When I was in high school, all of my friends were absolutely obsessed with romantic comedies. To me, as someone who was trying so hard to not fit into the teenage girl mold and be “different” from everyone else, the teenage romantic comedies I was exposed to just seemed, quite literally, basic to me. And then Kat Stratford flipped my entire life upside down.
In most teen films, there have been five main stereotypes presented: the “popular girl” (white, slim, conventionally attractive, rich), the “jock” (same as the popular girl but athletic instead of slim), the “nerd” (shorter in stature, glasses, wiry and slim compared to the jock), the “bad boy” (darker hair, smokes, seen as attractive alternative to the jock), and the “outcast” (seen as quirky, usually alone, not usually conventionally attractive). These stereotypes are most memorably portrayed in the film The Breakfast Club (dir. John Hughes, 1985), which focuses on the characters being brought together in detention. The characters are fairly one-dimensional, briefly diving into their home lives to show that each character has more in common with each other than they thought, but the film keeps their characters comfortably in their own pre-conceived clique (except for one).
Other teen films, most notably Mean Girls (dir. Mark Waters, 2004), lean into these stereotypes and high school cliques and lead an attempt to disrupt the cliques through huge physical changes. Though this film does introduce high school cliques, through the character of Kat Stratford, 10 Things I Hate About You (dir. Gil Junger, 1999) leans away from any major physical changes to showcase character growth. Based on the Shakespeare play “The Taming of the Shrew”, focuses on Kat and Bianca Stratford and the twists and turns of their dating lives. Kat (Julia Stiles) is seen as the “outcast” where as Bianca (Larisa Oleynik) is more of the “popular girl.” Allison (Ally Sheedy) from The Breakfast Club seems to be the prototype for Kat. They share similarities in that they are ostracized by their peers.
However, their characters diverge as they are exposed to the possibilities of a relationship. Claire (the “popular girl” played by Molly Ringwald) changes Allison’s entire look, going from oversized dark clothing to a light pink dress, to make her more attractive to Andrew (the “jock” played by Emilio Estevez). As soon as she stops doing her physical quirks, Andrew begins to like her, seemingly showing the audience that getting rid of one’s weird quirks is the surefire way to get a relationship. The “makeover” trope is a plot line that many of these “outcast” teen characters follow – they physically change the way they look, hide their true selves, in order to get into a relationship or to be liked by the popular crowd. Most even include the infamous “makeover montage” to highlight the physical change and equivalate it to character growth. It just seems like a lazy and overused trope to show that fitting in and being in a relationship is the end-all, be-all of character growth.
Kat, on the other hand, does not endure these same physical and huge personality changes. Though Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Patrick (Heath Ledger), and Joey (Andrew Keegan) were manipulating her so that Cameron or Joey could date Bianca, she kept the same clothes, the same headstrong attitude. Instead, she subverts the “makeover” trope and undergoes a more subtle, internal change. She keeps her clothing and taste in music but she begins sharing insecurities about her past romantic relationship to Bianca, talking about her dead mother, being willing to go to parties with her date Patrick, and becoming open to new experiences in order to help Bianca. Her vulnerability makes her eventual heartbreak even more bittersweet, culminating in Kat’s infamous sonnet monologue. Though she does end up with Patrick at the end of the film, for Kat, her vulnerability was key in avoiding the usual “makeover” and helped her to become more relatable to many a teenage outcast.
It was easy for me to immediately identify with Kat. From her initial entrance in the film, where she drives up next to a car while blaring “Bad Reputation” by Joan Jett in her speakers, I was enamored. Though, looking back on it now, she seemed to be a very Third Wave feminist caricature, she was a character I wanted so badly to emulate. Kat stands up for herself in every situation. She rightfully calls out Joey Donner as he makes a derogatory statement in the middle of class and is headstrong when her father, at first, pressures her to stay at home for college in Seattle instead of moving to New York to attend Sarah Lawrence.
She refuses to dress in the same style of clothing as Bianca, instead dressing in more shapeless, darker items. She didn’t lose any of her original personality during the film; instead, her internal, non-physical character growth just added more depth to her character, which is more similar to the growth that many teenagers go through. This makes her feel more relatable than The Breakfast Club’s Allison or any other teenage outcast. Kat shows that she is more than just an outcast, that she is a multidimensional teenager who feels like she could be someone you know. In a time where my friends idolized the female characters undergoing these massive physical changes to fit in, Kat showed me that internal growth mattered more than fitting in.