Rejecting the Obedient Woman in ’10 Things I Hate About You’

Buena Vista Pictures

After using much of my over-extensive spare time for healing and self-introspection, I’ve realised that I am, of sorts, “a heinous bitch.” And like Kat Stratford (Julia Stiles) from Gil Junger’s 10 Things I Hate About You, I can’t help but let the title sink in for a moment before my grin widens into a triumphant smile. It is this small scene that continues to distinguish itself among other teen romantic comedies and coming-of-age films, even 21 years after the film’s release.

The crafting behind Kat and Bianca Stratford’s characters as opposing sides subtly unfolds through the film. Initially, they are presented as complete polar opposites for visual comedic purposes. Where Bianca (Larisa Oleynik) is styled in butterfly clips, floral skirts and swooning over boys at her high school; Kat is stone cold with her hatred for the male species and annoyance over other people’s unsubstantial interpretation of life. But this is not entirely the reason behind the tension between the sisters. A deeper look in their characterisation sets them further apart; Bianca aspires for other people’s approval where Kat maintains that she only needs to be happy with herself. Bianca strives to be seen as the obedient woman; a soft-spoken, submissive young woman who appeals to her male partner. The term ‘obedient woman’ was coined in the 1950s and is mainly in the forefront of religious arguments on how a wife is meant to submit to her husband, his needs, his desires and the sanctity of their marriage in order to fulfil a spiritual submission to God. Over the years, this has become a sexist and patriarchal notion to suppress women in marriage and society. Thus appeared antagonising women who don’t conform to the ideals of an ‘obedient woman.’ Women like Kat Stratford.

Julia Stiles and Larisa Oleynik in 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
Buena Vista Pictures

In terms of the original play, The Taming of The Shrew by William Shakespeare, he writes the journey that even the most non-conformist women in society will surrender and submit for true love. Katherine is abused, starved and locked away by Petruchio and is released as an obedient, submissive woman. The play bases its themes on morality and gender inequality in society but Shakespeare maintains that in the end, as much as women rebel against the archetype, they will eventually turn to obedience for their partners. Again, keep in mind that the ideals of an obedient woman are heavily based on religious context.

This is where Kat’s characterisation in its adaptation does not pivot around the heroine’s absolute mortification at the hands of her romantic foil, A Man Who Teaches Her A Lesson About Herself — instead, 10 Things decides to turn the anger of Shakespeare’s heroine inward in order to grapple with his misogyny head-on. The writers balance a clever awareness of its source material with an energetic rejection of both high school movie tropes and Shakespearan play tropes. Kat is neither a foil to Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger), her love interest trying so very hard to persuade her to go out with him, nor Bianca, a sister who embraces the role of the obedient woman and courtship in society. Kat Stratford is not a symbol of 90’s feminist propaganda. She is simply herself. And it is a powerful move to allow a character to come to terms with the parts that they don’t like about their self and continue being. Unfortunately for this she is demonised, seen as the opposing force of the obedient women.

As Bianca reaches her goal to date the school’s popular jock, Joey (Andrew Keegan), and be asked to go to the prom, she realises that her vanity and desire to fulfil a queen-bee status is what makes her horrible towards others. Her social ranking with the hottest guy at school is not worth it if she is not happy. She committed to the ideals of an obedient woman to perfection, and yet she feels unsatisfied with her outcome. At the prom, we see that Bianca unleashes her impulsiveness to protect Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as she punches and screams at Joey in front of everyone. She no longer cares of upholding her perfect reputation, she wants to be happy, and being happy means letting go of this self-ordained perception to fit into society. Kat has unlocked this realisation long ago.  

Julia Stiles in 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
Buena Vista Pictures

Kat doesn’t strain herself for the approval of her high school peers or to fit the very constraining boxes of personality. Kat is a literature nerd but she doesn’t force herself to hang out with the literature club. She’s a soccer star but she doesn’t form part of the cult of jocks. Even after she accepts Patrick’s romantic advances; she doesn’t change her abrasiveness or wit, she doesn’t alter herself for him or for society now that she is one half of a relationship. She is complex, she is flawed and she is very much aware of both. She found love and will be well on way to her dream school without submitting to her man or the ideals of an obedient woman. The fact that she’s still a teenager and has already reached a stage of self-acceptance and refusal to be boxed in any personality is radical itself!  

I find it quietly revolutionary for Kat, and now myself, to be aware of the unlikable aspects of ourselves and to stop trying to mould our personality to be an ‘obedient woman.’ Of course, there is always room to heal and to improve on oneself, but it shouldn’t be to cater towards a non-existent husband and to a community that is still shackled by a decades-long notion of suppression. Many women today support the ideals of an obedient woman to uphold civility in society, but this takes away the authenticity of a person. And sometimes authenticity is messy and not that likeable – which should be OKAY!

This shouldn’t be viewed as a feminist agenda to want to be angry when things don’t work out as planned, to not want to be nice towards people that have hurt you countless of times before, to pave your own path while making so many mistakes along the way. This should be viewed as being human. And even in today’s time of literature and film ladies; as characters they aren’t allowed to just be, they have to categorised accordingly in their roles. So now I fully relish in the fact that as much as I serve respect to my community and elders, I will be a “heinous bitch” before I am boxed to perfection.

10 Things I Hate About You is currently available to stream on Disney+

by Ammaarah Mookadam

Ammaarah Mookadam (she/her) is a proud Indian South African pursuing a dual major study in English Literature and Law. She relies on coffee, films that draw out nostalgic feelings to represent her lost adolescence and an endless to-be-read pile of books. Twitter: @manicpixihijabi

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