Imagine a situation where a person finds out someone else exists, but hasn’t met them. Person A takes an interest in Person B despite not knowing them and develops an infatuation with their existence. Person A thinks about Person B constantly to the point it’s interfering with their existing relationships, their job, and their daily life. Person A calls various authorities to uncover the identity of Person B, hires a private investigator to research them, and collects pictures of Person B and their family. With all that personal information in tow, Person A flies across the country to go to spy on Person B from a distance as they spend time with their family, and gets jealous at the sight of other people in their life.
What do you call Person A? A stalker, perhaps. (Disclaimer: The term “stalker” is not being used here to reference a legal standard or as a medical diagnosis.)
Oddly enough, the above summarizes the plot of Sleepless in Seattle (1993), Nora Ephron’s classic romantic comedy starring Meg Ryan as Annie (aka Person A), and Tom Hanks as Sam (Person B). Sam is a widower who moves to Seattle for a fresh start on life. When Sam’s son Jonah (Ross Malinger) calls a Delilah-esque radio show for emotional support, Sam ends up on the line, and the sob story about his late wife wins the hearts of thousands of women across America. But none more than Annie, who’s willing to sacrifice her engagement and dedicate her life to finding Sam in the hopes of a connection she doesn’t have with her fiancé Walter (Bill Pullman). Walter seems like a great guy, but there’s no “magic” between he and Annie—and if there’s a message within Sleepless in Seattle, it’s about doing anything to find a relationship that doesn’t just suit you, but brings an indescribable magic into your life.
Still, Annie’s route to Sam’s heart is one of deception and shady practices. She tracks down a single father whose voice she heard on the radio, lies to her fiancé for months, and travels across the country to meet him in person. She even has an ulterior motive when she and Walter meet in New York City for Valentine’s Day. It’s all about meeting Sam on the Empire State Building.
Outside the realm of romantic comedy, Annie’s behavior would raise more red flags than jerk tears of joy. Her role in the film raises a few macro questions: If the character of Annie weren’t played by Meg Ryan, who in 1993 held the title of “America’s Sweetheart” and the most charming woman on earth, would her methods be perceived differently? And on a grander scale, if the gender roles of the film were reversed and a man were going to these lengths to pursue a woman, how would that be received? And does the fact that Sleepless in Seattle is a romantic comedy and not some other type of film lessen the severity of her actions?
When YouTuber Demis Lyall-Wilson re-cut a trailer for the film with scary music, they turned it into a horror. Jezebel wrote an article about the video and original film, saying, “Meg Ryan’s character, Annie, is a legit stalker who uses her job as an excuse to track down Tom Hanks’ character, whom she heard on the radio—going so far as to hire a private detective and show up outside of Hanks’ house, uninvited, just to get close to him.”
Decider agrees, saying, “Annie’s taking her interest in Sam from the curious level to the straight-up Lifetime biopic stalker level.”
Something about the romantic comedy formula, the presence of Meg Ryan, and the fact that a woman was pursuing a man (rather than the other way around) render these behaviors acceptable. A man following a woman to these lengths carries an immediate and implied physical threat. It’s seen as predatory and violent. But with a woman doing it, particularly when that woman is Meg Ryan, doesn’t carry that same level of malicious intent. Flip this film around and it changes from being a romantic comedy to a thriller. There’s an implication that we’re willing to forgive obviously crazy behavior when it’s for the sake of love. That is despite that fact that if this happened in real life, however flattering it may be, would come with some serious reservations about the person’s sanity.
The interpretation of Sleepless in Seattle may also be colored by the decades that have passed since its creation. In 2015, many of us have become a bit more like stalkers. When we want to know about someone’s life, we quickly take to Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the Internet as a whole. We do it readily because we know we can, because it’s easy and because it’s become normalized behavior. We are able to find information quite easily about virtually anyone from anywhere. We can stalk people from our pockets, and doing so has become socially acceptable. People make their private information public to be found. Looking up LinkedIn profiles has become a recommended course of action when preparing for a professional interview or meeting. But our new model of social stalking renders behaviors like Annie’s in Sleepless in Seattle even more frightening. In 1993, the methods she employs in the film were the only resources available - phones, faxes, primitive computer systems, and physical confrontation. It’s all so unnecessary in modern day. If someone went to the trouble of physically flying across the country to spy on someone, Meg Ryan or not, it would be terrifying. There’s a real predatory dedication to that level of investigation that in today’s mindset is hard to interpret any other way than creepy.