You’ve Got Mail is, hand on heart, one of my favourite romantic comedies. As sweet and frothy as any strawberry milkshake, it sees bookstore owner Joe (Tom Hanks) fall head-over-heels for an unsuspecting Kathleen (Meg Ryan). He knows she’s not going to be interested if she finds out who he really is (Fox Books is about to send her little shop under), so he uses an alternate online persona to orchestrate meetings and run-ins, so that she’ll…
The official Twitter account of Netflix US recently posted a meme highlighting the parallels between YGM’s Joe Fox and You’s Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) and it’s certainly given me and other romcom fans food for thought. Because it’s not just as superficial as the fact that they share a name and book-based occupation, oh no: it’s all about the methods they use to win over the objects of their affection.
Don’t believe me? You asked for it.
Warning: the rest of this article contains spoilers for You’ve Got Mail and season one of Netflix’s You.
Hanks’ Joe uses online persona NY152 to get to know Kathleen away from their feuding businesses. He asks insightful questions, learns her daily routine and key details about her, such as the fact that her favourite flowers are daisies, and then uses them to make IRL Joe seem more like her type on paper. Because, yeah, that’s what he’s doing when he delivers a bunch of daisies to her sickbed when he learns she’s split from her long-term boyfriend. And that’s what he’s doing when he just so happens to walk by Kathleen’s favourite coffee shop as she’s enjoying a quiet drink alone (he knocks on the window, he asks to join her, she’s like, ‘why the hell not?’ and voila! A date!).
Badgley’s Joe, similarly, uses the internet to find out more about Guinevere Beck (Elizabeth Lail). He finds out all of her social media accounts are set to public, so he’s able to find out where she’s born, that her parents split when she was 12, which college she went to and… her address. He follows it to her home with its “big naked windows” and soon finds himself engaging in a little Peeping Tom session.
After a day of following Beck around in the shadows, he stalks her to one of the New York City Subway stations, where she falls on the train tracks. He successfully saves Beck from imminent death, before the train arrives. And then he… well, then he steals her phone and uses it to track down the people she loves most, so that he can bump them off and slide into their place.
OK fine, yes, there are some key differences. For starters, Hanks’ Joe falls for Kathleen before he meets her IRL (they’re constantly messaging online) and they have mad chemistry whenever they meet face-to-face. He, unlike Badgley’s Joe, doesn’t cut Kathleen off from her friends and family (unless shutting down her shop and scattering her BFF employees to the wind counts?). He doesn’t (spoilers) lock her in a cage in his basement in a bid to make her love him, either. Instead, he puts the work in, because ‘NY152’ and ‘Shopgirl’ are destined to be together.
But he is still, as Stylist’s Hannah-Rose Yee previously wrote for Stylist, a massive catfish.
“The stakes in You’ve Got Mail might seem low, but the second Joe works out that he’s been anonymously messaging Kathleen and continues to deceive her online, all while manipulating her in real life too, his character slips from romantic hero to problematic man,” she says.
Essentially, what she’s saying is this: manipulating someone online without giving them your real identity is straight-up catfishing, no matter what the outcome is. Hanks’ Joe is a catfish. Which means that You’ve Got Mail (I’m so sorry Nora Ephron), despite its good intentions, pretty much presents stalking as a romantic aid. That an overly persistent man is something to be flattered by, not fearful of.
And, in doing so, it teaches men like Badgley’s Joe that this sort of behaviour is… well, acceptable, I guess. Damn.
To quote one YGM fan in the thread of comments underneath the Netflix meme that started this entire conversation: “I’M SO MAD RIGHT NOW! THAT WAS MY FAVOURITE MOVIE!”
Perhaps we can all take solace in the fact that Hanks’ Joe was always respectful, always willing to remove himself from any situation Kathleen found uncomfortable, and always sought consent. And, y’know, that she did love him back when she got to know the ‘real’ Joe (unlike You’s Beck). Because I, for one, refuse to lump him into the same category as Stalker Joe. It will ruin every Valentine’s Day screening of this romcom forever more.
Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.
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