British Association for American Studies


The Backlash in Love: Reclaiming Choice in Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and ‘Meg Ryan Fall’

In September 2022, journalist Meg Walters lambasted the growing ‘quirky aesthetic’ of the recent online trend ‘Meg Ryan Fall’: TikToks and Tweets which seasonally recreate the fashions and dialogue of Nora Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally (1989), Sleepless in Seattle (1993) and You’ve Got Mail (1998).[i] [ii] [iii] [iv] For Walters, focusing on an autumnal consumerist aesthetic removes the ‘emotional significance’ of Ephron’s writing — that these films exist ‘in a completely separate universe to that of ours — of TikTok and Twitter and Hot Girl Summer.’[v] Walter’s assessment, that the emotional meaning of these films is their ability to build spaces that provide comfort, is directly reflected in the central conflict of Sleepless —  as change infringes on the rights and livelihoods of Americans, how do communities repurpose film texts to soothe the anxieties in their own lives?

However, in presenting such themes, Sleepless also forecasted the emergence of Meg Ryan Fall as a step in scholar Michele Schreiber’s postfeminist romance cycle: a loop of ‘fiction feeding reality and reality feeding fiction’ where transmedia nostalgia texts shape new communities of spectators who, during socio-political upheaval, desire a simplified past.[vi] Just as the female characters in Sleepless repurpose Leo McCarey’s An Affair to Remember (1957) to pacify their own gender anxieties, Meg Ryan Fall reimagines Ryan’s characters as aestheticised symbols of the 1990s postfeminist era, over-simplified as a time where tensions arose from abundant freedom.[vii] Idealising this abundance eases present reality, where conservative states and judicial systems are adeptly constraining choice when attempting to revert the pro-abortion decision of Roe vs. Wade (1973).

Magnus Andersson, 2020. <https://unsplash.com/photos/R38tCdYAgd4>

Sleepless follows Annie’s (Meg Ryan) growing interest in West Coast maudlin Sam (Tom Hanks) after hearing him on the radio. Annie’s romantic interpretation of Affair inspires her monomaniacal pursuit of Sam. However, both characters are driven by loss: Sam of his past and the loss of his wife; and Annie of her future, through a marriage to her kind but emotionally illiterate fiancé Walter (Bill Pullman). After stalking Sam across America, Annie leaves Walter to meet Sam at the top of the Empire State Building on Valentine’s Day.

Sleepless emerged in what feminist scholar Angela McRobbie called the ‘pathologies’ of ‘well-regulated liberty’; namely, what were the consequences if 1960s feminism was now (allegedly) superfluous?[viii] A glance at the headlines in the August 1993 issue of American magazine Glamour, which surround an interview with Ephron, reveal the uncertain climate influencing Sleepless: ‘Male power: Is it a myth?,’ ‘One step toward controlling the AIDS epidemic,’ ‘Accidentally pregnant,’ and ‘The simultaneous O.’[ix] Since the 1980s, the belief had grown that Hollywood encouraged a ‘backlash’ against the female sexual independence advocated by these articles, as first suggested in 1991 by journalist Susan Faludi in her breakdown of Hollywood and Fatal Attraction (1987).[x] Sleepless uses classical films like Affair intertextually to establish a nostalgia that defends the medium, but not Hollywood, against this new anti-woman reputation.

Schreiber’s work on postfeminist cinema is essential to this understanding of Sleepless; Sleepless uses the nostalgia of film (Affair) to form a ‘communal language’ amongst women, creating a ‘collective “we”’, built on shared emotional bonds ‘in and outside of these texts.’[xi] For Schreiber, Annie, her best-friend Becky (Rosie O’Donnell) and Sam’s sister Suzy (Rita Wilson) share a symbiotic emotional understanding of Affair to remedy any anxieties over their new sexual freedom.[xii] Their interpretation of Affair overlooks the discriminatory 1950s period and exploitative state of studio-era Hollywood to glamorise predestined heterosexual romance — as Annie romanticises, ‘those were the days when people knew how to be in love!’[xiii] Annie and Becky spend their evenings synchronously, mouthing along to the film and across the country, Suzy, whom Annie never even meets, mirrors their sentimental interpretation. Sleepless assumes everyone, including the audience, is ‘connected through his or her spectatorship of media texts.’[xiv]

For Schreiber, Sleepless uses film intertextually to place men on the side of ‘reality and objectivity’ and make women disciples of ‘fantasy and subjectivity.’[xv] This binary ‘excludes men’ from bonds formed by, in Sam’s words, the ‘Chicks’ movie.’[xvi] As Schreiber notes, all the male characters (including Sam) assimilate a point of view drawn from Faludi’s backlash.[xvii] As Sam tells his son Jonah (Ross Malinger), Annie could be a ‘crazy sick lunatic’:

SAM: Didn’t you see “Fatal Attraction”?

JONAH: You wouldn’t let me.

SAM: Well, I saw it, and it scared the shit out of me.
             It scared the shit out of every man in America.[xviii]

Sam visualises meeting Annie as replicating the deadly end of Fatal Attraction. In Schreiber’s framework, cinema in Sleepless still functions as a medium for women to explore their sexuality through fantasy whilst New Hollywood backlash sensibilities regulate male desires.[xix]

Annie’s fantasy creates a reassuring ‘solidarity’ with spectators in the audience.[xx] By sharing Annie’s romantic interpretation of Affair, “we”, alongside Sam, are encouraged to embrace Annie’s fantasised, optimistic ending and reject the messages of Fatal Attraction. This bond with Annie urges the audience to forgive her for stalking Sam and cheating on Walter. As one disgruntled viewer wrote to the New York Times, suggesting if there were a role reversal: ‘Wouldn’t [Sam] be designated a degenerate? People would not consider the film a romantic comedy. Apparently sexual equality doesn’t yet extend to fiction.’[xxi]

Thus, Sleepless generated a unique form of gendered spectatorship that fought Hollywood backlash anxieties by glorifying simplified 1950s media. Ephron/Ryan collaborations were not simply wholesome spaces to ‘let go of the gender wars,’ as indicated by scholars Susanne Kord and Elisabeth Krimmer.[xxii] This is not to say they are radical or inclusive films — they portray rich, white women satisfied by heterosexual love. Instead, they present how the duality of fantasy and reality in film spectatorship can build imagined pockets of resistance to neo-liberal cultures through shared emotional textual interpretation that is simultaneously limited by idealisation.

The female characters of Sleepless reappropriate Affair as a fantasy for their own emotional resolutions. In doing so, they created a spectator community within the film and externally with the audience that resisted Hollywood’s dogmatic backlash culture. Just as Annie blurs reality and fantasy by embodying the heroine of Affair, participants in Meg Ryan Fall imitate fictional Ryan heroines in everyday life — although the difference is the online visibility within this community of strangers. Meg Ryan Fall is tellingly superficial in simplifying Ryan’s screen-icons as merely having one problem: too much choice. This affluence of choice makes them soothing fantasies for contemporary persons fighting to allow women to make their own decisions. In the most romantic view, Meg Ryan Fall represents a new generational desire in America — to reclaim the liberty of choice.

Listen to Naomi discussing Meg Ryan Fall with writer Meg Walters on USSOCast here.

[i] Meg Walters, “‘Meg Ryan Fall’ Is the Best Time of the Year. Of Course the Internet is Ruining It,” The Daily Beast, 03 September 2022. <https://www.proquest.com/docview/2709394905/BD837E6B198946A2PQ/5?accountid=12253>

[ii] Rob Reiner, dir. When Harry Met Sally, Columbia Pictures, 12 July 1989.

[iii] Nora Ephron, dir. Sleepless in Seattle, TriStar Pictures, 25 June 1993.

[iv] Nora Ephron, dir. You’ve Got Mail, Warner Bros., 18 December 1998.

[v] Walters, “‘Meg Ryan Fall’ Is the Best Time of the Year”.

[vi] Michele Schreiber, American Postfeminist Cinema: Women, Romance and Contemporary Culture (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014), 57, 96, 105.

[vii] Leo McCarey, dir. An Affair to Remember, Twentieth Century Fox, 19 July 1957.

[viii] Diane Negra, Yvonne Tasker, eds. Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture (Durham, London: Duke University Press, 2007), 38.

[ix] Glamour Magazine Vol. 91:8, August 1993. <https://www.proquest.com/publication/40647?accountid=12253&decadeSelected=1990+-+1999&issueNameSelected=01993Y08Y01%23Aug+1993%3B++Vol.+91+%288%29&monthSelected=08&yearSelected=1993>, 133, 136, 145, 147, 218.

[x] Susan Faludi, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women (London: Chatto & Windus, 1992), 140-170.

[xi] Schreiber, American Postfeminist Cinema, 96.

[xii] Schreiber, American Postfeminist Cinema, 103.

[xiii] Ephron, Sleepless in Seattle.

[xiv] Schreiber, American Postfeminist Cinema, 103.

[xv] Schreiber, American Postfeminist Cinema, 104.

[xvi] Schreiber, American Postfeminist Cinema, 103.

[xvii] Schreiber, American Postfeminist Cinema, 104.

[xviii] Ephron, Sleepless in Seattle.

[xix] Schreiber, American Postfeminist Cinema, 104-105.

[xx] Schreiber, American Postfeminist Cinema, 103.

[xxi] Shaun Breidbart, “Sauce for The Gander?,” New York Times, 03 October 1993.


[xxii]Susanne Kord, Elisabeth Krimmer, Hollywood Divas, Indie Queens, & TV Heroines: Contemporary Screen Images of Women (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005), 59.

About the Author

Naomi Sutton is a PGR at the University of Manchester, studying Film and Politics. Her research focuses on the construction of gender in 1980s Hollywood and America through the films of Goldie Hawn. More information on her research is available on the University of Manchester website.