The American writer and film-director, Nora Ephron, has just died and this has led to a lot of grieving on Facebook and in liberal sections of the American press. It’s clear that Ms Ephron was a good soul, with her heart located at the right address. It’s clear from reading her articles that she was also sharply intelligent and very, very funny, not to mention gifted with the ability to be ruthlessly truthful. Certainly, her prose is a model of clarity and wit. Speaking at the 1996 graduation ceremony at her alma mater, the all-women Wellesley College, she recounts her own graduation in 1962: “We weren’t meant to have futures, we were meant to marry them. We weren’t meant to have politics, or careers that mattered, or opinions, or lives; we were meant to marry them.”
Ephron belonged to that first generation of American feminists who began to fight their way out of several trusses and binds: the classic right-wing trinity of family, church and country; the equally classic, phallocratic leftist revolutionary hierarchies; the widespread notion the world over that women’s bodies belonged to their fathers and brothers and then to their husbands; the unquestioned belief that women couldn’t match men in terms of work, especially white-collar work; the assumption that women could sexually only be with men.
For someone of my generation and class, 20 years younger than Ephron, the brains, guts and effort these early Western feminists threw into battle yielded huge dividends. If the advantages for women were more obvious there were great boons for us men as well, blessings that would become clear only later. As a young man on an American college campus, I didn’t even realize how unfettered I was from old notions of machismo, of having to play the role of the ‘main actor’, of the one who made the decisions and ‘led’ in any relationship. Later, in other contexts and cultures, under the criticism of women friends and some self-criticism, these huge freedoms became much more tangible and throughout my adult life I’ve been thankful. Whenever people speak of the ‘emasculating tendencies of feminism’, I scratch my head.
The thing is, this feminism of the 60s and 70s was in no way homogeneous. It was actually many different strivings for gender equality, where women took different routes towards slightly or radically different destinations. In her speech in 1996, Ephron says, “Understand: every attack on Hillary Clinton for not knowing her place is an attack on you.” Ephron is, of course, talking about Hillary the First Lady and is in no position to know what will happen 16 years down the line, when someone on Facebook can point out that it’s secretary of state Clinton’s random assaults in the ‘War on Terror’ that are now the attacks on us. The fact is, women in control, whether corporate or political, have not always brought emancipation for women (or people in general) and we can justifiably shudder at the betrayal of different feminist dreams by women in power from Indira Gandhi to Margaret Thatcher to Benazir Bhutto to Jayalalithaa, Mayavati and Mamata B.
It’s a truism worth repeating that feminists are not always socialists, just as the converse is true, that feminists aren’t always for gay rights or for a better environment or for many of the other things that progressives love to clump under one large utopian umbrella. You can also argue gyno-semantics till kingdom come, trying to define ‘feminism’, as to whether the core definition includes a commitment to economic equality and the freedom of sexual preference or whether it means that women have as much right as men to be oppressors, whether feminism is applicable to people of all genders or is it only about women first and last. You can debate all of this but the fact that this world-wide discussion exists at all is in no small measure due to the efforts of American and Western European women of Ephron’s generation.
Having said that, it’s time for some kvetch and quibble in the great argumentative tradition so widely practised in Ephron’s beloved New York.
The film for which Ephron remains best known is When Harry Met Sally, which she wrote and co-produced in 1989. For those who haven’t seen it, the story (including spoiler) goes like this: Harry is the boyfriend of Sally’s pal whose name is totally unimportant; Sally gives Harry a ride to NYC when they’re both moving from college to real life; on the way, Harry, obnoxious twit, insists that men and women can’t ever just be friends, that men want to ‘nail’ any and all women they come across; across the years, Harry and Sally keep meeting in NYC through various liaisons and break-ups with other parties; eventually they decide they can be friends with no sexual strings attached and proceed to lead a late 80s upper-middle-class Manhattan life; this doesn’t last, they have other break-ups, they have sex once and carry on as if that was a mistake; eventually they realize they love each other, sex and all the fixings, and they get together; happy sunset (implied).
Now, there are many good things about this movie (including some great dialogue) except it has what I call major Allenitis, or what in Woody Allen’s case I would call terminal East-West Parkside-itis, where the action is placed in or around apartments with a view of Central Park or a view of other apartment buildings that have a view of Central Park, that is, posh and semi-posh Nooyawk. Manhattan in these films is this strange place with no rough edges, no violence, no Blacks, Hispanics or Asians, no ethnic abrasion, nobody scraping the bottom of no visible barrel. It is obviously most useful as a location where people can walk in a straight line through blocks and clean blocks and where a director can have the pleasure of mounting interminably straight track-shots. Into this grid, Ephron and team throw two quite good actors playing two quite cute characters. The best moment is when Sally, sitting in a crowded diner, demonstrates to (then non-lover) Harry how easy and common it is for women to fake an orgasm to please their sexual partners: Meg Ryan, in a career-defining 90 seconds, sends herself into increasingly high-decibel paroxyms ending with a simulated climax. One of the best punchlines in Hollywood follows when an older woman points to Sally and tells the waiter, “I’ll have what she’s having.”
So far, so good, but the movie then goes into a long end-plot to its inevitable happy ending. Through this elongated finis, Sally and the other women are all trapped by make-up (they’re the kind of New York women who use loads of make up, but there exist others), all trapped by the need to find the ‘right man’, to replace a defunct lover with a new one as soon as possible, to find a way to marriage and kids. In Ephron’s other hits, (she moves to becoming a director) Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, this same cuteness and cuddly romanticism continues. Her blogs for Huffington Post and her books are clearly something else, as was her first screenwriting success, Silkwood, but here, dealing with Hollywood as a successful writer/producer/director, Ephron shakes up the same formula in the mixing tumbler.
Ending her speech to the Wellesley women, Ephron says: “Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women.” The arc of Nora Ephron’s life tells us that this is sometimes easier to say than to do. Ephron broke a few rules but many more need to be broken, she managed to escape being a lady but looking at her milieu in New York, she didn’t escape too far, she did make some trouble on behalf of women, sure, but clearly the best way to remember her is for all of us to make a hell of a lot more.