10 Things I Hate About You is 15 years old today! I went to Sarah Lawrence College my first year of university and they only thing anyone ever knew about it was that Julia Stiles in 10 Things I Hate About You wanted to go there. The parallels between Katrina Stratford and I were many, except she learned a valuable lesson about womanhood in about 90 minutes whereas it too me a few years. At the time, 1999, at 10 years old I was in the same place as 18-year-old Kat. We had the same favorite obscure chick band, Letters To Cleo, we were inclined to think our anti-conformist rants were the end all and be all of rational thinking but worst of all we created a gender binary amongst women. There were girls who were smart and thoughtful like Kat and then there were girls who wanted to be pretty like Kat’s sister, Bianca.
Kat was dismissed as being a bitch for standing up for herself. Bianca was accused of being shallow for wanting to be liked. The reality was the two of them were both dealing with a patriarchal society the ways any young woman would. One tried to use the vanity and conventional beauty standards to their advantage while the other rejected the idea that she could be valued by her appearance and sought other avenues of shaping an identity. Neither were wholly right, neither were wholly wrong. They just responded differently.
The movie did a great job of illustrating the ways women are taught to behave by the social structures in their lives. Their single, overbearing father feared most of all his daughters having sex to the extent he would make them wear a fake pregnancy belly.
It also used the standard douche-bro motif to illustrate how the most revered male voices are often used to put women down, reduce them to their appearance and dismiss women as too aggressive or ugly when they don’t conform to standard female behavior.
But the movie wasn’t simple and it wasn’t just trying to say that it’s tough being a woman. Yeah, it is tough to be a chick but the film was smart enough to contextulize that in a world where being a part of any group is difficult because of the historical, social and economic limitations of that group. The English teacher, Mr. Daryl, did a great job of putting Kat’s rant’s into perspective. No matter how much she complained and no matter how valid, she was still a thin, able-bodied, middle class, white girl and he was still a Black man teaching an English class where there were no African American authors a part of the curriculum.
It wasn’t just hard being a girl or an African American, though. Expectations were tough on the guys as well. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Cameron was perceived as too sensitive, too tiny-bodied, too nerdy to ever be a good match for someone as popular or beautiful as Bianca. Much like anybody who doesn’t feel like they fit the popular mold his self-esteem was shot. Heath Ledger’s Patrick was dismissed as an aggressive, dumb, bad boy. He was the “gross guy” and the “fuck up.” He was more surprised than anyone that Kat wasn’t terrified of him. 10 Things I Hate About You understood that not just in high school but in life we’re all greeted with unfair expectations that limit not just the people who talk to us but the people we talk to.
Most importantly, and what separates 10 Things I Hate About You from other teen movies is that ultimately it doesn’t pit the Bitchy-Intellect vs. The Popular Girl or The Nerd vs. The Tough Guy. The movie gave each character equal attention and equal depth. Kat wasn’t just a cold know-it-all, she was affectionate and protective of her sister. Cameron wasn’t a pathetic nerd, he stood up for himself and even to the girl he had been putting on a pedestal. Patrick wasn’t just tough, he was sensitive, charming and intelligent. Bianca wasn’t just a dumb pretty girl, she was warm, compassionate and understanding.
By the end of the film you don’t have your classic nerd gets the girl, smart girl beats the vapid popular girl, what you have is a more nuanced understanding of the people reduced to stereotypes on a social pecking order. Each character has a better understanding of each other and in doing so feels more comfortable showing the sides of themselves they felt obligated to conceal. A story being told from a female perspective that is able to explore romantic relationships without the goal being to find a guy that completes her, to so subtly and yet, explicitly, to be able to explore the issues of contemporary feminism and to resist demonizing men, makes 10 Things I Hate About You more than a movie but a genuine treatise on the burden of gendered social expectations.