Business as Usual: Being the Perennial Tale of Seduction and Duplicity in American Politics as Dramatized in You've Got Mail
Issue #44, June 1999
To be aware is more important than what you wear.
— Kenneth Cole
The attitude animating Kenneth Cole's advertising slogan pricks us in its irony because we all know that, first, the statement does not ring true for many Americans, and second, the wise Kenneth Cole would quake in the very shoes he named on the day that the consuming public took him seriously. What would happen to the venerable house of Cole if we the people actually adopted its slogan without irony such that, in our newly found awareness of current affairs, politics preoccupied us in lieu of fashion?
Cole's slogan isn't just ironic. It also reflects a truth about capitalist consumer culture, namely the power of this culture to block the political awareness of contemporary citizen-consumers. In the realm of consumer culture it is possible for individuals to wear and be aware of the latest styles, without being aware of political and economic forces shaping their everyday lives. This is possible because many of the objects citizen-consumers desire, like Kenneth Cole shoes, are fetishes. Like all fetishes they accomplish two things: on the one hand, they seduce us with their appearance and in doing so, they also refocus our attention and distract us from other aspects of our daily lives. Consumer goods seduce and soothe us. They are the salve we put on our bodies to ease our mind of other things, including possibly irritating facts and events. It is important to keep this seductive, soothing power of fetishes in mind. It is the secret decoder ring we can use to interpret many contemporary phenomena, including the sex and impeachment scandal of one William Jefferson Clinton.
The seductive power of fetishes is a problem in these United States especially during this reign of economic prosperity (of which the politicians and mass media constantly remind us). With the economic cup running over, we have access to a vast array of objects and activities that seduce, distract, and inure us such that we do not pay heed to events or arrangements that might otherwise bother us, maybe even make us angry. I want to consider in depth two recent examples of such seduction, one from pop culture and the second from political culture. The first, the seduction of Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) in the recent film You've Got Mail, helps to illuminate the second, the political seduction of the average American citizen during the impeachment debacle.
The parallels between director Nora Ephron's You've Got Mail and Clinton's impeachment taught me a great deal about the powers of seduction. These powers work not merely on a personal scale but on a national one. Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) seduces Kathleen in such a way that she actively ignores the injury he has caused her. In a similar way, President Clinton and the prosperity he represents seduced and distracted Americans away from the political injustice of his actions. In brief, Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks enact the romantic comedy of American citizenship today.
The first thoughts I formed after Kathleen and Joe kiss at the end of You've Got Mail were questions: why does she not harbor any bitterness? Is she so blind or numb that she cannot sense that he put her out of business and has orchestrated elaborate fictions about their relationship? Why does she allow her attitude to improve toward him? (I have revealed the last scene to you -- that cliché, the kiss -- but was it really such a surprise?) Most movie viewers would agree that Kathleen has clear justification for anger -- Joe puts her shop out of business, after all. The clever twist that Ephron adds to the otherwise über-banal plot, however, is Joe Fox's charming duplicity. Through both charm and subterfuge, Joe wins Kathleen's heart twice by the end of the film. He wins it personally, after he puts her out of business, and impersonally, after months of interacting anonymously by e-mail.
We shall have to review the plot here to make some sense of the personal/impersonal interplay which drives the film. The movie opens with the America OnLine relationship between 'NY152' and 'Shopgirl', the online personae of Joe and Kathleen. With evident guilty pleasure the two are carrying on an e-mail affair behind the backs of their significant, but clueless others. Since they have mutually vowed not to reveal anything specific or traceable about their identities, they do not know each other yet except through the anonymous and impersonal yet intimate words on laptop computer screens.
However, they soon meet and experience mutual attraction (a.k.a. love at first sight) without realizing that they are really already acquainted impersonally on-line. In their personal interaction at the Shop Around the Corner, an independent children's bookstore that Kathleen runs, Joe cannot reveal his last name to her since he is the scion of the Fox Books empire that has just opened a superstore around the corner. However a few days later, when Kathleen does find out at a book industry social function that Joe represents the superstore that may drive her out of business, she spurns him, and the ever-recognizable love/hate dynamic ensues as they flirt by way of insults.
Later, noting that Fox Books has lured away some of her customer base, Kathleen soon seeks business advice from the anonymous NY152. NY152 does not yet recognize that Shopgirl is really his rival from the Shop Around the Corner and suggests that she follow the advice that he (as Joe Fox) will use to put her out of business: 'It's nothing personal. It's business.'
The statement is ironic, of course, since Kathleen's and Joe's business relationship is clearly not nothing personal. In fact their relationship is both personal and business-like, and is marked by attraction and enmity, love and hate. The irony is that to escape from the intense love/hate that they share in person, Joe and Kathleen mutually seek solace as NY152 and Shopgirl in the anonymity of the e-mail affair.
Eventually, their business rivalry grows uglier and Kathleen and Joe really come to despise one another. To balance out this increase in hostility, the e-mail confidants decide to meet and explore in person the connection that they feel online. Both Joe and Kathleen are curious to see if the attraction they feel on-line as NY152 and Shopgirl will suvive a face-to-face meeting, so they agree to meet at a local café.
If Joe initially hid his identity from Kathleen, his real duplicity commences at their meeting. Arriving at the appointed café, Joe spots Kathleen and realizes that she is not only his business rival, but also Shopgirl, the object of his on-line advances. Instead of revealing to Kathleen that he is NY152, Joe approaches her as Joe Fox, jerk businessman, and lords his victories in the bookstore battle over her. To add insult to injury, he also teases Kathleen for being stood up on her date.
Joe uses his new knowledge as power. He still puts Kathleen out of business, even as he continues his on-line relationship with her. While Kathleen invents fanciful but false scenarios with her sympathetic employees to account for NY152's no-show, Joe gets to orchestrate true scenarios in person and online. Joe gets to seduce Kathleen double-time now: by keeping Shopgirl romantically interested in him online while making himself seem likable to Kathleen in person.
Shortly after Kathleen makes the painful decision to close the Shop Around the Corner, Joe drops by her apartment to visit her, apparently trying to make reparations after the damage has been done. Eventually, Joe's attempt to win her over suceeds somehow without hard feelings on her part, and the erstwhile business rivals establish a friendship. In yet another twist on the personal/impersonal double relationship, Kathleen now seeks advice from Joe on how to meet NY152. Joe, sensing that their personal relationship has proceeded well enough, judges that his other persona can finally meet her. NY152 agrees to meet Shopgirl, so they arrange a rendezvous on a sunny day in a New York City park. With an I'm-glad-it's-you sense of relief, Kathleen and Joe dissolve with their kiss all impersonality, pretense, and bitterness or memory of past injuries inflicted.
That is how You've Got Mail ends, but now I want to undertake a sketch of its parallels to its political and economic context of the impeachment. The film appeared, after all, during a political scandal about adultery and during the supposedly booming economy and the bustling shopping season that accompanied it. Significantly, Americans commonly understood that the reason that no one cared about the former was because of the latter. That is, 'what you wear,' and how prosperous Americans were feeling distracted Americans from the desire 'to be aware,' and focus on the fact that the President was misleading them and that Congress wanted to ignore them.
There are two faces of Clinton and two faces of the American public, like there are two personae each for Joe and Kathleen. Clinton the President seduced the American body politic, which he had betrayed long before he knew Monica, by putting on his economic mask. The American consuming public let Clinton, as figurehead of a booming economy, romance them. Similarly, Joe seduced Kathleen, whom he had put out of business, and still made her fall for him by keeping her, as Shopgirl, distracted.
What links Kenneth Cole's slogan, You've Got Mail, and the American public response to the impeachment affair is that like the Kenneth Cole consumer, Meg's character, the book consumers who abandoned the Shop Around the Corner, average citizens permitted themselves to be seduced by the impersonal ('it's the economy, stupid') while maintaining a love/hate relationship with the personal. Americans loved to linger on the sexual details of Monica's relationship with Bill, but hated having to think about their own relationships to politicians. What is striking about the impeachment debacle is the deadening of political will and the seduction away from political affairs into the impersonal realm of national capitalism. We have been charmed by impersonal things like commodities, superstores, and abstract or anonymous relationships.
Like Kathleen, who learned to stop worrying and love the corporate superstore that Joe represented, Americans learned to stop worrying (about politics) and love the economy that Clinton represents. Americans as citizens loved the prurient personal details of the Starr Report, which they consumed in untold quantities either online or from the corporate bookstore chain around the corner. Meanwhile, Americans as consumers allowed themselves to be seduced by economic prosperity. As long as they felt economically secure, Americans didn't mind forgetting about all of the other times Congress and the President were too busy playing partisan games to pay any attention to what citizens might care about.
While Kathleen's seduction by Joe/NY152's charm distracted her away from his despicable qualities, average Americans' 'foolish love' (as the January 23rd, 1999 issue of The Economist called it) for Clinton allowed them to ignore his betrayals. We heard ad infinitum that the American public grew tired of hearing about Monica, Bill, Ken Starr, and the Articles of Impeachment, but I wonder, what does it say about the political realities of our everyday lives that impeachment fatigued us? Moreover, why is it the case that we allowed the excellent state of the economy, especially the unstoppable ascent of the stock market, to seduce us away from the internecine competition on Capitol Hill?
By no means do I subscribe to the we-should've-thrown-the-bum-out school, as much as I find Clinton bumbling and ineffectual. I do, however, believe that we the people, bumbling and ineffectual in our own way, missed a prime chance to engage in an active, meaningful public discussion about sex, authority, and political participation rather than succumb to the fatigued ennui of media over-consumption and holiday season retail therapy. In other words, there's blame on both sides: both Bill and the American public were blinded by foolish love. By avoiding proper awareness of the impeachment, good American subjects avoided proper awareness that they are complicit with the shortcomings of their political system. Rather than reading about how Monica pleasured Bill, we could have been wondering why American politics seems so displeasurable to us. In lieu of trying to find out if Hillary feels slighted by her husband, we could recall all the ways that national politics has slighted us. Instead of feeling alienated ut how some in Congress have made a monumental high crime out of a minor sexual peccadillo, we might question why it's nothing personal, why it's just business as usual.
James Casas Klausen is a graduate student in political theory at UC Berkeley. He can be reached at email@example.com.