Published: March 1, 2009 By

[1] The discourse of feminism since at least the last two decades of the twentieth century has had to combat repeatedly questions of “conformity” and “happiness”: if feminism must work against patriarchy, must women reject, in full, every aspect of traditional femininity and domesticity, even heterosexual intimacy? if the feminist movement has been truly successful, why are so many women still unhappy or unsatisfied? is “happiness” the gauge by which we judge feminism’s success? In her classic study Backlash, Susan Faludi summarizes the so-called “post-feminist” position that many individuals have taken in the era since the height of the women’s movement in the 1970s:

Women are unhappy precisely because they are free. Women are enslaved by their own liberation. They have grabbed at the gold ring of independence, only to miss the one ring that really matters. They have gained control of their fertility, only to destroy it. They have pursued their own professional dreams—and lost out on the greatest female adventure. The women’s movement, as we are told time and again, has proved women’s own worst enemy. (x; emphasis in original)

Faludi contends that this attitude is a sign that the project of feminism has not, as the popular discourse of our age would have it, been completed, that the purported equality of women cannot have been accomplished if a defeatist ideology, like the one she summarizes, could be popularized. And while the anti-feminist movement has economic and social effects on women’s lived experience, it achieves its greatest cultural visibility in the popular media, particularly cinema and television. According to Faludi, amid the financial insecurity brought on by competing home entertainment technologies in the 1980s, Hollywood sought conformity to popular opinion over innovation and artistic vision and “restated and reinforced the backlash thesis” that American women cannot be happy because “their liberation has denied them marriage and motherhood” (113).

[2] Taking as test cases the two most commercially successful twentieth-century reinterpretations of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew—Franco Zeffirelli’s 1966 version, starring then real-life husband and wife Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, and Gil Junger’s 1999 film 10 Things I Hate about You, starring Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger—I would like to present an argument about the transformation of American sexual politics through popular film. Proceeding through a reading of the ambiguous sexual politics of the original play, I then explore how the two films’ manifestations of the convergence (and divergence) of gender performance and sexuality parallels the political milieu of their production, and when considered comparatively, they undermine narratives of American cultural progress, moving from declarations of women’s sexual independence into the naturalization of heteronormative conformity as the “truth” of female desire. What I hope to reveal is that Zeffirelli’s earlier film is actually a more subversive, more feminist version of the play than the more recent and presumably “post-feminist” revision 10 Things, which reflects what I will call “manifest femininity,” an attribute which I find to be ubiquitous throughout modern teen movies. While I do not assert that the films are intended as a commentary on the status of feminism within their contemporary culture (in fact, I think both films are blissfully unaware of their contemporary feminisms), the use that they make of Shakespeare’s play reveals much about the era’s sexual culture, in that the earlier film represents gender and sexuality as sites of empowerment whereas the later film assumes those possibilities to have already been exhausted, a move in culture from possibility to paucity. Whereas Zeffirelli’s Shrew emphasizes performance and the non-naturalization of gender, 10 Things participates in a kind of hetero-normalization that naturalizes straight femininity to such a degree that it encourages viewers to identify with that naturalization.10 Things makes explicitly clear the assertion that the feminist movement is over, that it has accomplished its goals inasmuch as women have access to education and employment, and that anyone who now identifies with feminism must be reformed into her own “liberation”: a reverse taming of sorts. Central to both films is the question of performance—of what is constructed and what is already there, of how performance works as both resistance and capitulation. The question of the Kate figures’ happiness is central to Shrew‘s comedy, and the responses to the relationship of gendered performance to the issue of women’s happiness is key to unlocking the sexual politics of both films.

Shakespearean Authority

[3] Representations of Kate within twentieth-century popular media bank on the long-standing cultural authority of Shakespeare in America, offering us a glimpse into the cultural zeitgeist with regard to gender and sexuality. In Harold Bloom’s view (which is a kind of reassertion of Samuel Johnson’s view), this is attributable to the fact that Shakespeare “justly imitates essential human nature, which is a universal and not a social phenomenon” (3; emphasis in original). While such a statement may be hyperbolic in its claims to “essential” universalism, it is nevertheless the case that Shakespeare has come to represent the universal in Western culture. Critics of Shakespeare have long noted the appeal of Shakespeare within U.S. culture as a kind of universalizing source of authority. Michael Bristol declares, “Shakespeare has made the big time”: “No less than the Beatles or Liberace, Elvis Presley or Mick Jagger, Shakespeare is big-time in the idiomatic sense of cultural success, high visibility, and notoriety. Other literary figures may achieve canonical status within the academic community . . . but Shakespeare is unusual in that he has also achieved contemporary celebrity” (Big-time 1). America has claimed Shakespeare as a pop-cultural keystone, as can be attested by the bevy of Shakespeare-inspired films, particularly films for teenage audiences, that have been produced in the last two decades, including Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (1996), Tim Blake Nelson’s O (Othello) (2001), and Andy Fickman’s She’s the Man(Twelfth Night) (2006).

[4] I agree with Bristol when he claims, “Shakespeare has been recruited not only as a compact and convenient equivalent for tradition in the broad sense,” which is undoubtedly true, “but also as a screen memory used to rationalize a chronic ambivalence toward both the practice of democracy [in America] and archaic forms of authority” (America’s 123). Bristol uses the term “screen memory” in a metaphoric sense, but I would like to take that term literally, to explore the ways in which the two films create “on-screen memories” of Shakespeare that, in their revisions, inscribe contemporary social values upon the play. They ascribe an assumed universality to the production and its politics, such that it matters quite a bit how productions play politics, since the choice of Shakespearean source material provides not only an air of integrity but one of veracity as well. It is this notion of credibility that makes the post-feminist use of Shakespeare so insidious: put to those conservative ends, the Shakespeare connection ostensibly provides seeming legitimacy for heteronormativity when there is in fact none.

[5] The absence of a naturalized heteronormative state is, I believe, the message of Zeffirelli’s Shrew, and one that can be observed in its source material as well. Discipline and disobedience are the primary cause for comedy in both, though the defiant ends to which the film uses comedy are largely absent in the basic structure of the play, which employs an early modern system of gender hierarchy that permits the domestic violence always promising to erupt in the play. Shakespeare’s original text employs a punishment-oriented disciplinary system to regulate female behavior, one that assumes submissive femininity to not be inherent to the woman’s body and uses objectification as a primary mode of enforcement. Lynda Boose offers a concise description of the status and expectations of women in early modern England:

To be female is constructed as the fine art of thinking one’s actions from the position of otherness while simultaneously always seeing oneself as other—of being careful to preserve one’s attractiveness, not blot one’s beauty with threatening brows of scornful glances nor let anger muddy up the offered fountain lest that worst of apparent eventualities occur and no man ever deign to drink of it. Feminine achievement is conceived as making it successfully into wifehood, and therein, becoming the pampered object of a dedicated provider (220; emphasis in original).

Wives were possessions among the Elizabethan upper class, maintained and provided for by their husbands; therefore shrewish women who wished to marry were expected to allow their “rebellious demands for self-sovereignty [to fall] prey to the substitute pleasures of a highly gendered, patriarchally overlaid model of social class in which femaleness is conceived as a privileged object made to decorate male life” (220). Women’s status as privileged objects of affection did not, however, end their association with servants; in fact, they serve even as, to use Boose’s terminology, “decorations,” acting “in all obedience” with their husbands’ wishes. This parallel between master-servant/husband-wife relations is clearly described in the “Homily of the State of Matrimony,” a ubiquitously read and taught document of the early Anglican Church: “To obey is another thing than to control or command, which yet [wives] may do to their children, and to their family; but as for their husbands, them must they obey, and cease from commanding, and perform subjection . . . she will eschew all things that might offend him” (176); even the language of the homily, however, is performative.

[6] By the end of the play, Petruchio and Kate are assumed to have reached some sort of concord that presumably allows for a properly gendered marriage, which is in reality only indeterminately so. Harold Bloom claims that Kate and Petruchio “rather clearly are going to be the happiest married couple in Shakespeare (short of the Macbeths)”—though the parenthetical caveat makes his suggestion somewhat less than comforting (28). Petruchio may believe he is in charge, and Kate may enact the role of “woman” when necessary, but even Bloom admits that she will only ever be “perpetually . . . the reformed shrew,” a sign of Petruchio’s disciplinary mastery always threatening to break free from his control. Domestic happiness in the play is assumed to be the result of “a conspiracy against the rest of us,” who stand outside of this awkwardly cyclical arrangement (29). Leah Marcus, however, notes that her students “are increasingly unhappy with [critics’] usual readings emphasizing the mutuality of the taming and other such palliatives to smooth over the reality of Petruchio’s domination” (198), a displeasure that I share. According to Shirley Nelson Garner, students “will know in their hearts that . . . there is something wrong with the way Kate is treated. And they will be right” (105). Harriet Deer reads Shrew from a less optimistic and more brazenly feminist perspective than most critics; she asserts, “There is no question that The Taming of the Shrew incorporates spouse abuse” (63).

[7] Women learn how to behave in order to please the patriarchy that constantly threatens violence as punishment for gender transgressions. Deer sees Kate’s seeing capitulation as necessary—not natural, but essential: “Women in a patriarchal society must learn to use the conventions of conformity necessary to their survival” (70). Kate must act “citationally,” to use Judith Butler’s term, but I believe her enacting of a gender role, in the play and in Zeffirelli’s film, is also akin to Stephen Greenblatt’s notion of self-fashioning. For Butler, gender performativity—the learned, often unconscious repetition of culturally encoded behaviors—is the prevalent paradigm for behavior in society, and the representation of sexual politics that emerges from this play indicates that wives might literally have performative conformity beaten into them. That does not, however, make conscious gender performance impossible. And while Greenblatt generally excludes women from his study (with the notable exception of Queen Elizabeth I), I believe that his theory is nevertheless useful in examining the reenactment of gender in Shrew‘s cinematic heritage, particularly in instances of gender performance in which citational behavior and the shaping of a self interact to allow one to produce a new identity, feigned or otherwise. New selves can be created for public observation, and the act of self transformation can be a means to an end. Though no figure from the early modern period appears to better embody feminist ideals of rebelliousness and liberation than the insubordinate Kate, she quickly learns the art of self-fashioning, which requires proper gender performance, and her seeming acquiescence becomes a way to exercise, to use Bloom’s term, “the art of her own will” (35). While the use of gender performance for personal empowerment rings unsettlingly for some with, for instance, nineteenth-century feminist arguments about the necessity of embodying ideals of femininity in order to make political headway, Kate’s emphasis on performance within the play serves as a source for much of the ambiguity that enables more subversive, more feminist interpretations of the play—ones that resist reading the ending as happy and that see potential in Kate’s performance, as Zeffirelli seems to, for a narrative trajectory that exceeds the marital hierarchy the play’s ending might inscribe.

[8] In the play, Kate’s ostensible surrender of independence and acquiescence to her husband’s will is most visible in the scene depicting the couple’s travel from Petruchio’s home to Kate’s father’s in Padua. It is then that Kate’s earlier suspicion that Petruchio was attempting “to make a puppet” of her (4.3.103) is confirmed, when she exasperatedly declares, during an extended conflict over the names of various objects “what you will have it named, even that it is, / And so shall it be for Katharine” (4.5.14-15). (I discuss in detail Zefirelli’s rendering of this scene below.) Claiming to doubt even her own empirical knowledge, Kate’s gender performance is clearly on a trajectory toward the apex it will reach in her final speech. This scene (4.5), which many consider the comic highlight of the play, may also be an indication of a movement toward a semi-tragic Kate bereft of personality, too tired to fight for individuality, and perhaps even fearing for her safety, for, though the marriage homily, as Frances Dolan notes, “attempts to redefine masculinity as nonviolent, it yet offers wives no recourse to beatings except prayer and patience. While the homily deplores husbands’ use of violence, it concedes that that they might beat their wives anyway” (172).

A Second-Wave Shrew

[9] The attempted edification of disobedient female behavior is as key to Zeffirelli’s film as to the play. On screen, Kate’s conforming to Petruchio’s outlandish requests of her begins prior to their departure for her sister Bianca’s wedding, in a supplemental scene adapted from 4.3.174-187, Petruchio softly wakes Kate (who has been sleeping alone) to declare, “And now, my honey love, we will return unto your father’s house and revel it as bravely as the best, with silken coats and caps and golden rings and ruffs and cuffs and farthingales and things; with amber bracelets, beads, and scarves and fans.” Kate, startled by her husband’s waking her, inquires, “When shall we leave?”

Pet.: Why, now.

Kat.: What is o’clock?

Pet.: ‘Tis day.

Kat.: ‘Tis night.

Pet.: ‘Tis seven.

Kat.: ‘Tis two at most!

Pet.: It shall be seven, or I will not ride!

Look what I speak, or do, or think to do,

You are still crossing it. Nay, let it alone.

I will not go today, or ere I do

It shall be what o’clock I say it is.

Kate, realizing the benefits of playing Petruchio’s game, exclaims, “‘Tis seven!” realizing that she must assume the role of the agreeable wife in order to get what she wants.

[10] Kate’s acting becomes more apparent in the following scene, which begins once the couple has set out on their voyage. After speaking his lines from 4.5.2 (“Good Lord, how bright and goodly shines the moon!”), Zeffirelli’s Petruchio adds, “I say it is the moon,” to which Kate replies, “I know it is the moon.” By excluding most of lines 4.5.3-16, Zeffirelli avoids Kate’s resistance to Petruchio’s absurd suggestions about the state of the world; instead, her responses seem strategic, as if she has figured out the game and is sure she can beat him. Petruchio’s shocked look in response to Kate’s automatic acquiescence is then mirrored on her startled face when Petruchio rebukes her, exclaiming, “Why then you lie, it is the blessed sun.” Kate recovers herself by politely stating

Then God be blessed, it is the blessed sun,But sun it is not when you say it is not,

And the moon changes even as your mind.

What you will have it named, even that it is,

And so shall it be for Katherine.

Pleased by the results of this first trial, Petruchio further tests his control over Kate by having her engage old Vincentio in conversation as if he were a “young budding virgin, fair, and fresh, and sweet.” When Petruchio finally declares, “This is a man, old, wrinkled, faded, withered and not a maiden as thou sayst he is,” Kate apologetically explains, “Pardon, old father, for my mistaking eyes that have been so bedazzled by the . . . sun? . . . that everything I see is green and young.” Her posing the word “sun” as a question is an attempt to hyperbolically enact the behavior of a well-tamed wife who, embodying the values of the marriage homily, would check with her husband before making any claims about the state of the world so as to “perform subjection” and “eschew all things that might offend him” as the marriage homily commands, such as erroneously trusting her own senses. Kate has certainly pleased Petruchio in this scene; his mirth is written all over his face. Nevertheless, one cannot help but wonder if this is truly a tamed Kate. She seems to know the ropes; she smiles throughout the scene; but should we take her at face value?

[11] Petruchio seems to interpret Kate’s smile as a sign of her tamedness, but Zeffirelli has early on prevented attentive viewers from too-easily accepting this interpretation. At the film’s beginning, Kate is even more of an untamed shrew than many of Shakespeare’s readers, I would imagine, would infer from the early portions of the written text. More than being simply “shrewish” in social manners, Kate’s wildly violent conduct makes her seem animalistic, resembling a zoological shrew. Not only does she physically abuse her sister, she destroys her father’s music conservatory, rips the chain from the doorbell, and tears down a piece of railing to throw at Petruchio; she even begins to growl at one point. Her unkempt hair and always-on-the-verge-of-spilling-out bosom serve as physical manifestations her wildness. Jack Jorgens refers to the on-screen couple as “Lord and Lady of Misrule” (75), but the film makes it clear that Kate held her title prior to Petruchio’s arrival in town. During this early scene of unruliness, Kate smiles only when she has outwitted a competitor, as when she finally thinks she has escaped Petruchio in the elaborate chase scene Zeffirelli has added to the story; she even cackles out a laugh when she flees to the upper loft of the barn. The important thing here is to note that the only precedent we have for physical expressions of joy from Kate within the film arise from laughing at the pratfalls of others. It makes sense, then, that she would smile when finally assenting to Petruchio’s absurd claims about the time or about which celestial body is lighting the heavens; she thinks she has beaten him at his own game. She thinks she knows how to get what she wants (to return to her father’s house, for example), and viewers can perceive her glee at her own game-playing skills (that is, her ability to perform “the good wife”) in her smile. Her smile does not indicate a feeling of domestic bliss but the surfacing of her delight in her own subversiveness. In the film, we will only see her smile once more.

[12] Following Kate and Petruchio’s return to Padua, Zeffirelli makes it crystal clear that, no, the shrew has not, in fact, been tamed. When Petruchio demands “Kiss me, Kate” on a public street, Taylor’s wide-eyed, opened-mouthed shock exudes embarrassment: “What, in the midst of the street?” When Petruchio threatens her with, “Why then, let’s away,” she quickly responds, “Nay, I will give thee a kiss. Now pray thee love, stay,” and plants a peck on the tip of his nose. While one might view this as a playful exchange between two flirty lovers, I would argue that it is an act of transgression, one that prefigures the film’s later action, in which Kate will again seem to grant Petruchio his wishes to a degree, only to ultimately deny or undermine them. By not acting upon the most famous line from the play (from which George Sidney and Cole Porter’s 1953 musical derives its name), Zeffirelli foreshadows the conclusion of this film, which will not be a saccharinely sentimental one; one may not even find it comic, at least not in the fashion of comedies that necessarily end in marriage.

[13] Kate’s final speech, in which she “ventriloquizes the voice of Shakespeare’s culture and lets it colonize her body” (Hodgdon 541), is by far the most troubling scene in both the play and the movie, as well as the most frequently discussed by critics. When, after a long and awkward silence between herself and Petruchio, Kate departs Bianca’s wedding feast with her wifely colleagues (her sister and Hortensio’s “Widow”), a bet concerning the obedience of these women is made. Neither of the other women returns when beckoned, but Kate does; in fact, in Zeffirelli’s film, she arrives dragging the other wives by their ears. In the most meta-theatrical moment in an already meta-theatrical play (if we recall the main plot is in fact merely a play within a play being performed by Christopher Sly and the lot from the frame story) Kate takes her place on stage to deliver a speech so full of gender performance that one might rightly think of it as a verbal rendering of the homily on marriage in verse. Kate runs through something of a “greatest hits” list of attributes and attitudes of proper women: “Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, / They head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee . . . And craves no other tribute at they hands / But love, fair looks, and true obedience” (5.2.150-51; 56-57). While Zeffirelli makes sure that Kate says what she says in the play (this is possibly the longest piece of sustained dialogue without variation from Shakespeare’s text), the important question arises, could Kate mean what she says?

[14] Here we have reached a critical impasse: a number of scholars (Jack Jorgens, Douglas Brode) believe that Kate performs the speech with an ironic tone, while others (Robert Hapgood, Diana Henderson) believe that the speech is delivered genuinely. In terms of the film’s production, things get tricky: according to Zeffirelli’s autobiography, Elizabeth Taylor herself requested that she be allowed to (and, one would assume, tried to) perform the speech unironically (Zeffirelli 216), but things may not have worked out that way. Deborah Cartmell abstracts from the film, suggesting that this scene “is, on one level, a public relations exercise which gradually transforms [or attempts to transform] Taylor, notorious for having married so frequently, from female dissident into respectable wife” (218). Reading Zeffirelli’s autobiography encourages Hapgood and Henderson to view Taylor’s iteration of Kate’s performance without seeing irony, while having either written before the 1986 publication of the autobiography (Jorgens publishes in 1977) or apparently not looking at it (Brode does not cite the book) causes others to have a very different impression simply from watching the film without directorial input. Taylor delivers the speech with what might seem to be dead-on seriousness—enough that some might actually believe her Kate to be a follower of the dogma she prescribes; but that becomes hard to believe once Kate again flashes her smile of defiance. When glancing up after kneeling and offering up her hand so that Petruchio may walk upon it if he wishes (a gesture that inspires open weeping among the “Elizabethan” observers looking down upon Kate in the film), she flashes her devilish smirk, which, as I have previously noted, is used to indicate that Kate thinks she has gotten the upper hand in the game that she is playing with Petruchio. The smile lets us know that patriarchal hierarchy has not been restored; it has, in fact, been undermined.

[15] Petruchio then delivers the last lines of the film, letting the new husbands know, “I won the battle you have yet to fight, and being a winner, God give you good night.” His hubris is humorous, not just in its scale, but as a result of dramatic irony. Petruchio has attempted to “fight the good fight,” but all he has managed to do is make Kate a wiser foe. The two lovers embrace for one last kiss, and then the unthinkable (at least to Petruchio) happens; as the crowd rushes in to offer their congratulations to the “victorious” couple, Kate runs away. Petruchio is left adrift in a sea of admiring bodies, none of which belong to his wife. He shouts her name, but to no avail. Kate is gone.

[16] This final action indicates that Kate meant to say what she said but did not necessarily believe her meaning; it was all a show. In the film, Kate’s insight into gender performativity and Petruchio’s desire for proper gender performance allow her to “pass” in two ways: as a woman, and as an acceptable member of patriarchal society; she was never really either. Though Kate is never explicitly “queered” within the film, she nevertheless escapes the policing of heteronormative culture that would see her married and settled whatever the cost to personal freedom. It is this ultimate escape that, I believe, enables the reading of the rest of the film as notably feminist; though Kate performs a version of idealized femininity for a while, her ultimate escape reemphasizes the disingenuousness of her earlier shows. Again, I do not wish to argue for the performance of femininity for personal gain as an ideal, but rather to point out the ways in which Zeffirelli’s film raises the issue of Kate’s performance and acknowledges the workings of gender performativity and performance in culture. Of course, Kate’s situation is not ideal. She certainly suffers under Petruchio’s frequently harsh rule, and even rebuking him does not necessarily constitute just retribution. Yet Kate ultimately outwits and evades her husband, leaving him to his chauvinistic buffoonery, no longer to have a well-tamed woman by his side. While the film does not offer alternatives, it acknowledges the shortcomings of the familiar sex-gender system, the unhappiness that it might bring to women, and, at the very least, imagines the potential and desirability of opportunities for escape.

Manifest Femininity: 10 Things I Hate about You

[17] If Zeffirelli’s Shrew embodied something of the early second-wave feminist movement, 10 Things I Hate about You declares itself firmly planted in the post-feminist age. Ostensibly a modernization of Shrew,10 Things, as Kate Chedgzoy explains, “seems to draw as much on the reciprocal sparring of Beatrice and Benedick as on Petruchio’s struggles with the ‘shrew'” (16); I would also claim that it draws just as much upon other teen comedies, particularly She’s All That (1999), in its propagation of stereotypes of age and gender. If Kate was a stereotype breaker, Kat is a stereotype switcher. She has gone from being the popular, pretty girl in her younger years to being a brooding nag who is, we are to believe, only desperately feminist. Kate was a shrew through and through, but Kat has to work at it. What I find particularly troubling about this film (as well as She’s All That) is its participation in the dissemination of “manifest femininity.” In my usage, manifest femininity is the essentialist belief that, at the core of their being, all women want to be pretty, to be popular, and to have a man with whom they can have heterosexual intercourse. Kat’s efforts to construct a “queer” feminist identity for herself can only signify, we are to believe, a misguided attempt to shun the heterosexuality that would make her truly happy. Whereas the earlier Shrew film challenges romantic notions of the desirability of heterosexual monogamy for women, it is presumed in the later film to be not only the natural way of life but an ever-present secret that feminists have sought to conceal yet can only ever be unsatisfactorily closeted. Imagined as existing in an age where women are “empowered” and therefore have no need for feminism, the characters of the romantic teen comedy are to have no political concerns other than popularity, as all social inequities seem to have been resolved—at least to satisfactory standards. 10 Things avoids engaging feminism by writing it off as outmoded. Does Kat really need to pick up that copy of The Feminine Mystique she thumbs through at the bookstore?

[18] The story begins with Kat performing “shrew” in a way that is entirely the inverse of Zefirelli’s Kate. In contrast to Kate’s being forced to perform a gender role stipulated by social hierarchy and turning away from her inborn shrewishness, we are made to believe that Kat always only performs the shrew against her natural tendencies, such as rebelling against the expectations of femininity that have been placed upon her. Unlike Kate, who was a shrew without performing, Kat must work at her rebellious gender performance—cross-gendered in the sense that she rebels against all that is traditionally labeled “feminine.” Kat’s actions are citational, not to stereotypes of femininity, but to the cultural archetype of the feminist shrew, established in no small part by Taylor’s wildly popular portrayal of Kate in Zeffirelli’s Shrew; Kat screams at classmates, criticizes her teacher (he calls her, “Miss I-Have-an-Opinion-about-Everything”), cares little for fashion (or so we are supposed to think), and resists violently all amorous advances made by men. Rather than becoming strictly masculine, Kat becomes a “riot grrrl”: listening to Bikini Kill, wearing black, hanging out in all-girl rock clubs; her theme song is Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation.” When she complains that Hemingway is chauvinistic and unromantic, one of her classmates, Joey (Gremio), calls her “a bitter, self-righteous hag.” And bitter she is, or tries to be. Toward the end of the film, while attempting to justify her behavior to Bianca, Kat explains that, when the girls’ mother left (as in Shakespeare’s play, there’s no clear explanation for the mother’s absence), her desperation for attention led her to succumb to the sexual pressure placed upon her by Joey, and she lost her virginity at an early age (she was in ninth grade). Kat began to resent Joey and, by association, all men, with the notable exception of her father, whose anxiety about the girls having sex is the catalyst for his rule requiring Kat to date before Bianca is permitted to. Kat has not dated since and, one might assume, now has no interest in dating boys at all. “After that,” Kat explain, “I swore I’d never do anything just because everyone else was doing it, and I haven’t since.”

[19] When Kat rejects traditional teenage femininity, including dating boys, her sexuality—not her sex—is questioned: Bianca completes Cameron’s (Lucentio) question on the subject: “Is she a . . . ?” “kd lang fan?” That is, a lesbian? But the moment of queer possibility is immediately shut down. Bianca explains that, while digging through Kat’s closet and personal belongings, she found both a picture of Jared Leto, which she takes as an indication that Kat likes “pretty boys,” and a pair of black underwear, which she believes to be symbolic of a desire for sex: “She wants to have sex someday . . . You don’t buy black lingerie unless you want someone to see it.” The someone Kat wants to see her in her underwear, we are to assume, is a man. This brief scene of queer dismissal is one of the film’s more insidiously subversive moments: in a reversal of the traditional “coming out” narrative, heterosexuality is the repressed secret that through Bianca’s exposure is revealed to be Kat’s innate sexual preference. In this way, heterosexuality is not only normalized but becomes associated with truth, such that Kat’s development of a more masculine persona, which Cameron associates with lesbianism, is perceived as an act of will, and one that demonstrates the “naturalness” of heterosexual femininity as a way of being. And this gesture of dismissal is merely rhetorical in that the audience, assumed to be already familiar with the generic conventions of the teen comedy, already knows that Kat’s story will end with her entering into a love relationship with Patrick. This invocation of queerness cannot but be identified with the most injurious of conservative sexual discourses. Bianca assumes—correctly, as the film would have it—that Kat’s behavior is a performance, a front to cover her already violated sexuality.

[20] I depart significantly here with Michael Friedman’s reading of the film. Friedman contends, “By initially connecting Kat’s shrewish qualities to the major figures of the second wave of the feminist movement, the film sets the stage for her later shift toward a new brand of feminism that does not impel her to exhibit the characteristics of a shrew” (53-54). He suggests that lesbianism is invoked here to “rais[e] the possibility that Kat’s feminist politics might dictate her sexuality, thereby completing the portrait of the feminazi that the first half of the movie strives to paint” (53). This view seems consistent with the position the film would have us take, in which Kat moves from a kind of arrested sexual development imposed from outside into mature heterosexuality that emanates from within. My own interpretation is less optimistic: where Friedman sees a shift from elective lesbianism to heterosexual realism, I see a potentially radical rejection of normativity that is ultimately surrendered to compulsory heterosexuality. Not to be too queer on the point, but Friedman’s description of Kat’s sexual liberation repeats the film’s sexual ideology (sexual liberation leads toward heterosexuality) and threatens to make the association between heterosexuality and sexual maturity that queer thinkers must so often struggle against.

[21] The main plot gets underway when Cameron and Michael (Tranio) engineer a ploy to get Joey, Cameron’s rival in the pursuit of Bianca’s affection, to pay someone to date Kat so that her sister will thereby be able to date. (Joey is unaware that Cameron is also interested in Bianca.) They wisely choose Patrick (Petruchio), a self-professed “pretty boy” whose legendary sexual exploits—he is rumored to have had a previous career in the porn industry—have made him notorious at Padua High. Heath Ledger plays Patrick as a devil-may-care bad boy whose interest in Kat, like his Shakespearean predecessor, is, at least initially, purely financial. His “taming” of Kat, which is really just wooing, results in an equal number of changes for himself, unlike Zeffirelli’s Petruchio, who remains unchanged even at the end. In a telling moment of what one might call “reverse taming,” Kat tells Patrick, “You’re not as badass as you think you are,” and she’s right; his performance of bad boy/pretty boy camouflages his truly romantic nature (he even goes so far as to have a marching band play as he serenades Kat with “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You”). Rather than becoming a Petruchian sexual despot, Patrick falls in love with Kate and wins with her with charm instead of violence. The sense that Kat changes her behavior out of a feeling of mutual affection represents the teen comedy’s romance of cultural and sexual equity.

[22] Because the film is sold to teens who are encouraged to overidentify with it, the feelings of equality and liberty with which Kat’s transformation provides viewers, especially teens, puts under erasure all other concerns the film might raise, as any critique of it hits too close to home. In her analysis of student reactions to the film, L. Monique Pittman explains that students’ understanding of the film generally takes for granted that “the characters conform because they choose to be cool, and the socially formed gender roles can be tolerated because the love relationship creates an illusion of equality” (144). This seems to be the attitude the film’s producers presume audiences will adopt. Pittman, like Marcus and Garner, notes that her students intuit something of the violently gendered discipline possible in Shakespeare’s play, yet they fail to see that 10 Things reproduces something of those same politics of gendered taming, albeit within a more Foucaultian disciplinary mechanism. Countering the emphasis on performance in Zeffirelli’s film, the later film remystifies gender performativity and naturalizes Kat’s “coming out” as a heterosexual within a post-political correctness milieu in which homosexuality is “accepted” and can thus be ignored. This phenomenon of reading indicates a seeming antinomy in which students resist the sexual politics of the play and yet fail to see that 10 Things closely imitates its normative gender system, probably because they identify the 1999 film with their own lives, thereby making it impossible for them to acknowledge that prohibitive gender normativity and homophobia exist either in the film or the culture out of which it is born.

[23] It is true that Patrick must work to win Kat, but the most distinct difference between Kat and Zeffirelli’s Kate is that Kat, at least during the second half of the film, obviously wants to be won. Her shrewishness ultimately proves itself not feminist or subversive in any way; it is merely a shield against psychic trauma. Manifest femininity explains why Kat can so easily change not only her hair and makeup (gone are her dark clothes and free-flowing mane at the film’s conclusion) but her public persona as well. In the film’s eponymous poem “10 Things I Hate about You,” which Kat has written for Patrick, she reveals “I hate the way I don’t hate you, not even close, not even a little bit, not even any at all.” Here, we are to believe, she has not been made over or fashioned a new self. The film would have us believe that this is the Kat that has been lurking under the tough exterior all along, that Kat has been secretly pining for male affection and has really always wanted heterosexual intercourse but had been too hurt by the world admit it. Sloughing off her feigned hatred of Patrick, Kat’s happiness is predetermined and can only return to her once she “drops the act” and gets back to her natural femininity.

The Teen Comedy and “Post-Feminist” Culture

[24] Stephanie Zacharek asserts, “This and other teen films deal so forthrightly with the never-ending problems of communicating between the sexes there’s something incredibly freeing about them” (22). I, however, find these films to be urging interpolation, reasserting the very traditional, essentialist belief that all women desire to become the object of male desire and affection and that all are part of the system of compulsory heterosexuality. Kat couldn’t be a “kd lang fan,” could she? According to the logic of the film, women are only diverted from the yearnings of manifest femininity when some form of psychological injury (rape, maternal abandonment—both affect Kat—or the death of a parent) causes girls to construct a defense mechanism of non-normativity.

[25] Like Kat, Laney Boggs, the shrewish protagonist of She’s All That, lost her mother “before she was old enough for this [girly] stuff,” and, as a result, has not learned all the elements of female performance. She is contrasted with the Über-popular Taylor Vaughn, who is described paradoxically by her fellow students as “an institution” and “replaceable”; both are correct. After a make-over and some lessons in feminine behavior, Laney, who now looks more like a stereotype of beauty magazine culture and even has Taylor’s ex-boyfriend on her arm, quickly rises through her high school’s social ranks, making it clear that not only was Taylor replaceable (even as a sexual partner) but that the feminine qualities the former social queen represents remain an institution. Like Kat, Laney would have continued to be labeled “weird” or “bitchy” had she not cast off the dark garments and frigid attitude. She never could have become popular had she not subscribed to Taylor’s dogma of manifest femininity. Laney, like Kat, is presented as a victim of unfortunate circumstances who now has (re)claimed the feminine heritage that is rightly hers; after all, the film leads us to believe that she should have learned this from her mother. According the film’s ideological valuation of sexual roles, the mother’s death serves as a double-tragedy, as it deprived Laney both of a parental bond and the requisite training in heterosexual femininity that would enable her to become the woman she always should have been.

[26] The ideology of shrewishness presented in teen comedies seems to be one that fancies itself feminist without actually understanding feminism at all, though the association between the teen shrew and the feminist seems intended to demonstrate the outmodedness of them both. The shrew takes Butler’s idea of citationality seriously but fails to realize that a personal and political investment in feminism can be more than just striking a temporary gender-troubling pose. Though Friedman sees 10 Things as ultimately successful in rendering a version of an inclusive third-wave feminism, its ascription of lesbianism and female masculinity to not only the realm of the non-normative but the unreal—not to mention its reassertion of heterosexual privilege—goes against the goals of almost every variety of feminism since the middle of the twentieth century. In her exposition of “riot grrrl” culture in relation to third-wave feminism, Melissa Klein explains, “We are interested in creating . . . models of contradiction. We want not to get rid of the trappings of traditional femininity or sexuality so much as to pair them with demonstrations of strength or power” (222-23). In the teen comedy, however, capitulation to heteronormativity is perceived as a moment of strength because it is cast as an assertion of revelatory “truth” in contrast to the obfuscation of psycho-sexual reality that queerness represents in the films’ sexually conservative moral universe: take, for example, Mean Girls(2004), which spends much the film criticizing female shallowness and yet still requires a normative transformation of its heroine that is never fully undone, despite the film’s attempt at a recuperative ending; orShe’s the Man (2006), in which the heroine begins as something of a tomboy but is then shunted back and forth through hyperbolic gender performances, never escaping the trappings of manifest femininity and never able to achieve anything like the queer potential of the originalTwelfth Night, on which the film is based. The goal of these films seems to be to expose non-stereotypically feminine women as frauds who, if they were to explore the “truth” of female selfhood, would want what every girl wants: to become the pinnacle of feminine beauty and to fulfill a heteronormative life narrative.

[27] I shall here return to Michael Bristol’s claim about America’s looking at Shakespeare as a “screen memory” and the nation’s “chronic ambivalence toward both the practice of democracy and archaic forms of authority” (123). Carol Rutter agrees with Bristol: “When we look at [Shakespeare] movies, we look at ourselves” (259). But is that always for the good? In the age of waning civil rights activism and general distrust of political correctness in which these recent films were produced, it makes sense that Shakespeare and his cultural authority were employed as a means of validating and universalizing such cultural politics. It makes sense, then, that the most popular Shakespearean films of recent years would reflect the fact that the cultural pendulum of late-twentieth-century popular culture, in which the teen comedy was revitalized, swung away from revolutionary politics, as the nation became increasingly politically conservative through the expansion of the kind of neoliberalism Lisa Duggan describes as imagining itself as post-identity politics (xii). Filmed at a moment of the convergence of a variety of radical movements, Zeffirelli’s Taming of the Shrew reflects in its skeptical approach to gender performativity something of the 1960’s push toward political resistance. The resistance of this cinematic Kate toward patriarchal oppression and biopolitical regulation allows her to become a feminist icon in a milieu of political struggle. In 1999, the need for political uprising in America was seen by many as nonexistent, and groups actively seeking a revolution were pushed toward the fringes of culture; even some members of socially marginalized communities, including many in queer communities, saw no cause for struggle. With an increasingly conservative (if not always Republican) government and a surge of “family values” among the populace, it makes sense that 10 Things and She’s All That would contain the sexually conformist values they do, making the heroine’s sexual coercion feel like a choice.

[28] As the public ceases to see the need for feminism, the representation of women in popular cinema necessarily slides back toward less progressive models. The backlash against feminism that Faludi so insightfully explicates is clearly observable in these later films, some produced more than a decade after her book was published, as feminism is thrown into contrast against the happiness that heterosexual intimacy is supposed to represent in contemporary culture. And the ubiquity of the shrew archetype in post-feminist teen comedies seems not to be fading—though that genre as a whole is no longer the box office draw it once was. Time will tell what ideologies Shakespeare will be used in service of in the transitional period U.S. culture seems to be entering, but it is nevertheless clear that the political backslide that the culture seemed to be stuck in as the new millennium was dawning is made almost shockingly visible when we see the differences in the use that these films make of Shakespeare’s most sexually problematic comedy.


Thanks to Suzanne Gossett, who allowed me to write this essay, and to Stephanie Lundeen, who arranged for me to present it. Thanks also to the two anonymous readers atGenders and audiences at the Midwest Modern Language Association Convention and the symposium “Tragedy and Philosophy” at Loyola University Chicago.

Works Cited

  • Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead, 1998.
  • Boose, Lynda E. “The Taming of the Shrew, Good Husbandry, and Enclosure.” Shakespeare Reread: The Texts in New Contexts. Ed. Russ McDonald. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1994. 193-225.
  • Bristol, Michael D. Big-time Shakespeare. London: Routledge, 1996.
  • —. Shakepeare’s America, America’s Shakespeare. London: Routledge, 1990.
  • Brode, Douglas. Shakespeare in the Movies: From the Silent Era toShakespeare in Love. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000.
  • Butler, Judith. Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”. New York: Routledge, 1993.
  • —. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.
  • Cartmell, Deborah. Interpreting Shakespeare on Screen. New York: St. Martin’s, 2000.
  • Chedgzoy, Kate. Introduction. Shakespeare, Feminism, and Gender. Ed. Kate Chedgzoy. New York: Palgrave, 2001. 1-23.
  • Deer, Harriet A. “Untyping Stereotypes: The Taming of the Shrew.”The Aching Hearth: Family Violence in Life and Literature. New York: Insight, 1991. 63-93.
  • Dolan, Frances E. Introduction to “A Homily of the State of Matrimony.” The Taming of the Shrew: Texts and Contexts. Ed. Frances E. Dolan. Boston: Bedford, 1996. 169-72.
  • Duggan, Lisa. The Twilight of Equality?: Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy. Boston: Beacon, 2003.
  • Faludi, Susan. Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. New York: Anchor, 1991.
  • Fickman, Andy, dir. She’s the Man. DreamWorks SKG, 2006.
  • Friedman, Michael D. “The Feminist as Shrew in 10 Things I Hate about You.” Shakespeare Bulletin 22.2 (2004): 45-65.
  • Garner, Shirley Nelson. “The Taming of the Shrew: Inside or Outside the Joke?” “Bad” Shakespeare: Revaluations of the Shakespeare Canon. Ed. Maurice Charney. Rutherford: Farleigh Dickinson UP, 1988. 105-119.
  • Greenblatt, Stephen. Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1980.
  • Hapgood, Robert. “Popularizing Shakespeare: The Artistry of Franco Zeffirelli.” Shakespeare, the Movie: Popularizing the Plays on Film, TV, and Video. London: Routledge, 1997. 80-94.
  • Henderson, Diana E. “A Shrew for the Times.” Shakespeare, the Movie: Popularizing the Plays on Film, TV, and Video. London: Routledge, 1997. 148-168.
  • Hodgdon, Barbara. “Katherina Bound; or, Play(K)ating the Strictures of Everyday Life.” PMLA 107.3 (1992): 538-553.
  • “A Homily of the State of Matrimony.” The Taming of the Shrew: Texts and Contexts. Ed. Frances E. Dolan. Boston: Bedford, 1996. 172-84.
  • Iscove, Robert, dir. She’s All That. Miramax, 1999.
  • Jorgens, Jack J. Shakespeare on Film. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1977.
  • Junger, Gil, dir. 10 Things I Hate about You. Touchstone, 1999.
  • Klein, Melissa. “Duality and Redfeinition: Young Feminism and the Alternative Music Community.” Third Wave Agenda: Being Feminist, Doing Feminism. Ed. Leslie Heywood and Jennifer Drake. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997. 207-25.
  • Luhrmann, Baz. William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet. Bazmark Films, 1996.
  • Marcus, Leah. “The Shakespearean Editor as Shrew-Tamer.” English Literary Renaissance 22 (1992): 177-200.
  • Nelson, Tim Blake, dir. O. Lion’s Gate, 2001.
  • Pittman, L. Monique. “Taming 10 Things I Hate about You: Shakespeare and the Teenage Film Audience.”Literature/Film Quarterly 32.2 (2004): 144-52.
  • Rutter, Carol Chillington. “Looking at Shakespeare’s Women on Film.”The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare on Film. Ed. Russell Jackson. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. 241-260.
  • Shakespeare, William. The Taming of the Shrew. The Taming of the Shrew: Texts and Contexts. Ed. Frances D. Dolan. Boston: Bedford, 1996.
  • Waters, Mark, dir. Mean Girls. Paramount, 2004.
  • Zacharek, Stephanie. “There’s Something about Teenage Comedy.”Sight and Sound 9.12 (1999): 20-22.
  • Zeffirelli, Franco. Zeffirelli. New York: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1986.
  • Zeffirelli, Franco, dir. The Taming of the Shrew. Verona Productions, 1966.