The late 90's brought us enough teen rom-coms based on the classics to fill a high school gymnasium. Some were great. Others left you feeling only "whelmed." But 10 Things I Hate About You, which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, is special. Iconic moments. Fresh, energetic performances. A message of individualism. 10 Things stands out from the pack and still stands the test of time.
Without much ado, here are ten things I love about 10 Things I Hate About You...
10: Kat never compromises her feminism
Feminism has come a long way since the “riot grrls” of the Pacific Northwest. And it would have been easy enough for this film to slip into a familiar boy-gets-girl narrative. Especially considering the source material. The boy does get the girl, but it's on her terms, not his. And only because he learns to treat her with respect. How about that moment when Patrick refuses to kiss Kat because she's drunk? Their final kiss is an equal culmination of both their characters' arcs. And she isn't required to surrender her feminism, nor her character’s agency, to get there. Nevertheless…
9: She does get called out for her privilege
For a high school comedy, 10 Things is remarkably intelligent. Characters discuss sexual politics, personal identity, and social expectations. One scene in particular, feels as pointed today as it did in 1999: when Mr. Morgan calls out Kat's white feminism. It's important that this scene happens so close to the beginning of the film. Even while establishing Kat's disdain for the patriarchy, the film is quick to point out that she's also rich and white. Why can't her class read more books by Sylvia Plath or Jane Austen? Sure... or maybe something by a black writer?
8: The 90’s nostalgia is real
Cartoonish typography. Bright colors. The Barenaked Ladies. From the film’s first moments, it's clear what decade we're in. Throughout the film, the nostalgia doesn't quit. The fashion is right on-point (are cardigans having a comeback yet?). And that breezy, open-sky innocence of a pre-smartphone world? Now that's something only 90's kids understand. And then, of course, there's the Cowboy Clique. Every 90's high school had one of those... right?
7: So many classic moments
I'd honestly forgotten how many lines and moments from this movie had set up shop in my subconscious. How about the concept of being "whelmed?" The Sharpie penis on Michael's face? Or, well, every single thing Allison Janney says and does? How about Julia Stiles' dry intonation of "I want you, I need you, oh baby, oh baby?" Or Julia Stiles dancing on the table at the party? Or the discovery of Julia Stiles' black panties? (Wait, I think I'm detecting a pattern here...) The two most unforgettable scenes are clear, of course: Julia Stiles' (okay, last one) heartbreaking reading of the titular poem, and Heath Ledger's musical performance on the bleachers. But more on that later
6: You can’t fake that cast chemistry
It's not only Ledger and Stiles. The film’s entire cast became close friends, and the energy is undeniable. As David Krumholtz, who played Michael, put it: "We all agreed that we were having the best summer of our lives." That feeling translates to the screen. There's a quality of organic looseness to the film. It breathes with life, in every frame. That's a secret sauce with no specific recipe. Sometimes, it just happens.
5: Heath Ledger, at the beginning of his career
Watching 10 Things is like watching The Dark Knight. You find yourself background-processing Heath Ledger's death. Whether it's true or not, it's easy to imagine some of The Joker's pain was drawn from Ledger's own. There's no trace of that in Patrick Verona. What's clear, even this early in Ledger's career, is his palpable magnetism. He glares, he grins, he projects danger, then reveals vulnerability. And through it all, you can't take your eyes off of him. Speaking of which, there's something beyond words about that famous bleacher scene. It almost brings me to tears. He sits, fixes a smoldering gaze on Kat from dozens of yards away, then smiles. He dashes up and down the bleachers, effortlessly, joyful. And then, right before the security guards grab him, when he sits down again, something else creeps into his eyes for a moment. Beneath the theatricality, his eyes say: "Please. I'm sorry. Please." It only lasts for a second. And it's beautiful.
4: The breezy energy of Shakespeare’s plot dynamics…
Characters and motivations ricochet off each other like bumper cars of human folly. Deceptions, misunderstandings, and cross-purposes stand in the way of romantic unions. This playful dynamic feels distinctly Shakespearean, and setting it in a high school is very effective. It's a lot easier to forgive a bunch of teenagers for the sort of behavior people get up to in a Shakespeare comedy. How might this exact story play out if it was set in the adult world? Take a look at Kat and Bianca's father. Does he work as a character? He seems insane, abusive even. It's unavoidable, but hard to ignore. That's what this sort of thing looks like on an adult. Gross, right?
3: ...without any of Shakespeare’s problematic stuff...
Speaking of gross, have you read The Taming of the Shrew lately? There's no way around it: it's sexist as hell. And sure, it's a product of its time, but there's no denying that it reinforces the subservient role of women. Re-purposing "shrewishness" as feminism was a genius move. It allows the basic beats of the plot to play out in a much different context. Kat's a strong woman. In our age of “nasty women” who nevertheless persist, it's not hard to see how society reacts to strong women.
2: ...transforms and reclaims the story...
That may be why 10 Things I Hate About You has proven more enduring than other similar films like She's All That. It doesn't simply retell the story in a modern setting, with modern words, it actually reclaims it.
We're a species of storytellers. From the birth of language to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it's ingrained in who we are and how we perceive the world.
Why do we retell some stories? Adaptations of A Christmas Carol number in the hundreds; there are over twenty high-profile film adaptations alone. Much of Shakespeare's work is similarly beloved, somehow intrinsic to our culture. We retell stories because they continue to be relevant, yes, but we also retell them to see how they reflect us. A faithful retelling of Shrew would reflect how far we've come. But 10 Things goes a step further. It reclaims the story to also reflect how far we still have to go.
1: ...to deliver a message of individualism.
Shakespeare's Katherine learns to accept her social role. You could read her submission to Petruchio as an act of self-preservation but, no matter how you interpret it, Kate ends the play "tamed." In 10 Things, Kat rejects her social role with confidence. As she repeats often, "I don't like to do what people expect." Against a backdrop of laughable phonies, Kat insists on being genuine.
Bianca, meanwhile, relishes her social role... at least until she realizes how unfulfilling and empty it is. By the end of the film, Bianca's priorities have shifted completely. Disguises are shed, deceptions dropped. All of the characters are seen for what they are. For our protagonists, this means inhabiting themselves in a more genuine way. The Taming of the Shrew tells us that happiness comes from accepting your social role. 10 Things I Hate About You tells us that happiness comes from being yourself.
There's plenty more to celebrate about this delightful, near-perfect slice of teen rom-com. But, as Hamlet said, "words, words, words." Go watch the movie. Watch the cast of young up-and-comers having the best summer of their lives. Watch Julia Stiles reading the poem and crying. Watch Heath Ledger doing, 'Can't Take My Eyes Off of You,' on the bleachers.
See what I mean? They're just too good to be true.
(Sometimes) a theatrical director/actor/producer and writer, and (mostly) a bartender and New Beaconite often found in semi-aimless wander, Edward is pleased and honored to contribute this piece to the most excellent Story Screen.