How 10 Things I Hate About You Could Have Changed My Life
Thirteen years after watching “10 Things I Hate About You” for the first time, I bought a Bikini Kill album and have been playing “Rebel Girl” on repeat ever since. I used to play 10 Things I Hate About You on repeat as well. I bought the VHS and watched it every week until I memorized all the lines. The movie is loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew: Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) falls in love with the vapid but beautiful Bianca (Larisa Oleynik), but Bianca isn’t allowed to date boys until her older sister Kat (Julia Stiles) starts dating, because in the late ’90s it was reasonable for a father to completely dictate the love life of his seventeen-year-old daughter (this vital plot element probably made more sense during Shakespeare’s time).
To seduce Bianca, Cameron lies about his academic abilities and tutors her in French, and then he hires the outsider/rebel Patrick (Heath Ledger) to trick Kat into falling in love. Why is Kat incapable of forming her own relationships? Because she listens to Riot Grrrl and hates men, apparently. But to wrap up with the plot . . . the movie climaxes with Kat finally realizing that Patrick began dating her because he was paid, and she becomes furious with him. Yet, in the end, Patrick is able to win her back. How? By buying her a guitar with the money he was paid to date her.
It wasn’t until I got older that I realized that the basic premise and reconciliation of each of these relationships relies on falsehood and/or monetary exchange—in other words, the purchasing of women. I can’t totally dismiss the movie on these grounds, because it’s a fairly clever for a teenage rom-com. What I never considered, though, were the references made toward the Riot Grrrl movement and how they factored into this theme, mostly because I didn’t know Riot Grrrl existed.
Riot Girrl emerged from Washington State at the same time as Nirvana did in the early 1990s. The movement was founded with the intention to heighten female representation in the music industry and in order to integrate issues that were important to women (like sexual harassment and violence) into music. Part of the Riot Grrrl Manifesto states, “We are interested in creating non-hierarchical ways of being and making music.” Bikini Kill and The Raincoats were the founders of this “beergutboyrock” rejection. These are the bands that Kat from “10 Things” lists as her favorites.
Given the combination of the movie’s setting in Washington State and Kat’s stated music taste, someone on the production team was evoking the Riot Grrrl movement. They don’t name it but associated it with Kat’s undateable/man-hating persona. Riot Grrrl is used as a cheap characterization trick to attribute motivations and associations. Yet, while Riot Grrrl serves as an easy reference, it is never granted a voice, which is ironic since this was the entire point of the movement. But what I’m really curious about is the movie’s soundtrack.
Kat discusses Bikini Kill and The Raincoats, but we never hear from them in the film. Instead, we listen to the tame and apolitical Letters to Cleo cover songs from male bands. I’m not asserting this as some overt patriarchy conspiracy. FocusFilm wanted to make money, and lyrics confronting rape/harassment/female empowerment does not help to sell tickets. Still, for my ten-year-old self’s sake, I wish they had.
Like most children of the 1990s, the only images of female artists that I had access to were robotic, bleach-blond-alleged-virgins that dressed up like school girls and sang about being genies. They promoted a role for women, a version of femininity that I inherently rejected, even at that age. What I was craving was a different type of narrative. In the midst of this teen pop tornado, 10 Things I Hate About You could have provided a break from the storm. Instead of creating a two-dimensional display of a movement, it could have let these bands speak for themselves, at least given them one song. I feel that, for me, one song is all would have taken.
I can’t predict whether my 10-year-old self would have even enjoyed Riot Grrrl or, if I had, whether my parents would have deemed it appropriate listening. But I do know that I would have recognized it as different. I would have realized that there were alternatives to the gyrating, repetitive images of women that were splattered across MTV. Instead, thirteen years later, I finally heard a song by Bikini Kill. Finally, I found a voice that sounded more like my own.