Every now and then, I see adverts on websites that beg for clicks with headlines that promise to reveal what happened to that one celebrity you vaguely remember from a few years ago. Often, the unflattering photograph being used for such purposes is of a celebrity whose whereabouts you are entirely aware of. Sometimes, they’re of people who you never really cared about enough in the first place to investigate further. Yet occasionally, one comes across my screen that tempts even this cynic.
It’s not that I had no idea what had happened to Julia Stiles - indeed, I’d just seen adverts for her latest TV show - but it made total sense to me why she would be on one of those tatty ads. For a while, Stiles was a potent symbol for growing young women everywhere, thanks to a handful of roles in beloved teen properties that set her apart from a crowded field. She meant something in a way that other Gen-X 90s era MTV idols didn’t: If you’ll forgive the awful term, she wasn’t like the other girls. It always baffled me that she didn’t go on to become one of the biggest stars of her era. She never went away, but her celebrity certainly diminished as she sank out of public visibility. That’s not to say her work lessened or her skills weakened, but to those of us who thought she was everything for those brief shining years, that period was all too short.
There’s a lot to talk about in Stiles’ career: The early teen comedies, her oft-overlooked role in the Bourne movies, stage performances on and off-Broadway, her sharp dramatic turn in Dexter, and recent performance in the series Riviera, to name a few. Honestly, it feels reductive for me to even take the angle I’m going for - I’m sure she isn’t keen on having her career be distilled to one role from the 90s - but I wish to focus on one specific movie because what she did in it was immeasurable in its impact on me as a kid. We have our pop culture heroes, some more regrettable than others, but Kat Stratford in Ten Things I Hate About You is one whose influence lingers for me to this very day. Given how teen comedies and the work done within is usually dismissed by critics and cultural academics, it felt only fair to give Stiles her fair due for what she managed to pull off with this movie.
Stiles was the live-action Daria to many burgeoning teen girls, although it’s a comparison that still doesn’t do her justice. Daria had a great quip for every moment and refused to ignore the bullshit surrounding her, but she was also prone to stubbornness that put her on the wrong side of the conversation. That scathing nihilism that seemed effortlessly cool could blind her, and even her most zealous fans could get sick of that. With Stiles, particularly in her best role, Ten Things I Hate About You, the nihilism never took over.
As Kat, the so-called shrew in this teen reimagining of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, Stiles is usually the smartest person in the room at any given time. Often, that manifests in mild disobedience, like snarky comments to her father, while other times see her getting verbally passionate about the educational system. Her refusal to overlook educational biases gets her occasionally kicked out of class. Staff view her with equal parts disdain and respect (and she gets called out on her own privilege, like when her black English teacher laughs about her oh so oppressed white middle-class life). She likes ‘Thai food, feminist prose and angry girl music of the indie-rock persuasion.’ The other girls think she’s just a weirdo, the opposite side of the coin to her more socially adjusted sister, Bianca, while the boys are flat out terrified (‘I still maintained that he kicked himself in the balls’).
Kat sees through the hypocrisies and contradictions of the immovable mountain that is the high school ecosystem. This in no way makes her unique - geeks like David Krumholtz’s Michael tries hard to navigate the maze and Kat’s Shakespeare obsessed friend Mandella doesn’t care all that much about their standings in this unwinnable game - but Kat is unique in that she not only actively shuns it all but seems to take great pleasure in doing so. It’s her rejection of what she is and isn’t supposed to do that angers so many. Why won’t she just shut up and do what she’s told? Kat’s antisocial ethos comes from experience, but it’s also just a good fit for her. She’s perfectly aware that high school doesn’t offer her the best years of her life, and she almost pities her classmates who have already reached that peak.
None of this would work if the casting wasn’t on point. In the wrong hands, Kat could be unbearably shrewish, leaving cruel audiences wanting her to be tamed as happens in Shakespeare’s play. Even Daria was tough to swallow. Stiles’ talent comes in her humour and commitment: She doesn’t water down Kat’s rough edges, but she gives her enough of a winking sense of humour to deal with her more abrasive elements. Sometimes, she seems to take glee in being the outcast, which is a refreshing change of pace for the teen comedy genre. She’s not above a bit of silly fun either, as shown in her paintball date with the never dreamier Heath Ledger. Crucially, she never loses that fierce feminist fire. She doesn’t water it down for a man, she doesn’t compromise her ideals to get ahead, and she doesn’t go running back to the dude who let her down. When she cries, reading her admittedly pants poem about her feelings for the guy who broke her heart, her anguish feels acutely real. Stiles makes that character arc work.
There’s a moment in the film where Kat sits her sister down and tells her about the inciting moment that led her to shun her previous queen bee status. Stiles flits effortlessly between pathos and humour, and when Bianca asks why she wasn’t told about this earlier, Kat doesn’t seem to know the answer herself. In that moment, Stiles has to convey confusion with sincerity and that sensation where you only just realize that you don’t know what to say. She’s bottled these feelings up for so long and they make sense in her head, but to verbalize them is a wholly different experience. It may be the best moment of Stiles’ performance in a film that’s chock full of brilliant moments.
Overall, 10 Things I Hate About You remains one of the best teen comedies in the genre; a progressively minded piece of metafiction that takes on a controversial play and reimagines it for modern tastes. There’s passion running through that movie, flowing alongside laugh-out-loud humour and endless sweetness. Billy Wilder would have called it a film with some vinegar in its cocktail. It may be Julia Stiles’ masterpiece, and it’s certainly her defining performance, at least to women like me who wanted a heroine whose happiness did not come at the expense of their personality. Stiles helped to craft a new kind of heroine for our era: The Gen-X spitfire for whom feminism wasn’t a dirty word; a woman with ideals and the nerve to stick to them; the smart girl who had the humour to match; and an ambitious figure who isn’t afraid of a challenge. None of it works without Julia Stiles, and for her work, we thank her. Now, if only the industry would give her the roles she truly deserves today.