The 10 Things I Hate About You Writers Reflect On The Film's Feminist Legacy

Photo: Buena Vista Pictures/Photofest.
Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images.
In 1999, a high school comedy called 10 Things I Hate About You dropped into cinemas, gifting fans a killer Letters to Cleo cover of Cheap Trick’s “I Want You To Want Me” and a slew of soon-to-be teen icons like Julia Stiles, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and the late Heath Ledger. Now, the film is known as the pinnacle teen romantic comedy. It’s hard to imagine that Netflix’s rom com revival (see: Set It Up, The Kissing Booth, Sierra Burgess Is A Loser and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before) would exist without the influence of 10 Things.
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For the uninitiated, 10 Things I Hate About You — which was loosely inspired by Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew — stars Stiles as Kat, a fiercely independent outsider who unknowingly becomes a pawn in an elaborate scheme to get new student Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) a date with her off-limits, and much more popular younger sister Bianca (Larisa Oleynik). Since Kat and Bianca’s helicopter father won’t let Bianca date unless Kat does, Cameron and his friend Michael (David Krumholtz) pay Patrick (Ledger) to “woo” the Feminist Mystique-worshipping, Sylvia Plath-quoting Kat. In true rom com nature, Kat and Patrick end up falling in love for real, amongst paintball fights, prom night drama, and one very heartfelt reading of a poem.
The movie may be a classic in 2019, but in 1999, screenwriters Karen McCullah and Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith called it something else: their big break. The writing partners would go on to write 2001’s Legally Blonde, as well as its sequel and the forthcoming third film in the franchise. They are also the brains behind comedies like She’s the Man (also based on a Shakespeare play Twelfth Night), The House Bunny, Ella Enchanted, and The Ugly Truth. On the TV side, Smith created Trinkets, a Netflix teen drama based on her YA novel — she even cast 10 Things alum Oleynik.
Yet 10 Things I Hate About You remains a movie that has a permanent place in one’s DVD collection. (A good thing, as the film is not currently available to stream for free on Netflix or Amazon Prime.) In celebration of the film’s 20th anniversary, the movie has the closing slot in Los Angeles’ upcoming Rom Com Festival. The festival is a celebration of all-things romance and comedy, with desserts, movie screenings, and panels featuring icons of the genre. 10 Things I Hate About You will screen Sunday at 7 pm, followed by a conversation with McCullah and Smith about the movie.
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Ahead of the festival, Refinery29 spoke on the phone with the writers about the legacy of 10 Things I Hate About You, its perfect cast, and why they’d never, ever do a remake.
Refinery29: Were you looking to adapt Taming of the Shrew before you came up with the plot of 10 Things I Hate About You?
Karen McCullah: "[At first,] we were actively looking for any [right] classic story to retell in a contemporary setting."
Kirsten Smith: "We were recruiting so many of our friends to find fairytales, or fables, and one night a friend was like ‘You guys should do Taming of the Shrew, that would be great.’ He suggested switching the genders, but after considering it, we decided it would be better [in its original form.] It was a pretty intense two month search trying to find the perfect thing [that] would lend itself well to high school."
How did you first become writing partners?
KM: "I was living in Denver, and Kirsten was out here [in Los Angeles] working at a production company. She read one of my scripts and called me, and we had a drink next time I came out for a meeting. We started writing a script on cocktail napkins that night. It was for an action movie we never sold."
KS: "We wrote the script long distance. We finished writing it, but no one was that keen to pursue it as a script, but we were undaunted. We were like, ‘We’re going to write something else together. Let’s write a teen movie.’ So we sought out to find this perfect teen idea, and once we landed on Taming of the Shrew, we went to Mexico where Karen had a timeshare, and we spent a week outlining the script on the beach. We went back to our respective states and wrote the script long distance. It was before internet [was a big thing] so we were like mailing each other pages and faxing each other scenes. It was very low tech!"
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KM: "I think the internet did exist, Kirsten just didn’t have email! [Laughs]"
Why do you think the film is still so relatable for teens of this generation?
KS: "It’s about the core things that never change as a teenager, finding love and finding yourself, and breaking out from the pack."
KM: "Also, Kat being a feminist character and a rebel and light activist in her spirit, really speaks to the current teenager."
Kat is definitely a feminist icon, but do you think that if you wrote this script today, her feminism would look different?
KS: "She would have more of a global viewpoint. She would be trying to shake things up in Washington. She would be leading protests. She would be fighting a little harder for world change."
The movie was adapted into a TV series in 2009 for ABC Family, but would you ever consider doing a different reboot, or maybe a sequel to the film?
KM: "Given Heath’s death, I think it would be hard to do it without him. I wouldn’t want to do a reboot with another cast since this is the perfect cast, to me."
KS: "It’s come up here and there but it’s always felt wrong to us, to think of a movie without Heath. He was such a central part of the story and the sun around what so many of the actors orbited."
What came first, the poem that Kat reads or the title of the film?
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KM: "I found a high school diary and I had a boyfriend at the time, and I had a list of all the things I hated about him. I told Kirsten that I was reading my diary to get motivated to write the movie, to get back in that headspace, and she wrote it down and thought ‘Oh, that’s a great movie title.’ As we were writing it we realised that title works with the movie."
KS: "[As for the poem,] I was a poet in college, and the poem came from my love of writing poetry. We just leaned in to the list of it all from the title."
After 10 Things I Hate About You, you wrote Legally Blonde. Both Elle from Legally Blonde and Kat from 10 Things are considered feminist characters, even though they’re both wildly different.
KS: "Karen and I are very different and we’re both strong and independent and feminist. We wouldn’t match as twins on paper, but we have that common thread. Aspirations, strong points of view, passion for life, that’s the common core that we share as humans, and it can come out in different shapes on screen."
KM: "You can be a feminist in different packages. You don’t need combat boots and a protest line. You can have a pink dress on and like getting your nails done. It’s what’s on the outside. On the inside, it’s your brain and your heart that can be very similar."
KS: "It’s all about having the option to be exactly what you want to be."
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When did it really hit you that you wrote very iconic movies?
KS: "In the last year or two, it feels like there’s been a rush of nostalgic appreciation and genuine overwhelming kind good will towards the movie we’ve written. I feel like we’ve been on a nostalgia tour with the 10 Things I Hate About You anniversary, and Legally Blonde coming upon its 20th year anniversary as well. It’s pretty cool to have a link to a completely different generation, and be able to reach and impact them."
You’re working on Legally Blonde 3, what was it like returning to those characters?
KM: "We’ve carried a lot of Elle Woods with us, she never really left us."
KS: "All the characters in the story, it’s a pleasure to spend time with them that’s never really went away."
Were there any moments in Legally Blonde that you can’t believe became as iconic or culturally significant as they did?
KS: "I’m thrilled that the ‘Bend and Snap’ has had legs, so to speak, because it was a very whimsical pitch that Karen and I came up with in a bar, when we were stuck with finding a set piece for the movie. I was like ‘Oh, what if she had a move like this?’ I did the move in Mark Platt’s office and he was like, ‘I like that,’ and I ended up teaching the move to a choreographer and it became a musical number. I guess the lesson is, when you’re in that creative space where anything goes, it can turn into something that really stands the test of time."
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KM: "There was an article during all the #MeToo stuff, that Legally Blonde was a manifesto for #MeToo, referring to the sexual harassment story [in which Professor Calahan, played by Victor Garber, propositions Elle]. It was like ‘Wow, 15 years ago, this was onscreen but no one was talking about it.’ Well, people have always talked about it, but now, people are actually getting in trouble for it."
For the teens out there who haven’t seen 10 Things I Hate About You yet, why should they watch it?
KS: "It’s a gender-balanced feminist comedy and romance that lovingly explores the battle of the sexes in a sweet way. The unexpected alliances in high school, odd pairings of people breaking free of their social groups to befriend each other and get a different perspective, is still interesting."
KM: "Also, Kat is a character that doesn’t give a fuck what people think about her and I think we all need a little bit of that."
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