Written by guest contributor Mariela Santos-Muñiz
High school romantic comedies were very popular in the 90’s, especially the 1999 movie 10 Things I Hate About You. Based on William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, which in itself has come under scrutiny for its misogynistic content. The film had one notable difference when compared to its peers: the feminist character. Kat Stratford, portrayed by Julia Stiles, was for many the first feminist character seen on film. How has the portrayal of Kat’s feminism stood against the test of time? I re-watched the film to see.
For those that may not be familiar with the plot of the film, here is a brief summary. Cameron James arrives new to Padua High School and immediately falls for Bianca Stratford, Kat’s younger sister. Bianca and Kat’s overprotective father creates a rule that Bianca can date when Kat does. As a result, Cameron and his friend Michael Eckman strike a deal with Joey Donner, the most popular guy in school, who also has an interest in Bianca; Patrick Verona is chosen as Kat’s suitor. Patrick goes on to try to win Kat’s affection and is, unbeknownst to her, paid for his efforts. The story becomes more complicated when Patrick reveals feelings for Kat, after she lets her guard down and gives him a chance. When Joey finds out that Bianca has chosen to go to prom with Cameron instead of him, he confronts Patrick in front of Kat, revealing the deal they had made. After Patrick shows remorse for his actions, Kat gives him a second chance.
Throughout the film Kat is referred to as a “difficult woman,” “the wild beast,” and a bitch multiple times. It seems that the people in Kat’s life treat her as if she fits the stereotype of the angry, man-hating feminist. This is unfortunate. The idea that feminists hate men is the most popular misconception and generalization of the movement.
Perhaps my biggest critique of the film however, is the overall lack of representation when it pertains to intersectionality. There is a brief moment in the film when Kat’s privilege is “checked” during class; she speaks out against oppression, and her African-American teacher Mr. Morgan replies: “I know how difficult it must be to overcome all those years of upper-middle class suburban oppression.” While acknowledging the need to listen to different voices is a step in the right direction, it’s not the same as providing a space for, and giving screen time to, people with different voices. Exclusion within the feminist movement is a hot-button issue that has been talked about by feminists for decades, and that continues to be a very important issue today.
Feminist characters are still few and far between in movies and there is still a lot of work to be done in terms of the female characters portrayed in films, feminist or not. According to the study Inequality in 700 Popular Films: Examining Portrayals of Gender, Race, & LGBT+ Status from 2007 to 2014 by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School and The Harnisch Foundation, out the top 100 films in 2014, only 21 had a female lead or co-lead. In the top 100 films of 2014, there was lack of diversity in race and ethnicity, with female characters being: 73.1 percent White, 12.5 percent Black, 5.3 percent Asian, 4.9 percent Hispanic, and 4.2 percent “Other.” These numbers haven’t changed since 2007, according to the findings. Women also continue to be a minority when working behind the scenes.
The same study also stated: “Across the 4,610 speaking or named characters on screen, only 19 were coded as LGB across the 100 top films of 2014. This is less than half of 1 percent of all portrayals (.4 percent.) Not one Transgender character was portrayed.” Not only this, but when breaking down the racial demographics of the LBG (not even LGBTQIAP) statistics, we see a predominantly white male representation of 63.2 percent. That’s 84.2 percent of LGB characters being white on whole.
Though the statistics for 2015 will be different, having films such as About Ray, and Stonewall which feature LBGT+ individuals specifically, there is still a major problem considering how transmisogynistic and whitewashed said films are.
As a viewer it’s important to be able to personally identify with characters that are similar to you, on screen. For viewers that aren’t able to see themselves reflected on their screens, the lack of visibility results in symbolic annihilation, a concept introduced by George Gerbner, who said: “representation in the fictional world signifies social existence; absence means symbolic annihilation.” Film content helps to shape viewers’ ideas and it’s problematic to omit, and present misleading representations, that suggest that there is one feminist experience.
Kat Stratford was a breakthrough character for feminists in film, but more so for women that could identify with her and her experiences. Not everyone has the same privileges that Kat has, as some women deal with other forms of discrimination in addition to sexism, such as racism and homophobia.
When 10 Things I Hate About You was released sixteen years ago, intersectionality wasn’t subject to mainstream attention like it is now. The growth in attention combined with the growing calls for diverse representations, show that there is an audience that is looking for content showing diverse portrayals. Moving forward, it’s important to keep in mind that a variety of experiences need to be portrayed on film. If not, communities of feminist women will continue to feel marginalized, which is harmful both on women and the larger movement as a whole.
[Images via Touchstone Pictures]