Before We Knew Better: “10 Things I Hate About You” is sexist—but still a pleasure to watch

She doesn’t hate him—not even a little bit, not even at all
She doesn’t hate him—not even a little bit, not even at all
Image: Photo by Moviestore/Shutterstock
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In this mini-series, we return to movies and TV we’ve loved to see how they depict gender. Does it hold up in 2019? Warning: contains spoilers.

When was this film released? 1999

How does it hold up? It’s problematic but still very entertaining

No era was so prolific for high school romantic comedies as the late 1990s. Films like She’s All That, Cruel Intentions, Never Been Kissed, and Clueless offered an idealized depiction of life as a white, upper-middle class American high school girl. These films were often riddled with reductive tropes—the “good girl,” the “bad boy,” the stoners—and contained troubling morals about body acceptance and how women should have to change to please men.

But 10 Things I Hate About You stands out for having a leading lady who seems ready to kick those messages in the balls, even if she isn’t totally able to.

Here’s a tl;dr of the plot, in case you need a refresher: Cameron James (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) wants to date the pretty and popular Bianca Stratford (Larisa Oleynik). But because of a rule from her father (Larry Miller), Bianca isn’t allowed to date until her disagreeable older sister, Katarina (Julia Stiles), does. So Cameron, with the help of the amateur model Joey Donner (Andrew Keegan), pays Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger) to take Kat on a date. Kat is uninterested in Patrick’s affections, but little by little Patrick wears her down. The two even start to fall for each other, until she learns that he was paid to date her, and she attempts to ice him out. He uses the money to buy her a present, and the couple makes out as the film ends.

The film is adapted from Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. The writers, Karen McCullah and Kirsten Smith (who later went on to write Legally Blonde and other films), included some not-so-subtle nods to their source material—Patrick Verona and the Stratford sisters attend Padua High School. But the play contains some unsavory—and downright misogynist—elements that even this whip-smart, all-female team of writers couldn’t eliminate from the film adaptation. For example, the dad’s strict rules around dating are sort of rationalized by the fact that he’s an OB-GYN who has delivered one too many babies to teenage moms (perhaps would not have seemed as strange at a time when abstinence-only sex ed was the norm in schools, as was the case when the film was released). And the way Patrick is paid to take Kat out is downright repulsive. It feels like a relic of an older world, more 1590 than 1999.

Though the film traffics in reductive tropes that are often sexist—the bad boy, the pretty boy, the AV nerd, the popular girl—it at least works to add some complexity to its main female character that the original play doesn’t offer. Shakespeare’s Katarina, the titular shrew, hates men for no apparent reason; 10 Things’ Kat is at least a developed-enough character to have a backstory to explain her behavior. About three-quarters of the way through the movie, Kat reveals to Bianca that she had slept with another student when she was a freshman in high school, right after their mom left the family. “Everyone was doing it so I did it,” Kat tells her sister. “Afterwards I told him I didn’t want to anymore because I wasn’t ready, and he got pissed and he dumped me. After that, I swore I’d never do anything just because everyone else was doing it.” Kat’s experience presumably explains her general disdain for men and all people who conform to the norm, though the stories of victims from the Me Too movement show that generalized bitterness isn’t the most common response to sexual trauma.

Kat and Bianca’s relationship also makes the film more nuanced, which is often missing from romantic comedies (and isn’t present in Taming, either). As Caroline Siede writes in the AV Club: “[Kat’s] romance with Patrick is really just a bonus to her arc about loosening up her overprotective older-sister instincts and opening up to Bianca about her own negative experience with the peer pressure of popularity. It’s a really lovely throughline that adds depth to Kat’s character, and showcases the female-centric storytelling that’s so often part and parcel of the best romantic comedies.”

Beyond the source material, there are other elements of the film that are strange to watch today. Some language jumps out to a 2019 viewer, such as the frequent and derogatory use of the word “bitch” as well as a reference to one of the dad’s patients as a “crackwhore.”

And for some reason, nearly every interaction between students and teachers seems to have a sexual edge to it. Recall Miss Perky (Allison Janney) writing erotica between student meetings, or Kat flashing her soccer coach to get Patrick out of detention. These interactions are troubling, but the film uses them to comedic effect.

And yet, despite all these things, I still found the film entertaining and a pleasure to watch. I wanted to defend it, and I wanted to tell you to go back and watch it; while every interaction is scrutinized in the Me Too era, there’s something comforting about retreating to the familiar tropes of the 1990s high school rom com.

Perhaps that’s because the pace of the film doesn’t let you linger on its more unsavory parts. Or maybe it’s because the material for this full range of emotions—the whimsy, the heartfelt confessions, and, yes, even a bit of romance—is served up in a perfect encapsulation of the late 1990s. The film has what is still a fantastic playlist (and includes one-hit-wonder “Letters to Cleo”). It’s got an irrepressibly charming Heath Ledger (if you can suppress a smile when Patrick sings to Kat in the stadium, you are a stronger person than I). And though Julia Stiles herself might cringe at the film today, it’s still enjoyable to watch. Especially if you can put all that other stuff aside and take it for what it is: a lighthearted, romantic movie with some very real themes.