A Love Letter to a Nineties Rom-Com

|Finn Odum|

Of all the things I discovered when I was fifteen, you were the least detrimental to my health. In a year of crippling anxiety and one particularly bad debate tournament, you were a shining star amidst the dark. You, a mildly out-of-touch teen rom-com retelling one of Shakespeare’s worst comedies. Who would’ve thought that of all the cinematic gold I watched that year, you were the one I’d remember the most? 2014, the year of the action blockbusters Kingsman: The Secret Service and three different Marvel movies. The year of Whiplash and Foxcatcher. Yes, all of those were technically good movies. And no, none of them compare to the epic 99 minutes of Heath Ledger brooding all over the place.

But why? You’re just another slightly offensive teen movie from the late nineties. In 2020, it’s easy to look back at you and speak only of your questionable content. Like the sole non-white character who’s wedged into the plot for a mildly comical political commentary on race. Or Kat’s dialogue, which is full of so many hyper-intellectual feminist buzzwords that she could’ve been my freshman year critical theory professor.

None of that’s your fault, I suppose. You were released in 1999—the same year I was born, coincidentally—alongside another literary-adaptation-turned-teen-rom-com, She’s All That. You’re both relics of your era, with leading men who’d soon become much more famous than the movies where they got their start. But She’s All That was just another retelling of Pygmalion, following in the footsteps of My Fair Lady and Pretty Woman before it. Aside from its modern, high-school setting, it brought nothing new to the story. Its shallow, nerd-to-prom-queen plotline is an updated but unoriginal take on the source material, straight down to the misguided gender roles filled by its one-dimensional characters.

You, on the other hand, don’t hand over Kat and Bianca to the same cruel fates that awaited them in the source material. Between you and me, The Taming of the Shrew is an uncreative insult to Shakespeare’s ability as a writer. The original reduces Kate, an outspoken, independent individual, to a shallow and thoughtless object. Poor Bianca doesn’t even get the luxury of having a personality; she’s the ideal passive object, her only purpose being the McGuffin for her suitors. But in your retelling of this dated tale, the female leads aren’t objects. In fact, by the end of the movie, Bianca’s fed up with being treated like one. She beats the living daylights out of Joey Donner (your Hortensio) after she learns he only wanted to date her so they could have sex. Bianca’s not the tame, perfect bride Shakespeare wrote her to be. She gets to play an active role in her own story, not sidelined for the sake of comedy.

Then there’s Kat, whose whip-smart attitude was something I could only wish to emulate in high school. Maybe that’s why I have so much affection for you: Kat represented the kind of person I wanted to be when I was a high school senior. She was smart, independent, and refused to take garbage from anyone else. Better yet, she remained that way for the entire story. Yes, one could argue that Patrick changes Kat, but it’s not through verbal and psychological abuse. He shows her an actual human relationship. She, in turn, makes the decision to open herself up to someone else. Kat reconciles her relationships with her family and Patrick without changing her core identity. And Patrick, unlike Petruchio, falls in love with Kat just as she is, not as some ideal woman he’s constructed in his head.

So, is that the source of my nostalgia? The way you saved the heroes from an unfortunate demise? My writer’s brain is inclined to believe so. You took Shakespeare’s plot and spun it into your own story. The question then became, what about the changed storyline was so memorable? At first, I thought it was because the romantic plotline was believable. The characters still end up together, sure, but Kat and Patrick’s romance is organic. They’ve fallen for each other, flaws and all. But here’s the thing: I’m not a hopeless romantic. If I remember correctly, when I discovered you, I wasn’t thrilled about watching a rom-com. And, as much as I loved Kat when I was fifteen, it’s taken me some time to realize that name dropping Simone de Beauvoir in your English class isn’t cool. She’s a wonderful protagonist, but I don’t idolize her the way I used to.

Being quarantined at home with my family helped me figure out why this film matters so much to me. At your core, you’re a story about relationships. Cameron and Bianca. Kat and Patrick. But the relationship that matters most? It’s Bianca and Kat’s. By changing Kat and Bianca’s narrative, you didn’t just give them the chance to stand on their own, you gave them the chance to be sisters. Kat spends the film trying to deter Bianca from dating Joey because she wants to protect her. Everything she does is an attempt to keep her sister from making the same mistake that she had when she was Bianca’s age. And when Bianca finally finds her voice, she uses it to stick up for her older sister and herself.

I’m an older sister. When I was fifteen, I was worried about my younger sister adjusting to her first year of high school. All I wanted to do was keep her safe. And after going through my own crisis of mental health, I was terrified that she’d suffer through something similar. So when I watched you for the first time, I could see myself and my sister in Kat and Bianca. Their sisterhood, through all its ups and downs, reminded me of my own.

You’re not a perfect movie. But you hold an important place in my heart as a piece of media that really resonated with me, flaws and all. So, for that, 10 Things I Hate About You, I say thank you.

Sincerely,

Finn Odum

Edited by Michelle Baroody

10 Things I Hate About You is screening at the Trylon from Friday, September 18 to Tuesday, September 22. For more information, visit trylon.org

Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *