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In our contemporary cultural climate, which thankfully recognizes the battered and abused woman as a victim and the perpetrator of that violence as a criminal, Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew is undoubtedly a difficult play to stage in any type of venue or medium. Like other of his plays of questionable ideology, particularly The Merchant of Venice and Othello, Shrew has been attacked by critics, playgoers, and readers alike, accused of sending a morally untenable message to masses of people who may be swayed or placated by its portrayal of sado-masochistic gender relations.

Critics like Barbara Hodgdon argue that The Taming of the Shrew normalizes and reifies domestic abuse and master-servant dynamics in male-female relationships. Diana E. Henderson writes that this play "highlights the culture's traffic in women," and a Los Angeles Times theater critic penned an editorial about Shrew entitled, "The Beast of a Play that Can't Be Tamed," insisting that "until someone can make better sense of the Bard's battle-of-the-sexes comedy, it's time to declare a moratorium on the oft-staged Shrew."

Despite the pervasive misgivings about this play, it has seen prolific production in the twentieth century, spawning numerous film and television versions since its silent picture debut in Biograph's brief 1908 Shrew, directed by famed filmmaker D.W. Griffith. At least eighteen screen versions of The Taming of the Shrew have been made in North America and Europe. In her fine article "Katherine Bound," scholar Hodgdon examines several twentieth century productions of Shrew on stage and on celluloid and concludes that "Shrew continues to enfold women within representation to make and remake cultural myths with which to negotiate her use" and that these representations "perfectly exhibit how the containing illusions of popular patriarchies are engendered and sustained." In other words, all Shrews are inevitably (and always already) works of ideological containment.

In her study of the illustrious and notorious film and television production history of this play, Diane E. Henderson notes that Shrew seems to experience popularity particularly during those decades in which women are being encouraged to return to or take pleasure in domestic space and duties and eras in which American culture is backlashing against feminism. Henderson also claims that "Shrew occurs at moments of new viewing technologies and is promptly reproduced in the new media before most if not all other Shakespeare plays," remarking that the "agents of culture seem anxious to make sure The Taming of the Shrew is preserved."

It would seem that Shrew has indeed been used as an instrument of ideological containment for women throughout the last century. However, there is one notable and recent exception to this rule. As the century drew to a close, one film genre resurfaced on the mass market in a new and powerful way: the teen movie. This genre exploded after the 1995 and 1996 box office hits Clueless, Scream, and Romeo + Juliet proved to filmmakers and studios that teen films could be extremely lucrative because of their low production costs and large audience with plenty of free time and discretionary cash. Like the new technologies that have sought to produce new Shrews at their inceptions, this new genre quickly generated its Shrew for the times in 1999s 10 Things I Hate About You.

The teen film genre has been much maligned by critics all over the country for the past several years; indeed, Shakespeare scholars often disdain such free adaptations of his work and claim that this sort of American pop culture version of a Shakespeare classic is nothing but a reflection of the "dumbing-down" of high culture to pander to and profit from the degenerate taste of the voracious and vapid teen audience.

But much of the critical work done on Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet (1968) and Baz Luhrmann's William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (1996) has argued to the contrary: that mass market films made of Shakespeare's work can be crafted for the teen audience and still be effective, intelligent, and illuminating adaptations. First time film director Gil Junger, a twenty-two year veteran of television direction, made 10 Things I Hate About You from a script written by two young novice scriptwriters, Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith. Together, they offered a revision of The Taming of the Shrew which finally put women on top, leaving Kat and Bianca united in the end, not divided, and stronger than ever.

While nearly all of the film and video Shrews have focused on how the male characters in the play position themselves and relate to one another through the purchasing and possession of the female characters, 10 Things is truly a film about the Stratford sisters, Katarina and Bianca, students at Padua High School. Unlike the Shrew text, most of this film's dialogue belongs to the sisters, and theirs is the only home we are allowed to explore via the camera. It is the sisters' struggle to grow up, to deal with family and personal demons, and to understand one another that dominate this comedy.

Of course, refocusing the attention on the activity and agency of the female characters does require a thorough rewriting of the play. Actress Fiona Shaw, who played Kate on stage for over a year, notes the irony embedded in a play which claims to be about a "shrew" yet does not allow this egregiously open-mouthed woman to speak: "I think Shakespeare is making a point of it. This man comes to tame Kate and speaks through the whole play…for almost five acts we never hear her speak…So we have to interpret her silence."

In fact, when Kate finally does find her voice, she speaks the infamous, lengthy subservient monologue in which she lectures her sister Bianca and the newlywed widow that their husband is their "lord," their "king," and their "governor" and instructs them to "serve, love, and obey" their husbands in all situations. This searing diatribe Kate delivers at the close of the play is certainly one of the most difficult Shakespearean passages to negotiate on a stage or screen today. It would be extremely politically incorrect to play it straight, and no North American audience could tolerate it well. Hodgdon insists that the only way audience members can endure Kate's final speech is "by gliding over the signs of the father…(accepting them as 'natural') or choosing to assume Kate is merely performing and does not believe what she says (or both)." She further suggests that by doing so readers or viewers "can produce a scene similar to a happy rape, the fully authorized scene of female sexuality-authorized precisely because it is mastered and controlled."

Screenwriters Lutz and Smith have created a text that ends Kate's silence in The Taming of the Shrew and gives her a voice, loud and strong. Their screenplay also praises the intelligence and insight of the mind behind that voice. Highlighting this point, toward the beginning of the film, Kat defiantly declares to Ms. Perky, her guidance counselor, "Expressing my opinion is not a terrorist action." Perhaps this is the pivotal difference between early modern gender politics and those of the 1990s. Moreover, the screenwriters have also transformed Kate's final patriarchal paean to wifely domesticity into a public reading of a Shakespearean sonnet she has written to her would-be boyfriend, Patrick, who has betrayed her trust. In the sonnet, she explains the many things she "hates" about him in order to communicate her affection for and disappointment in his treatment of her. Like her counterpart in Shrew, Kat is expressing her care for her partner; however, this Kat does not lose her edge. The servile flattery is lost; she is not accepting a "happy rape." Instead, Kat is asking for a renewal of a "marriage of true minds."

As I have mentioned, the film is about two sisters, Katarina and Bianca Stratford, a high school senior and sophomore respectively, who are complete opposites. Kat is a willful, intellectual, sharp-tongued young woman who is universally feared as a "mewling rampallian wretch" or, in the vernacular, a "heinous bitch." She reads Sylvia Plath and Simone de Beauvoir, listens to "angry girl" indie rock, and wants to attend prestigious Sarah Lawrence College. Bianca is a popular, pretty girl who constantly seeks the approval of others and debates the relative value of her fashion accessories, at one point declaring that she has discovered the difference between like and love because she "likes" her Skechers (sneakers) but she "loves" her Prada backpack.

One of the most entertaining and innovative features of this film is its portrayal of the sisters' father, played by comedian Larry Miller. He is an obstetrician who spends every day "up to his elbows in placenta," and is paranoid that if he allows his daughters to date, they will become a teen pregnancy statistic. He continually lectures them about the horrors of teenagers giving birth and insists that they stay close to home. At one point in the film, he forces Bianca to wear a weighted vest which is shaped like the torso of a pregnant woman, called "the belly," to keep her from getting into trouble with the opposite sex at a party. For all his paranoia, he is a loving father who cares about what his daughters want. The screenplay goes further to explain the situation by revealing that the Stratford mother abandoned the family three years before the opening of the film, and the father feels overwhelmed with the roles of both mother and father.

Kat has clearly taken on some of the motherly functions in the house, including the role of protector in Bianca's life. Kat insists she does not desire to date the "unwashed miscreants" that deck the halls of her high school, but she is also hiding a secret. She has had a negative sexual encounter with Joey Donner, the school narcissist, and she is trying to save Bianca from a similar fate by encouraging her father to retain the no-dating rules for both sisters. When Bianca begs "Daddy" for permission to go out like "normal" girls, he placates her by giving her a condition: if Kat dates, she can date. He clearly relies on Kat not to do what she has sworn disgusts her and believes he is safe in this ruling.

The contemporary high school setting of this adaptation of The Taming of the Shrew greatly lessens the consequences of the male-female relationships in the play. Like the Shrew plot, this film begins with a newcomer to Padua High, Cameron, spotting Bianca across a crowded quad and declaring Lucentio's words, "I burn, I pine, I perish," to which his guide Michael replies dryly, "Of course you do." This anti-Petrarchan sentiment echoes that in Shrew as well as plays like Romeo and Juliet and sonnets such as "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun." Cameron then claims to be a French tutor in order to get to know Bianca, as Lucentio disguises himself as a tutor for his Bianca.

Petruchio's transformation is more complicated. Patrick Verona is a wild high school senior whose reputation as an insane renegade, like Kat's, allows him to escape the economy of high school hierarchies. It is common knowledge that he sold his liver on the black market to buy a new pair of speakers, spent a year in San Quentin, and ate a live duck. But the truly shrewish traits of Petruchio are found in the character of Joey, the self-obsessed underwear model who three years before had deflowered Kat and who now has made a bet with his friends that he can do the same to Bianca.

As in Shrew, money changes hands concerning the possession of a female. In this case, Cameron and Michael, in an Iago-like move, inveigle Joey into paying Patrick to date Kat so that Bianca can date, as per the new rule set by their father. Of course, Patrick succeeds in winning the heart of the wily Kat after several amusing mishaps, including her vomiting on his shoes after drinking too much at a party and him performing "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You" for her in the high school stadium, sacrificing himself on the altar of dignity.

Their public humiliation is mutual.

In fact, the most important cross-gender relationship in 10 Things I Hate About You is the one between Kat and her father. Like Kate in Shrew, Kat believes that her father wants her to be more like Bianca and feels that he loves Bianca more; however, unlike Kate, Kat has a father who not only listens to her, but also learns from her.

In Shrew, when Kate's father Baptista informs Petruchio that he may wed her only if he obtain the "special thing…her love; for that is all in all," he quickly forgets his pledge to honor her will and expressly acts against her wishes in marrying her to Petruchio.

In 10 Things, Kat's overprotective father has been thinking about Kat's accusation that he does not trust his daughters to make their own decisions because he lost his wife and feels out of control himself. By the conclusion of the film, father Stratford has put forth money on behalf of Katarina: he has paid her deposit for Sarah Lawrence College. He has relinquished his desire to keep her close to home and decides to trust her judgment and support her education on the east coast.

Bianca's fate is more interesting. Bianca seems to be the same simpering, manipulative fool at the start of 10 Things as she does throughout Shrew; however, this Bianca is a cat of a different color. This Bianca may be sophomoric, but she is not stupid.

She realizes, all on her own, that Joey is a pompous windbag and finds him ultimately repugnant, despite his popularity. Instead, she chooses the kind, smitten Cameron, who confronts her with the frustrated question, "Have you always been this selfish?" After a shamed pause, she answers quietly, "Yes." This Bianca allows herself to be chastened by her suitor and then attempts to mend her ways, having obviously learned some valuable lessons.

When Kat finally tells Bianca about her damaging sexual experience with Joey, Bianca confronts Kat with her own duplicity, asking Kat why she had never told of this before and insisting that this was not a valid reason for Kat to help their father keep Bianca hostage.

Bianca understands that this has been a house of damaging secrets and denial. Of the three remaining members of her broken family, she is the only one who accepts that her mother is gone for good and attempts to recapture some normalcy in a house of extremes. The symbolism in the film is subtle, but potent. Bianca wears her mother's pearls, emblem of maternal domesticity, which enrages Kat, who declares that they should not be worn at all and look terrible on Bianca. Clearly, Kat holds on to the expectation that her mother is coming home. Their father tries to hold on to his daughters so as not to lose them as he did his wife. Only Bianca knows that life must move on.

In one of the final scenes of the film, Bianca, like her counterpart in Shrew, proves more shrewish than her sister: she punches Joey Donner twice in the nose (once for making Cameron bleed, once for what he did to her sister) and kicks him in the groin, saying "and that's for me!" The next day, when Kat admits to her father that Bianca "beat the hell" out of Joey, she expects her father's censure: "What's the matter? Upset that I rubbed off on her?" Their father responds honestly, "No impressed." It turns out that Kat has succeeded in protecting her sister after all, by teaching her to be strong and to be herself. At the conclusion of the film, the audience sees that the end of domestic containment, which had been maintained by both the father and by Kat, creates a closer, more unified family.

Thus, in the end, rather than the "dumbing-down of high culture to pander to and profit from the degenerate taste of the voracious and vapid teen audience," screenwriters Lutz and Smith and director Junger have created a skillful revision of the problematic Shrew, endowing Kat and Bianca with strength, intelligence, agency, and, perhaps most importantly, a voice. The two sisters have indeed been transformed into role models for women in the twenty-first century.

May 2001

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