10 Things I Hate About You entered movie theaters between Cruel Intentions and Never Been Kissed amid a swell of impeccable teen movies, including She’s All That, American Pie, and Varsity Blue. After the test of time, the imagining of William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew stands above them all.
Starring teen heartthrobs Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger — alongside Gabrielle Union, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Larisa Oleynik and David Krumholtz — the film follows sisters Katarina (Stiles) and Bianca (Oleynik) Stratford. Three years after their mother abandoned the family, the girls have become different young women. Kat is into post-punk feminist rock, feminist literature, and scaring the hell out of anyone who gets near her. Bianca wants to date the popular boy Joey Donner (Andrew Keegan) and pass French. The only problem? Her overprotective, single, gynecologist of a father (Larry Miller) doesn’t want boys anywhere near his daughters. “What are the house rules?” he asks his girls. No dating until after graduation.
Because the core of the film is focused on the sisters and not the boys chasing them, 10 Things I Hate About You stands apart from its contemporaries. Four centuries stand between Shakespeare’s creation and writer’s Karen McCullah and Kirsten Smith’s reimagined high school comedy. Yet the themes of young love, misunderstood youth, and casual misogyny still feel like honest, contemporary facts of life. It makes sense that 20 years after the premiere, 10 Things I Hate About You still brings a tear to the eye and a smile to the heart.
Incredible casting, a solid script, and deep worldbuilding bring something new to the surface after each viewing. The complex ecosystem of Padua High plays out behind the main storyline. Throughout the film, for instance, a roller hockey team’s entire story plays out without ever giving a single word of dialogue to the players or having any of the main characters mention their existence. At the big party, a guy falls out the window as Joey and Bianca talk. They watch it happen and then move on as if someone had simply tripped and fallen. It’s high school, every student, no matter how different, is forced to occupy the same space. Chaos and drama are the natural order of things.
Most of the drama ends up on the soccer field. A replacement for Shakespeare’s town square, the students hangs out in the bleachers or down on the field. William didn’t give set descriptions. A scene heading reads: ACT 1. SCENE I. Padua. A public place. Most productions use a town square or a balcony-filled alley.
Jocks, band nerds, punks, burnouts, cheerleaders, and other assorted riffraff fill the stadium. The castle-like structure of the high school and a large body of water surround the stadium, giving it a sense of being out of time. Therein also lies the entire experience of high school: Everyone is faking it, and everyone is terrified.
No one is more terrified than Kat, her vibrato and edge a familiar armor to protect her. Her mother left. Joey, the first boy she slept with, rejected her because she wanted to slow down. Defenses up, she and her father see eye to eye about dating. Boys are trouble. Kat doesn’t tell her sister what Joey did to her. “I wanted you to make up your own mind,” Kat tells Bianca when she asks why this information’s been withheld from her. Bianca has been chasing after Joey for half the movie!
In any other film, Bianca would be a dumb blond whose only ambition was to entrap the man of her choice. Here, she struggles to understand what she wants, simply because she lacks experience. It only takes one date with Joey for Bianca to realize she isn’t interested in him. Bianca spends the rest of the film learning to communicate with Kat. Kat can’t hear that Bianca wants to go have fun on a date, because dating has been nightmarish for Kat. When Bianca finally confronts Kat about why she would side with their father, Kat responds, “I guess I was trying to protect you.”
Kat’s hard exterior only exists when men are present. When sent to the office, there’s a brief shot where Kat cradles her books to her chest as she speaks to two other female presenting students. Her smile comes easily and she seems relaxed. Later, at the club, Patrick Verona (Ledger) walks through a sea of women. When he spots Kat, she’s dancing care-free to her favorite band. Kat doesn’t exemplify the raging bitch she’s been made out to be, the same way that Patrick’s misbehavior never made him the juvenile delinquent the school thinks him to be. They both slipped into the roles assigned to them.
Along the way, they are checked by the wildly inappropriate staff at their school. Between the sexually charged guidance counselor, Mrs. Perky (Alison Janey), and the “tired of these rich white kids bullshit” Mr. Morgan (Daryl Mitchell), the teens never outsmart the adults. When Patrick tries to out-flirt Perky by saying “Should, I get the lights,” she hits him back with a joke about his penis size. Rendered completely speechless, Patrick can only stare dumbfounded before being shooed out of the office.
The teens are forced to grow. Shakespeare’s original ending often inspires debate. Kat and Petruchio/Patrick demonstrate Kat’s taming at a celebration of three local weddings. She’s instructed to throw her hat on the ground, to collect other wives who refused to present themselves when called, and then she gives an entire speech about how the woman’s role in life is to be subservient to her husband. Because Petruchio placed a bet with his friends, some interpretations suggest the couple was pulling a fast one on their friends to win some money. But, times being what they were, it isn’t hard to imagine that a woman devaluing herself in favor of her husband would have been seen as a happy outcome in the Elizabethan era.
Kat and Bianca discover an inner love for one another and themselves. Bianca is described by Michael as the girl, “…we will spend the rest of our lives not having. Put her in your spank bank,” he advises Cameron, “and move on.” He also describes her as vapid, while she explains her love for her Prada bag. Cameron learns French so he can tutor Bianca, but by the end of the movie not only is Bianca fluent in French, she punches out Joey and defends Cameron’s honor. She was never vapid or dumb, she just needed time to grow.
Several times throughout the film, Kat’s emotional state is said to be the result of PMS. When Cameron first experiences Kat, Michael tells him not to worry about her brisk behavior. “That’s your girlfriend’s sister; the mewling, rampallian wretch herself.” But, Kat’s happy to help her sister when she asks for it. She supports her friend, despite her obsession with the Bard. All Kat wants to do is be left alone to read and go to college. “Why should I live up to other people’s expectations instead of my own?” she asks Patrick. It takes time to let people in, but when Kat does she’s loyal. She can even admit to Patrick that she was wrong. Kat only needed to learn that not everyone was as cruel as Joey. Once that lesson seeps in, she’s still smart-mouth Kat, just less aggressive.
This invaluable lesson remains important to young people everywhere. Like The Breakfast Club, Mean Girls, and American Graffiti, 10 Things I Hate About You captures a moment of teen drama, fear, and exploration in a perfect time capsule. Using Shakespeare’s words as a launch pad, Smith and McCullah weave a modern love story of self-respect and trust. 10 Things I Hate About You will be able to teach these lessons to future generations for years to come.
Header Image Source: Touchstone Pictures