Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” poses a problem for academics: It is perhaps the play of all Shakespeare’s plays that most troublingly touches on gender issues and reflects a problematic treatment of women. Though it’s not entirely shocking that a play written in the 1590s would treat women as inferior, it is unfortunate that upon closer look it has been used as the basis for a conservative and post-feminist movie that many teenagers have come to love over the past two decades. Gil Junger’s “10 Things I Hate About You,” a 1999 high school romantic comedy starring heart throbs like Heath Ledger, Julia Stiles, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, has done two sneaky things. One, it has shown scores of unknowing high schoolers the plot of a Shakespearean novel. Two, it has reinforced the idea that strong-willed women should change their strong-willed personality to something softer if they ever want boyfriends.
Fortunately, Anne Tyler has saved the day. In her novel “Vinegar Girl,” a modern-day adaptation of “The Taming of the Shrew” that forms part of the Hogarth Shakespeare series, Tyler uses the plot to advocate for an inclusive feminism that directly contrasts with the message in both Shakespeare’s play and Junger’s film.
“The Taming of the Shrew” has drawn resentment from some critics for what they call its regressive ideology. The New York Times writer Lauren Collins-Hughes writes that she “has always hated ‘The Taming of the Shrew.’” Shakespeare’s play follows Katherina, the shrew, as Petruchio “tames” her, forcing her to become truly a docile wife instead of the headstrong and irritable woman she is. Katherina is subject to emotional abuse and is locked away to starve until she changes. At the end of the play, Katherina gives a speech that advocates for wives to behave in a deferential, totally compliant manner with their husbands. Undoubtedly, this is a far cry from how women should be treated, nonetheless, Junger chose to repurpose the play for a modern audience.
Though it came four centuries later, the well-loved 1999 teen rom-com adaptation is not as nice as it appears. Kat, Junger’s “shrew,” is a second-wave feminist at her core. But, the film depicts this as a flaw. She’s teased by her peers, who insinuate that she is a lesbian (which is a problematic accusation in its own right), and her younger sister is embarrassed by Kat. But by the end of the movie, Kat has “calmed down.” She no longer wants to do all the things she used to love and she has cast off her feminist views, all in order to date her crush. This embodiment of “manifest femininity”—the idea that all women really want is to be loved by men—is inherent in the relationships feautred in romantic comedies. But the concept is most striking in “10 Things I Hate About You” because the female lead literally changes her progressive stance on feminism to a conservative one in order to date a cute boy. Junger has not used this Shakespearean play to reiterate gender roles prevalent in the 16th Century (it would be absurd to imply wives are merely servants in a 1999 teen film) but he has made the point in this film that he believes feminism has no place in the modern world. Based on this film, feminism, in Junger’s eyes, has done its part to give women enough freedom and now it only serves to make women disagreeable and unattractive. Which, Junger seems to assert, is a woman’s (and man’s) worst nightmare.
Luckily, Anne Tyler disagrees. Though she had her pick of Shakespeare’s plays to adapt, Tyler chose “The Taming of the Shrew” and adapted it in a way that changes the message the play and its adaptations have been signaling for years. Tyler’s “shrew,” Kate, is considered as such because she is awkward and blunt. Kate’s father tries to persuade her to marry his international research assistant so he can obtain a green card. Kate resists and, even though she has not been romantically involved with anyone for years, she asserts she would rather live without love than be treated like a pawn. Kate’s final speech deals with gender roles in marriage, but that’s where the similarities to Shakespeare’s original end. After standing up for herself, Kate points out that men are also affected by gender roles. “Anything that’s bothering them, men think they have to hide it,”she says, marking an inclusion of men key to the sort of third-wave feminism that scoffs at Junger’s “post-feminist” views. There are still problems in this world. There is still work to be done. So undo the damage “10 Things I Hate About You” has done, and read Tyler’s “Vinegar Girl” to experience what a real modern day adaptation of Shakespeare’s most problematic play should be.
—Staff writer Caroline E. Tew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on twitter @caroline_tew.
Amusements.BOSTON MUSEUM. - "Love in Harness" and "The Taming of the Shrew." 7.45. BOSTON THEATRE. - Herrmann, the Prestidigitatueur and
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