On 10 Things I Hate About You’s 20th Anniversary: Kat Stratford, Feminism, and Angry Girl Music
In 1996, New York Times music critic Jon Pareles wrote an article entitled “POP VIEW; The Angry Young Woman: The Labels Take Notice,” declaring that “angry young women” like Alanis Morissette were a new trend in rock music, as if the genre itself and the men who dominated it had never been angry in the first place. This term, “angry,” isn’t particularly a gendered word, but in this context, it carries so many connotations. Shrill. Bossy. Bitch. Slut. Shrew. When a woman raises her voice and speaks her mind, musically or not, she immediately receives certain labels that men simply do not for the same actions. When a woman becomes a fan of the woman screaming into a microphone or speaking at a podium, she is likely to receive the same. Gendered insults have become normalized in music criticism, news broadcasts, street exchanges, presidential campaigns. And when I say these words — and, through these words, stereotypes — have been normalized, I mean really, truly, historically normalized.
The stock character of the “shrew” is most famously portrayed in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, written in the late sixteenth century. The play tells the story of the courtship between Petruchio and Katherina, the “shrew,” or an assertive, unpleasant, aggressive, nagging woman. As Katherina is the most undesirable woman in Padua, her sister, Bianca, is the most highly coveted. Their father says that Bianca is not allowed to wed until Katherina is married. Katherina is an unwilling, unenthusiastic participant in her relationship with Petruchio, so Petruchio “tames” her until she becomes the most obedient, compliant bride.
I have not read Taming of the Shrew, nor do I want to after reading about its plot, but I have seen its 1999 “modernization,” 10 Things I Hate About You. This film depicts a contemporary “shrew,” the angry, loudmouthed feminist killjoy. Even almost 20 years later, that label often still stands. At Padua High School in a Seattle suburb, Kat Stratford (Julia Stiles) maintains her resting bitch face as she marches down the hallway, threatening to kick any guy in the you-know-where unless he moves out of her way. Her sundress-wearing sister, Bianca (Larisa Oleynik), is Kat’s foil character; she’s popular, flirtatious, and shares inciteful lines such as, “There’s a difference between like and love, because I like my Skechers, but I love my Prada backpack.”
The Stratfords’ overprotective obstetrician father has never allowed his daughters to date, which Bianca whines about even more once the hottest guy at school, local model Joey Donner, expresses interest in her. At the same time, the new kid in school, Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), has also become smitten with Bianca, and becomes her French tutor, even though he cannot speak French. In response to Bianca’s complaints, Mr. Stratford decides that Bianca can date as soon as Kat does, assuming Kat’s abhorrence towards the male species would sustain itself. When Bianca tells Cameron about the new rule, he devises a plan with new friend Michael. They convince Joey Donner to pay someone to take Kat on a date so that he can take out Bianca, while Cameron tries to get closer to Bianca. After many no’s from potential candidates, the three finally settle on mysterious, chain-smoking bad boy Patrick (Heath Ledger), who ambivalently accepts, and “courts” Kat.
If you have ever seen anything that resembles a teen movie or a romantic comedy, you know what happens next. After many false starts, Kat and Patrick eventually start to like each other, until Kat finds out that Patrick was paid to take her out in the first place. Kat cries reading an admittedly bad poem, and finally forgives Patrick when he gifts her a guitar. She’s “tamed.” Bianca chooses good guy Cameron over Joey, and everyone maintains their happy heteronormativity at Padua High.
On paper, 10 Things reads like a predictable, equally heartbreaking and hilarious high school comedy, and while it is that, it does more than She’s All That and Clueless. Even though 10 Things is a modern retelling of Taming of the Shrew, it serves its own purpose of delving into the life of a third wave feminist, a story that has rarely been told, even in 2018. Screenwriting duo Karen McCullah and Kirsten Smith (Legally Blonde, Ella Enchanted, She’s the Man, The House Bunny) wrote a high school romance story that questions whether or not two people in a relationship can become “tamed,” and more importantly, provided me with a main character whose music taste I could actually trust.
When cultural references are removed from 10 Things, the painting of Kat Stratford’s character could potentially be harmful in perpetuating female stereotypes. At school, her anger and hostility are toxic and all-encompassing, presenting themselves through road rage incidents, tearing down prom posters, and speaking out in class against the “oppressive patriarchal values that dictate our education” such as reading Hemingway instead of Simone de Beauvoir, when Kat insists, “He was an abusive, alcoholic misogynist who squandered half of his life hanging around Picasso trying to nail his leftovers.” It’s difficult to blame Kat for acting this way around her classmates when students like Joey Donner respond to statements like that with, “As opposed to a bitter, self-righteous hag who has no friends,” before asking their English teacher if Kat can take menstrual relief medication before entering the classroom. Kat’s voice is certainly unwanted in her high school, but that makes it all the more necessary. What would make Kat’s voice even stronger is if it existed in tandem with voices of color or queer perspectives. The closest we get to the intersectionality that would truly make 10 Things a third wave feminist film is black English teacher Mr. Morgan, who tells Kat following her Hemingway comment, “Kat, I wanna thank you for your point of view. I know how difficult it must be for you to overcome all these years of upper middle class suburban oppression. It must be tough.” I have a hopefully realistic fantasy that when Kat goes to college on the east coast, she will better learn where her identity fits among a much larger, more diverse community.
Contrary to what Joey Donner says, Kat actually does have friends, such as Mandella, the girl who creepily fetishizes William Shakespeare throughout the film. 10 Things draws little attention to the first time we see Kat actually smiling — At a concert with friends. She is shown in the front row, jumping up and down to the music of her favorite band (which is a real band, by the way, called Letters to Cleo), as she and Mandella look at each other lovingly for a brief moment before turning their attention back to the band. This exchange lasts all of three seconds, but it’s enough for me to feel like Kat and I could relate to each other. Through just one glance with her best friend, Kat demonstrates that she’s perfectly capable of being pleasant and cheerful — just not at high school.
It is here at Club Skunk where Patrick (Ledger) must finally impress Kat to reap his incentives. Prior to the concert, Cameron and Michael give Patrick the rundown on Kat, which they learned by scouring through her bedroom with Bianca’s permission. Michael says that Kat’s interests are “Thai food, feminist prose, and angry girl music of the indie rock persuasion” (these are also my interests). Patrick responds sourly, “So I’m supposed to buy her some noodles and a book and sit around listening to chicks who can’t play their instruments?” Although he claims that he cannot even be seen at Club Skunk, he reluctantly enters the venue wearing shiny gray leather pants, walking through crowds of women who stare at him skeptically. Patrick notices Kat dancing in the front row, and like her, he finally smiles, temporarily in awe of someone — an outcast — who for once feels like she belongs somewhere. Kat appears to nearly throw up in her mouth when she notices Patrick at the bar as she buys some water.
“If you’re planning on asking me out again, you might as well just get it over with,” Kat asserts with a mixture of irritation and curiosity. “Would you mind?” Patrick shouts over the music, “You’re kind of ruining this for me.” Kat maintains her sharpness, but she stays standing next to Patrick, asking him where his typical “cloud of smoke” is before Patrick responds that he’s kicked his cigarette habit (for her). Their exchange continues like this:
Patrick: You know, these guys are no Bikini Kill or Raincoats, but they’re not bad.
Kat: You know who the Raincoats are?
Patrick: Why, don’t you?
In her book, The Raincoats, on the British punk band’s 1979 self-titled debut, writer Jenn Pelly identifies how important this moment is to 10 Things:
“The Raincoats are a key; they unlock a shared secret. The band suddenly becomes a crucial part of Kat’s identity: prom-hater, Bell Jar reader, shit-kicker, iconoclast, Raincoats fan. The Raincoats are a turning point; the film’s direction changes once they arrive. A code is exchanged, and Kat trusts Patrick a bit more than she did before. There are so many questions one does not have to ask when the Raincoats are a mutual interest.”
For Patrick to even utter “The Raincoats” feels revolutionary to any female fan of “angry girl music of the indie rock persuasion.” It is so clearly music that touches Kat’s core, that makes her look up in a trance at her favorite band and look at Patrick in astonished disbelief that he has potentially heard one note of a band that helped her to define who she is. I still watch this scene in disbelief, not only for feeling recognized by Patrick, but by feeling recognized at all. Judging by the look on her face, Kat and I have both toiled over Bikini Kill lyrics in our dark bedrooms, feeling seen for the first time, if only in our private spaces, small friend groups, and occasional concert attendances. When an outcast finds solace in something, it’s always ready at the tip of their tongue, ready to spill out in the hopes that someone might reflect the passion back. It normally doesn’t happen, but you maintain hope that moments like these will come along.
What I appreciate about the inclusion of real pop culture in this fictional world is its accessibility to people familiar with the music and the texts, and to people who are not. I was reading the Bell Jar the first time I saw 10 Things, viewing Kat lounging at home with her own copy in hand. I went to my bedroom and brought my copy back to where I sat in front of the television, wishing I could know what chapter she was up to. For women who are inspired by Kat’s unapologetic feminism and who strive to act similarly, they can pick up a copy of The Second Sex or listen to the Raincoats’ eponymous album. They can become in touch with women writers and women artists and with Kat, all at the same time.
We join Patrick, or maybe Patrick joins us, on this fairly shallow dive into third wave feminist culture. It starts out as a quest for his cash reward, but soon turns into, dare I say, almost genuine interest. And if that interest is not truly in *~feminism~*, then it is interest in finding out what actually makes Kat happy. A start. Patrick follows Kat around town (the only truly creepy aspect of the film), where she goes to a music store and strums a Fender stratocaster guitar with her eyes closed. It’s the closest we get to understanding that Kat wants to play in a band. Patrick stands about two feet behind her as she does this and almost says something witty, but instead he walks away before Kat opens her eyes. He then follows her to a feminist bookstore, and asks her where he can find The Feminine Mystique because he’s lost his copy. After a heated exchange (long story short: Kat is angry because she tried to kiss Patrick after she got drunk at a party and he didn’t kiss her back), she shoves the Betty Friedan book to Patrick’s chest. If you want to understand the girl, you have to be willing to do the work.
Behind the scenes, it seems that Patrick does do the work. When he convinces Kat to go to prom with him, he surprises her by revealing that he “called in a favor” and brought in Kat’s favorite band, the unnamed Letters to Cleo, to perform. The band covers Nick Lowe’s “Cruel to Be Kind,” and the lead singer very awkwardly walks up to Kat while singing, then immediately turns around and returns to her stage. Kat’s music taste, a reflection of who she is, feels recognized by Patrick. Kat and Patrick are falling in love, that is, until it turns out that Patrick was paid to take Kat to the prom.
When Kat returns to school after the prom, she reads the poem that is assumed to be the moment she has been “tamed.” Perhaps this is because, by the end of the poem reading, Kat is crying. For the first time in the film, Kat is crying — at school, nonetheless. But if there is perhaps anything that Kat did not learn enough of from women artists and writers, it could be the acceptance of emotional vulnerability. Women cannot be strong and maintain a straight face all the time. Kat’s decision to cry in front of her class and the boy who broke her heart is a profession of radical tears. Kat exposes her vulnerability, but neither she, nor the film, ever calls it a weakness, although patriarchal standards often seek to label crying that way. Kat has not been tamed; she has altered her feminist perspective.
If anyone has been tamed in 10 Things, perhaps it is Patrick. At the end of the film, after Kat reads her poem aloud, she arrives to her car to find a Fender strat in the driver’s seat. Patrick used Joey Donner’s money to buy it. “Is it for me?” Kat asks when Patrick appears (Obviously, Kat. It’s in your car). “Yeah, I thought you could use it,” Patrick replied. “You know, when you start your band.” Patrick heals the relationship by buying Kat what she has secretly wanted throughout the film, but he’s also changed his perspective. At the beginning of 10 Things, Patrick calls “angry girl music” “chicks who can’t play their instruments.” In this scene, he’s encouraging a girl’s band to begin. “You can’t just buy me a guitar every time you screw up, you know,” Kat says after they kiss and make up. “Yeah, I know,” Patrick responds as he brushes her hair back. “But then, you know, there’s always drums and bass and one day, a tambourine.” Letters to Cleo then plays Cheap Trick’s “I Want You To Want Me” on the high school roof. It’s an homage to all the girls and bitches and shrews who want to start a band in a male-dominated rock scene, who want their favorite bands to be recognized by cute boys in leather pants, who just want someone to hear them, even if they don’t understand.