Almost 20 Years On, ‘You’ve Got Mail’ Is Kind Of Catfishing Nonsense

This is a darker love story than you remember.

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A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine discovered I’ve never seen You’ve Got Mail, or indeed, any of the Meg Ryan rom-coms that ruled the ‘90s (see: Sleepless in Seattle, French Kiss and City of Angels). She matter-of-factly called me a monster and informed me that Nora Ephron’s 1998 romantic comedy-drama was the perfect place to start, slightly mollified by the fact that I’d at least seen the infamous fake orgasm scene from When Harry Met Sally.

So I invited her over for dinner, wine and a late-night laptop screening of this two-hour AOL commercial.

If you don’t know the story, You’ve Got Mail is about an improbably perky woman called Kathleen Kelly who owns a quaint little bookshop that brings her a lot more joy than her unfulfilling relationship with Frank (Greg Kinnear). She lives in a charming New York City brownstone and has the type of blonde choppy ‘do that demands serious hair gel.

But something is missing in her non-offensive life and she has started exchanging emails with ‘NY152’ who she met online in an over-30s chatroom under the alias ‘Shopgirl’. Every morning she anxiously waits as the gurgle of the dial-up modem connects her to the internet and hopes that she will be greeted by three magical words: ‘You’ve got mail’.

But, of course, there’s a twist, and her anonymous email penpal is in fact her amoral business rival. Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) runs a Borders-style book superstore where customers can browse hundreds of heavily discounted titles while sipping on mochas or cappuccinos. He’s depicted as a misunderstood corporate jerk who harbours a strange preoccupation with what people’s coffee orders can tell you about their character.

When he opens a store just around the corner from Kathleen’s shop, it’s patently obvious that he’s going to run her out of business. The delicious irony is that the person Kathleen chooses to turn to for advice is good ol’ ‘NY152’.

In short: even though it’s beloved, You’ve Got Mail doesn’t hold up 18 years later. It just doesn’t.

This Movie Is About Catfishing

Catfishing is the phenomenon where internet predators fabricate online identities to trick people into romantic relationships over an extended period of time. Sound familiar?

Before you start defending Tom Hanks and telling me that his character, Joe Fox, is just misunderstood, consider this: Joe finds out who Kathleen is long before she finds out who he is. He starts using it to his advantage, not bothered by the fact that he’s basically run her business into the ground. He rather aggressively befriends her by turning up to all of her regular haunts and following her around (in other sections of the internet, this is called ‘stalking’), and continues to email her as the elusive ‘NY152’.

But that’s not all. Oh no. Joe starts strategically planting doubts in Kathleen’s fairly vulnerable mind about whether or not ‘NY152’ is the person he claims to be; suggesting he’s either married or a “fatty”. Okay.

… And That’s Not Where The Fat-Shaming Ends

After Joe obnoxiously suggests that ‘NY152’ probably chose that username because he weights 152 pounds, Kathleen defiantly replies that she doesn’t care about that sort of thing. Joe responds with a jibe about him having to be lifted out of his apartment by a crane every time he wants to leave it and jokes that he probably looks more like a Clark Bar than Clark Gable. (Not being American, I had to google Clark Bars. Turns out they’re milk chocolate peanut butter bars that actually look quite slim.)

This scene also takes place at a restaurant where they are ‘sharing’ a plate of fish and chips which Kathleen leaves untouched while Joe happily hoes into it. In the next scene, he eats a chocolate-covered pretzel while she nibbles on an apple. Ugh. Throughout this movie, women are shown in the vicinity of food but never actually eat it.

They’re Both Dating Other People

Well, how about that! Joe and Kathleen both have live-in partners at the start of the film; a key detail that people tend to forget. Joe is dating a belligerent book editor called Patricia while Kathleen is seeing a technophobic newspaper columnist called Frank. Their obvious incompatibility provides the narrative’s justification for them getting dumped so that Joe and Kathleen can follow their once-in-a-lifetime love story, but it’s still a bit awkward that they’re there in the first place.

At the start of the film, Kathleen asks her colleague if she thinks it’s infidelity to be involved with someone on email. Christina immediately replies, “Have you had cybersex?’ Kathleen responds indignantly that it’s “just email” but considering that two sentences earlier she was claiming, “I love Frank”, it’s weirder than it needs to be.

Why are their live-in partners there in the first-place, other than to be ultimately disposed of? The answer is probably for comic relief. Patricia gets dumped because she goes crazy when she can’t find any Tic Tacs, and Frank is so afraid of technology that it’s sweet, sweet irony that his girlfriend finds her soulmate on the internet.

The Product Placement Is Dubious

Aside from being a giant commercial for America Online (AOL), You’ve Got Mail also shills for Starbucks and Visa. The product placement seems kind of odd considering that they’re exactly the same kind of soulless corporations that the film criticises by encouraging the viewer to side with Kathleen’s indie bookshop over Joe’s conglomerate chain. But there’s an astonishing amount of it.

Kathleen adores Starbucks and conspicuously frequents it even as she unconvincingly tries to extol the virtues of small businesses. Joe rants that: “the whole purpose of places like Starbucks is for people with no decision-making ability whatsoever to make six decisions just to buy one cup of coffee”, but boy, does the camera linger on that convenient takeaway cup in his hand every two or three scenes. As for Visa, Joe’s knight-in-shining-armor moment comes when he ‘rescues’ Kathleen at a supermarket checkout by flashing his credit card.

The never-ending use of AOL trademarks ensures that You’ve Got Mail could easily be renamed You’ve Got Product Placement and no one would notice. It is so totally at odds with the film’s lesson that love will always triumph over diametrically-opposed life values that it’s hard to swallow, even with a grande decaf skim mochaccino.

The Power Dynamic At The End Is Disturbing

Joe’s big plan is to make Kathleen fall in love with him in real life while at the same time disparaging her online relationship and getting her to detach herself from that fantasy. But because he actually is ‘NY152’, you’d think Kathleen would be a little upset and/or indignant when she finds out he’s been hoodwinking her.

Guess what? She’s not! She’s in such a fragile state of mind what with being newly unemployed and emotionally invested in her online sweetheart that when she believes they’re finally about to meet and Joe strolls around the corner, she doesn’t say, “What the hell?” or “Not cool, dude”. She sweetly responds, “I wanted it to be you so badly”, and falls into his arms.

She doesn’t express any of the rightful indignation that she should be feeling that Joe has been outright plotting to finagle his way into a relationship with her, never mind that while doing so he was bankrupting the business that her dead mother started 42 years ago. She simply cries tears of pure happiness while Joe is all, ‘How good is this power dynamic that I just totally exploited?’

It’s interesting to speculate about where their relationship goes from here — we’re lead to believe that Kathleen will ‘soften’ Joe’s insensitive corporate instincts and he will help her ‘sharpen’ her professional objectives. Unfortunately if this were to happen in real life, Kathleen would be way too pissed off she got played to get over it straight away and Joe would have to face the consequences of his creepy behaviour. You’ve Got Mail is dark, man.

Hilary is a Melbourne-based writer, copywriter, and editor who has written everything from property brochures to daily horoscopes. She can be found at