“I guess in this society, being male and an asshole makes you worthy of our time,” Kat Stratford (Julia Stiles) says in her opening scene of 10 Things I Hate About You, Gil Junger’s 90s teen comedy. It’s a statement which could have just as easily been written today as it was in 1999, and it’s one of the reasons that this smart, and often very silly, film has endured in cult legacy.
Following in the footsteps of a whole stream of teen films from She’s the Man to Get Over It, it’s loosely based on one of Shakespeare’s plays. In this case, it’s The Taming of the Shrew, which is a bold choice given its hardly enduring appalling treatment of women. But while previous adaptations have thrived on the degradation of intelligent women and fetishized female violence (the 1953 film Kiss Me Kate features Kate bent over and spanked on its poster), 10 Things I Hate About You is here to dismantle these, as our heroine would say, “oppressive patriarchal values.
The film follows two sisters, the icy, Sylvia Plath reading Kat (Stiles) and popular girl Bianca (Larisa Oleynik), whose strict father imposes a rule that the latter can only date when the former does. Thus follows a convoluted plan forged by love-struck Cameron (a fresh-faced Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who dreams of dating Bianca, to persuade Patrick (Heath Ledger) to take Kat on a date.
As you might guess from my namedropping, one thing the film revels in is the extraordinary talent on display, from Ledger being completely dashing in his first Hollywood role to scene-stealing turns from Larry Miller as the outdated father and inimitable Allison Janney as a guidance counsellor more interested in writing her exotic novel than offering advice.
It’s not a perfect film by today’s standards. Everyone is heterosexual, with very little diversity outside supporting roles, and while it tries to acknowledge this with Mr Morgan’s speech dismantling white middle class oppression, it never runs with it.
But, where the film really thrives is in balancing its moments of great humour with a hell of a lot of heart – I’d be seriously impressed if you can keep a dry eye during Kat’s final speech.
Teen comedies generally get a pretty bad rep yet 10 Things I Hate About You proves that it’s a genre that just as easily taps into uninhibited fun as it captures that heart-breaking angst that riotous teenage hormones pummel you with.
And in the end, it gives us Kat – not a shrew to be tamed, but a flawed, intelligent woman who doesn’t change for any man. Whether it’s 1999 or 2018, that’s a portrayal I’ll never tire of.
Is there a feminist film classic you feel strongly about? Get in touch with your ideas for the new series via the contact page…