On March 31, 1999, 10 Things I Hate About You premiered in theaters, updating Taming of the Shrew for the turn-of-the-millennium set. Baz Luhrmann had adapted Romeo + Juliet a few years earlier, but this was a more complete modernization, frothed up with snappy dialogue, high-school dramatics, and then-unknown Heath Ledger’s roguish grin. It made perfect sense that this Shakespearean adaptation would come served as a teen movie, because teen movies were in their prime. Classic late-’90s films like She’s All That, Cruel Intentions, and Varsity Blues directly preceded 10 Things, heralding a new post-John Hughes renaissance of the teen movie.
To make the misogynistic Taming of the Shrew palatable to a generation that witnessed the rise and fall of the Spice Girls, a few changes had to be made. The “shrew” became Katarina Stratford (played by Julia Stiles, who nearly made a career out of playing modern-day Shakespearean heroines), a senior at Padua High School who takes no bull. She once almost-castrated a kid who tried to grope her in the lunch line; she sneers at the popular girls as she blasts “Bad Reputation” from her car. Through her, 10 Things initially portrays the most stereotypical image of a teenage feminist: angry, exclusively reads Sylvia Plath, walks down the halls ripping down prom posters amidst the cries of the preppy, peppy student hanging them up. But for a certain set of girls more into Daria than The Real World (not that this is a binary, but in high school, it kind of is), Kat was the kind of girl you wanted to be, if not the girl you already were.
Her approach to feminism was the antithesis of sugar-coated. In any normal teen comedy, you’re supposed to instantly like your protagonist for her charming quirks or endearing heart, but Kat is straight-up angry at the world and borderline obnoxious. Yet her prickliness remains one of her most endearing qualities. Her eye rolls and snark feel so refreshing because they’re different from anything else you would find in a mainstream movie about high schoolers. She’s not a girl masquerading as a feminist, she just is one.
But in the 15 years since the film’s theatrical release, no self-identified teen feminist character has gained as much mainstream attention and adoration as Kat Stratford. This doesn’t mean that feminist characters haven’t cropped up in recent teen movies, but they are frequently products of the books they’re adapted from, which means lots of dystopian thrillers featuring kick-ass females far too busy saving the world to worry about identity politics. Presumably, this is because of the Internet, and Tumblr, and famous teenage girls like Tavi Gevinson and Lorde nonchalantly identifying as feminists. But it’s still remarkable today that a mainstream teen movie breezily referenced Bikini Kill, The Raincoats, Simone de Beauvoir, and The Feminist Mystique. I can’t remember ever seeing another movie where the lead makes quips about “the oppressive patriarchal values that dictate our education” in a way that isn’t entirely dismissive or mocking.
That’s not to say that 10 Things is a super-critical movie. (It’s not.) But even at its simplest, Kat’s message is a good one. “I’m a firm believer in doing things for your own reasons,” she tells her sister, “and not someone else’s.” She pushes back when Patrick Verona tries to convince her to go to the prom because he keeps pushing the subject. Later, she apologizes for questioning Patrick’s motives (even though her intuition is spot-on). Kat can’t immediately drop her guard — and also, she’s right — but she still doesn’t let other people pressure her into doing things she doesn’t want to do, even as she softens her prickly exterior.
Here’s the message that flew over my head the first time I watched the film: feminists are not shrews, but they’re also not saints. Sometimes, they’re prickly and cynical. Other times, they’re gooey and swoon over, like, a really awesome guitar. Because feminists are people, even when they’re passionate or angry, because people get passionate and angry. And 10 Things I Hate About You showed that nuance to a mainstream audience. It showed a teenager very righteous in her feminism, who “gets it,” but also doesn’t, and is still working stuff out (aren’t we all?).
Yes, some of the lines were cheesy, as any romantic comedy tends to be, but even 15 years later, the film doesn’t seem like a dated relic. Perhaps it’s the perpetual stretch of ’90s nostalgia, but even the most outdated reference is only that Kat receives her acceptance to Sarah Lawrence via a thick packet in the mail. That’s because, for the most part, the movie still feels real, stylized in a way that’s entirely fresh and stripped down, which makes Kat’s character feel more accessible. Famous women like Beyoncé and Amy Poehler proudly fly their feminist flags in popular culture today, but there’s something to be said about altering people’s perceptions of feminism through the messiness of a fictional character whose world you can inhabit.