The Romance of American Clintonism

The politically complacent ’90s produced a surprisingly large number of mainstream American rom-coms about fighting the Man. You’ve Got Mail gave us a new fantasy, fully neoliberalized: What if the Man is Mr Right?

Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan as Joe Fox and Kathleen Kelly in Nora Ephron's 1998 film You've Got Mail. (Warner Bros)

It’s 1998. Sushi restaurants are the height of cosmopolitanism. The color palette of every café interior is putty, mocha, moss, and merlot. People are snickering about Monica Lewinsky and dabbling in cybersex. Across the nation, they’re parking between Borders and Gap and striding through outdoor malls, Tic Tacs and Nicorette rattling in their leather shoulder bags, into brand-new Regal Cinemas to see the Nora Ephron romantic comedy You’ve Got Mail.

To me, there is hardly any movie more comforting. When it comes to mind, I can almost taste candy apples and milky-sweet Starbucks. For that reason, I have watched this quintessential, late-’90s film many times. But it was only on this last viewing that I finally caught its drift. If you squint past the brownstone facades and cashmere turtlenecks and twinkle-lit shop windows, You’ve Got Mail reveals itself to have politics. Or, more accurately, it has anti-politics, and in abundance.

You’ve Got Mail stars Meg Ryan as independent children’s bookstore proprietor Kathleen Kelly and Tom Hanks as mega-chain corporate bookstore executive Joe Fox. The two fall in love anonymously online, via emails exchanged over AOL, while the latter is mercilessly driving the former out of business. He succeeds, and Kathleen’s store shutters, permanently scarring the cultural landscape of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. As their improbable romance develops anyway, Joe asks Kathleen self-deprecatingly but sincerely why she “won’t forgive me for a tiny little thing like putting you out of business?” Against all odds, she does.

Meg Ryan as Kathleen in You’ve Got Mail.

For Kathleen’s and our ability to forgive, we are rewarded with bouquets of daisies and a sugary Cranberries soundtrack. Perhaps, I realized on this last viewing, this is the ultimate source of the movie’s comfort for droves of viewers in 1998. You’ve Got Mail comes at the end of a string of mainstream anti-selling-out romantic comedies and dramas: popular films with subcultural themes like Reality Bites (1994) and Empire Records (1995) but also conventional blockbusters like Jerry Maguire (1996) and even Titanic (1997). In this lineage, You’ve Got Mail marks a profound departure. Here is a new fantasy: if we just stop resisting the inexorable march of corporate domination, everything will resolve itself in our favor.

In that sense, You’ve Got Mail is the ur-Clintonite film, a pure expression of the era’s liberal political defeatism masquerading as an optimism that politics are now disposable — indeed, that they’re only standing in the way of utopia. This is the ethos of Third Way centrism: that socialism versus capitalism is an outdated dichotomy, and that popular interests will be most broadly served through technocratic tinkering rather than conflict. Of course, big capitalists come out on top in the final result, but everyone else — from the proletariat to the petty bourgoisie — is also happier and more prosperous for having relented. We have no use for the old antagonisms, the movie seems to say. History’s over. Romance has defeated it.

Maybe I’d have understood the pervasive anti-politics of You’ve Got Mail earlier if I’d dwelled for a moment on the dialogue about Francisco Franco. Midway through the movie, Birdie, the elderly children’s bookstore employee, confesses she had a love affair with a man who “ran Spain.” Kathleen finds it whimsical, but when she relays it to Frank, her left-wing New York Observer columnist boyfriend played by Greg Kinnear, he’s unnerved. “It’s not like he was something normal, like a socialist or an anarchist,” reasons Frank. Kathleen objects that people do all kinds of inexplicable things in foreign countries. “Absolutely,” says Frank, “they buy leather jackets for much more than they’re worth. But they don’t fall in love with fascist dictators.”

Frank confesses that he “could never be with anybody who doesn’t take politics as seriously I do.” This exchange prompts a series of revelations that result in a breakup. We’re instinctively on Kathleen’s side: Frank is harmless but also cloying, a bit self-righteous, a little phony. Aren’t all lefties? We’re relieved when she’s rid of him, with his endless opinions, his interminable crusades, his politics.

Now she’s free to fall for Joe.

Now she’s free to fall for Joe — candid, unpretentious, politically unencumbered Joe who has already destroyed her livelihood and entire source of personal meaning in pursuit of profit, mechanically and without malice, simply because that’s what he does. Kathleen wanders into Joe’s now-operational chain store and discovers, despite her heavy heart, that the people inside are finding comfort and delight in its generous offerings. What is there to fear? Monoculture is culture nonetheless. She begins to soften, submit. Politics have been swept aside, and the love story can begin in earnest.

The Sweet Release of the End of History

For a comparatively complacent political period in the United States, the ’90s boast a surprisingly large number of mainstream romantic comedies about fighting the Man or resisting the pressure to sell out. There’s no coincidence here. It was as if the culture was grappling with the implications of having abandoned even the pretense of crusading reformism, to say nothing of socialism, in favor of an unapologetic celebration of corporate values and business culture.

The New Democrats, the technocratic pro-business up-and-comers in the party, had arrived on the scene and made it their mission to quash the remaining egalitarian impulses left of center, even as inequality intensified, wages stagnated, jobs departed, living costs skyrocketed, and opportunities evaporated. Capital lacked serious opposition. The implications were broadly felt, but in the absence of any kind of organized Left, most people didn’t have the political vocabulary to contend with them. So as Bill Clinton and his Democratic Party brethren proceeded to slash welfare and deregulate business, it was left to popular culture to adjudicate the matter.

The rom-coms of the era paved avenues for vicarious rebellion. Winona Ryder’s character in Reality Bites leaves the corporate doormat played by Ben Stiller for the brooding, penniless slacker-philosopher played by Ethan Hawke. After delivering a manifesto against corporate soullessness in sports management, Tom Cruise’s Jerry Maguire starts down the road to success with a more personal, more humane business model. The merry band of cool clerks at Empire Records raise enough money to save their store from a mega-chain buyout and install their sympathetic manager as owner, preserving the institution’s integrity. Kate Winslet’s character in Titanic liberates herself from the bondage of aristocratic conformity by abandoning her cruel, rich fiancé for the doomed artist played by Leonardo DiCaprio — poor, beautiful, and free.

The Cold Warriors had long since scrubbed all overt traces of socialism from American culture, so the political imagination of the ’90s anti-sellout rom-com narratives is necessarily constrained. There’s no outright opposition to capitalism in these movies. Instead, rebellion takes two general forms: personal romantic bravery and the principled defense of small business. These are consistent with the ascendant popular left-ish politics of the period, focused primarily on cultural expressions of individual authenticity, disciplined and defensible personal consumption, and the salvation of capitalism’s soul from corruption by greedy big business. The collective political subject is nowhere to be seen.

Bill Clinton drinking a Peach Tiazzi from Starbucks.

Still, defiance of one kind or another was the norm in this genre until, as far as I can tell, You’ve Got Mail hit theaters. That was the genius of the film’s appeal: it was not only a clever and captivating love story, but also a fantasy that spoke to the neoliberal subject’s thorough exhaustion with politics and yearning for acquiescence without punishment. To the extent that it was even happening, resistance didn’t seem to be working. What if you didn’t have to resist anymore, and nothing was lost? What if “the Man” turned out to be Mr Right?

That the film’s other major theme is novel digital communication underscores the idea that surrender is the future, and the future is bright. “Over the Rainbow” plays as Joe and Kathleen embrace, wholly reconciled, all conflict resolved, all contradictions polished away, smooth and frictionless. The camera pans to a clear blue sky, which transforms into a computer screen. We’re in cyberspace. We’re in the next millennium. We’ve left all the bitterness of the twentieth century, marked by futile and self-sabotaging resistance to capitalist domination, behind us. We’ve fallen in love with that which would destroy us, and in this act of euphoric capitulation, we are ultimately rescued from destruction.

Elsewhere in the movie, Frank, who professes to detest television for quasi-political reasons, confesses he’s fallen for a corporate TV news anchor named Sydney Anne. The notion of love conquering politics is an echo of a real-life story that was an object of popular fascination in the early Clinton years: the marriage between Bill Clinton’s chief strategist James Carville and Republican political consultant Mary Matalin. You’ve Got Mail took the idea that animated that fascination and ran with it. Rather than rebel through love, we have a new story of romantic bravery, a better story, in which love crosses aisles, dissolves division, transverses ideologies, forgives trespasses, and renders rebellion obsolete.

“Love across the aisle.”

Frank and Sydney Anne. Birdie and Franco. Kathleen and Joe. James Carville and Mary Matalin. Left and Right. Capital and labor. The triumph of the personal over the political, the sentimentality of bipartisanship, the wisdom of compromise, the romance of treason, the sweet release of the end of history. It’s an alluring neoliberal fantasy, seductive as fall in Manhattan in popular film, sweet as the fruity-flavored blended Tiazzi drink debuted by Starbucks in 1998, available in nearly two thousand locations nationwide.

It seems unlikely that You’ve Got Mail would be made today — not without major adjustments, anyway. Politics has come roaring back to life. The subsumption of the political into the personal was incomplete. The class idea was unsuccessfully euthanized — it is twitching, stirring, its slumped shape beginning to rise. The forms our politics takes remain insufficient. The collective anti-capitalist political subject still remains elusive in both popular culture and, with some notable exceptions, real life. Still, to review the last decade of American life is to observe that the end of history has itself ended.

For many of us who lived during the Clinton years, especially those of us who were young and impressionable, weaned on the nectar of anti-politics, I suspect a component of our politicization has been the harsh realization that the nectar is sour. The fantasy has dissolved. We can’t love our way out of struggle. We must instead draw lines, resist compromise, and struggle for what we love.