Is the creator of 'Girls' on HBO really heir apparent to the woman who cinematically immortalized the fake orgasm?
If you’re at all like me, you’d rather commit hari kari than spend five minutes trapped in a corner with Meg Ryan—I mean, of course, the ditzy-adorable women she played in rom-coms like “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail,” each the cinematic equivalent of a Snuggie. But recently I experienced a revelation: Nora Ephron, the person responsible for the rash of saccharine sweet characters Ryan played all throughout the 90s, was so much hipper and messier than that. She was another woman entirely, with a voice that speaks to women who don’t need to be delivered from boredom by Tom Hanks. You can find that voice in her essays, some of the best of which are compiled in The Most of Nora Ephron, the whopping 576-page collection of her writings.
In the 70s, before she developed a following as a woman filmmaker capable of generating blockbusters (a Hollywood unicorn), Ephron was doing some of her best work as a journalist and essayist. The whip smart tone of her writing—the culmination of an early career trajectory from “mail girl” at Newsweek to features writer for places like Esquire—was colored by the New Journalism of that era. The pieces were scene-driven, full of deceptively off-the-cuff exchanges, and they often contained a sly twist that made her own feminist politics easy for the mainstream reader to swallow. She wrote brisk, complex pieces on topics from in-fighting in the women’s movement (a bitter Friedan versus the impossibly cool Steinem), and sexism in medicine (the dangers of having a condescending male doctor), to the surreal, “baby simple” culture of Cosmo (her portrait of Helen Gurley Brown as a delusional self-help guru and compulsive crier is unmissable).
"BOTH WOMEN, EACH IN HER OWN WAY, HAVE CATALOGUED 'THE MINUTIAE OF BEING A HUMAN WOMAN,' THE SCHLEPPING AROUND, THE HUNDRED LITTLE NEUROSES, THE CONSTANT IMPROVISATION, THE CRACKS IN THE VENEER, THE FUCKING-UP-AND-STARTING-OVER."
Ephron also mined her own life for material, citing what her mother taught her: “Everything is copy.” This, of course, included writing about her mother—as a working woman (a successful screenwriter, as her daughter would be), and the only woman Ephron knew growing up in Beverly Hills who paid for her own mink coat; and then, much later, as a frightening alcoholic. But Ephron’s first breakthrough may have come when she published, in a men’s magazine, a black-comedic essay about her very small breasts. The unspoken humiliations of being a girl, the stone-cold bitchiness of other women, the many ways in which we’re measured and publicly sized up (by best friends and mothers and mothers of boyfriends and wives of work friends)—she laid it all out in a straight-faced, weird-how-the-world-works kind of tone. Her writings are the story, told again and again, of our best-laid plans—the grind that goes into becoming the woman, the professional, the all-around, unshakable champ we each badly want to be—versus the slurring mess of life as we live it.
During this period of her career, Ephron was about the same age as the woman some are imagining as her heir apparent: Lena Dunham. Through her HBO series Girls, Dunham, over forty years Ephron’s junior, has already reinvented the twenty-something woman’s coming-into-her-own story. When Ephron died last year (of leukemia, at 71), Dunham eulogized her in The New Yorker online, writing of how her love for Ephron’s work was bolstered by her “mother, aunt, grandmother, and every other intelligent woman in the tri-state area.” Friends for the year and a half before her death, Dunham dubbed Ephron’s first film, “This Is My Life,” “the movie that made me want to make movies.” She was drawn to it, she wrote, for how it encompassed all “the minutiae of being a human woman.” In the months following, she began publishing comedic personal essays in The New Yorker in a tone immediately recognizable as high on Ephron; and soon Dunham had signed a seven-figure book deal for a tome of “frank and funny advice” (though it’s unclear how much advice someone can offer up at 27).
Both women, each in her own way, have catalogued “the minutiae of being a human woman,” the schlepping around, the hundred little neuroses, the constant improvisation, the cracks in the veneer, the fucking-up-and-starting-over. But whereas for Ephron it was all about the mess of being a grown woman, for Dunham it’s the mess of becoming one—and at a very different time.
"THEN, OF COURSE, GIRLS BROUGHT WITH IT NIPPLES AND NIPPLES AND PARTY DRUGS AND NIPPLES AND THIGHS AND NAKED MELTDOWNS AND NAKED PING-PONG AND CONFESSIONS OF OCD AND HIGHLY IMPEACHABLE BABY-SAILOR OUTFITS AND ENOUGH DISASTROUS CASUAL SEX TO BRING ABOUT AN EGO APOCALYPSE."
As much as Ephron’s woman is flailing in work and in life, the Dunham woman, about a decade younger, is far more adrift (unpaid interning counts as a form of employment), far more selfish (stealing tip money from a hotel maid is acceptable), incapable of censoring herself (whether over burnt dinner or in compulsive status updates) and much faster to take her clothes off (i.e. allow herself to be casually hog-tied by a man who wears one-piece long johns). The rom-com tropes Ephron helped set in stone—relationship as destiny, marriage as the obvious endgame—are now up for grabs (well, at least in New York). Remember that famous-slash-infamous Patrick Wilson episode? The Ephron woman’s name is on the deed to that townhouse; the Dunham woman (Hannah, as played by Dunham herself) is just happy to be having a weekend fling there.
And while Ephron’s films are so sincere and irony-free that her running-through-the-nighttime-streets-of-New-York climaxes seem inevitable, when Dunham pulled the same move in the Girls season two finale, reactions were seriously mixed. Sure, some viewers wanted to see Hannah reunited with her ex-boyfriend (breathless responses included Vulture’s: “pinch me if Adam isn’t the shirtless Prince Charming of our generation!”). But for others (like me) the big ending fell flat, a disingenuous 90s reference, too easy an out for the moment we’re living in.
Something else has shifted since Ephron’s heyday: what behind-the-curtain businesswomen are willing to reveal about their bodies. Over the years, Ephron wrote repeatedly about her unhappy relationship with her body, and the seemingly endless “maintenance” rituals that go into each woman’s construction of herself like so much cross bracing. Later in life, she waxed painfully on how the body ages, from a woman’s neck (“saggy,” “flabby,” “mottled”) down to her hair follicles (“Sometimes I think that not having to worry about your hair anymore is the secret upside of death”). Her strategy was to catalogue, in misleadingly light essays, the raw neuroses that often come with being a woman, and to acknowledge how, though trivial on the surface, that shit adds up. At the time, it was just a little bit radical.
But Dunham, emerging from a radically share-all generation, has taken another tack: your naked body is no big deal unless you treat it like a big deal, and the same goes for sex. At 24, she wrote, directed and starred in Tiny Furniture, in which she perfected both the art of doing stuff naked and simulating unsatisfying sex in awkward scenarios (i.e. in a pipe on the street). Then, of course, Girls brought with it nipples and nipples and party drugs and nipples and thighs and naked meltdowns and naked Ping-Pong and confessions of OCD and highly impeachable baby-sailor outfits and enough disastrous casual sex to bring about an ego apocalypse.
No one can say what Dunham’s work will add up to over the forty-plus years before she herself hits 71, but we can look back at Ephron’s and see her trajectory—from the sharp writing of her early career to her ultra-safe Hollywood work. Here’s hoping Dunham, as a devotee, takes her cues not from Ephron’s films but from her earliest voice—because Girls is at a crossroads. Back to that season two finale, and the sight of Hannah’s bare-chested boyfriend running through the streets of New York to save her from bottoming out: to my mind, this was a rare, out-of-character instance of Dunham pandering to her audience—a move straight out of a dated rom-com, with Hannah Horvath as a compulsive, pantsless Meg Ryan 2.0. While that kind of broad, high-wattage, totally winning Hollywood moment may be the bigger share of Ephron’s legacy, I’d still argue that the best of what she leaves behind lies in all the small truths and neuroses she catalogued in her writings.