The first step of online dating in the year 1998? Have access to a computer. It really is that simple according to Nancy Capulet, author of Putting Your Heart Online. She speaks about dating on the World Wide Web with such hope. Why wouldn’t she? After all, she met her husband, David, online. While I’m totally happy for Nancy (no, really I am), I can’t read her book written 25 years ago and take it seriously. I get a similar feeling when watching Nora Ephron’s 1998 romantic comedy You’ve Got Mail. While the film is oozing with charm and chemistry, it’s tough to romanticize the idea of dating online. It feels like it’s become the default way to meet people as about half of adults under 30 have used a dating site or app, according to the Pew Research Center.
You’ve Got Mail has every ingredient to be a perfect rom com, except in 2023, it doesn’t provide the escapism I yearn for.
Sure, the film’s tagline “someone you pass on the street may already be the love of your life,” sounds romantic. Unless it’s referring to Justin, the 6’3 “entrepreneur” you’ve exchanged a few typo-ridden, emotionally constipated messages with on Tinder. You hope A) You’ve never cross him on the street, and B) He’s not the love of your life. You fear You’ve Got Mail has left you with unrealistic expectations for cyberdating.
It’s an odd thing to share a birth year with a film. I should feel nostalgic, but I was too young to experience it. It serves as a sort of fictionalized time capsule of a time I can’t remember. For all I know, everyone lurking in chat rooms really were as charming and good looking as Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. But I too have internet access and 25 years of retrospective to see that while the film was on trend with its progressive attitude towards online dating, in other ways, like its treatment towards ambitious women, it comes across more outdated than 90s web design.
You’ve Got Mail stars Meg Ryan as Kathleen Kelly, owner of a independent children’s bookstore and Tom Hanks as Joe Fox, chain-bookstore-nepotism-baby. When Joe takes his much younger siblings into Kathleen’s store, she has no idea he is the man attempting to put her out of business. But as the two rivals begin to fall for each other, unaware they’ve been anonymously talking for months over email.
For Kathleen, the concept of logging on and seeing a new message from her anonymous online pen pal is borderline erotic. She waits for her boyfriend to leave home to hear the sharp tones of the dial-up connecting to America Online (AOL) so she can say “you’ve got mail” along with the robotic male voice. On the other side of the emails, Joe is doing the exact same thing as his ambitious publisher girlfriend, Patricia Eden (Parker Posey), heads to work.
The film was well received and debuted at No. 1. The box office success made $20 million more worldwide total than Ephron’s 1993 film Sleepless in Seattle, also starring Hanks and Ryan. However, both Sleepless in Seattle, and When Harry Met Sally (which Ephron wrote but Rob Reiner directed) appear to be more critical successful, at least based on Rotten Tomatoes scores.
Maria San Filippo, editor of After Happily Ever After: Romantic Comedy in the Post-Romantic Age (2021), finds You’ve Got Mail to be a “lackluster third entry in the Ephron romcom trilogy,” she said (fittingly) via e-mail. When asked if the film has aged well or poorly in the past 25 years, she said it was hard for her to see what Ephron was thinking in terms of the treatment of certain woman, most notably Patricia.
“I’d say that what ages most poorly apart from the clunky early Internet/dial-up aesthetics (and AOL product placement!) is the wasted treatment of Parker Posey’s career woman as hysterical and shrill and off-putting,” San Filippo said.
Patricia’s character can be summed up by Joe quipping “Patricia makes coffee nervous.” She is unfairly fashioned to be the one thing standing between Joe and happiness, i.e. Kathleen. But Patricia is not the problem. It’s Joe. He rolls his eyes when she needs five more minutes to get ready. He’s annoyed when she becomes “hysterical” that the elevator gets stuck, despite it being an appropriate, albeit dramatic, response. I’m supposed to cheer when Patricia is dumped offscreen, yet Kathleen and her sweet but nerdy, columnist boyfriend Frank (Greg Kinnear) get to have a giggly mutual breakup. Patricia has flaws, but she never gets to show any redeeming qualities. We never get to see why Joe fell in love with her in the first place.
It really is unfortunate that the film paints the two women as opposites, when they have more in common than just aspiring to be the Future Mrs. Joe Fox. Patricia attempts to help Kathleen find a new job once Joe’s chain, Fox Books, puts her out of business. Kathleen may lack the confidence to believe she is brave but putting herself in an online chat room to converse with strangers in the late 90s, was fairly courageous. Attitudes towards online dating were still reluctant at the time, if reviewers of the film were any indication.
Paul Clinton, film reviewer for CNN said the film might provide a boost to cyberdating yet warned of potential dangers lurking on the web. “But trust me, he said. “The chance of finding a Meg Ryan or a Tom Hanks on the other end in cyberspace is nil. If you actually want to met [sic] someone from online, be cautious, meet in public, take low expectations, take a weapon and be ready to run like the wind.”
The anxieties surrounding online dating were not shared by the characters. They openly discuss cybersex. Kathleen asks, “Is it infidelity if you’re involved with someone on email?” without judgment from her co-worker. Perhaps You’ve Got Mail was able to capitalize on technology-assisted romance because it seemed new and exciting. In 1959, Happy Families Planning Service used an IBM 650 computer to create questionnaires for matchmaking. Three years after the internet was invented, the first dating website, matchmaker.com was founded in 1986. AOL’s instant messenger came out in 1997, only a year before You’ve Got Mail.
Now, in 2023, online dating feels less optional, and more of a requirement all people looking for relationships must endure. About half of adults under 30 have used a dating site or app, however, Americans lean toward thinking dating sites and apps make finding a partner easier, according to Pew Research Center. Depending on someone’s own views or experiences with dating apps, it might be easier to see the film’s hopeful message about finding love anywhere. It also could have something to do with the method, not just the mode. Kathleen and Joe essentially exchanged letters, as the characters did in the film’s inspiration The Shop Around the Corner (1940), just in email form. Maybe the problem isn’t really Tinder, but Justin, who’s probably only 6’1, and only speaks in “sup?” and “haha.”
Pre-dating apps, Joe and Kathleen meet in a chatroom (both claiming they’ve never been there before) and carry the conversation over to AOL. Opting for the usernames “shopgirl” and “NY152,” the pair never share identifying features like where they work. Although the pair meet IRL at Kathleen’s shop unaware of each other’s online personas. Perhaps the anonymity was conducive to the vulnerability, as I liked NY152 better than Joe. But, If I saw a faceless profile on tinder, I would swipe left so fast. While online dating is not inherently dangerous, it’s still important to be safe.
Unfortunately, You’ve Got Mail’s original website from 1998 was taken down in 2018. In its prime, the site offered a chatroom where users could find their own Tom Hanks or Meg Ryan. It also featured a spot for couples to upload their own stories of meeting online (I wonder if Nancy and David were featured?), and a link to download AOL instant messenger. Even by today’s standards, this is incredible on-brand marketing.
Towards the end of the film, Joe comes to realize that Kathleen and shopgirl are one and the same. Kathleen is left feeling confused by her slowly developed feelings for Joe and what that means for NYC152, who she believes is a different person. The happy ending of Kathleen telling Joe, “I wanted it to be you. I wanted it to be you so badly” can be read as she would have been shackled to the man behind the screen name regardless of her feelings for Joe. San Filippo said it didn’t sit well with her “because it seems to unwittingly suggest that couple formation is like gentrification — forced and clashing but ostensibly inevitable?”
Or perhaps Kathleen owned a copy of “Putting Your Heart Online,” where the first page proclaims, “Myth: If it’s meant to be, it will happen,” and would choose Joe anyways.
As a 25-year-old navigating the world of modern dating, I feel more inclined to find comfort in When Harry Met Sally or Notting Hill. While I consider You’ve Got Mail a staple in the romantic comedy canon, the idea of meeting someone offline is a more appealing plotline after spending three years navigating dating during the pandemic. From the 1937 Hungarian play Parfumerie to 1940’s The Shop Around the Corner and again in 1949’s In the Good Old Summertime, this story of double communication in You’ve Got Mail has seen many retellings. It will be interesting to see what technology comes along in the next 25 years for the next adaptation.
Maybe in 2048 Joe and Kathleen’s variants will exchange messages in the metaverse.