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Nora Ephron was a prophet of desire The queen of romcoms was more interested in sex than equality

Ephron's female protagonists put themselves first. Credit: IMDB

Ephron's female protagonists put themselves first. Credit: IMDB


May 19, 2021   6 mins

“Very few people end up knowing who you are,” Nora Ephron told an interviewer in 2010, two years before she died. An odd thing for her to say, in some ways, given that lots and lots of people do in fact know who Nora Ephron is. But there’s knowing and then there’s knowing: there’s recognising and then there’s understanding. And I don’t think Nora Ephron, who would have been 80 today, ever expected to be understood.

Even if you don’t know her name, you’ve probably seen her movies; and even if you haven’t seen her movies, you know about that bit of When Harry Met Sally. And even if you absolutely insist that you live in a state of perfect Ephron-innocence, the incredible pervasiveness of her work means she’s still the author and the architect of a large chunk of the way we all think about women and men and love. Her sensibility is the sensibility of the modern romcom. It feeds into most of the sitcoms that have been filmed in New York since 1989: Friends and Seinfeld and 30 Rock.

When someone’s influence is so strong, their originality can be obscured. The three films Ephron made starring Meg Ryan between 1989 and 1998 — When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail match screwball sensibility with a dash of therapised insight, and always a happy ending (“I insist on happy endings,” wrote Ephron in her 1983 novel Heartburn). There’s the meet-cute, followed by a flurry of very funny adversity between Meg Ryan’s character and the male lead. Finally, love wins.

If it sounds cliched now, it’s only fair to acknowledge that Ephron was rewriting the rules at the time. The release of When Harry Met Sally coincided with what Susan Faludi considered the height of the anti-feminist backlash in cinema, when movies offered “morality tales in which the ‘good mother’ wins and the independent woman gets punished”, and told women that they were “unhappy because they were too free”. The same year When Harry Met Sally came out, Disney released The Little Mermaid, and I watched and rewatched Ariel on VHS, learning the songs and learning the message that a handsome prince is worth giving up your family, your home and even your voice for.

When Harry Met Sally has none of that. Sally has a job, just like Harry has a job, and you see exactly the same amount of each of them at work. There’s not even a hint that Sally needs to be broken in and saved from her own unseemly ambition. Sally has friends, and Harry has friends, and they both complain to their friends about the opposite sex — which means that the film fails the Bechdel test, but it also fails the anti-Bechdel test, so it all evens out. It’s equality, of a kind.

It’s certainly not a morality tale. Sally’s best friend Marie (played by Carrie Fisher) starts the movie as the mistress of a never-seen married man: the running joke is that every conversation concludes with her saying “he’ll never leave her”. And is Marie punished for this assault on the institution of monogamy? Is she perhaps drowned in the bath and then shot in the chest by the wronged wife, Fatal Attraction-style?

No, she is not. Instead Marie meets and marries a perfectly nice man, and they’re very happy together. When Harry Met Sally’s diner scene giddily busted the omertà around men’s sexual incompetence and the way women cosset men’s egos; but on my last watch, the cool refusal of judgement towards the adulteress struck me as equally feminist in a quiet way.

But I’m watching as an Ephron fan. Not everybody was: in the less sympathetic reviews of her movies, which were often written by men, words like “saccharine” and “whimsy” were used. The spectre of the “soccer mom” was invoked damningly to represent the audience for these films because, ugh, what could be more repellent than something women like — and not even hot young women you might want to date, but the middle-aged kind who already have kids? Disgusting.

As angry as I am about the sexism here, it ought to be noted that Ephron was deeply sanguine about people who didn’t get her. “Very few people end up knowing who you are” wasn’t a complaint, it was an observation. She went on: “I just mean that most people are misunderstood in some way
 But I don’t really think about it a whole lot. And if I do think about it, I think I must do something to make them misunderstand me. But, what’s for dinner?”

There’s something arguably bleak about what Ephron says here, her insistence on piling responsibility on herself. But there’s also something freeing about deciding not to be at the mercy of other people: if she wanted to change, perhaps she could, but she’d rather think about dinner. And it’s possible that she didn’t seek total understanding: she disclosed a lot in her writing (the mess of her marriages, her dislike of her small breasts, her anxiety about ageing), but she did it on her own terms. When she received her terminal cancer diagnosis, she kept that to herself.

What can one do about other people anyway, besides carry on despite them? It was an attitude that served her well as woman in male-dominated businesses — first journalism, then filmmaking. Regardless of the unfairness, you simply had to work ferociously and be very good. In her very last interview, given in 2011, she said: “It’s a weird thing because it’s a fact, and yet you have to behave as if it’s not a fact. Here’s the given: It’s really hard for women.” And what made it hard wasn’t just the men, but the women too.

In the 1960s, when Ephron started her career as a journalist, forward-thinking publications accepted that a woman could be a writer; what many struggled with was the idea that more than one woman could be a writer. In a generously critical piece about Dorothy Parker from 1973 — generous towards the woman, critical about the self-pickling one-of-the-guys myth — Ephron wrote: “One no longer wants to be the only woman at the table.” But when the men refused to budge up, regardless of what you wanted, the women were left scrapping over that single spot.

Ephron knew the strength of sisterhood, as in the Sally-Marie kind, without naively expecting it to be women’s default state. Marie is, after all, hurting another woman by having her affair, and Ephron knew perfectly well the pain of being the betrayed party: Heartburn is a lightly fictionalised account of finding herself in that position when she was married to Carl Bernstein. Ephron’s feminism starts from the understanding that women are individuals, with their own baggage, their own interests.

This would have made her a brilliant commentator on today’s feminist splits over gender identity, prostitution and sex. She firmly denied being in the radical camp of feminism, although her scathing assessment of Jan Morris’s transition memoir Conundrum would have her labelled as one now (it’s fair to say that Ephron did not think trans women are women, and she was fortunate in a way to die before that could be held against her). But I think she would have been quick to grasp that many of these splits spring from women fighting proxy wars — for seniority over each other, for the approval of men.

She urged younger women to use the freedoms that had been won for them. “I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there,” she said when she gave the 1996 commencement address to all-female college Wellesley. “And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women.” It’s stirring stuff, and pay attention to the order: doing something for women as a whole is the highest ambition, but it comes last. First, make your own trouble. A man would.

Maybe it seems impossible to reconcile Nora Ephron, romcom queen, with the rabble-rouser of the commencement address. Does any genre seem less likely to be disruptive than the one that moves, with the elegant logic of a snare, to the moment the two leads are yoked together in heterosexual happiness? But think of it this way: the Ephron romcom isn’t propaganda for love, it’s propaganda for women wanting. Food is an Ephron obsession (Heartburn’s main character Rachel is a cookery writer), and appetite is the ruling principle.

“In case you are wondering, of course you can have it all,” she told the Wellesley students. “What are you going to do? Everything, is my guess.” It’s a prospect that’s as intimidating as it is inspiring, but why shouldn’t you do everything? She did. No wonder those male reviewers worried that soccer moms would catch seditious ideas about, for example, wanting to love and be loved, and to have good sex where they didn’t have to fake it, and enjoy an interesting professional life as well. I don’t think Nora Ephron expected to be understood by the boys. I think she was too busy making trouble to care about that.


Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.

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Mark Preston
Mark Preston
3 years ago

When Harry Met Sally’s diner scene giddily busted the omertĂ  around men’s sexual incompetence and the way women cosset men’s egos;” – as a man I find this sentence pretty insulting. I wonder if UnHerd would have been happy with a similar sentence with with the genders switched? No of course they wouldn’t.

Last edited 3 years ago by Mark Preston
James Rowlands
James Rowlands
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Preston

Basic gender differences at play here. Men are not bothered in the main what women or men think of them and women are not bothered in the main what men think of them. Women are intensely interested however, in what other women think of them. This is the ego in action in humans. Try as a woman telling another woman unfairly ( perceived unfairly) that ……. about her is ……. ( insert negative comment). It doesn’t happen very often because that is effectively, a declaration of war…..
Like elephants they never forget…

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago
Reply to  James Rowlands

Quentin Crisp said women dress to annoy other women , so I suppose he would agree with you. Ephron managed to find a successful commercial niche which was nice for her , but I don’t think it has much to do with her actual life, as any script changes after numerous re-writes and re-casting.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
3 years ago

Article (inadvertently) sums up everything that’s wrong with modern feminism. Self-obsessed, comprised of a shifting network of buzz-phrases & not much else, prone to making sweeping generalizations about ‘men’ or ‘women’, overly focused on silly pop cultural fashions and references, unreflective, & stupid.

Modern feminism seems to exist solely to give female writers a simplistic frame of reference which they can use to write stupid articles on the internet

The only people, in the ‘west’, who are genuinely bringing women’s rights into some sort of peril/ conflict, seem to be other Feminists!

ralph bell
ralph bell
3 years ago

Films that really brought people together, unlike todays divisive moralising.
People can be best inspired by people/Actors they can relate to.

Simon Baggley
Simon Baggley
3 years ago
Reply to  ralph bell

“Actors they can relate to.” – has there ever been such a thing

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  ralph bell

I will agree with that. Once film was made to enlighten, educate, show historical events, show nobility, heroic deeds, show devotion, uplift, to make people happy and entertained, they were for enjoying.. (As O Wilde said – ‘the good are rewarded, the bad punished, that is the meaning of ‘Fiction’)

Now 95% of everything is either Degenerate, Depraved, or to undermine History and truth and decency. Demons, vampires, returned from the dead, Sadism, Cruelty, unwholesome sex, Gratuitous violence, meanness of spirit, and degenerate words and deeds, Wokeisms to mislead and politically bias to warp thinking, this is modern ‘Entertainment’.

Last edited 3 years ago by Galeti Tavas
kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

The film industry is quite cynical-it makes films that win awards that noone goes to & the blockbusters which finance the former.Neither seem to be made with much style.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago

So in Unherd the men write badly about Palestine rocketing Israel and bloodshed and politics, and the women write well about ‘When Harry Met Sally’ hmmmm.

Sorry about that low shot… But I would really like articles on Simone Weil, or Gertrude Bell, even Joan Didon kind of figures. (and with Didon you get to squeeze in the Yeats line, and what is more fitting today?)

Artemisia Vulgaris
Artemisia Vulgaris
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I know right, what could be less worthy than than an assessment of how a woman shaped popular culture and a genre of entertainment that mostly women consume and unconsciously absorb ideas about love, agency and romance? Yawn.
Why can’t she write about the kinds of women men think important enough to read about at university?

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago

Sorry, and to the writer too. She should write on women’s popular topics as women want those articles, that they are utterly unfathomable to me means I should not comment as I just do not get it.

There was an Indian movie years ago where this concept was made clear to me: At some family meal one of the young people walks in dressed in (say orange, a long time ago) Orange robes and the family all recoil with a gasp – it meant a greatly significant deal to everyone, but we Western Audience were never told why.
This is like watching a Ron-Com, I just do not get it, I see them in their orange robes but it has no meaning to me.

Now give me Patton leading the army to relieve Bastogne, or Lawrence cresting the Sand rise with his army of Bedu and I get it totally, I want to watch that.
Men and women, its like they are different species.

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

You don’t have to stick to the topic you know? However it is a skill to beable to write successfully for a market-it means you have tapped into something. As you liked Midnight Folk have you read the follow up Box of Delights? You might also enjoy Wilkie Collin’s Moonstone-all these are well written & thoughtful & popular books

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

You don’t have to stick to the topic you know? However it is a skill to beable to write successfully for a market-it means you have tapped into something. As you liked Midnight Folk have you read the follow up Box of Delights? You might also enjoy Wilkie Collin’s Moonstone-all these are well written & thoughtful & popular books

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago

Sorry, and to the writer too. She should write on women’s popular topics as women want those articles, that they are utterly unfathomable to me means I should not comment as I just do not get it.

There was an Indian movie years ago where this concept was made clear to me: At some family meal one of the young people walks in dressed in (say orange, a long time ago) Orange robes and the family all recoil with a gasp – it meant a greatly significant deal to everyone, but we Western Audience were never told why.
This is like watching a Ron-Com, I just do not get it, I see them in their orange robes but it has no meaning to me.

Now give me Patton leading the army to relieve Bastogne, or Lawrence cresting the Sand rise with his army of Bedu and I get it totally, I want to watch that.
Men and women, its like they are different species.

Hosias Kermode
Hosias Kermode
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I was going to say not entirely true, Mary Harrington writes about serious stuff. But then I remembered tat actually she and Julie Bindel and Julie Burchill ALL basically write about sex and women’s issues most of the time. You are right.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Hosias Kermode

I think it’s fair to say that Julie Birchill and Mary Harrington write on subjects that go way beyond ‘women’s issues’.

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

One problem with labelling something as women’s issues is that its agenda has to be women’s oppression by men. If you look at popular entertainment , for example Murder She Wrote , Reminton Steele, Hart to Hart this isn’t the world they show at all. What they do have in common is that successful women usually come from the same class as successful men.Obviously this minor inconvenience must be ignored in order to continue with their agenda. In the Katherine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy films such as Adam’s Rib (1949) & Pat and Mike(1952) both have successful careers. Both films were written by the team of Ruth Gordon/Garson Kanin.However if BBC show a documentary about the 1950’s apparently all women were forced to stay at home & do the cooking and cleaning by their husbands, no careers allowed.

Tom Krehbiel
Tom Krehbiel
3 years ago
Reply to  kathleen carr

What you say is true. I would add that the documentary would suggest that the men had independence in their jobs. But most jobs then – as indeed most jobs do now – involve taking orders from one’s boss(es). Managerial and professional vocations are still relatively rare, but they’re the ones that get a disproportionate share of the leading characters on the popular entertainment you cite.

Tom Krehbiel
Tom Krehbiel
3 years ago
Reply to  kathleen carr

What you say is true. I would add that the documentary would suggest that the men had independence in their jobs. But most jobs then – as indeed most jobs do now – involve taking orders from one’s boss(es). Managerial and professional vocations are still relatively rare, but they’re the ones that get a disproportionate share of the leading characters on the popular entertainment you cite.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Mary Harrington is a good writer. Intelligent & reflective. Other writers on ‘Women’s Issues’ , not so much — even on UnHerd, which is generally good

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

One problem with labelling something as women’s issues is that its agenda has to be women’s oppression by men. If you look at popular entertainment , for example Murder She Wrote , Reminton Steele, Hart to Hart this isn’t the world they show at all. What they do have in common is that successful women usually come from the same class as successful men.Obviously this minor inconvenience must be ignored in order to continue with their agenda. In the Katherine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy films such as Adam’s Rib (1949) & Pat and Mike(1952) both have successful careers. Both films were written by the team of Ruth Gordon/Garson Kanin.However if BBC show a documentary about the 1950’s apparently all women were forced to stay at home & do the cooking and cleaning by their husbands, no careers allowed.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Mary Harrington is a good writer. Intelligent & reflective. Other writers on ‘Women’s Issues’ , not so much — even on UnHerd, which is generally good

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Hosias Kermode

I think it’s fair to say that Julie Birchill and Mary Harrington write on subjects that go way beyond ‘women’s issues’.

Artemisia Vulgaris
Artemisia Vulgaris
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I know right, what could be less worthy than than an assessment of how a woman shaped popular culture and a genre of entertainment that mostly women consume and unconsciously absorb ideas about love, agency and romance? Yawn.
Why can’t she write about the kinds of women men think important enough to read about at university?

Hosias Kermode
Hosias Kermode
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I was going to say not entirely true, Mary Harrington writes about serious stuff. But then I remembered tat actually she and Julie Bindel and Julie Burchill ALL basically write about sex and women’s issues most of the time. You are right.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago

So in Unherd the men write badly about Palestine rocketing Israel and bloodshed and politics, and the women write well about ‘When Harry Met Sally’ hmmmm.

Sorry about that low shot… But I would really like articles on Simone Weil, or Gertrude Bell, even Joan Didon kind of figures. (and with Didon you get to squeeze in the Yeats line, and what is more fitting today?)

Neil Pennington
Neil Pennington
3 years ago

Good article: enjoyed watching her films very much, sleepless in Seattle being my favourite.