On Nora Ephron, J. K. Rowling and Nostalgia for Second-Wave Feminism

by Nicola Sayers

It’s hard to miss that the writer-director Nora Ephron is popular among women of a certain age and demographic (35–45ish, educated, mostly white, Anglo/American). Her volumes of essays (in particular I Feel Bad About My Neck, 2006) are staples in my peers’ bookcases (I am forty) in the way that Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying (1973) or John Gray’s Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (1992) were in our mothers’ bookcases, and you’d be hard pushed to find a woman in this demographic who doesn’t list When Harry Met Sally among her favourite films. 

It’s also hard to miss that it is women in this same demographic — at least in England, where I live — who often sheepishly side with J. K. Rowling, the unlikely figurehead of the ‘Should trans women be allowed to use female bathrooms?’ debate. I don’t have any hard data to back this up, but I have noticed that, by and large, older women automatically side with J. K. Rowling (if they even give the debate much thought), younger women can’t understand how something calling itself ‘feminism’ could do other than fully support trans rights, and women my age are often silent supporters: after a few glasses of wine among friends they’ll admit to one another a sympathy with Rowling’s perspective that they might not feel comfortable committing to paper (and when they do commit it to paper, as several journalists have, they are labelled ‘brave’). 

These two distinct observations are not, I think, entirely unrelated. I’d like to offer a few more observations about this (my) group of women in an effort to better understand why Nora Ephron is so popular, and what is at stake in the J. K. Rowling debate. 

First, it is not incidental that these women often have young children: they have birthed and fed babies (with substantial social — and often institutional — pressure to do so naturally, and by breast), they have felt the very real ways in which their bodies differ from those of their male partners and, in turn, the ways in which, despite the best intentions of the fathers (whose level of involvement is admittedly historically unprecedented), they still shoulder more of the domestic and childcare duties (40% more, on average), and suffer more damage to their careers (gender pay gap: 15.5% in 2020, etc). Those who can’t or choose not to have children also endure physical experiences (e.g. IVF, birth control), not to mention a reckoning with societal expectation, that are also very different in kind to those that men in similar circumstances typically experience.

Second, the lives of this generation of women have not realised the promise of more and more freedom, and more and more empowerment, that their mothers’ generation — in their excitement and shoulder pads — had promised them. This (my) generation feels stressed and squeezed, feels that the assurance that they could ‘have it all’ turned out to be somewhat illusory, that ‘have it all’ really meant ‘do it all’. More than this, many feel insecure about ‘it all’. The sneakily conservative parenting philosophies that have gripped the blogosphere make women (and such content is consumed almost exclusively by women) worry endlessly about whether they are good enough mothers; meanwhile the fear of slipping behind at work makes them worry, too. One friend told me that she was so embarrassed to be pushing her buggy when she bumped into a male colleague while on maternity leave that she conducted the entire conversation without reference to the six-week-old staring bemusedly up at them. Marriage, too, has been added to the list of things that they need to work on. At a big girls’ weekend before my wedding, the ‘already marrieds’ among us gave me advice based on their experience. The most widely agreed on dictum was to make sure you have sex at least once a week. ‘If you don’t feel like it, just lie back and think of England’, said a friend half-jokingly, to a room full of knowing nods. (Needless to say, being unmarried demands its own kind of work, not least in dealing with societal ‘concern’, as Kate Bolick has written about brilliantly). 

Enter Nora. The common argument for why women like Nora Ephron is that she was an unusually funny, brilliant writer who wrote likeable, three-dimensional, often middle-aged characters that have stood the test of time. As Lena Dunham puts it, Nora excelled at expressing ‘the minutiae of being a human woman on screen.’ And she really did. But I think there’s more to Nora Ephron’s widespread current appeal than this. As unique as Nora Ephron was, she was also, unmistakably, a product of her time. Born in 1941, she came into adulthood just as what is now known as second-wave feminism was taking off in the early 1960s, and, like many other women of her generation — whether directly or tangentially involved in the movement —  she was unavoidably shaped by the mood of the moment. 

Sex was on the up (as Nora writes, ‘Just before I’d moved to New York, two historic events had occurred: The birth control pill had been invented, and the first Julia Child cookbook was published. As a result, everyone was having sex, and when the sex was over, you cooked something.’) Divorce was on the up (Nora writes about her two divorces with both humour and nuance, but always with the underlying sense that if a marriage felt too hard you didn’t forever ‘work on it’; you left). And a certain feeling — that freedom and empowerment were finally theirs for the taking — was on the up. When, in a 1996 commencement address to the (all female) Wellesley students, Nora promised ‘Of course you can have it all. What are you going to do? Everything, is my guess’, she still wholeheartedly believed it. 

When I think of Nora Ephron, I think of the coats. The women in Ephron’s movies wear the kinds of oversized coats that say ‘I’m walking down the street, alone, and I have somewhere to go’. They say, ‘I’m vulnerable and I’m powerful, and by the way the two aren’t mutually exclusive.’ They say, ‘It’s a crisp autumn afternoon and the smell of possibility is in the air’. 

Of course, all was not rosy for Nora’s generation. Some things are remarkably constant. Like those in my generation, the women of Nora’s struggled to balance the demands of motherhood with their careers. Like us, they embraced the idea of independence while sometimes weeping tears of longing for some less-than-mediocre guy, something Nora’s movies are funny about. Other things have improved substantially since then. Nora’s generation still dealt with a degree of bottom-pinching and micro-abuses that would be unthinkable today. It is also undoubtedly the case that they were shamefully clueless as to the far worse plight of their Black and minority sisters in the feminist fight. 

Nonetheless, their moment was — for them — a moment of promise. They had about them an air of excitement, of boldness, of lightness that only the early partakers in a movement can have. By contrast, our moment is — for us — a moment of … well, it’s complicated. We still have some fight left in us — we were raised by our mothers, after all, whether our actual mothers, our feminist foremothers, or the fictional women in the films we were brought up on — but we’re tired, and things haven’t panned out quite as we’d been taught to hope. Hillary Clinton couldn’t even win an election against Donald Trump, for Christ’s sake. 

Moreover, as middle-class middle-aged, mostly white women, we’re not really sure what our role in the fight is anymore. Enter J. K. Rowling. The whole trans issue is, I propose, a red herring. Trans women are such a tiny minority, and so genuinely at risk, that their use of female bathrooms is a no-brainer (I am simplifying: there may be some legitimate questions which have been much debated elsewhere; I mean only to say that the issue itself is not, in my view, the real issue). So what is really at stake? The fact that the whole thing elicits such fierce feelings among my contemporaries is symptomatic of a general feeling of being overlooked. The fight of middle-class middle-aged white feminists is mocked. We are labelled ‘Karens’; told that our feminism is outdated (again: no doubt with good reasons. My goal here is not to enter into the discussions about what anyone should feel — there are enough people doing that — but only to attempt, however modest or flawed the effort, to understand why this demographically substantial group does feel the way that it seems to). Younger women, meanwhile, are excited by a kind of sex positive feminism which is all but unrecognisable to us: in insisting that sex work is no different from working at McDonalds, they expend a lot of energy protecting the rights of women to do the very thing that our mothers fought to protect them from having to do. We are confused — it’s complicated. 

And yet: we still live in our bodies. Still bear and feed our babies. Still live in a world where not enough accommodation is made for these (our) realities. We still know in our saggy bellies and aching breasts that women (yes, even middle-class middle-aged white women) are still not equal with their equally educated, equally capable, male counterparts. And so the idea that someone who is not biologically female has the same experience as us is, to use the language of the moment, triggering. It is not that trans women are actually a threat: if you stop and think about it, it doesn’t take long to realise that this small group is even more in need of protection than ours. But language is important — we all know that by now — and the different meanings and weight that words carry for different groups is sometimes hard to square. Sentences like ‘person who menstruates’ or ‘pregnant person’ are triggering for my cohort, not, in fact, because we are concerned to draw a line between women and trans women, but because we are concerned to maintain a line between women and men. Because we fear that without that line the recognition of the very different biological and social realities that most women and men face, and our fight for a world which responds better to those different realities, will get lost.

In short, it feels as though our fight got sidestepped before we won it. 

So we tune in, nostalgically, to Nora’s world. We watch Sally fake an orgasm (and in doing so educate Harry) in a crowded restaurant, to the interest of onlookers. We watch Annie in Sleepless in Seattle making her way to the top of the Empire State Building, in search of a man, yes (it is a rom-com after all), but more significantly, away from the dead-end boring relationship and life path she was stuck in, and in search of herself. We read Nora describe her move to New York City, her love affair with an apartment, and her journey through multiple marriages, all with the sense, true to her generation, that the world was — or was at least becoming — hers for the taking. We listen to her tell the students at Wellesley College, ‘I hope you’ll find some way to break the rules and to make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you’ll make some of that trouble on behalf of women’, and our hearts sing. 

And we hope that we still have it in us to make a little trouble. If only we weren’t so tired!