You’ve Got Mail: why this 90s rom-com feels freshly relevant in lockdown

Posted by for Life

And the most relatable film on Netflix right now is… well, it’s You’ve Got Mail, a rom-com from 1998. Go figure. 

Netflix has had our backs throughout the entirety of this coronavirus lockdown. And, as we embrace the start of a brand-new month in quarantine, the streaming platform has come up trumps once again with a whole host of new TV shows and films for us to get stuck into.

For many of us, though, ‘new’ content isn’t exactly what we’re looking for right now. Indeed, while Netflix’s ‘Trending Now’ list does include some new releases (hey there, Crash Landing On You and Hollywood!), it’s almost entirely made up of things we’ve watched a million times over. 

Things like New Girl, for example. Or How I Met Your Mother. Modern Family. Skins. The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air. The Vicar Of Dibley. Gossip Girl. Glee. Friends. Gilmore Girls. Even ITV’s Benidorm.

Why is this? Well, it’s because nostalgia is a proven source of comfort in times of trouble. Indeed, Krystine Batcho, a licensed psychologist and a professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York who researches nostalgia, has pointed out that watching our favorite old films and TV shows satisfies our “nostalgic need” and packs real emotional benefits.

“When people are stressed, or anxious, or feeling out of control, nostalgia helps calm them down. It’s comforting. It’s analogous to a hug from your mom or dad or being cuddled,” Batcho says.

“It’s harkening back to what we might, even erroneously, perceive as a simpler time in our life with fewer responsibilities and obligations and fewer worries.”

With that in mind, then, is it any wonder that the only film I want to watch right now is Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail?

Meg Ryan as Kathleen Kelly in Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail (1998).

The 1998 classic – starring dream duo Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan – was announced as a surprise addition to Netflix’s May 2020 line-up over the weekend. And it’s easy to see why: the film ticks so many boxes right now.

Firstly, there’s the fact that You’ve Got Mail meets our need for nostalgia right now. Secondly, there’s the fact that it has repeatedly been voted one of the world’s favourite romantic comedies. And, thirdly, the 90s classic feels undeniably relevant in the age of Covid-19.

As sweet and frothy as any strawberry milkshake, the film sees bookstore owner Joe (Hanks) fall head-over-heels for an unsuspecting Kathleen (Ryan), who runs a rival bookshop of her own.

The clue is in the title, however: the couple’s blossoming romance – for the first half of the film, at least – takes place almost entirely online, through a feverish flurry of emails and chat room messages.

“‘What will NY152 say today?’ I wonder,” says Kathleen in the movie’s opening scene. “I turn on my computer. I wait impatiently as it connects. I go online, and my breath catches in my chest until I hear three little words: ‘You’ve got mail’.

“I hear nothing. Not even a sound on the streets of New York, just the beat of my own heart. I have mail. From you.”

Sure, she and Joe are bundled up in coats and striding out into the panoramic backdrop of New York City’s skyline. Sure, they’re going through the motions of their everydays. And, as The Cranberries’ Dreams – which plays over this scene – poignantly reminds us, life is changing every day and in every possible way.

Despite all of this, however, Joe and Kathleen’s minds are very much on one another, despite having never met in person. Their relationship in the virtual world feels more real, more enticing, than anything going on IRL.

And that? That is something we can relate to right now. Hard.

Right now, many of us are confined – either voluntarily or involuntarily – to our homes. We haven’t seen our friends, our families, our loved ones in weeks. There are new babies we’ve yet to meet, new colleagues we’re yet to shake hands with, new romantic interests we’ve yet to do the awkward air-kiss hello with. We miss sitting next to people, feeling their warmth against ours, not worrying about our Zoom faces.

And yet…

Well, thanks to modern technology, we’ve managed to keep those lines of connection open – perhaps more so than ever before. We pen lengthy letters, we write thoughtful emails, we use WhatsApp to let people know we’re thinking about them. We’re more open with our feelings, with our hopes, our fears, our dreams. Our days are transformed and shaped by the messages and calls we receive.

To quote You’ve Got Mail’s Kathleen: “All this nothing has meant more to me than so many somethings.”

At some point, I promise, we will return to our ordinary lives. We will be able to meet with our friends for brunch, go round our mum’s house for a roast, hold hands with someone special at the park, all without fear of someone calling the social distancing police on us. We might forget that, for a little while, we were unable to spend time with the people who mean most to us. And we may very well start taking that time for granted once again. We’re only human, after all.

My hope, though, is that – just as You’ve Got Mail’s Kathleen and Joe learn throughout the course of the film – our life is made all the more meaningful by human connection. That spending time with one another online has undoubtedly made our IRL relationships stronger. That, when we finally meet in the park and see one another face-to-face, sans the pixels, it will be made all the more moving by the fact we’ve shared so much in such a short space of time.

That we will know everyone so much better, on a far deeper level, than ever before. 

At some point in the future, they’ll walk around the corner and back into our lives, for real. And it will feel strange, and unusual, and familiar, all the same.

“I wanted it to be you,” we’ll say, wiping happy tears from our eyes. “I wanted it to be you so badly.”

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Kayleigh Dray

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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