You've Got Mail: Best Film Ever Or Deeply Problematic?

This year marks the 20th anniversary of You've Got Mail, a romcom for the chatroom era starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. While some (Jess) say it's aged terribly and is a perfect example of everything that was wrong with '90s films, others (me) think it's greater than the sum of its parts and still relevant for a 2018 watch. Whose side are you on?
Photo: Warner Bros/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Jess's View

I really, really don’t like You’ve Got Mail. There, I’ve said it. The characters are annoying, its portrayal of city life is one big lie, and there’s not nearly enough of Tom Hanks' dog Brinkley as there should be.
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So when my good pal and esteemed colleague Sarah Raphael began praising the film, I had to interject. Which led to a heated debate and ultimately, me agreeing once again to watch a film I’ve unwillingly seen about 17 times.
During this viewing, I was surprised to find myself impressed with the film's roster of interesting and well developed female characters, from Meg Ryan’s Kathleen Kelly to Parker Posey’s She-E-O, Patricia. Even Tom Hanks' gold-digging, leg-fondling stepmother has enough sense to run away from the toxic Fox men and live happily ever after with Nanny Maureen.
That being said, like most '90s films watched under a 2018 microscope, the film is not without its problems. Tom Hanks' Joe Fox lies to Kathleen from the word go, concealing his identity as Mr Fox Books, the big corporate bookstore intent on destroying Kathleen’s independent Shop Around The Corner. When Kathleen dares confront Joe for his deceit, he lashes out, attacking (of all things) her dead mother’s bookstore. It's classic narcissistic behaviour. He's happy to dish it out, but at the first sign of criticism, he’ll overreact in a cruel and defensive manner.
As everyone who's seen the film knows, the irony of Kathleen and Joe hating each other IRL is that (spoiler for literally no one) they’re actually in love with each other's secret online persona after meeting in a chatroom for over-30s that Kathleen wandered into "as a joke".
Joe finds out Kathleen's true identity though (through the film’s single person of colour – the criminally underused Dave Chappelle), and uses this knowledge first to torment Kathleen and then to try and ensnare her, dropping lines from Pride and Prejudice (her favourite book!) and assuring her she's "crazy" about this online guy "NY152", and that she should definitely meet him.
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The strangest part of the entire film is when Joe Fox shows up at Kathleen Kelly’s house unannounced. She’s sick, and tells him to go away. A simple "no" isn't enough to deter millionaire Joe Fox, though. He's decided he fancies Kathleen and slips through her door anyway and ends up sitting on her bed and touching her lips. If it wasn’t Tom Hanks, universally agreed to be the best man on the planet, it would be a very weird scene. Very weird indeed.
Photo: Warner Bros/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
Luckily, Kathleen Kelly/Meg Ryan doesn't seem deterred by the nonconsensual house-entering and face-touching and the film ends happily ever after with our couple snogging in a park as Brinkley bounds around them (this is the most screen time Brinkley gets and it’s a crying shame tbh).
But will it last happily ever after? Here’s an interesting point to consider: In You’ve Got Mail, it’s 1998. Somewhere out there, Jeff Bezos is out of his parents’ garage and halfway to experiencing Amazon’s first year of profit. The book business is about to implode. Barnes & Noble is just a few years away from tanking stock prices, and now-defunct competitor Borders is close behind. Joe Fox of the Fox Books conglomeration is living on borrowed time and is about to get a taste of his own business-destroying medicine.
Let's be honest; he's not going to handle it well. Joe Fox has learned nothing by the end of the film, save how to be a slightly nicer person. His ruthless business acumen still exists, and thanks to Kathleen Kelly's remarkably forgiving nature, he has experienced nothing in terms of personal loss. He kept his business and got the girl, even after destroying her livelihood.
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And who, pray tell, will golden-boy, millionaire, doesn't-answer-to-anyone Joe Fox take it out on when Fox Books starts to crumble? I'm going to go out on an age-old limb and say his loving and subservient partner, Kathleen Kelly.
Who knows what the future holds for the duo from You’ve Got Mail. Here’s hoping they had a lovely spring in New York, before the real world came calling.
Photo: Warner Bros/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Sarah's View

I hope that nothing about my character belies a You’ve Got Mail fan. Or a Meet Joe Black fan. Or a Housesitter fan. I hope people think of me as a more discerning person. The discerning people cringe and roll their eyes and shout at the TV when Kathleen Kelly bounces out of her ridiculously nice brownstone to the sound of The Cranberries' "Dreams" and says things like: "I hear nothing, not even a sound on the streets of New York, just the beat of my own heart." (N.B. There are so many sentences I could have chosen there to illustrate the saccharine voiceover thoughts of both Kathleen and Joe Fox in this film, like: "Once I read a story about a butterfly in the subway, and today, I saw one.") But I don’t roll my eyes at any of it and if a man I was chatting to in an over-30s chatroom told me he wanted to send me a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils because the autumn leaves reminded him of buying school supplies, I would probably send him my work address. I cry when Meg Ryan misses her mum decorating her Christmas tree, and when Tom Hanks wipes away her solitary tear in the park to the sound of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow", saying that immortal line: "Don’t cry, Shop Girl." Why? Because I think You’ve Got Mail is the optimistic view of over-30s online dating that we need right now.
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The gender stereotypes are annoying, yes. She’s painted as a sentimental winsome type who can’t stop reading Pride and Prejudice, and he a brash patronising millionaire. If the roles were reversed and he were the independent bookstore owner who loves Pride and Prejudice and she the corporate suit, it would be a better film. Actually, maybe then it would be Notting Hill… But I’m going to defend Joe Fox for a minute.
Over the last few years, since ghosting became something people do to each other, I’ve sat with friends more times than I can count trying to come up with logical explanations for the brutal disappearance of an online love interest. Such as: Maybe when he said he couldn’t see you because he was practising his flute, what he actually meant was he feels intimidated by your career. Or: Maybe when he said… nothing… and just didn’t show up, what he actually meant was he wasn’t over his ex who he could possibly have seen last Friday at that wedding he mentioned. But imagine, like in You’ve Got Mail, that the explanation was: Maybe he’s realised you already know each other and knows he’s hurt you too much for you to even consider liking him right now, so he’s going to spend the next few months trying to be your friend instead, in an attempt to earn your trust and show you that he’s worthy of your time. Joe Fox is the anti-ghoster. He freaks out when he realises his online love interest is a business rival, but instead of running a mile, he tries to prove to her that there’s another side to him, worth loving.
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Joe Fox is also a more dynamic character than his philandering father or grandfather. He’s a millionaire who goes after… someone roughly his own age. A millionaire of feeling, who still believes in love despite his father’s view that "the one" is a nonsense idea. An unpretentious millionaire, who bemoans going to an event with his partner on the basis that it’s black tie and uncouthly scrapes all the caviar garnish onto his plate. He breaks up with his partner because she’s more interested in finding her Tic Tacs than listening to the sweet dreams of Michelle’s mum from American Pie and Charlie the doorman when they’re all trapped in the lift. Joe Fox is rich, but he’s not a snob.
The problematic sick scene Jess is referring to goes like this. He brings her flowers because he hears she’s sick. Rings the doorbell; at first she doesn’t let him in, but then he knocks again, and she does. He makes her tea with honey and asks very sincerely if she might consider being his friend. Yes, he puts his hand over her mouth as she’s about to insult him and out of context, that’s pretty awful and silencing and gender-stereotypical but it’s IN context.
I like the message about love that You’ve Got Mail presents: that there are no "types". Kathleen would never date a corporate millionaire who owns a boat. Kathleen would only date her "type" – a journalist whose niche is taking down corporate giants and supporting the underdog. Joe Fox’s "type" is Parker Posey’s character, who has a "killer instinct" in business. But Kathleen finds her type unbearably pretentious and full of himself, and Joe finds his type cold-hearted and self-centred. I like this deconstruction of types and emphasis on what’s really important in a relationship: the details of the person and mutual appreciations of the same little things – the things people feel confident sharing in online chat, but not out loud in person.
An online emotional affair is also a very realistic 2018 narrative. Although absolutely no one’s feelings get hurt by this emotional affair, which is deeply unrealistic. Kathleen and her worthy journalist boyfriend admit to each other that they’re not in love, and laugh about it. Imagine that! It's a liberating idea.
I always loved You’ve Got Mail because it's cosy and it has good supporting characters and good one-liners ("It’s like those people who brag because they’re tall"). But I love it now, as a 31-year-old woman, because it's a romantic comedy made in the '90s about people in their 30s with jobs they love, and there’s no mention of children – it doesn’t end with a wedding or a pregnancy. It ends with Kathleen being offered lots of exciting jobs including as a children’s book editor, which I would consider career progression from running her mum’s bookshop. Kathleen has been overshadowed by her enchanting mother who everyone remembers above her, and by her journalist boyfriend who everyone reveres above her, but the ending points to an exciting new chapter in her professional life, one where she finds her calling, supported by a man who loves every detail about her. (Vom).
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