By London Koffler
Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is undoubtedly a play concerning gender dynamics and gender roles. The 1999 film adaptation, Junger’s 10 Things I Hate About You, claims to present the story in a more empowering and feminist light and is often regarded as more progressive than the play on which it is based (Pittman 144). However, this film has its own problems, romanticizing abuse in teenage relationships and resorting to discreetly stereotypical and sexist portrayals of women to tell its story.
The interpretation of Bianca from 10 Things I Hate About You is exaggerated according to stereotypes about teenage girls; while she is beautiful and popular, she is also “vapid” and “conceited” (Junger 09:42-09:57). For example, even when her sister, Kat, discusses her traumatic sexual experience with Joey, Bianca is not sympathetic toward her but instead focuses on how it has affected her own social life. Despite these character flaws, she is presented as the most desirable girl in all of Padua High, turning heads and attracting the attention of boys much older than she.
Bianca’s sister, Kat, is intelligent, but because she outspokenly rebels against the norm and confronts sexism in her school, she is labeled as an over-zealous feminist. Kat’s peers describe her as “a bitter, self-righteous hag who has no friends” (Junger 06:02), but her intelligence and sarcasm allow her to craft scathing attacks to defend herself. Kat is considered unattractive because of her dark and oversized clothing, reinforcing the idea that a lack of stereotypical femininity is undesirable.
Despite Kat’s intelligence and wariness toward men, she discards her tough exterior and falls for the school’s “bad boy,” Patrick. Patrick’s control over Kat is a sinister cycle of humiliation and abuse disguised as a teen love story. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 141 describes the author’s devotion to a woman, even though he does not like her personality. Kat reinterprets this to apply to her relationship with Patrick. Although part of her despises him, Kat still finds herself attracted to and submitting to him. In the last scene, Patrick literally silences Kat with a kiss while she is speaking, leaving a very “disturbing” message about the agency that should be allowed to women (Hateley). Patrick shows mental, emotional, and physical control over Kat, and she seems to surrender to him again and again.
The film, while claiming to profess a “girl power” message, sexualizes and objectifies these two teenage girls and perpetuates the idea that “to be a girl is to be a body” (Balizet 823). Kat is not a sexualized object until she begins to show some femininity, but Bianca is sexualized from the first slow-motion moment Cameron sees her. Because of his infatuation with her appearance, he devises a plan to “get” her, as if she were a trophy to be won. His pursuit is unwarranted and appears to be the result of his objectification of Bianca.
Despite sexualizing and objectifying Kat and Bianca, the film also suggests that sex, rather than being a natural human act, causes impurity. The main advocate of chastity is the girls’ obstetrician father, Walter. His reason for not allowing the girls to date is to preserve their virginity, and to him, the ultimate physical mark of impurity is a teenage pregnancy. Walter makes Bianca wear “The Belly” before she goes out to a party “to give her an embodied experience of pregnancy as shameful” (Balizet 828). This seems to work for Bianca, who, although embarrassed, acts as if this is a common routine for both daughters in the Stratford home. Walter wants this small instance of humiliation to deter his daughters from making this fake pregnancy a reality.
What Walter does not know is that, despite his efforts, Kat has already been sexually active. Throughout the film, her impurity is subtly referenced, and she is shamed for it. For example, during Patrick and Kat’s paintballing session, Kat’s pure white coveralls are dirtied by paint—a literal symbol of her impurity. When Patrick kisses her for the first time, the soundtrack proclaims, “you’re holy even when you are not new” (Junger 1:09:40-1:09:55). The implication is that Kat’s being “not new” is something shameful and will make her less desirable.
On the other hand, “It is because [Bianca] is so clearly depicted as a virgin that she is also seen as a sexual prize” in the film (Balizet 830). In fact, the reason Cameron gives for liking Bianca, even though he hasn’t met her yet, is that “She’s totally pure” (Junger 10:03). Her virginity is sexualized by the other boys at school, who announce “Virgin alert” (09:07) when she is in the area and predatorily stare at her as she passes. While she is expected to be “pure” sexually, she is also “expected to be desirable” in her appearance (Balizet 826). Cameron’s friend says that Bianca wears a “strategically planned sun dress” (Junger 10:32) only to tease the boys, as it is a known fact that she is not allowed to date.
Balizet, Ariane M. “Just Say Yes: Shakespeare, Sex, and Girl Culture.” Women’s Studies, vol. 44, no. 6, 2015, pp 815-841, EBSCOhost, doi: 10.1080/00497878.2015.1045687.
Hateley, Erica. “A Gendered Educational Agenda: What’s Wrong with 10 Things I Hate About You?” Australian Screen Education, vol. 57, 2010, pp. 129-135, EBSCOhost.
Junger, Gil, director. 10 Things I Hate About You. Touchstone Pictures, 1999.
Pittman, L. Monique. “Taming 10 Things I Hate About You: Shakespeare and the Teenage Film Audience.” Literature Film Quarterly, vol. 32, no. 2, 2004, pp. 144-152, EBSCOhost.
Edited by Allison Naumann