It Took 2K Miles and Three Nora Ephron Movies for Me to Understand My Sexual Identity
Ephron’s genre defining romantic comedies offered me queer solace growing up in a small rural Texas town
Just like we don’t choose who we love, we don’t choose the iconic blockbuster hits of our youth that go on to build up and break down our conceptions of love, relationships, and sexuality. I grew up in rural Texas, in a town so small the high school marching band played when the Home Depot opened. I was surrounded by people who thought they were, pretended to be, or actually were straight. My social calendar was filled with Young Life invites and pep rallies for our dismal football team. I was mainly raised by my closeted gay dad in a homophobic family and I wouldn’t come out myself until I was twenty-three and 2,000 miles away. I look forward to watching the current queer youth grow up with JoJo Siwa and Janelle Monáe to model all the different prefixes to the word “sexual” but for me, queer representation was practically nonexistent. I took what I could get, and that was Meg Ryan.
When people ask me about my sexuality, I say things like: “the friendship to relationship pipeline is big with me” and “I wasn’t interested at all until I read their writing” or “heard her voice” or “saw his passion for esoteric intramural sports” or one of those other million things that draws you to a person regardless of gender expression or initial sexual attraction. Press me further and I’ll ditch the platitudes and throw out words like pansexuality and demisexuality. They line up with my experience well enough.
When I tell you I’m pansexual, what I mean is that I don’t care if you identify as a man or a woman or somewhere in-between or beyond—if I’m attracted to you, I’m attracted to you. When I tell you I’m demisexual, I mean that I am seldom physically attracted to someone at first sight. In my world, physical or sexual attraction almost always comes after the getting-to-know-you phase, sometimes years after. Romance wasn’t built in a day. Enter NORA EPHRON.
A name that “sounds like a nasal spray,” a 1978 profile of Ephron declared. These days, it seems that clued-in queers are not meant to like Nora Ephron movies. I’m still waiting for someone to pop out of a dumpster and tell me I’m a bad queer, maybe throw a box set of The L Word in my face. We’re scared of Nora Ephron. There are entire articles written about being too afraid to rewatch Sleepless in Seattle. And it’s a reasonable fear—’90s rom-coms rarely age well and her films, in particular, take place in an almost dystopian world of privilege (full of “New Yorker-reading New Yorkers” wrote The Guardian’s Luke Walpole). But if you’re looking to interrogate the archetypal gender roles and straight white heterosexual cis-gendered bonanza that is every Ephron movie, I’m sure there’s an early 2000s Wesleyan graduate thesis out there for you—this just isn’t it. I won’t deny or excuse the obvious limitations of these movies (read: the invention of the “high-maintenance” woman) but I will wholeheartedly co-opt them for my own queer purposes.
Let’s start with my favorite of the Ephron Triple Threat (Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally and You’ve Got Mail): the timeless tale of friendship to romantic love, When Harry Met Sally. When Harry Met Sally came out in the summer of 1989 to lukewarm critical acclaim. The New York Times called it “amazingly hollow” and “the sitcom version of a Woody Allen film.” Those critics, however, soon ate their hats as the film came to be regarded as a (if not the) foundational text in the romantic comedy genre. When Harry Met Sally is structured around what Vanity Fair contributor Sonia Saraiya dubs an “inverted” romance. The movie spans twelve years of animosity and friendship until it finally settles into the evergreen promise of the genre — true love.
Physical attraction is addressed and dismissed throughout the film but the two leads have different styles when it comes to swatting away the subject. Harry is blunt from the beginning:
HARRY: You’re a very attractive person.
SALLY: Thank you.
HARRY: Amanda never said how attractive you were.
SALLY: Well maybe she doesn’t think I’m attractive.
HARRY: I don’t think it’s a matter of opinion, empirically you are attractive.
But ultimately the “fact” of Sally’s attraction is dissociated from a drive for physical intimacy: “You know you may be the first attractive woman I have not wanted to sleep with in my entire life,” Harry remarks with his characteristic polish. Sally, however, dodges the question of physical attraction altogether. She disdains Harry from the start. “You think he’s cute?” she quips to her friend, who says she finds him attractive. This is the inverted romance, summed up nicely in the film’s epilogue:
HARRY: The first time we met we hated each other.
SALLY: No, you didn’t hate me, I hated you. And the second time we met you didn’t
even remember me.
HARRY: I did too, I remembered you. The third time we met, we became friends.
SALLY: We were friends for a long time.
HARRY: And then we weren’t.
SALLY: And then we fell in love.
Physical and/or sexual attraction after years of emotional connection. What does it say about straight romance fantasies that one of the most iconic heteronormative romantic comedies of all time is an “inverted” romance? If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a pansexual love story about the beauty of demisexual romance.
Where When Harry Met Sally dabbles in the realm of physical attraction after emotional intimacy and love after emotional bond, Sleepless in Seattle dives straight in, altogether disregarding the myth of physical attraction as a precursor to intimacy and love. Meg Ryan is recast as Baltimore journalist Annie and Tom Hanks begins his Ephron career as the widowed father and architect Sam.
Sleepless is a story of falling in love. Not with come-hither eyes or love at first sight or even the sting of electricity as two hands brush by each other (“Magic,” as Annie’s mother describes it). It is the story of falling for words, voices, and sighs. Jokes and type-written letters, adolescent interventions, and the unfathomable, embarrassing reality of realizing you might love someone you’ve never met — physically. The film is self-conscious of this “abnormal” method of falling which is primarily elucidated through Annie’s dialogue. To her brother, she confides frantically: “I’m having all these fantasies about a man I’ve never met, who lives in Seattle.” To which he responds, of course, “It rains nine months of the year in Seattle.” Eventually, Annie does get a glimpse of Sam but importantly never comments on his physical appearance. Famously, the first time they truly meet (on top of the Empire State Building, no less) is the final scene in the movie. The leads are onscreen together for about two minutes. But by that point, we know and they know it too — true love.
There’s this amazing line early in Sleepless. The classic Cary Grant vehicle, An Affair to Remember, appears several times throughout the film and is the inspiration for the meeting at the Empire State Building. But before that, before the happy ending, Annie’s best friend (played by Rosie O’Donnell) turns to her pining friend and says, “You don’t want to be in love. You want to be in love in a movie.” She’s talking to me, too. But then I’m reminded of this tweet floating around gay twitter, something like rom-coms are like if straight people acted like lesbians. And I have to think Rosie would be inclined to agree with that one.
Five years after Sleepless in Seattle, Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks are back with late 90s haircuts to prove it. They reunite as Kathleen and Joe in You’ve Got Mail where Ephron takes the earlier concepts of “inverted” romance and loving someone you’ve never physically met and just absolutely goes to town. It’s 1998 now, so instead of Meg Ryan’s plucky typewritten letter we get dial-up internet, usernames like “Shopgirl” and incoming emails set to the tune of AOL’s not terribly timeless proclamation (and the movie’s namesake): “You’ve got mail!”
If we see these movies as a series, one building off of the other as Ephron refines and calcifies her audience-pleasing depictions of modern romance, You’ve Got Mail is the finale. Here we have two people who fall in love entirely (at least initially) over written communication. Ephron goes to great lengths to emphasize the nature of their romantic connection as something that is cerebral. At the same time that Kathleen and Joe are falling in love over AOL, they are feuding in real life. Of course, the film allows plenty of time for this feud to resolve so that by the time the truth of their identities is revealed, the revelation is that of a desire come true rather than the rude dream-shattering shock it may have been otherwise. The point being that this love, despite the parallel foil plot, is built from something other than physical attraction. Conveniently, of course, they are both extremely attractive people. In the script, Kathleen is described as “pretty and fresh as a spring day” while Joe is “a great-looking guy, full of charm and irony.” What did you expect? Again, this is a late 90s blockbuster we’re talking about.
There’s some analogy here to modern dating apps. But mainstream dating apps are sort of a wasteland for the casual demisexual. It’s like peddling around in the ocean searching with your toes for a sandbar that may or not be there. You end up just flopping around for a long time, searching for something solid. It is almost impossible to feel out your attraction to someone based on a few photos and some cherry-picked one-liners. So you text and text and text, waiting for something interesting to happen. Waiting for Meg Ryan in a sweater set to one day meet you at a cafe with a red rose and a copy of Pride & Prejudice because if that’s not gay, I just don’t know what is.
My dad, his husband, and I have a group chat called “Bitches.” (It used to be “bitches” but my dad got bored one day and capitalized all of his group chats.) My dad’s husband sent a photo of his car radio playing the Cranberries’ hit “Dreams.” “Watch out, you’re in a montage in a 90s movie,” I responded. A few days later I realized I was remembering a very specific montage in a 90s movie. At the beginning of You’ve Got Mail, Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks bounce to work, walking within blocks of each other yet blissfully obvious of the other’s true identity while Meg Ryan’s voice-over narrates their latest exchange. “Dreams” plays:
“And oh, my dreams
It’s never quite as it seems
‘Cause you’re a dream to me”
Queer storylines may not have been top of mind for Nora Ephron in the 90s. She had other things to worry about like making sure the first half of Sleepless didn’t have the color red in it. But she relinquished these stories into the world where they landed squarely in my queer hands. I have found that in a small town in Texas, you can say you like You’ve Got Mail. You can’t always say you like like Parker Posey. These movies brought me narratives that fit my experience in a format that felt safe for my environment at the time. I didn’t have the words “pansexual” or “demisexual” but I did have these characters performing attraction and desire in ways that felt familiar to me. I know now that these ways of existing in the world – from “inverted romances” to the intangible nature of pansexual attraction – are intrinsic to my queer identity. “Never quite as it seems” indeed.
So the next time you’re on a walk, I dare you: bring a pair of headphones and blast “Dreams” as you walk down the street. Stop and smell the deli flowers, chaotically replay lines of old love letters in your head, and imagine you’re Meg Ryan on her way to get her life smashed to pieces by the promise of true love. Feels pretty gay, right?