by Sarah Welch
Christmastime means going home to my family, and going home to my family means a flurry of comfort food and teaching my parents whatever dance steps were popular over the summer (last year it was the nae nae; this year I’m sure we’ll be dabbing as we open presents). We like movies, but we tend not to watch traditional Christmas movies. For some reason, nothing says “Christmas” to certain family members quite like Prometheus. As for me, when I think of home and Christmastime and film, I tend to think of Die Hard and You’ve Got Mail—especially the latter.
Although it isn’t a traditional Christmas movie, You’ve Got Mail remakes the classic Christmas film The Shop Around the Corner (which was itself an adaptation of a Hungarian play). You’ve Got Mail is a traditional 90’s rom-com: its leads hate each other at first sight, then get to know each other, then fall in love. It boasts the 90’s-rom-commiest of stars, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. It’s a comfort movie of comfort movies, and a staple on my mom’s DVR.
Tom Hanks plays Joe Fox and Meg Ryan plays Kathleen Kelly. He’s the heir to a bookstore chain empire called Fox Books. She owns the children’s bookstore left to her by her mother, The Shop Around the Corner. Instead of writing letters, the two anonymously email each other after meeting in an AOL chatroom. Fox Books moves into the neighborhood, putting The Shop Around the Corner out of business, but not before war breaks out between Joe and Kathleen. Both are in family businesses, but for very different reasons; she’s in the business because she loves watching children grow on the foundations of the books they read, while he is living into his father’s image of American corporate masculinity; their fight is not just about staying in business, but about their own opposing ideologies. Despite its updated premise, You’ve Got Mail contains many nods to the 1940s movie, especially the first date scene in which Joe is fully aware of Kathleen’s identity, but she believes she’s been stood up by her mystery man. The New York Times review even compared Tom Hanks to Jimmy Stewart, who played the male lead in The Shop Around the Corner.
My take on You’ve Got Mail is far from hot. Plenty of people have already pointed out that the film is an early example of catfishing, that Joe Fox’s behavior could be considered manipulative, that the cast is glaringly white despite being set in New York City. But that’s not what I’m going to talk about. I’m going to talk about this movie’s emphasis on mother-daughter relationships, and the way it shows how important it is to talk through differences, especially the ones we most desperately want to avoid. I want to use a comfort movie to wade into the uncomfortable waters of conflict in close relationships.
Joe begins to reconcile with the woman who totally opposes his views by going to talk to her. “I wanted to be your friend,” he says. “I knew it wasn’t possible. What can I say, sometimes a guy just wants the impossible.” Joe starts the movie by being the closest thing it has to a villain. He puts Kathleen out of business and he’s horrible to her in person. It’s only after he stops, hears her side of the story, and decides to get to know her that the two are able to understand each other. Kathleen still hasn’t forgiven Joe for putting her out of business by movie’s end, but by then the two are becoming friends, and more. Joe doesn’t start by trying to prove he’s right. He starts by wanting to understand.
We associate comfort foods with home, with the things our mothers cooked for us when we were sick or having birthdays or just wanting something we knew we liked. Comfort movies work the same way. It feels good to watch familiar characters behave the way we know they will, to let a movie carve a groove into your heart. You’ve Got Mail is one of my comfort movies, because it was a comfort movie of my mother’s. This is particularly appropriate, given the film’s underlying themes of female relationships, especially as played out over the holidays. It’s doubly appropriate this holiday season, as I go home to a family I no longer fully agree with.
Some of the movie’s most emotional passages take place in the cold, dark winter months, peppered as they are with Christmas lights and awkward holiday parties and the bittersweet heartache of Christmastime after loved ones have passed. In a way, You’ve Got Mail feels more Christmas-y than most Christmas movies; there are always a lot of emotions tied up in the holidays, not all of them positive. The ache of loss, the dread of going home to a family you might not necessarily understand anymore, a strong dislike for Christmas ham… the list goes on. Everyone’s experienced negative feelings around Christmastime, some sadder or harder than others. By the time of the Christmas scenes in You’ve Got Mail, Kathleen’s bookstore is struggling hard, and her future is uncertain.
You’ve Got Mail is a romantic comedy, but it’s built on a bedrock of female relationships. Kathleen Kelly fights to keep her bookstore because it’s one of the last links she has to her deceased mother. Joe Fox feels insecure because his father has a revolving door of women who are increasingly closer to Joe’s own age, his own mother having long been out of the picture. A shot inside the new Fox Books superstore that puts The Shop Around the Corner out of business features a book in the foreground titled “Are You Your Mother?” Kathleen employs two women—Birdie, an elderly lady who Kathleen describes as “practically her second mother,” and Christina, a college student who looks up to both Kathleen and Birdie. The three are more than coworkers. They’re friends, chatting about their lives, romantic and otherwise. Until the store goes under, Birdie and Christina are a constant presence in Kathleen’s life.
My own mom has always been there, through every move to a new location throughout my childhood; through school, through sickness. Military spouses and homeschooling moms should be on a fast track to sainthood, and since my mom has been both, she’s doubly qualified. I call her every weekend, and she’s talked me through the ugly little growing pains of becoming an independent adult—growing pains that parallel Kathleen Kelly’s. When Kathleen talks about her store closing, she talks about how it feels as though a part of her has died, words that I know I’ve echoed when talking to my mother about breakups and deferred dreams.
But we have disagreements. Political discussions have underscored that fact over the past year. We’ve fought, a fact that has no doubt caused both of us heartache; both of us would prefer to avoid conflict whenever possible. But we can talk those differences through, following Joe Fox’s example—albeit face-to-face, with less trickery. Instead of sniping at each other, we can grow. I find You’ve Got Mail to be an optimistic, encouraging picture about reconciliation between two people with completely different beliefs.
My mother and I are both white and straight and upper middle class (much like most of the cast of You’ve Got Mail). This election does not affect our livelihoods much. Neither of us voted for Trump, but we don’t agree on the outcome of the election either. I’m not taking You’ve Got Mail to be a guide for political activism in a post-Trump world. I am taking it as an example of trying to understand someone who I love and do not agree with, and using those differences to make our relationship stronger. You’ve Got Mail will not solve the fallout of the 2016 election… but it’s helping me on a personal level.
Kathleen Kelly takes the personal parts of relationships quite seriously. “Whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal,” she says to Joe Fox, upset by his mantra of “It’s not personal, it’s business.” The things my mother takes personally might not be the same things I do, and vice versa. I’m trying to remember that. Politics is personal now more than ever; the character of Frank, whom everyone considers to be a liberal nut, states at one point that he couldn’t be with anyone who doesn’t care about politics as much as he does. It’s a joke in this movie, but nowadays everyone has a dog in the fight.
I’m not going to say anything more about the political tribes my mother and I might belong to. What matters is that they’re different, which we’ve known for a long time before the 2016 election, but which we’ve been able to conveniently ignore until the fallout of the 2016 election. We’ve been able to hold each other at arm's length, talking briefly about politics until we get uncomfortable then switching gears. Our talks about politics on the phone mirror Kathleen and Joe’s AOL chat about their respective businesses; “no specifics, remember?” Kathleen tells Joe. Anonymity is comfortable online in You’ve Got Mail, because there is no need to declare identity. Everyone exists on the same common ground, enabling strangers to make friends on the internet who might be enemies in real life.
Now, nearly 20 years later, internet anonymity and political differences are completely different. You’ve Got Mail’s picture of the internet is quite optimistic, because it assumes people with no identifying markers will all get along with each other, when in reality people who use the internet sort themselves into more volatile tribes than they might have in real life. Self-sorting political tribes have behaved in a similar way. There’s a prejudice against the Other in everything we do and, contrary to You’ve Got Mail’s portrayal, that prejudice is amplified by the convenient anonymity of the internet.
Fortunately, the answer to Joe and Kathleen’s conflict in You’ve Got Mail is the same as the answer to the polarization between parties online: get off the internet and talk face-to-face. My mother and I don’t belong to the same political tribes, just as Joe and Kathleen belong to very different schools of thought about how businesses should be run. Instead of avoiding all differences, big, small, or life- and livelihood-threatening, we’re going to talk them through. This Christmas, I’m taking Joe Fox’s example. Instead of antagonizing someone whom, through a political perspective, I see as the Other, I’m going to set aside the political labels that keep us separated. I’m going to talk to my mom as though she’s a person, and not as though she’s colluding with an enemy. I’m going to find something—maybe even You’ve Got Mail—that we both find comfortable and familiar, and use it as a jumping-off point into uncomfortable, unfamiliar waters. Maybe I’ll bring her around to my way of thinking. Maybe she’ll teach me a thing or two. Maybe we’ll meet somewhere in the middle. However it shakes out, we’ll still be dancing together on Christmas Eve.
Sarah Welch studied humanities and linguistics at university, and now she works in media in Chicago. She likes theology, knitting, and shouting about science fiction.