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'You've Got Mail' Is a Love Story About a Millionaire Destroying a Woman's Livelihood

'You've Got Mail' isn't a frothy romantic comedy with added dial-up modem sounds. It's a disturbing true-to-life thriller about a corporate executive slowly driving a women's business into the ground.

by Amelia Tait
Feb 13 2019, 4:45pm

Still from 1998 film 'You've Got Mail'

For Valentine’s Day, we’re celebrating the breakups that shaped us, in all their messy glory. Because love is just as much about heartbreak as it is about romance. Read all the stories from our Love Bites series here.

Within the first ten minutes of 1998 romance-comedy You’ve Got Mail, Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) asks Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) for her name and address so he can send her “freshly sharpened pencils.” It’s supposed to be a whimsical, romantic moment—but in hindsight, it's an early window into the toxic, twisted mind of Joe Fox. After all, what sort of maniac sends a stranger sharpened pencils?

Co-written by legendary screenwriter Nora Ephron, You’ve Got Mail follows independent bookstore owner Kathleen and bookstore tycoon Joe as they meet in an over-30s chatroom and strike up a online friendship. As they don’t know each other’s true identities (she goes by “Shopgirl,” he by “NY152”), they develop feelings for each other online, even as Joe destroys Kathleen’s business in real life. Midway through You’ve Got Mail, Joe becomes aware that Kathleen is his Shopgirl. He keeps the information from her until the final minutes of the film, at which point Joe reveals his true identity to her and Kathleen, inexplicably, confesses her love for the corporate executive who single-handedly ruined the business she spent a lifetime creating.

Like most people with common sense, I love You’ve Got Mail—but like everything else I love, I must destroy it with over-analysis. Strap in. Because here’s the thing: Kathleen Kelly and Joe Fox should not have ended up together. You’ve Got Mail is not a frothy romantic comedy with added dial-up modem sounds. You’ve Got Mail is a horror movie. It’s a disturbing true-to-life thriller about a gas-lighting millionaire businessman who destroys a woman’s livelihood and somehow gets her to fall in love with him anyway. You’ve got mail, my buddy Joe. Male privilege.

Joe’s toxic behaviour starts when he first meets Kathleen in her bookstore. He decides not to tell her that he’s the owner of the new chainstore moving in across the street, physically preventing a young relative from revealing his true identity. A few scenes later, when Kathleen finds out who Joe is at a party and angrily confronts him, he dismisses her store as “inconsequential,” before stealing all the caviar at the swanky party they’re attending. (“It’s a garnish!” Kathleen indignantly points out.)


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After this, we get an early hint at Joe’s manipulative character. They say you can tell a lot about a person by how they treat staff. In Joe’s case, all is revealed when he meets supermarket cashier Rose. When Kathleen queues up in a cash-only checkout and realizes too late that she only has her credit card, Joe comes to her rescue by convincing Rose to swipe the card. How does he do this? “Now take this credit card and put it through the machine, zap zap,” he says in condescending tones to the store assistant.

As if this all wasn’t bad enough, the real kicker is that Kathleen already has a perfectly nice boyfriend at home. Joe Fox isn’t a patch on Frank Navasky (Greg Kinnear), a columnist and a general prophet of the world’s impeding technology-driven downfall. You’ve Got Mail wants us to think Frank is a pretentious dweeb with a misguided fear of technology and an affected habit of using typewriters (he has three)—but, actually, Frank is a soothsayer. “You think this machine’s your friend, but it’s not,” he says of computers in the opening scenes: an accurate observation, given how thoroughly corporate behemoths such as Amazon have subsequently destroyed book stores.

Frank continues to be flawless throughout the film. He supports Kathleen’s shop against all odds, calling her “a lone reed in the corrupt sands of commerce,” which makes Joe Fox’s “Don’t you just love New York in the fall?” look like a peeling Live, Laugh, Love decal. He even writes about Kathleen’s store in his Observer column, ending his impassioned paean with the words, “Save the Shop Around The Corner, and you will save your soul.”

While Frank’s attitudes to the internet have aged well (“We’re seeing the end of Western civilisation as we know it,” he observes, accurately, in one scene), Joe’s early internet use exposes him as the mens' rights activist he would be today. Firstly, when Kathleen confesses she is sad about her failing business, he sends her a ponderous message berating her for not having seen The Godfather, like the self-appointed pop culture gatekeeper he is.

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A still from 1998 film "You've Got Mail." Left to right: Joe Fox [Tom Hanks], Kathleen Kelly [Meg Ryan]

It doesn’t stop there. Later, when going to meet Kathleen for the first time in real life, Joe tells his friend that he “hope[s] she doesn’t have one of those squeaky voices like the mice in Cinderella”, thereby confirming my theory that, if he was alive and online today, Joe would be one of those men who emails female podcast hosts time-stamping every time they say “like.” (It’s also worth pointing out that Joe already has a girlfriend, publishing executive Patricia Eden, played by Parker Posey.)

But You’ve Got Mail’s true horrors begin when Joe finds out Kathleen is the woman he’s been emailing, but doesn’t reveal to her that they’ve already met. He uses this knowledge as a manipulation tactic, buying Kathleen her favorite flowers and pretending to bump into her at random. When Kathleen is supposed to meet her mysterious internet correspondent for the first time, Joe humiliates her by mocking her book and her flowers, teasing that her date isn’t going to show up. “Please leave. Please, please leave, I beg you,” Kathleen says. And he doesn’t! He moves tables, sits behind her, and continues to taunt her until she insults him in frustration, then finally leaves.

In order to satisfy the conventions of romantic comedy, the final third of You’ve Got Mail requires that Kathleen move from hating Joe to declaring her undying love for him faster than a minimum-waged worker in an Amazon super-warehouse whose bathroom breaks are monitored. After Joe finally decimates Kathleen’s business, she compares it to the trauma of her mother’s recent death. “I feel as if a part of me has died, and my mother has died all over again, and no one can ever make it right.”

But exactly 29 minutes later, we’re supposed to believe Kathleen was just exaggerating, and the destruction of her livelihood can be “made right” with a kiss from Joe Fox. We, the viewer, are supposed to be on board with the destruction of Kathleen’s life’s work, partly because You’ve Got Mail operates as a bro-centric endorsement of the worst ravages of late capitalism, and also because Tom Hanks is undeniably charming. Yet as if it wasn’t enough that Joe has destroyed Kathleen’s livelihood, he later reacts violently when Patricia suggest making her a children’s book editor after the failure of her business. “She has a horrible personality,” he says, as if trying to ensure Kathleen remains destitute. And even at You’ve Got Mail’s finale, Joe feels remorse. Destroying Kathleen’s beloved bookstore? “A tiny little thing,” he quips.

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Joe Fox is a sociopath, and a mean one at that. It’s criminal that the best line in romantic comedy history (“How about coffee, drinks, dinner, a movie…for as long as we both shall live?”) is wasted on his lying lips. Joe Fox and Kathleen Kelly should not have ended up together. We’re supposed to be happy that the movie ends on a kiss. But, I, for one, will not to be happy until Kathleen Kelly avenges her ruined bookstore.