Ninjas of Nonfiction #3: Nora Ephron

The other night, I was out with a friend who, like me, loves Beyoncé. We were engaged in an discussion that has taken place amongst women ever since the Queen of Fierce first went solo: Is Beyoncé a feminist?

I argued no, not really. Or not very much of one.
My friend argued yes, yes, of course.

She strips her clothes off regularly, I said. In an article about how powerful a businesswoman she is, surely, she doesn’t need to get her kit off.

Feminism is about choice, my friend said. She can choose to be naked if she wants.

Is that really a choice for her? I asked.

Nora Ephron’s On Never Having Been A Prom Queen*, finds Ephron dealing with these exact same questions. What counts as a feminist? What exactly is feminism about, at its core? With insight and honesty, and stunningly clear language, Ephron begins with annoyance at a friend who’s worrying about aging, and meanders into a consideration of all the ways women are divided. Beauty is a division that Ephron ponders often. From the small divisions between women who wear make-up and those who don’t, she takes us straight into the big divisions that continually keep the women’s movement wasting time and wondering if someone is or isn’t a feminist.

Ephron might be better known as a film writer and director, and while she might have changed film history forever, practically inventing romantic comedies single-handedly, I love her for her essays. Strong, personal, funny insights that somehow vocalize everything you’ve only vaguely thought about.

Ephron, as an essayist, allows her essays to be exactly what they are meant to be—an attempt to understand something, a try, a jab of the spear into the incomprehensible. She ends certain that she’s being unfair to women on the other side of her divides. And with uncertainty on how to accept other women’s rights to make the choices that she wouldn’t.

Over 40 years after Ephron’s essay was first published, my friend and I pondered whether a beautiful millionaire is a feminist because she chooses to be sexualised, or not one because she’s making the wrong choice. We’re still uncertain. Nora Ephron’s essays show her thinking through problems with sophistication, curiosity, and honesty. The fact that her problems are our problems makes her writing a source of wisdom, even if she really doesn’t offer us any certainty—apart from assuring us we are not wrong in being uncertain, too.

*On Never Having Been A Prom Queen is available in Crazy Salad & Scribble Scribble, a collection of Ephron’s essays.