I recently watched 10 Things I Hate About You for like the fourth time. A modern remake of Shakespeareâ€™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 thereâ€™s something about 10 Things that really resonates with me. Maybe itâ€™s because I can relate to Kat, the protagonist.
You see, Kat is a feminist. A staunch one, at that. Sheâ€™s an intelligent, witty, strong-willed woman who isnâ€™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, Iâ€™m putting a spoiler warning up for those who havenâ€™t seen the movie yet.
I. The Making of a (The) Feminist
Kat is, in many ways, your typical middle-class, white feminist: sheâ€™s familiar with Simone De Beauvoir, has read The Feminine Mystique, likes indie girl bands, hates the rigid social roles of societyâ€¦ you get the idea. If that werenâ€™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, sheâ€™s also The Bitch. Seen as an anti-social man-hater with a serious attitude problem. Sound familiar? Yup, thatâ€™s what all women who donâ€™t play to the patriarchyâ€™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 â€œman-haterâ€ stereotype invoked, but by showing her feminism as something she uses as a â€œkeep awayâ€ sign, the movie isnâ€™t doing the movement justice on what it really is about: recognizing and fighting oppression, especially womenâ€™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 shouldnâ€™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 Outsidersâ€™ 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 audienceâ€™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 heâ€™s sort of cross-sectional so I wonâ€™t give him his own space).
Of all of the people, Mr. Morganâ€™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. Joeyâ€™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 doesnâ€™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, â€œhere we go,â€ 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 schoolâ€™s reading list, he (rightfully) points out that there arenâ€™t any people of colour, either. However, the way he does so not only plays the â€œhierarchy of oppressionsâ€ game (which Iâ€™m not too fond of because, depending on your angle, you can come out with a thousand different answers for the question, â€œwhich oppression is the root of all oppressions?â€), 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 canâ€™t buy a book written by a black man!
I donâ€™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 wouldnâ€™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 â€œstorm[ing] around the PTA crusading for better lunch meatâ€) 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, Iâ€™m not sure the audience was intended to catch it and make the connection.
Katâ€™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 sheâ€™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 Katâ€™s dislike of dating, said that Bianca (the younger sister) could date when only Kat did. There was also a dispute over Katâ€™s choice of colleges, where her father forbids her to leave the area because he wouldnâ€™t have any control over her life. Biancaâ€™s stated opinion of her is no better; in the course of the film, she calls her sister anti-social, a bitch, says that sheâ€™s ruining her life, etc. She looks down upon her for not wanting to be in the in-crowd, as well.
Yet, itâ€™s made clear to the audience that some of Katâ€™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 Joeyâ€™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, â€œThatâ€™s for making my date bleed,â€ and again with, â€œThatâ€™s for my sister,â€ and, finally, she knees him in the crotch, â€œAnd thatâ€™s for me.â€ I swear I cheered when I saw that; it seemed to me that it was a vindication of female agency. Cameron wasnâ€™t defending her honour for her, she was defending it for herself.
Walterâ€™s part is not nearly as detailed, but he wasnâ€™t a main character, either. After prom, he and Kat have a chat about what happened. When she tells him about Biancaâ€™s altercation with Joey, she asks if heâ€™s upset that she (Kat) has rubbed off on her (Bianca). He says that no, in fact, heâ€™s impressed. He does his little father explaining why heâ€™s been an overbearing parent thing and tells her that heâ€™s sent in the check for her to attend the college she wanted to.
For the most part, Patrick doesnâ€™t see Katâ€™s personality as something to be derided. There are a few odd comments here and there, such as the one about female bands as â€œchicks who can’t play their instruments,â€ but overall he seems to take her attitude in stride. My guess would be that itâ€™s because he is a similar type; his â€œbad boyâ€ reputation, much like her â€œman-hatingâ€ 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 peopleâ€™s) as disappointing them â€œfrom the start.â€ 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 Cameronâ€™s benefit, as he says that he canâ€™t â€œbe seenâ€ at Katâ€™s favourite club, and when he goes there itâ€™s made clear that heâ€™s on friendly terms with the bartender. In the prom scene, he gets her favourite band to play by calling in a favour.
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. Iâ€™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 didnâ€™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.