When I was 6 years old, I saw You’ve Got Mail, my first-ever romantic comedy. I remember it all in vivid detail: It was a matinee showing, on a cold afternoon in Michigan, just before Christmas. My mom took me to the slowly deteriorating cineplex, just outside the local mall, while my aunt was in town for the day. I’d been throwing a fit, too; I absolutely did not want to go. I’m pretty sure I’d been a strictly animated “kid movie” viewer up to that point, and a rom-com did not appeal to my cinematic palate.
Of course, my temper tantrum quickly evaporated when the movie started. I got absolutely lost in it, for a million reasons. I loved the New York scenery. The music. Meg Ryan’s wardrobe. The story, which turned out to be so ahead of its time. (I mean, it’s still a Nora Ephron classic that I—and all my friends—adore.)
Particularly, I was mesmerized by Tom Hanks as Joe Fox, my first ever big-screen crush.
Joe is fun at parties, great with his kid “aunt” and brother. In a scene that shows off a quick-on-your-feet smoothness, he easily deflects away from little Matt’s spelling of “F-O-X,” before redirecting Anabel’s wide-eyed, near-admission that they’re part of the Fox Books family threatening Kathleen’s store.
In fact, he steps around trouble quite a lot, in a variety of social settings—including on Kathleen’s behalf. He swoops in to her aid when she mistakenly waits in a “cash only” checkout line during a Thanksgiving rush, saving the day with his signature ease as he charms the cashier into taking her credit card. My super-shy childhood self definitely found him amusing, even appealing.
Looking back, in all that I remember about that day and experience, I understand You’ve Got Mail to be a weird, formative moment in my romantic existence.
Obviously, I did not date for some time after I first saw the movie—well over a decade. But for years I understood Joe Fox, or at least the idea of him, to be my romantic ideal. I had no idea how much I’d internalized following that final kiss scene in Central Park.
Then, on a rainy day almost 20 years after my initial viewing, I was in the mood for some comfort food—both literally and spiritually. So, I loaded You’ve Got Mail for a full, attentive viewing. I don’t think I’d ever really, deeply digested the movie as an adult before. I’d regularly list it as one of my favorite films for sentimental reasons, but rarely watched the entire thing from start to finish, mostly catching bits and pieces as it resurfaced on cable, for years, mindlessly falling asleep to the familiar storyline.
In re-watching the film this time, something weird occurred to me: Wow! Joe Fox resembles a whole lot of short-term, crash-and-fail dating prospects from my past.
Joe has some qualities I admire in a partner. He’s ambitious, well-spoken, tight with his family (unconventional though it may be), calm and collected in crisis, and witty.
The back-and-forths with Kathleen that made me smile as a kid still piqued my interest. (I do loooove that Ephron banter.) But here’s the thing that really tripped me up this time around: Joe plays games with Kathleen throughout the entire last act of the film, something I simply did not notice before—and did not like in the slightest.
From the moment Joe realizes the woman he just put out of business is also the woman he’s fallen in love with online, he stands Kathleen up (basically), and then leads her to believe he’s befriending her while really trying to establish their connection so they can live happily ever after. It’s a deceptive thing to do! And yet, because it’s a rom-com, it is totally normalized and acceptable.
I’m sure You’ve Got Mail (and other movies and TV shows like it) isn’t the sole reason why I used to accept “games” from men I’ve dated, like untruths to forward their agenda, selective blow-offs, and charm covering a host of misbehaviors.
But no matter what the origins, it took a long time to reform my attraction to these dating dramas, and I never really knew why the appeal existed at all. Upon viewing the movie almost 20 years after I first saw it, it finally struck me that maybe this narrative and “type” ran somewhere deep alongside my idea of love. Maybe I’d been set up to entertain games since childhood, and not just by You’ve Got Mail.
In fairytales and Disney movies, we often romanticize happy endings, no matter how you (or the characters) get there. In real life, how you get there really, really does matter. How you get there builds trust. But we don’t think about that when we’re watching easy-breezy romantic comedies featuring guaranteed happy endings and questionable actions by lead characters.
Movies like How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Hitch, The Wedding Planner, While You Were Sleeping, Runaway Bride, Sweet Home Alabama or Love Actually feature characters that toe the line of acceptable romantic behaviors—or just flat-out cross it.
As writer Amy Gentry put it her Paris Review piece on 1991’s Sleeping with the Enemy (decidedly not a rom-com), “Every domestic thriller is the sequel to a romantic comedy,” she writes. “Romantic comedies reward impulsive, boundary-smashing gestures and unflagging perseverance; thrillers check in on the kinds of couples created by such careless disregard for personal space.” Yikes.
Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing inherently wrong with charm, ambition or any number of other qualities you might assign to your favorite romantic hero or heroine (or antihero).
But I’ve found that it’s also smart to ask yourself why you believe what you do about love—where those beliefs arose and if they’re rooted in reality, as well as if you think the behaviors you’re drawn to will ultimately bring about a potential strong relationship. Then, keep making changes. Progress.
As for me, I am constantly refining my beliefs and questioning what constitutes a relationship worth building. You’ll certainly still get a +1 for a sharp wit in my book, but I’m leaving the games, or dishonesty and inconsistency for my favorite fictionalized romances.
Jenna Birch is author of The Love Gap (Grand Central Life & Style, January 2018).
Source : https://www.self.com/story/did-youve-got-mail-skew-my-idea-of-love1529