Commentary for the film You've Got Mail

To the National Library of Medicine Internet Film Series;
in conjunction with the Exhibition "The Once and Future Web: worlds woven by the Telegraph and the Internet," Bethesda, Maryland, 15 May 2002

Katie King
Women's Studies, University of Maryland, College Park

As a feminist I tend to notice two sorts of films:

1.     one kind is the sort that tends to be rather ruined if you examine it too closely. much of the pleasure in this kind of film depends on taking it at face value. if you look too closely at it as a feminist, the only thing you can do is debunk it: that is, turn its values upside down and inside out.

2.     the second kind of film is the sort that becomes more and more fascinating as you examine it closely. that doesn't mean that you aren't critical of it: rather the contrary. but the film doesn't fall apart when you examine it critically. Instead all its layers become clearer and clearer. you don't have to debunk this sort of film: it is complicated enough that no simple reversal of values is possible and examination doesn't spoil all your pleasure in it. it might even add other intellectual pleasures.

So, I suggest that you wonder about this film today, and ask yourself which of these two kinds of films it is. It is possible that as various sorts of audiences we might disagree about how this film stands up to feminist examination. I hope any such disagreements will only enliven our discussion afterwards.

I have been teaching students to watch films for about twenty years now. One of the points they always find rather disorienting when we first start looking at films together is this emphasis by feminist film analysts on the idea of "pleasure." Enjoying a film seems only too obvious: either you enjoy it and therefore it is a good film, or you don't, and therefore it's probably not very good, at least not for you in particular.

But feminist film folks ask another rather different question: what does the pleasure of the film cost you? This assumes that pleasure is the point of most films: at least most commercial mainstream films. But it examines this pleasure: takes a step back and looks at how it is produced, who gets to experience it, and what they have to pay, not just in money, to receive it.

One sort of film is the comedy in the classic, Shakespearean sense: it ends in a marriage of opposites. As consumers of drama we've been taught to experience the resolution of tensions in this kind of marriage as closure, and as deeply pleasurable. In Shakespearean comedy we are also taught to experience this marriage as if it creates the partners as newly equal in some important way, even when social arrangements still maintain other kinds of inequalities. The erasure of these other forms of inequality that remain is one of the prices we pay for the pleasure of this form of comedy. The very laughter we perform and rightly love makes us collaborators in this erasure.

This particular film, You've Got Mail, has been called a romantic comedy. It was directed and written by a woman, Nora Ephron, and produced by another woman, Lauren Shuler Donner. While you watch this film consider to what extent you think that having women produce this film alters the way classic comedy operates. How much of a difference do you think it makes, if any? What sort of difference is it? What do you think you do or don't "pay for" the pleasures of this film?

Another element feminist film folks follow has to do with these arrangements of production, especially the money elements. Who pays the bills for a film and why? What do they expect in return? Do they get what they thought they were buying?

I watched this film in a DVD version recently, and one of the extra elements was a running commentary by Ephron and Donner about the making of the film. Mostly it was funny stories, and some of it was about the internet and about the wonderful techy beginning of the film. Some of it was about the transformations of this film from previous screen versions of the story, in the films Shop around the Corner, and The Good Old Summertime. The new element added had to do with how big multinational media corporations and their big blockbuster bookstores were doing-in the local neighborhood bookstores of the past. This economic struggle is now integral to this version of the movie. And you can go to a web site for the film and learn more about the economic consequences of such competition, and also learn about the effects on children's books and bookstores in particular. Ephron and Donner are very proud of this element of off-screen connection to the film. The internet only figures in their commentary as an element of contemporary daily life.

So, while you watch the film you may want to ask yourself what difference does their attention to such economic struggle make to this kind of romantic comedy? Does it change the structure of the comedy? Do we take sides in this economic struggle watching the film? And when it ends, are we on the same side? have the sides altered? how and why? How is the internet implicated in this kind of economic struggle? What is made visible and invisible about the relationships between "You've Got Mail" and such large economic structures?

Think of the phrase "You've Got Mail." Where does this phrase come from? What associations do you have with it? When we follow this phrase, do we follow the money that made this film? Did they get what they thought they were buying?

Let's watch it together now. Let me know your analysis of the film afterwards.