Nora Ephron’s Warped Vision of Feminism In YOU’VE GOT MAIL
Nora Ephron had some very strange ideas about feminism and femininity, and today we pick apart You've Got Mail to prove it.
You’ve Got Mail, Nora Ephron’s 1998 feel good rom-com is more insidious than perhaps most of us are aware. I recently embarked on a Nora Ephron movie odyssey as part of a Christmas feel-good movie-marathon with my partner and I couldn’t help but notice a few irking gender binaries, and so I’ve further analyzed them for what they’re really trying to tell us in the following article.
In the true spirit of patriarchy, let’s start with Joe Fox, Tom Hanks’ charming character and male lead in the film. Joe Fox. Joe. “Just call me Joe”. He is a simple man with a dog. His name is helpfully broken down into two, short, three-letter-words that are easy enough for a five year old to spell, subtly assuring us that there are no frills about this red-blooded “very good businessman”, Godfather quoting, American.
Joe Fox wins Meg Ryan’s Kathleen Kelly, not because he is sensitive and caring but because he dominates her, like the predator in his surname would suggest. He dominates her in love by a serious of actually psychotic manipulations that are as narcissistic as they are cruel (but we’ll get to these later), but he also dominates her in business as his “big bad bookstore” takes over the book market, one section of Manhattan at a time.
Introducing The Patriarchy
But it doesn’t end there; Joe Fox comes from a long line of dominating patriarchs like his father, Nelson Fox and grandfather, Schuyler Fox before him. We, as the audience, are made to understand again and again that these captains of industry are fervent ladies men, with unstoppable sex-drives that have meant that Joe’s father has been romantically duped by a string of nannies and younger women and even resulted in a five-year old younger brother for the “over 30s” Joe.
While Joe’s grandfather not only has a little girl of about eight-years-old, he is so much a man-about-town that he even had a passing romantic fling with Kathleen’s mother, the “enchanting” Cecelia Kelly, though, he assures us, she was “much too young for him”. Thus, in the family tradition we are to understand that these men in love, as in business, always get what they want: sex, heirs, money, and any question of morality is feminine and weak, otherwise a non-issue for them.
The premise of You’ve Got Mail is that a “big” corporation is dominating the “little” shops around the corner and Joe is the big man while Kathleen is the little woman representative of these institutions. As Kathleen’s feminized, wordsmith boyfriend Frank Navasky (Greg Kinnear) puts it: in order for Kathleen to win the fight her “little” shop alone would have to be responsible for the change in tide of the entire force of the industrial revolution. And let’s face it—that’s just not going to happen. Although, Kathleen, naïve and idealistic as she is, fails to realize the full implications behind Frank’s words and she kisses him and says “that is so sweet”. Yes…capitalistic take-over is sweet, Kathleen, much like Joe’s ongoing head games with you turn out to be.
In The 90s, Hipsters Weren’t So Hot
Now let’s talk about Frank Navasky for a moment. If Frank existed today he would be hailed as a hipster. Unfortunately in Nora Ephron’s particularly envisioned world of pseudo-90s feminism, Frank is painted as an unromantic, unsexy, irritating intellectual who hounds Kathleen constantly to take social responsibility.
He hounds her to vote, something she easily forgets to do when she has hair appointments or fantasies about the journeys of butterfly’s buying hats at Bloomingdales. He hounds her to realize that her struggle is as good as a “lone reed waving bodily in the corrupt sands of commerce” to which she once again fails to see clearly and instead projects the sentiment back onto Frank and considers that her failing relationship is what constitutes her as a “lone reed”. But Frank also hounds her to ditch technology like the computer that puts her into contact with Joe Fox “you think this machine is your friend but it’s not” he prophesizes wisely, like the sage that he is.
Frank is also shown to be fickle and contradictory, which are traits traditionally associated with the feminine, for instance, though Frank claims to love the past over the present, Frank enjoys trendy food like “sushi” and he falls for a republican claiming he just “can’t help himself”. Thus, despite Kathleen’s acknowledgment that Frank and her are on paper “so right for each other”, Frank ultimately is too feminine and passive to be able to promise the stability, power and self-assured nature that Kathleen craves and thus finds in Joe Fox.
Frank is a writer for the Observer and that’s exactly what he is. He’s an observer of capitalistic takeover, and Ephron would have us to understand if Kathleen would have “listened to Frank” she might not have “listened to Joe” who turned out to be her true “soul-mate”, so really… Kathleen craves capitalistic takeover, just as she craves to spend her days buying hats at Bloomingdales, as light and careless as a butterfly just waiting to be crushed by the advancing subway doors of progress.
Actually, Kathleen invites Joe into her life through her ownership of the computer, through her purchasing a Starbucks, through her failure to vote for parties that would stop or limit Joe’s advancement. Kathleen wants Joe to take her over and help her to find her fulfillment as a woman and a wife (although Ephron does generously allow her another potential career as a writer after her business is destroyed). With Joe’s rescue, she won’t have to tow the business or fight at the mattresses as she pathetically imitates boxing with her little fists raised in her shop. Kathleen never wanted to be a hero. Kathleen wanted to be a “Shopgirl”. And she wanted to shop at Fox Books.
Frank and Joe both encourage Kathleen to fight for her business but in very different terms. Frank uses flourishing words that are deemed “over the top”, even by himself. He is tragically stuck in the past instead of heralding the future. He works for a print newspaper, he doesn’t watch television, he calls computers “machines”, is described as “a nut” and he gains his insights from intellectuals, philosophers and ancient historians which is very different from the “real world” and manly experience Joe Fox gains from his father and his father’s father, from the wisdom of pop culture (i.e. The Godfather) and the management of his book empire.
Joe, The Sly Fox
Let’s return to Joe. After all, this entire story is all about Joe. And Joe and his “evil corporation” can’t really be that bad, after all, we pointedly see Kathleen buying a Starbucks coffee at the start of You’ve Got Mail, which means that when it suits Kathleen she is more than happy to support major corporations that have situated themselves in her west-end neighborhood. But let’s consider for a moment what exactly Joe does in order to win over Kathleen, step-by-step.
1. He cheats on his partner Patricia by going into “over 30s” chatrooms to meet women.
Yes, Kathleen also does this (much like she also shops at corporations like Starbucks) but this isn’t really the point. We are privy to why Kathleen wanders into an over 30s chatroom, because for some reason, Ephron decided that it was necessary for the audience to hear a justification of why a woman would cheat with her boyfriend. But we never get to hear why Joe was in the chatroom, or, for that matter, how often he cheated and with how many other women.
Sure, both Joe and Kathleen use the chatroom to engage in a stream of endless benign small talk, in arguably a completely misconstrued use of the Internet. But, he is still lying about being available. It’s not exactly a great precedent for a relationship is it? Of course, you could say “but this was the 90s!”, the internet and chatrooms, in general, weren’t nearly as nefarious as they are today—what made the movie “New Yorkish” and off-the-wall was the strangeness of the concept of meeting someone online. The characters didn’t even fully understand what they were doing!
Sure, I get that. But they did know that they couldn’t go online until their prospective partners were out the door and they did know that they wanted to keep their identities a secret to such an extent that they didn’t even share their names with each other—and so, they did know they were cheating. End of.
2. Joe lies about his identity in his first encounter with Kathleen in the Shop Around the Corner.
“F-O-X” Joe’s little brother innocently spells out, like the warning from the mouths of babes. “F-O-X”. Spell it out. Look between the lines. The fox in sheep’s clothing lurks in the pasture. Laden with balloons, fish and children, Joe Fox wanders into his competitors shop under the guise of pretending to let his bother and aunt enjoy some story telling. When in reality, what he was doing is what any “very good businessman” would do, which is scoping out his competition’s basecamp.
“Just call me Joe”; Kathleen is miffed and annoyed she pointedly says her full name as a token of authenticity and trust. He doesn’t return the favor. Later, when Kathleen finally understands who Joe truly is she accuses him of having lied to her that day, but Joe denies any foul play, indicating that it was natural for him to just go by Joe. As if in just going by Joe he is without the need of the fetters of formality, he is a free agent, easy and masculine, comfortable in his identity as “just Joe”.
3. Joe asks Kathleen if they should meet
Joe is the one to make the first move to expedite their relationship, taking it out of the carefully set up boundaries of online into the offline world.
4. Joe realizes who Kathleen really is and initially decides to leave her sitting alone at the coffee shop.
This one is awful. Joe makes his friend go with him to see if Kathleen is indeed “pretty”, before he goes inside the coffee shop to meet her. Now, this is a theme of Nora Ephron films and is always a cause of huge anxiety: the hero sends a friend to see if the woman they are about to go on a date with is indeed “beautiful”, like in When Harry Met Sally.
And when it is revealed that the woman in the coffee shop is actually Kathleen, he initially decides to leave her sitting their waiting for him, after only moments before proclaiming that even if she was only as pretty as an inanimate object he would be crazy not to “marry her”. All this is presumed on the basis that she would even want to marry him, the skeeze that he is.
5. Joe changes his mind and decides it would be more fun to torture Kathleen with mind games while she sits sadly waiting for her date and instead has to deal with the obnoxious personality of her nemesis who is destroying her business.
Joe heads into the bar and sits down with Kathleen, not revealing that he is actually her date. Instead he manipulates her and begins to psychologically test her with a series of questions about what kind of man is coming to meet her. He takes the rose out of her book, he mocks the literature she has brought with her and is ultimately a giant sack of turd.
Despite the fact that he can visibly see how upset Kathleen is that her date is late, a fact that Joe has the gall to point out and throw in her face (knowing all the while that he is her date and is not late but just an entitled ass), and despite the fact that Kathleen is obviously in a very vulnerable position, he pushes her and pushes her until she explodes at him—to which, he deems is reason enough to leave her again and not reveal that he is her date.
6. Joe lies again and contemplates ridiculous stories about why he didn’t show up
In essence, Joe decides he is not done with playing mind-games and wants to see how far he can take this because he is selfish to keep her hanging on for himself, but not good-hearted or brave enough to tell her the truth.
7. Joe “befriends” Kathleen and puts her through an endless number of psychological tests and head games, for his own amusement
This one is self-explanatory.
8. Joe finally decides for himself that he really wants to be with Kathleen and further manipulates her through a series of meet-cues and basically dates her without her knowing until the time is right to reveal himself to Kathleen. He basically gaslights her.
Joe decides he has had enough fun testing and manipulating Kathleen and that she is vulnerable enough to meet him. He has broken her down and made her like him for “who he is” so that she will look past his sneaky behavior and the tiny fact that he is still putting her out of business. Kathleen cries, which Joe must have foreseen because he has a handkerchief (nice touch Joe, you douche bag).
But what is never addressed is that Joe still effectively closed down Kathleen’s family business. Joe’s manipulation has effectively taken over both the woman and the store. He has dominated every aspect of culture/woman and his manhood is complete. Well-done Joe. You win.
Feminine Virtues: Second Rate
Now we can finally talk about Kathleen, and Patricia (Joe’s first girlfriend). When we see into Kathleen’s apartment we see nice warm wooden tables, pretty china cups, big comfy beds with quilts, tissues and fuzzy socks on her feet: in essence, we see comfort.
Kathleen represents comfort. She is a successful businesswoman, yes, but she is homey and sweet with an impressive but comparatively modest 350,000 book sales a year. We can attribute this success not to any shrewd business savvy that Joe must have had to maintain a multi-million book empire, but to her understanding of the empathetic and loving comfort that can be provided by reading books.
This is something she learned from her mother (pointedly not her father). Her store was a matriarchy built around the feminine virtues (like “twirling” and “mothering”) and it had within it everything that Fox Books lacks, as we come to understand first when Kathleen exclaims “the books you read when you’re a child impact you more than any other reading will!” and then quickly apologizes for her impassioned outburst (in her own store) and then again when she woefully goes to the children’s department in Fox Books and realizes that the staff don’t understand anything about how to talk to customers (communication is, of course, another traditionally feminine trait) or why books are even valuable.
Hence, Fox Books promotes cheap books but gourmet coffee because coffee keeps the world running, much like Joe does and all the coffee references for identity (i.e ‘cup of joe’ and Starbucks – I wonder which coffee company sponsored the film). But the expensive and valued books of Kathleen’s store represent knowledge, love, pride, virtue, prejudice, feelings, et cetera, are only second rate at Joe’s store where they have been devalued as feminine and just pure commodity. Kathleen’s representation as someone who values these “feelings” and “virtues” is dead in a world ruled by corporations like Fox Books and Starbucks. She is beaten (and yet she shops there).
Reversal Of Gender Roles
Conversely, Joe’s girlfriend Patricia is too masculine. In the first scene we see Patricia in, she is busily rushing around their virtually shared apartment clearly in work-mode. She is dressed harshly all in black, with black hair and a black cell-phone, we are meant to understand she values business over emotion. All the while, sad and impatient Joe sits like a housewife at the table, inert and bored.
When Joe goes into work later and he is elated from his online conversation with Kathleen. His friend asks if he got engaged to Patricia, and Joe seems shocked and appalled by the idea. In a later scene when we see them getting ready for bed, Patricia is talking excitedly about meeting Frank Navasky, fascinated by his knowledge of Foucault and Heidegger “I don’t know what any of it means, really” she laughs, like a schoolgirl, again signifying that to Frank’s more feminized and esoteric knowledge she is alien (yet still, ironically, a man knows more).
Patricia locks her arms around Joe to which he aversely pulls away and climbs out of bed “I’m not tired”, to which we are to understand that Patricia is the more sexually dominate of the two and perhaps these are words that Joe has had to say often. He retreats to his computer to email the woman he really wants to talk to. But Patricia just immediately goes to sleep, snoring loudly and the joke here is evident in the reversal of “normal” gender roles.
And finally, in the last scene with Patricia and Joe, they are symbolically pictured as “trapped” in an elevator, a metaphor for their stalled relationship due to the obstruction of two masculine personalities. Joe, in an uncharacteristic but indulgent moment of emotionality brought on by the more sensitive elevator operator- who is presumably allowed to be more emotional because he is portrayed as Italian and thus as “other” – says he wants to marry his girlfriend who he loves.
Patricia says she is going to have her eyes lasered if she gets out but before Joe can reveal (or even properly reflect) on what he would do if he got out of the elevator, Patricia cuts him off saying “ugh, where are my tic-tacs!” To which, Joe knows he needs to leave the cold, emotionless, heartless, unfeminine Patricia once and for all—however, the irony is that it’s actually Joe who is the self-absorbed one, not Patricia, and he is upset because his statement was interrupted by a woman.
And so we can see through Ephron’s shrewd vision of 90s feminism that the true problem relied on the fact that Kathleen and Frank were both feminine while Joe and Patricia were both masculine. In order to truly be happy they needed to have a balanced relationship and find their true soul mate. The fact that Kathleen’s store closes and will never, ever re-open is no longer a problem or worry for Kathleen since she finds her man at the end of You’ve Got Mail, and, as a footnote, decides to be a writer (at least I think that’s what she decides to do).
The fact that Joe has lied to Kathleen every step of the way in their knowing each other is also not a problem for Kathleen because he given her what she wanted most of all: a relationship with a real manly man. This is truly a modern romance built on the internet, which in the 90s was the epitome of technological progress and so, we are meant to understand that these two embrace the destruction of the old world and old mediums like newspapers and books…and have instead discovered that corporations and email are actually the way forward.
About Angela Carlton, Ph.D. Student at Goldsmiths
I am a queer, feminist activist, writer and academic in my final year of my doctorate at Goldsmiths, University of London. I focus on representations of women in modernist literature. I have published Poetry in The Next Review and written for GLITS-e-publication. I enjoy hiking, rock climbing and adventuring.
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