There are a lot of things to love about 10 Things I Hate About You. It’s got clever dialogue for a teen movie, except for the places where the Shakespearian dialogue was forced it. All of the actors playing teenagers were ACTUALLY teenagers when the movie was filmed. Alison Janney steals the entire first 20 minutes of the movie as the sexually imaginative guidance counselor. The whole movie is a sort of love letter to the late ’90s, from the fashion to the music to the unique high school stereotypes presented at the beginning of the film (coffee kids, anyone?), to the Ab-Roller that Daddy Stratford uses in one scene. Heath Ledger gets to speak in his natural Australian accent and proves he’s got a half-decent singing voice.
However, the reasons that I, personally, love this movie have to do with Kat Stratford.
Kat is smart, outspoken about her beliefs, athletic, and driven. Unlike most of the smart and driven girls portrayed in other high school movies, though, Kat is a social outcast who would pull out her own finger nails before joining student council or the prom planning committee. She never wears makeup or a bra, she doesn’t do her hair, she’s bitingly sarcastic and difficult to connect with. And when the movie’s over and she’s managed to get involved with a guy who is crazy about her after the expected contrived roadblocks, none of that has changed. None of the main characters are crowned prom king or queen, there’s no big graduation scene about how awesome high school was, and the movie treated high school as something that actually wasn’t the best or most important time in your life. I found this shockingly reassuring.
I was never as angry as Kat. I was never as extreme in my feminist tendencies, and I was never that openly hostile, mostly because I was quiet and preferred to roll my eyes and go back to coloring in a picture I drew of the “Dawson’s Creek” kids drowning* than pick a fight with my teacher. However, as a young teen whose boobs were fantastically late in showing up to the party, with long lank dark blonde hair, who didn’t wear makeup everyday and had no intention of starting (that took up valuable sleeping time), Kat was as close as I was going to get to having a role model portraying something I could actually aspire to. I knew I was never going to be one of those girls who just seemed to have the hang of the whole high school thing. The best I could hope for was not attracting too much notice as I counted down the days until I could leave for college and cling tightly to a small amount of activities that embraced others like me.
It’s the little things that made her seem more real to me than other characters, like Kat’s reluctance to actually believe Patrick is interested in her even after several dates and his continued pursuit of her culminating in their argument about whether or not to go to prom. Her relationship with her sister, who she seems to feel protective of and exasperated with in equal measure. That she is flawed, getting drunk out of spite and occasionally lashing out at people who care about her instead of actually considering what they’re saying. Her struggle to find a balance between not doing things because everyone else is doing them, and discerning the times when maybe you actually do want to do something that everyone else is doing. When she goes to prom it’s both for her sister’s sake and also because eventually you realize that refusing to do anything popular just because it’s popular isn’t anymore thoughtful or considered than doing something just because it is popular.
Realistically, my personality probably sat somewhere between Kat and her sister Bianca. I loved dressing up for dances and going to them, I was envious of my friends who had more active dating lives, my parents weren’t as strict, and I was slightly more social than Kat. But Kat is the character I keep returning to, and I can see traces of her example across my own life. Some good, in that I have no patience for the idea that women should use shorter words, giggle more often, or stop wearing cargo pants if they really want to land a man. Some neutral, in that after hearing Kat describe Hemingway as “an abusive, alcoholic misogynist who squandered half his life hanging around Picasso trying to nail his leftovers” I’ve never really been able to appreciate the man’s work quite the way my literature classes told me I should. Some bad, in that for a long time I was reluctant to trust the motives of people who seemed unusually friendly towards me but that may have happened even if I never saw the movie based on my own life experiences. And I’ve always kept one or two pairs of black panties in my drawer. Do with that what you will.
Time has marched on, and I’ve long since learned that almost everyone goes through high school thinking that they’re another species than most of the people around them. I got a figure, cut my hair and dyed it red, and wear make-up now and again. I’ve had enough dating experience to know that there are more than a few men out there who appreciate women with strong opinions and an aversion to foundation. But there are days when I can still feel that uncomfortable, suspicious teenager inside me. The one who was deeply convinced of the world’s unfairness and sure that it would take drastic change to find her place in that world. The one who still wishes she could find those super comfy but unflattering jersey skirts that were popular back ‘98-‘99 or so. The one who never had to wear a bra. She doesn’t have a complete say over my choices anymore, but she’s there and because of that 10 Things I Hate About You will always be a part of me as well.
Of course, all that aside, 10 Things I Hate About You is a fantastically funny movie and a gem in its genre. Frankly, if you can’t appreciate Allison Janney chirping “Same little asswipe shit for brains everywhere!” then you and I have very little to discuss.
Genevieve Burgess still misses Heath Ledger more than she’d like to admit.