our society as a man: the privilege to dismiss one without power. The same power, I might add, that he is able to see in her while she was rattling of a list of white feminist authors. It also stuck in my mind that he said black man rather than black person. What, are authors like Bell Hooks and Zora Neale Hurston not good enough for him? Again, I call male privilege. Snuck in there snugly at the end of his diatribe as it was, I’m not sure the audience was intended to catch it and make the connection.

Kat’s relationship with her family is a more clear-cut progression. Things begin with the audience, and Kat herself, believing that her father and sister think she’s an off-base bitchy, man-hater. Indeed, the whole premise that started the wacky chain of events between Pat and Kat (yipes, that rhymes) was because Walter (the father), knowing Kat’s dislike of dating, said that Bianca (the younger sister) could date when only Kat did. There was also a dispute over Kat’s choice of colleges, where her father forbids her to leave the area because he wouldn’t have any control over her life. Bianca’s stated opinion of her is no better; in the course of the film, she calls her sister anti-social, a bitch, says that she’s ruining her life, etc. She looks down upon her for not wanting to be in the in-crowd, as well.

Yet, it’s made clear to the audience that some of Kat’s independence and unwillingness to play the social game at the cost of herself has rubbed off on Bianca. She begins as the Queen Bee style socialite, using Cameron for her own purposes and trying to get with Joey. But, a night with Joey’s narcissism leads her to begin questioning those beliefs. In the end, she realizes that she was being the heinous bitch (to Cameron) and rectifies things. When Joey comes around, frustrated for being effectively dumped, and decks her boyfriend, Bianca wastes no time punching him, saying, “That’s for making my date bleed,” and again with, “That’s for my sister,” and, finally, she knees him in the crotch, “And that’s for me.” I swear I cheered when I saw that; it seemed to me that it was a vindication of female agency. Cameron wasn’t defending her honour for her, she was defending it for herself.

Walter’s part is not nearly as detailed, but he wasn’t a main character, either. After prom, he and Kat have a chat about what happened. When she tells him about Bianca’s altercation with Joey, she asks if he’s upset that she (Kat) has rubbed off on her (Bianca). He says that no, in fact, he’s impressed. He does his little father explaining why he’s been an overbearing parent thing and tells her that he’s sent in the check for her to attend the college she wanted to.

For the most part, Patrick doesn’t see Kat’s personality as something to be derided. There are a few odd comments here and there, such as the one about female bands as “chicks who can’t play their instruments,” but overall he seems to take her attitude in stride. My guess would be that it’s because he is a similar type; his “bad boy” reputation, much like her “man-hating” one, is overrated and mostly fabricated. Indeed, when talking about why Kat thinks they act the way they do, he talks about her attitude of living up to her own expectations (rather than other people’s) as disappointing them “from the start.” Yet, he makes a point of saying that she has never disappointed him. Even his comment about the indie girl bands seems to be a fabrication for Cameron’s benefit, as he says that he can’t “be seen” at Kat’s favourite club, and when he goes there it’s made clear that he’s on friendly terms with the bartender. In the prom scene, he gets her favourite band to play by calling in a favour.

III. Conclusion

Even after laying all this out, there are a few things about 10 things that continue to bother me. The fact that the portrayal of her as The Bitter Feminist was never outright questioned outside of an off-hand comment or two makes me feel as if the silence is, in some ways, legitimizing the negative stereotypes utilized in characterizing her. I’m also still not happy about the way the movie pitted oppressions against each other in the scenes with Mr. Morgan.

But, despite the problems in the treatment of Kat and her beliefs, I feel that the movie didn’t do a terrible job portraying feminism. In the end Kat was pretty well vindicated; Joey was turned down in the most humiliating way by her sister, her father decided to treat her as an adult, she got to go to the school she wanted to, and she found someone who could both understand, and appreciate, who she was.

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6 Responses to Feminism in 10 Things I Hate About You

  1. Ragnell says:

    I didn’t much see the negatives you saw, but I think I was too caught up in the major positive. That Kat is a static character in the movie. Sure, she softens a bit, towards Patrick, just as he softens towards her. But I don’t see that as a character change. They’ve just learned to love each other. In the end they are both the same people they started out as, inside. Neither has compromised their values to be with the other. Bianca on the other hand, is a dynamic character, who’s values and opinions change as the film progresses. It’s fairly clear, throughout the movie, that, despite their rough edges, Kat and Patrick are the role-model characters. They are the ones who need to be emulated by the other characters. They are true to themselves.

    This is a huge contrast to play that inspired this movie. In The Taming of the Shrew Katherine is a the dynamic character who becomes meek and mild at the end, and Bianca is the static character who never changes. There, Bianca is the character Katherine must emulate at the end.

  2. Artemis says:

    Great analysis. I was just thinking that perhaps one of the points of showing Kat in such a stereotype as the Bitter Feminist in the beginning, while redeeming her much in the end, and still having her stick to all her values, is to highlight that these are, indeed, stereotypes and it’s important to look beyond them. I saw many stereotypes and character types within the film itself. But it seemed to me that it played on itself a bit. In order to prove to people that these stereotypes are just stereotypes, they need to look beyond them. When I do presentations on feminism – I instantly try to draw people’s stereotypes about feminists out. Then I ask them what they think of me. Often their stereotypes might mesh slightly with what they think of me, and afterwards in their reflections they reveal that they hadn’t ever thought to look beyond the stereotype.

  3. tekanji says:

    Ragnell: Thanks for pointing that part out, though. Also, thanks for the info on Taming of the Shrew, ’cause I haven’t read it (and it sounds like I don’t want to, heh).

    I meant to talk more about Kat as a static character, but this decided to be written at 12am when I was trying to fall asleep, so I didn’t examine a few things as well as I probably should of ^_^;;

    As for seeing more negatives than you, well, keep in mind that they only crystalized into something coherent after my fourth viewing of the movie. Some of this probably has to do with my feminist consciousness being at an all-time high. I actually knew about the authors she spouted off in class, and was able to examine her white middle-class feminism; it makes me wish that Mr. Morgan was either pro-feminist, or a feminist Ms. Morgan, because I think it would have made a better statement to talk about the intersections of oppression that way. Some of it, too, was that I was watching it with Buffy (she considers herself a non-feminist) and, especially after she said “Kat reminds me a lot of you,” I was thinking about how the movie would come across to her, rather than how I saw it.

    Artemis: I totally get that as an intent of the film, I guess I just question how effective it ends up being the way that they’ve done it. I think that we, as feminists, have the ability to see the film as it was likely intended, while the average audience might not be able to pick up as readily on the subtle inferences about the problems of stereotyping. Unfortunately, I’ve found that sometimes in order to combat a pervasive stereotype (at least in popular media), a bat is more effective than a precision instrument.

  4. Mickle says:

    (how sad is it that I saw the title and nearly started squeeling?)

    I adore 10 THings I Hate About You, despite it’s faults. It’s pretty much the only teen movie (I know of) where the bitchy feminist is a positive character and still a bitchy feminist in the end. Plus I just love the line “Don’t think for one second you any effect whatsoever on my panties” even though it completly undermines Kat, ’cause its obvious he does. And the part where Walter blames Kat ramming Joey’s car on hormones (“PMS! Our insurance doesn’t cover PMS!”)- simply because it’s so obvious that’s not the case so it actually ends up challenging that stereotype. And the part where…yeah ok, I’ll stop now.

    I think what does come across is the that if you consider each of her feminists arguments seperately: her frustration with the way social pressures encourage girls to concentrate on getting the right guy over everything else, her anger at misogynist jerks, etc. – audiences agree with her in the end.

    The reason why it doesn’t end up supporting feminism is because misogyny is shown as something individual people are guilty of, not society. One side effect of Mr. Morgan standing up fo Kat is that we don’t see how the system encourages guys like Joey, so it’s seen as just a character flaw rather than a broader problem. So Kat may be right, but feminists aren’t, encouraging “I’m not a feminism but…” type thinking.

  5. Adry says:

    I’m only a year & a half late.
    I commonly find that stereotypes exist for a reason. Kat is a fine feminist, but the stereotype as I know it includes the love of “The Bell Jar” & independence from men. In these ways she plays right into them.

    I think the role of Mr. Morgan is less of a stereotype (except for the “books by black men” line), but I really think that his character is less about making a social statement & more about being funny. It’s funny because feminism, which has been taken seriously by the media in general for only a few decades, became this infallible ideal, this crown for the oppressed gender to lord over the oppressive Man who always had the power. Mr. Morgan’s reaction to her seems inappropriate because the voice which speaks up for the “oppressed” should not be ridiculed. So it’s funny when he does. I don’t see him as speaking as much with the power of Male or minority as with the position of Teacher.
    The independence Kat maintains is not about equality, just as much of the feminist stereotype is not; it is about superiority. A woman doesn’t want the same respect & rights as a man, she wants more. Men don’t want to be independent of women. They want to share their lives. The “I don’t need you” single mom boom of late is an attempt to elevate these women to a place where men have never been.
    But above all, this movie is meant to be a comedy. I don’t think it’s intended as the social yardstick by which we can measure the public opinion of feminism today.

  6. tekanji says:

    I commonly find that stereotypes exist for a reason.

    Yes, they do: to allow human beings to easily categorize each other and make snap decisions. While it may be a useful tool in regards to media, it’s not necessarily a good thing.

    Since I happen to be engaging with the idea of stereotypes for a presentation I’m going to give right now, let me just pull two quotes to help illustrate my point:

    Despite their drawbacks, stereotypes do serve an important purpose—they help people to make quick assessments so that they do not have to evaluate each person completely ‘from scratch’. The unconscious process of comparing what is seen with prototypes already in the mind, and then using matches to make assumptions about the person, saves time and effort.
    [From by Better Game Characters By Design by Katherine Isbister, p. 12.]

    Stereotypes are a sensitive subject, and for good reason—they are powerful tools that guide unconscious decisions that can perpetuate an inequitable situation. Once a stereotype has been ‘primed’ in a person’s mind, he or she tends to look for and mostly see the qualities in a person that support that stereotype, overlooking qualities that do not fit.
    [From by Better Game Characters By Design by Katherine Isbister, p. 13.]

    Obviously the author is talking to the game design crowd, but the same applies for any story-based medium. Stereotypes serve a purpose, but both the author needs to be careful about how they use them, and the audience needs to be careful to not believe the myth that stereotypes exist because they are true.

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