Twenty years ago, Katarina Stratford — played by the inimitable Julia Stiles — blasted Joan Jett’s “My Reputation” from the speakers of her 1964 Dodge Dart; Heath Ledger’s Patrick Verona danced across stadium bleachers belting Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You”; and a generation of adolescent girls found their new role model and undying crush. Kat’s deadpan “I want you, I need you, oh baby, oh baby” was, as today’s teens say, a big mood, and likely launched many a plagiarized brush-off.
Gil Junger’s 10 Things I Hate About You hit theaters on March 31, 1999, and the teen romcom landscape was never the same. From its immensely quotable script — “I like my Skechers, but I love my Prada backpack,” says youngest Stratford sister Bianca (Larisa Oleynik) — to its innumerable Shakespeare references and all-star cast, the film immediately entered the zeitgeist and hasn’t left.
It was a formative influence, both on the millennials who devoured it and on the rom-coms that would follow in its footsteps. According to Stiles, her drunken table dancing scene helped her nab the role of Sara in the 2001 hit Save the Last Dance. Writers Karen McCullah and Kirsten Smith went on to pen 2006’s She’s the Man, another Shakespeare adaptation that tackled Twelfth Night with nearly as deft a hand as the two brought to 10 Things (perhaps more deft in terms of social commentary).
In terms of witty banter and captivating characters, it is McCullah and Smith’s first foray into adapting Shakespeare for a teen audience that is their finest. 10 Things takes one of the Bard’s most misogynistic works, The Taming of the Shrew — in which the headstrong Katherina is tamed by her prospective husband Petruchio — and turns it on its head. Though it keeps the bones of the play, there are shifts in tone and character development that make it perfect for a 1999 audience, including allowing its heroine to thrive as a take-no-prisoners, riot grrrl music aficionado. Despite growing as a person by the end of 10 Things, Kat is far from tame — and bad boy Patrick has discovered that perhaps there are things and people who are worth caring about.
The film is playful and laugh-out-loud funny while still tackling serious issues. One of its most poignant moments is when Kat talks to Bianca about why, precisely, she’s so against Bianca dating school hunk Joey Donner. Viewers learn as Bianca does that Kat and Joey have a history — they had sex after the girls’ mother left when Kat was a freshman, Kat realized she wasn’t ready and told Joey she wouldn’t be doing it again, and he broke up with her. Kat owning her sexuality and making her own decisions, both to have sex and then not to have sex, was an important moment for teen girls of the time. They were allowed to see themselves and their ability to make their own decisions about their bodies affirmed on the big screen.
This doesn’t mean the movie is perfect, of course. Some important questions arise when viewing the film 20 years later:
- Was Bogey Lowenstein (Kyle Cease) actually young enough to be a high school student? Or was he an undercover agent sent to ferret out the financial crimes of the yuppie clique he stole from Michael?
- What is that paint balloon complex where Kat and Patrick go after jailbreaking him from detention, and why is it not a nationwide chain?
- Did Susan May Pratt’s Mandella actually think she was going to the prom with William Shakespeare?
- Did Cameron have to pay to replace the French textbook Patrick drilled a hole in? Was Cameron even taking French (his lack of prowess says no), or did he steal that textbook from some unsuspecting freshman?
A lot of things from the movie don’t hold up to ways our culture has changed in two decades. While Kat flashing her soccer coach (David Leisure) to bust Patrick out of detention was a well-intended gesture of thanks for his public serenade, it was also a terrible idea. In the real world — and especially in 2019 — Kat would’ve been suspended at the very least. What Kat does with her body and who she chooses to show it to are her choice and her choice alone, but one still has to obey the rules of society. Important life lesson: No exposing yourself at school, especially to authority figures! Similarly, Bianca’s casual use of the R-slur and other derogatory and dehumanizing terms, as well as Joey’s casual homophobia in drawing male genitalia on Michael’s face, are not acceptable today.
Kat’s feminism often comes under intense scrutiny in 10 Things retrospectives, but much of the criticism — namely that she changes herself or throws away her feminist ideals to get her man — look no deeper than the surface. Her feminism, and the overall presentation of feminism in the movie, certainly has its issues. The movie is a product of its time, and Kat is a white feminist of the second-wave persuasion; “problematic” comes with the territory, right along with that copy of The Feminine Mystique. But the change in Kat doesn’t occur because she wants to date Patrick.
Kat changes because she learns it’s OK to be vulnerable and open with the people she cares about. Her open crying during her recitation of her sonnet (which doesn’t actually follow sonnet structure) is a good example of how she’s become more willing to express emotion throughout the film. It could be argued that she doesn’t lose her feminism, but rather strengthens it by realizing she needs to be more open to other points of view (hopefully setting her up well for the intersectional feminist learning she’ll need to do later in life).
Mr. Morgan (Daryl Mitchell) is one of the best things about the movie. He drives its liberal undertones, reminding Kat that while she might be (rightfully) annoyed that apparently “being a male and an a**hole makes you worthy of our time,” he still can’t teach any books written by black men. He doesn’t ignore Joey’s misogynistic comments toward Kat or let them pass, he reminds the white Rastafarian wannabes in his class that they are in fact still white, and he raps a pretty mean sonnet to boot. Perhaps most importantly, he calls out Kat’s privilege to her face, telling her, “I know how difficult it must be for you to overcome all those years of upper middle-class suburban oppression.”
After all, our heroine is flawed. That’s why so many teen girls saw themselves in her.
The enduring legacy of 10 Things I Hate About You is not its all-star cast, or its contribution to the important late ‘90s/early ‘00s age of the teen romantic comedy. It’s the movie’s sheer celebration of both the good and bad of what it’s like to be a teenager, stuck in that weird place called high school. To follow the crowd, or not. To go to the prom or to spend hours concocting the perfect diatribe against it. To realize that no one else around you has any idea who they are either, and everyone is just kind of winging it — so you might as well take a chance on love.
And to always have a quippy one-liner in your pocket in case a cute Australian guy shows up to hit on you after soccer practice.