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Meg Ryan fall and the unsettling joy of another pandemic autumn

What is it about fall that just makes us want to buy more stuff?

Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal walk through failed leaves on a fall tree-lined lane in the movie “When Harry Met Sally.”
Siri, play “It Had To Be You.”
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

It’s Meg Ryan fall. You know, Meg Ryan, as in the actress who stars in such iconic autumn-set films as You’ve Got Mail, When Harry Met Sally, and Sleepless in Seattle. The one who owns a bookshop on the Upper West Side and is very particular about ordering salads but most importantly of all, wears jaunty loose-fitting trousers and irresistibly cozy-looking turtleneck sweaters. It’s that, but a whole season: Meg Ryan fall.

That is, according to TikTok, where people have started plotting their transitional outfits inspired by Ryan’s two most memorable roles, Sally Albright and Kathleen Kelly. There are warm neutrals. There are oversized glasses. There is a significant influence of menswear. There are so, so many sweaters. There are portable fans so that people in Los Angeles can wear said sweaters without sweating through them. The idea of Meg Ryan fall has even surpassed fashion (Meg Ryan fall playlists! Meg Ryan fall book recommendations! Meg Ryan fall recipes!).

No offense to Meg Ryan, who, like everyone else in the world, I adore, but Meg Ryan fall is about more than just Meg Ryan. It is simply the most recent iteration of the same phenomenon the internet likes to discuss every single year: white people being annoyingly obsessed with autumn.

As a white woman from Vermont, a state where fall foliage tourism accounts for nearly $400 million in annual revenue, I have long been one of and lived among this irritating cohort, people who not only enjoy jacket weather and watching the leaves change but who create entire rituals around them. Some of this is more ineffable: I go on more bike rides and find more excuses to be outside during the fall, I tend to have an easier time focusing on writing and other quiet pursuits, and I feel less FOMO when I spend a night in with my cat and a pumpkin beer. But the rest of my rituals have, as of late, pretty much revolved around buying things.

An example: This weekend I spent a redacted amount of money at Target’s “autumn market,” a section of the store dedicated to artificial dried flowers in shades of mustard and rust and decorative pumpkins made of twine. The number is redacted not only because it is absurdly astronomical but also because it almost felt like an out-of-body experience, like it was someone else loading up my cart with twee junk, someone who could own all the taper candles and decorative wreaths and it still wouldn’t be enough.

The funny thing is, the mania with which I’ve shopped for fall things this year — miniature pumpkins at the farmers market, a cable-knit sweater vest, firewood-scented candles — isn’t some sort of vestige of Vermont living. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: Vermonters are extremely anti-consumerist as a people; we didn’t even have a Target until 2018. The idea that one might obtain their autumnal experience through purchasing it is a foreign concept in a place where “autumnness” is arguably its most famous feature.

Instead, this year’s fall frenzy feels more like an attempt at extreme nesting, a desire to gather safeguards against the despair of another winter in lockdown. This spring felt like it might be the end of the pandemic, that the summer would be the cathartic release about which we’ve all dreamed since last March. Friends and I refer to this period almost mythically — the weeks of June where every weekend held so much promise, before an extremely American unease began to creep in, and with it the realization that perhaps the end would never come. I can’t recreate that magical sense of hope, but I can buy it.

Hence, Meg Ryan. She is not the sole modern avatar of the fall-obsessed white woman; on TikTok, girls share their fall outfits inspired by Twilight’s Bella Swan and The Vampire Diaries’ Elena Gilbert, made of unassuming layered Abercrombie henleys, army jackets, and blue jeans. They soundtrack videos to the breathy “la, la, las” of the almost comically New Englandcore Gilmore Girls. Taylor Swift, who recently joined the platform, will be re-releasing her version of her fall-iest album ever, Red, in November. In 2019, a Twitter joke became a real-life meme with the invention (and subversion) of “Christian girl autumn.” And nobody wants to revisit the years in which everyone was yelling about whether pumpkin spice lattes were for “basic bitches” and whether that was rude or not.

Much of this is simply regular internet dynamics playing out: Platforms like Tumblr and TikTok have enabled the creation of thousands of different microaesthetics, from cottagecore to pastel goth; having specific subcultures tied to seasons is only natural. But fall, more than any other time of year, seems uniquely suited for feeling good about spending money: September is, after all, the biggest month for fashion (see also: the meme “can’t wait till it gets cold so I can really start dressin”), and the US is in back-to-school shopping mode regardless of whether you’re actually a student. Meg Ryan fall is about experimenting with a certain style, sure, but it’s also a sneaky ad for oversized blazers and cute little oxford shoes, a way to grasp onto a feeling through buying and embodying it.

As I write this column, I am drinking a pumpkin-spice-flavored coffee at my dining table that is swathed in burnt orange throws and topped with several tiny gourds. I am listening to my autumn playlist, which is largely Bon Iver and other sad white people with guitars and pianos. This season, I plan to go apple picking with my friends and watch movies like Knives Out and shows like Only Murders in the Building because of the particular coziness of the costumes. I tend to think of these activities as somehow pure or wholesome, and yet all of them are based around the act of consuming products for pleasure, which is more and more what life feels like.

I haven’t lived in Vermont for a decade, so perhaps my personal fondness for fall is my way of connecting to it — but only the good parts. It’s easy to forget, for instance, that what the state boasts in red and gold in September and October we make up for in the less picturesque parts of the year: “stick season,” when the leaves are gone but the snow hasn’t yet adorned the branches, making the mountains look like an army of skeletons, or “mud season,” a self-explanatory period that in other parts of the world might be considered “springtime.” Then there is the cold: crushing, punitive cold so painful it makes your head ache.

All that comes later, though. In a year in which we’ve all been forced to confront the preciousness of time, every change in the season is special, and right now it is Meg Ryan fall. I’ll have what she’s having.

This column first published in The Goods newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one, plus get newsletter exclusives.