Academic journal article Genders

The Cinematic Shrews of Teen Comedy: Gendering Shakespeare in Twentieth-Century Film

Academic journal article Genders

The Cinematic Shrews of Teen Comedy: Gendering Shakespeare in Twentieth-Century Film

Article excerpt

[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. …

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