Things I Hate
about "10 Things I Hate About You"
10 Things I Hate About You (1999) Starring Heath Ledger, Julia Stiles, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Larisa Oleynik, and Larry Miller. Written by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith. Directed by Gil Junger.
The movie 10 Things I Hate About You features a teenaged woman who, we are repeatedly told, is a feisty rebel. For a moment, she actually lives up to the billing. In an early scene, our heroine (Julia Stiles) sits in her English class where a classmate fawns over Hemingway, saying she finds the author romantic. This classmate has the teacher's support. Stiles responds beautifully: "Romantic? Hemingway? He was an abusive, alcoholic, misogynist who squandered half his life hanging around Picasso trying to nail his left-overs."
At that line, I had to stop the VCR, not only to laugh, but to cheer! Never before had I seen anything like this. In other movies, if a teenager expresses an opinion differing from that of an adult, the youth is portrayed as stupid. Usually, the youth is a jock whose most articulate rebuttal is a belch. Filmmakers suggest if a youth disagrees with an adult, the youth must be wrong and therefore stupid to disagree. When we find a young intellectual, she is usually a submissive wimp who kisses up to every old dude. Filmmakers suggest an intelligent youth would recognize her "superiors" and "know her place." So I had to cheer when Stiles shows her brains while putting down an author assigned by her teacher. My cheering, however, died quick and it died painfully.
With that line, Stiles was technically disagreeing, not with her teacher, but with a fellow student. How does Stiles respond when an old dude challenges her? We soon learn. After Stiles delivers that line, the teacher orders her, "Go to the office. You're p*ssing me off." Does Stiles respond by reciting the First Amendment and reminding her teacher of America's cherished value of allowing people to express their views? Does she commit civil disobedience, refuse to budge from her seat, and leave the teacher to physically drag her to the office? Does she give him the finger and walk out on the entire school? No. She obeys.
Like most "rebellious teenagers" in fiction, her most rebellious act is to grumble while doing what she is told. The message from filmmakers matches the message from the aliens in They Live: OBEY. Defying authorities is unthinkable, even to the sharpest, most rebellious young minds.
Stiles does challenge people — as long as they are her peers. We see a girl's soccer game where Stiles roughs up an opponent. We see her ram the car of another student for blocking her path. But when an adult attacks her dignity, resistance is unthinkable.
Soon in 10 Things, we get a plot-contrivance. Stiles's father declares her sister may not date until Stiles does. Following this, we see several scenes of the sister (Larisa Oleynik) whining and pleading and yelling at Stiles. It never occurs to her to ignore her father and live her own life. In fact, such self-respect is unthinkable to every youth in this movie. Several guys who want to date the sister scrounge for someone to date the un-datable Stiles. All of them accept the father's impulsive demand as some inviolable law.
Ultimately Stiles, feeling sorry for her sister, decides to help her. Does she council her sister to finally stand up for herself? Does she help her sneak out? No. She goes with a date to a dance she does not want to attend, even after telling us (several times) she would never do anything she did not want to do.
As Stiles falls in love with her equally "rebellious" date (Heath Ledger), we find a scene where she decides to help him escape detention. Why does this guy even show up for detention? He is another rebel, it seems, who cannot even think to stand up for himself. OBEY.
In the detention hall, the supervising teacher steals from students a bag of Cheetos and a bag of pot. None of the supposed trouble-makers offer any resistance. SUBMIT TO AUTHORITY. Then Stiles comes in. She distracts the teacher while her boyfriend sneaks out a window. How does she distract the old dude? By showing her breasts. She degrades herself fulfilling the fantasy of a middle-aged pervert who bullies her peers. Wow! What a rebel!
Interestingly, when she flashes, she positions herself so none of the students in the detention hall can see her breasts (nor can the moviegoers). Once again, we see our heroine treating old dudes more favorably than her peers.
Near the end, when the filmmakers wanted something sentimental, we see Stiles get ecstatic as her father "lets" her go to the college of her choice rather than the college he wanted.
At the film's climax, we see Stiles finally walk out on her annoying English teacher. But not in the rebellious way we might hope. With her boyfriend sitting in the classroom, she reads a poem revealing that, despite their latest fight, she still doesn't hate him. Then she does what every fictional teenaged woman does after revealing such intimate feelings: she runs out of the room. I've never understood this cliché. Whether it's an episode of "Family Ties" or a cheesy movie like this, fictional teenaged women cannot express an emotion without bursting from the room. This seems never to be done by characters of any other age-group or any other gender. But the female teen will run from a room every time.
Our young heroine could not leave the classroom as a strong act of protest. She could only run to hide.
Imagine how ridiculous this movie might seem if the characters had been older. Imagine a movie about two sisters played by Susan Sarandon and Julia Roberts. Their father declares Roberts may not date until Sarandon finally does. Roberts responds by begging and pleading and cussing-out her sister. Roberts' would-be suitors all respond by desperately searching for someone to date Sarandon, accepting the father's rule without question.
At work, Sarandon is seen obeying her boss's every order, no matter how arbitrary or unfair. Her co-workers all react with amazement that Sarandon is so rebellious as to roll her eyes while obeying. Then we get a sappy scene where this rebellious old chick excitedly hugs her father with gratitude after he declares he will allow her to get another job.
Such a movie would seem ridiculous. And so does this one. I felt disgusted watching a school of subservient youths ooh and ahh each other's pseudo-rebelliousness, and I was not the only person turned off. Proof of this surfaced at the box office.
10 Things I Hate About You opened the same year as She's All That and created an interesting experiment. She's All That has no characters billed as "rebellious teenagers" and no characters who are shown submitting to the old; but otherwise, the two films are nearly identical. Both films center around a high school chick who lives with a single father, played by a stand-up comedian. She's considered un-dateable until a fellow student asks her out for insincere reasons. She rejects him at first, but he persists, pretending to be interested in things she likes. Soon, she succumbs. He, too, falls in love despite himself. She then learns the real reason he asked her out. Humiliated, she leaves him (emoting, then storming out of the building, of course). In the film's final minutes, he wins her back and surrenders what he stood to gain by asking her out, thus offering an act of contrition while proving his feelings are now sincere. Both films have a shallow, stuck-up ex as the main villain, and both claim to be based on classic theator (The Taming of the Shrew for 10 Things I Hate About You, My Fair Lady for She's All That). And if one film had an edge at the box office, many might have guessed it would be 10 Things since this film had a catchy title lending itself to a clever ad campaign.
So what actually happened at the box office? She's All That (boring title not withstanding) grossed nearly twice as much as 10 Things, according to boxofficeguru.com. By simply cutting out those scenes of teenagers subjugating themselves to the old, by not degrading youth, She's All That ruled the box office. The film had shortcomings, but it did not insult young moviegoers nor insult the intelligence of older ones. That made all the difference in the world.