There are lots of reasons I love Nora Ephron, but I think perhaps the biggest is how relatable she was. Not even to my set of life experiences, but how comfortable she felt, like my mom or my grandmother or my aunt. She even looked sort of like them. She wasn’t just relatable in one medium; not just her romantic comedies or her essays or her journalism or her novels. All of it was good. She was the kind of writer and thinker I’d like to be; funny and self-deprecating and honest. Even the serious stuff wasn’t serious enough to be dull.
The only way I could think to memorialize Ephron in a succinct manner that hasn’t been summed up with this excellent obit from the New York Times, as well as numerous other sources (though I do think she would have been a great subject for The Last Word) was to excerpt a section of my thesis paper, where I couldn’t avoid talking about her even if I tried (even though the topic was hardly all about her). Here, I use Ephron’s personally revealing writing to make a larger argument about the state of women of her generation. So thanks Nora, for letting me bastardize your life, in this discussion of an article you wrote about Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown in the February 1970 issue of Esquire:
This article, which was eventually republished in Ephron’s book of essays, Wallflower at the Orgy, is a fascinating look at the Cosmo girl way of life by a woman who was part of the media, but also profoundly affected by the conflicting messages she was receiving as a feminist and as a woman. Ephron was a strong example of a woman who was stuck between the Cosmo girl and the Ms. woman; she expressed an interest in maintaining personal attractiveness, but questioned cultural demand for it. Of Brown, Ephron wrote: “She is demonstrating, rather forcefully, that there are over 1,000,000 American women who are willing to spend sixty cents to read not about politics, not about the female-liberation movement, not about the war in Vietnam, but merely about how to get a man.” This comment was clearly aimed towards the writers of Ms., who featured more articles on political issues that Cosmo often trivialized or barely talked about. Yet Ephron had a point: Cosmo was more fun to read than Ms., as indicated by the vast difference in their readerships. Ephron herself explained that her often-complex relationship with the magazine existed primarily because she did not feel she was the magazine’s target audience – “I have not been single for years” – but she was still “suckered in” by its headlines. “Yes, I should know better. After all, I used to write for Cosmopolitan and make this stuff up…Buy a padded bra, the article on bust lines tells me. Fake it, the article on orgasm says. And I should be furious. But I’m not. Not at all. How can you be angry at someone who’s got your number?” Here, Ephron confirmed that even the most knowledgeable women were simply looking for answers, something Cosmo’s traditional prescriptions provided, however limiting the method or the results.
Ephron was an excellent example of a “new woman.” She did not fit into the archetypes associated with a woman who read Cosmo or a woman who read Ms. She remained at the edges of the New York women’s movement, keeping her distance from activism. In another essay in her anthology written in May 1968, she described a makeover she received courtesy of Cosmopolitan as one of the most depressing experiences of her life, although she had gone into it willing to be transformed. Ephron explained that originally, Helen Gurley Brown had edited her essay so that it became a description of an upbeat experience. But the anthology contains the original piece. “Like most of my friends who have been overexposed to fashion magazines, I had come to believe that cosmetic and plastic surgery could accomplish anything. Perhaps plastic surgery – but I am here today, with my long face and drooping eyelid, to tell you that cosmetic surgery can do close to nothing.”
Why did Ephron find her makeover so depressing? Perhaps because nothing permanent about her looks or her life had actually changed. Ephron explained that she has been looking at magazine makeovers for years, but in her experience, the makeup washes off, the hair goes back to what it looked like before, and you are left with what you started with. After the makeover, Ephron wrote that, “I looked exactly like Nora Ephron used to look. Only a teeny bit better.” She had experienced most feminists’ greatest problem with “deep-cleavage feminism”: It offered only a fleeting path to liberation. Nonetheless, Ephron represented the woman who responded more to Cosmo’s strategy than to the daunting and fiery language of Ms., with its goal of consciousness-raising at all costs and its dismissal of issues of beauty and body image that preoccupied most women. Though it was frequently dogmatic, not to mention repetitive, Cosmo certainly covered body image issues that most women were immediately concerned with more often and more thoroughly than Ms. ever did. Brown never considered that she could be entrapping women even while advocating for them, which may be one reason by feminists never targeted Cosmo like they did Playboy, which was more flagrant in its sexist expectations of women. In Brown’s own way, she did represent a “real” woman – a woman who was unsatisfied with the way that she looked and acted, and wanted to be the best she could be. Even women like Ephron could identify with such dissatisfaction. But, the confidently liberated women of Ms. magazine seemed far out of reach for most, and were more difficult for everyday women to identify with.