You’ve Got Hate Mail? In Defence Of Nora Ephron’s 90s Romcom
Nora Ephron's You've Got Mail has been accused of everything from misogyny to being capitalist propaganda - Julia Smith thinks otherwise.
I originally watched Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail when I was 16, at the height of the 90s romcom success and about the right time for me to get attached to notions of weird stalkery romance. It was never one of my absolute favourite films, but I still loved many things about it. (The film on which it was based, The Shop Around The Corner, eventually became one of my favourite films.) While I’ve gotten older there are things I like less about You’ve Got Mail, but conversely there are also things about it that I like more, which is why I never really get why people take umbrage with this film.
I hear all sorts of arguments against this film; Joe manipulates Kathleen, the film is misogynistic, Kathleen is victimised, to some apparently it even elevates the idea of stalkery romance to Fifty Shades Of Grey levels. And while I’m not going to defend this film to the death I do feel it’s time to address this negativity; to take everyone’s arguments, look at them closely, and ask: are they getting this film all wrong? I think so.
Note: This is not a review of You’ve Got Mail, or a critique of the film as a whole, but a straight forward criticism of arguments people have with this film. If you haven’t previously watched the film I suggest you do that before reading any further.
Argument #1: Joe is a liar and a cheat
One of the first arguments you’ll hear when people discuss You’ve Got Mail is that Joe (Tom Hanks) was a liar and a cheat from the start. He went into an over-30s chatroom to cheat on his girlfriend. Well, Kathleen (Meg Ryan) did the same thing so what does that make her? People judge Joe because it is made clear to us that his father and grandfather are philanderers, but Kathleen is exempt for our judgement, why? Because she’s sweet and was raised by a single mum?
Kathleen is the one who first brings up the question of fidelity so she knows what she’s doing. To be honest though, I don’t think either of these characters are up to anything, they simply entered into the curiosity of the modern age. They did get ahead of themselves though, which is kind of inexcusable, as they both had partners.
Joe also lies to Kathleen about his identity when they first meet, which is pointed to as proof that he is being underhanded. Except those that point this out don’t notice one simple fact. When Joe is first speaking to Kathleen she and her staff are griping about Fox Books. She even ends their exchange with; “big bad Fox Books can just go to hell”. So instead of putting himself in an awkward situation, Joe chose not to give Kathleen his surname. That’s pretty sensible thinking from where I’m standing. Not normal, but sensible.
Argument #2: Joe drives Kathleen out of business on purpose
One of the big problems people have with You’ve Got Mail is that they believe Joe mercilously drives Kathleen out of business and then Kathleen subjugates herself by deciding to be with him anyway. Which I find the most illogical of all the arguments. Also, it makes me wonder at what this audience would expect. I don’t believe Joe has any evil intent, but he is part of a large chain of bookstores, and when they install a shop around the corner from Kathleen’s, logically her business is going to suffer.
Especially as, when Joe first meets Kathleen, he has to pay $73 for six children’s books. With inflation that makes those six books $109.70 in today’s money- £83.53 in sterling. The Shop Around The Corner is sweet and virtuous and all those lovely things, but are you telling me you wouldn’t be running to Amazon after that exchange? The only other option here, to placate the audience who dislike this element of the story, is for Joe to close down his bookstore or somehow integrate Kathleen’s into his.
An idea that is kind of unrealistic and a bit sentimental, to be honest. This is the real world, it’s sad but small shops go out of business. At least You’ve Got Mail gives Kathleen a chance to stand on her own two feet and try something new, she herself says “sometimes I wonder about my life… Do I do it because I like it? Or because I haven’t been brave”. Kathleen is brave to close down the bookstore and try something new. She falls in love with Joe, and accepts him even though he put her out of business, because she knows it’s something he didn’t intend on doing and would have been powerless to stop.
Argument #3: Joe manipulates Kathleen
The biggest and darkest argument surrounding this film is that Joe manipulates Kathleen, and that his actions are cruel and misogynistic. Let’s look at this a step at a time. So, to begin with, Joe lies about his identity, which I’ll excuse him for. When they meet knowing who each other is Kathleen is already pissed off at him, so they argue. When they meet later on their date Joe is clearly grumpy that Kathleen is the woman that he is talking to, also Kathleen is upset at him being there.
In this exchange they both get in some blows but ultimately the audience who dislike You’ve Got Mail find Joe’s actions here and throughout the rest of You’ve Got Mail manipulative. I’m not going to excuse Joe’s behaviour, it was cruel to let Kathleen wallow like that. But she was pretty damn mean to him. And, to be honest, if I turned up to find the person who I cared about was someone I disliked and who made no bones about hating me I would probably never own up to being the person on the end of the internet cable (yeah, we had things like that in the 90s).
To be fair to Joe he does seem to do the right thing and try to stop talking to Kathleen, but ultimately he still likes her. As things go from bad to worse for Kathleen, Joe comes up with what seems like a sensible plan. Show Kathleen that he is actually a nice guy, and get her to think about who the guy at the end of the cable might be. Importantly he gets her to consider him.
He puts it out there: “I put you out of business so you’re entitled to hate me” but, he says “I wanted to be your friend”. Then he waits patiently for her to change her mind about him. Yeah, it is all a bit weird, but in the age of Catfishing we would be remiss to say, as odd as this situation is, that it was completely unacceptable.
And The Rest…
There are other smaller arguments that come up around this film. There is the idea that this film is about male and capitalist dominance. That Joe, his father and grandfather are manipulating Kathleen and the women in their lives. Which I find kind of unbelievable. I don’t think you’d have to go far to find an independent shop run by a woman that’s been put out of business by a chain store run by rich white men. It’s not a happy situation, but it’s hardly out of the ordinary.
Also, this whole thing with Joe’s father and grandfather, and their philandering. This film isn’t about them, it’s about Joe. And while the father and grandfather have rather laissez faire attitudes toward women, they are also romantics. Luckily Joe has inherited this part, and unlike them wants to find someone who he connects with and someone to commit to. This film is about Joe being a better man, and not being part of an outdated male dominant system, not the other way around.
The last splinter cell argument that comes up sometimes is that Joe and Kathleen’s significant others, Patricia and Frank, are somehow part and parcel of this male run system that You’ve Got Mail is attempting to advertise. Patricia is dominant, but Joe wants to be dominant, so he has to leave her. Frank on the other hand is not dominant, so Kathleen ditches him in favour of Joe because she wants to be dominated. Which is absurd.
Frank and Patricia are typical stereotypes in films of this sort, they fulfil the ‘comparative relationship’ criteria that a romcom needs. They are the drab and sometimes annoying alternatives to make the main love interests more wonderful by comparison. Frank and Patricia are conceited people, they have their good points, but ultimately they’re better suited to each other than they are Joe or Kathleen.
You’ve Got Mail: Conclusion
I understand how people could extrapolate certain meanings from You’ve Got Mail but on the whole I find their arguments reductive and obtuse. The manipulative male is such a generic, vague analysis of the romantic comedy hero, and I see it time and again. I’m not going to lie, some creepy stuff happens in romantic comedies, but the women get up to some pretty crazy stuff too.
Ultimately I don’t believe You’ve Got Mail manipulates its heroine, I think it gives her a whole heap of new chances and experiences. Yeah, Joe was mean, but so was Kathleen. Also, I’d prefer a guy who fights back, I don’t want a film to pander to the sensitive female stereotype, and neither do you.
I understand if after reading this you’re still sharpening up your typing fingers to come back at me with a ‘but’. But then, I’m not asking you to agree with me, I’m asking you to look a little closer at the film and reconsider your point of view. You don’t have to like this film, you don’t have to like what I’m saying about it, but at least if you are going to oppose this film make a sound argument, and create a valid case before you start using words like ‘manipulative’ and ‘misogynistic’.
If you’re still pondering, sharpening up your retort, then think on this one last thought. To paraphrase Shakespeare: if perchance I have offended, think but this, and all is mended. Joe was the one who got Kathleen thinking she could be brave, that she could be a writer. He read Pride & Prejudice for her, he remembered daisies were her favourite flowers, he saved her in Zabar’s even when she avoided him. He apologised time after time, even when he didn’t need to. Joe fell on his knees and sword for Kathleen, and she didn’t even watch The Godfather for him.
What do you think about You’ve Got Mail? Is it a 90s classic romantic comedy? Or a murky tale of male manipulation?
Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.