Working on the Endnotes for my book, “Rebel Bookseller”: a great place to insert some of those fun mini-essays I couldn’t figure out how to fit into the main narrative! Here’s one:

The Nora Ephron film “You’ve Got Mail” contains a wealth of subversive subtexts, the most significant of which is that the strong-minded children’s bookseller, in marrying the non-literary chain-store owner, effectively obtains power over the superstore (in any imaginary movie sequel). While chain superstore owner Joe Fox (presumably modeled after Steve Riggio) can only draw on his lunk-headed Godfather-movie notions of competition (his oft-repeated phrase to the mattresses means man the barricades and conduct attack sorties), the independent bookseller Kathleen Kelly deploys her weakness to co-opt her attacker. This “power of the weak” message echoes a similar theme found in Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”, the novel from which substantial elements in “You’ve Got Mail” derive, and not incidentally Kathleen Kelly’s favorite book which she insists Joe Fox read.

Jane Austen promoted the Woolstonecraftian heroine in an adapted form: the woman who obtains power via a male intermediary. Compare, in particular, Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet, fantasizing about becoming the mistress of Mr. Darcy’s estate Pemberley while on a tourist visit, and finding herself unexpectedly face to face with Darcy himself—this during the very period when the two are feuding—with You’ve Got Mail’s Kathleen Kelly, irrepressibly pitching Noel Streatfeild books during a foray into Joe Fox’s superstore, at a moment she should be capable only of anger since he’s just put her own store out of business—and then having Joe Fox unexpectedly appear to witness her salesmanship among his customers. Both of these women will go on to win covert yet substantial power over their future husbands’ holdings (again: post-nuptials).

As a key additional subtext—perhaps unintended by auteur Ephron—consider Virginia Woolf’s analysis of Jane Austen’s social position, in the classic feminist title “A Room of One’s Own”. According to Woolf, Jane Austen, operating under repressive male scrutiny, had no choice but to write her gender-power critique between the lines. Similarly, Nora Ephron, a published author with books for sale at chain superstores, must encode her subversive message about chain-stores’ repressive im-pact on individuality and expression. (If authors’ voices weren’t suppressed for fear of being banned from chain bookstore shelves, they’d come out and shout—together now—“Screw the chains!”)

As it stands, thanks to Nora Ephron’s clever delivery of sexy subtext, “You’ve Got Mail”—a staple of American culture because it promotes America Online, owner of Time-Warner Cable, which therefore perennially airs “You’ve Got Mail”—has helped maintain the romantic allure of independent bookselling, to the detriment of those big corporations that would prefer the public forget what it is excellent indies offer: terrific booksellers in residence.


2 Responses to Subversive Subtexts in “You’ve Got Mail”

  1. M.N. says:

    I’m afraid the subtext might be just the opposite: an enforcement of corporate hegemony. After all, the big business mogul turns out to be a nice guy, the indie book owner discovers that going out of business is a blessing in disguise, and the indie bookstore becomes a quaint relic that enjoys a nod of condescending approval from the now corporate-dominated world.

    It’s Fox that’s in business at the end of the movie.

    And it’s Amazon that carries the film as one of its leading attractions in its online service.

    • admin says:

      Well, as I understand it, Nora Ephron actually had lunch with Len Riggio of Barnes & Noble and tried to arrange to use one of his stores for location shots, but Lenny said no. She was clearly playing up to B&N, exactly as you suggest, and he was very nervous that the movie would make his company look bad. In fact, the movie makes B&N look good — just as Jane Austen makes Darcy look good, and Elizabeth Bennet look good for bending her neck and going under the yoke of marriage. So, you are right — this is the message of the movie. That is the principal, surface message.

      What my essay attempts to front, though, is that in such situations there’s a countervailing subtext. Virginia Woolf talks about it in Jane Austen, and I’m trying to point out its presence in You’ve Got Mail. Just as a woman “makes nice” in order to obtain power in a marriage of convenience with a wealthy man–but this behavior on her part masks a secret agenda that might include private disdain for the man–so a creator like Nora Ephron can be “making nice” to powerful corporations.

      The real question for instance is how You’ve Got Mail will seem to people who live in a world where Barnes & Noble has gone out of business, but there are small bookstores around in abundance. That’s the world I predict is coming. Similarly, we live in a world where the possible role of women has opened out dramatically since Jane Austen’s time; Jane Austen’s subtexts are read completely differently today — they have become the prominent message! I think in the future, when indie bookstores are the dominant paradigm, people will still like You’ve Got Mail and they’ll like it because they will see how the smug behavior of the chain store owner was completely misplaced. His doom was what was really coming, and the small bookstore owner was going to be ultimately returning to her preferred mode of life.

      My own opinion, of course. I don’t know Nora Ephron and I don’t know if she knows of the presence of the radical subtext (or, maybe I should say, the uppity subtext).

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