Before she felt bad about her neck, Nora Ephron felt bad about her breasts. When she was a 19-year-old virgin, her boyfriend’s mother offered a suggestion: “Always make sure you’re on top of him so you won’t seem so small.”
At first, as Ephron wrote in her column in Esquire, she thought her beau had put the woman up to it, but she later decided, “The mother was acting on her own, I think: that was her way of being cruel and competitive under the guise of being helpful and maternal. You have small breasts, she was saying; therefore you will never make him as happy as I have. Or you have small breasts; therefore you will doubtless have sexual problems. Or you have small breasts; therefore you are less woman than I am.”
At the time, these words blew past all sorts of taboos and felt thrilling and brave. There were lots of feminists discussing body image in the 1970s, but Ephron was the first to do so with squirm-inducing, self-deprecating humor.
When the news broke yesterday that Ephron had died, I happened to be in the company of women who’d known and admired her, and the tributes began. As Janet Maslin put it, “Dorothy Parker set an example for scathingly smart female journalists of Ms. Ephron’s generation, but Ms. Ephron’s five-decade-long career outdid that. It’s now the Nora Ephron problem instead.”
Ephron’s bluntness could be breathtaking. Has anyone ever worked through a grisly divorce more profitably than she did with Heartburn (1996)? She was a feminist, but just because you were a woman didn’t mean you got a pass. Consider her comments on Phyllis Chesler’s Women and Madness, part of the collection of essays in Crazy Salad (1975):
I agree with the book politically. What Chesler is saying is that the psychological professional has always applied a double standard when dealing with women; that psychological definitions of madness have been dictated by what men believe women’s role ought to be; and this is wrong. Right on, Phyllis. But here is the book: it is badly written and self-indulgent, and the research seems to me to be full of holes. If I say this, though, I will hurt the book politically…. On the other hand, if I fail to say that there are problems with the book, I’m applying a double standard of my own, treating works that are important to the movement differently than others: babying them, tending to gloss over their faults, gentling the author as if she and her book were somehow incapable of withstanding a single carping clause. Her heart is in the right place; why knock her when there are so many truly evil books around? This is what’s known in the women’s movement as sisterhood, and it is good politics, I suppose, but it doesn’t make for good criticism. Or honesty. Or the truth.
At the time, the directness of this assessment made me gasp. It seemed incredibly daring.
Many years later, when I was working on a Women in Hollywood issue of Premiere magazine, Ephron asked not to be included in the oral history since, she said, most of the women she’d met in Tinsel Town actually hadn’t been helpful as she broke a path for herself. As The New York Times obit noted, in her last book, I Remember Nothing, one of the items on her list of things she’d just as soon forget is “panels on Women in Film.”
Ephron herself, on the other hand, was plenty generous, particularly to young women writers. I remember the thrill of hearing from a casual business contact that Ephron had told her she should keep an eye on my work. At the time, I had never met either of them, and it made me feel as if I’d somehow been drawn into a sort of secret journalista support network.
Because of Nora Ephron, yes, there is the Nora Ephron problem, but there are also dozens of frank, funny, unapologetic women writers such as Alex Leo and Alyssa Rosenberg and Emily Yoffe, living by Ephron’s immortal comment, passed down by her parents, that no matter what happens in life, “it’s all material.”