Takeover: You’ve Got Mail
Tom Hanks … Meg Ryan … Nora Ephron … is this sounding familiar to anyone? After the huge financial success of SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE, the rom-com super-team reunited: and in fitting style, we saw corporate principles being neatly embodied. Instead of west coast and bereavement, we had east coast and books. Who knows, maybe if YOU’VE GOT MAIL had been a bit more successful, we might have got Europe and archaeology.
Kathleen (Ryan) owns an independent book store, and is engaging in an internet chat room relationship with a mystery man, soon revealed to us as the incredibly dreamy Joe Fox (Tom Hanks). However, the hitch is that Joe is building his corporate mega-book store just around the corner and is ready to bulldoze competition. Not knowing of the other’s true personality, they are immediately at loggerheads. It’s not hard to guess where this is going. However, the amount of nostalgia can be gained from the 90′s view of the internet is amazing: the dialling noise when you connect it up; the four-pixel screen; the use of anonymous mailing as a plot line without immediately jumping to paedophilia or stalking. It’s arguably much more heart-warming than the romance.
The idea that local loyalty could resist the latte juggernaut is laughable.
“Businesslike” might be a good word to describe Ephron’s 1998 creation. So, what self-aware business insights are delivered to us? Well, first off, all businesses should be run like the mafia: Don Corleone’s mafia, to be precise. Success is gained through ruthlessness, and even book stores are a battleground. A battleground where discounts are the ammunition. The plight of the independent store, therefore, is presented as a hopeless one. The comic irony laden in Kathleen’s statements of hope is almost patronising. The idea that local loyalty could resist the latte juggernaut is laughable. The best hope out there for all you independent store owners is to sell up quick, or to get awful close to your corporate competition … or both.
However, what is most interesting about the portrayal of business in YOU’VE GOT MAIL is how gendered corporate warfare is. Walk into the offices of Fox Books and we find lots of men – hard, unfeeling men, to be precise. In the words of father Fox, independent book stores are harbours for “west-side, psuedo-intellectual nuts” waiting to be “crushed”. Looking at Frank (Greg Kinnear) he’s probably not too wrong. However walk into Kathleen’s “Shop around the Corner”, and we find women and children – only women and children. Even the protests outside the store is staffed solely by women and children. In fact, the only men associated with the independent book store are George (Steve Zahn), introduced from the first as an effeminate daydreamer, and Frank, who is comically liberal and self-absorbed. Hardly the model of tolerant manhood, in comparison to Hanks’ Joe Fox.
The idea that Kathleen could imitate the male, corporate traits, is mocked.
Even beyond this, the styles of businesses themselves are seen to take on very old-fashioned stereotypes of gender roles. The corporate machine is big and unfeeling, aggressive and arrogant. The independent is caring and romantic, a nurturer of children. This presents a number of interpretations. To view events positively, we see harmony when the two are aligned. Joe gains the happiness which eludes his father when he is joined with Kathleen. A throwaway line also tells us that George’s move to Fox Books is “doing wonders for the store.”
But to view YOU’VE GOT MAIL in this light leads to far more negative and cynical views that are a little bit sexist. The inevitability with which the corporate bulldozing is treated presents the world of business as a male affair. Kathleen’s caring store has no hope of competing against the male, corporate juggernaut. Although harmony is found in the end, it is very much in the male framework – in fact it is found in Joe’s store.
Once again, the male way is the only way.
Kathleen’s attempts to compete in business are treated even more cynically. Firstly, she is advised that the only means to save her store is to take on male tropes (i.e. be aggressive, “fight to the death”, “go to the mattresses.”) Once again, the male way is the only way. However, her attempts to do this are treated comically. Not only does she fail, but the audience is lead to laughter at her prancing boxing as she repeats the mantra “fight to the death”. Her friend’s right-on defence is positively ridiculed. The idea that gender roles could be flexible, and that Kathleen could imitate the male, corporate traits, is mocked.
The outlook is bleak, then, for the independent businesses around the world. Business is male and for men; and the bigger the business, the more male you are and the more successful you’ll be. But it’s not all doom and gloom. When Tom Hanks is heading the capitalism, life can’t be too bad … can it?
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