Nora Ephron: Embrace Mess & Make Trouble

A week or so ago when Nora Ephron’s death was the main headline, a number of blogs and news sources posted her 1996 commencement speech at Wellseley. I hadn’t heard it before, but naturally I was drawn to it since she’s a fellow “mess” advocate:

What are you going to do? Everything, is my guess. It will be a little messy, but embrace the mess. It will be complicated, but rejoice in the complications. It will not be anything like what you think it will be like, but surprises are good for you. And don’t be frightened: you can always change your mind.

This post comes a week late, but I needed some time to digest her speech. I spent some time dwelling on her words, thinking about which parts resonated with me most. The more I considered her speech, the more I realized how important her advice to women is, even 16 years later. I could sit here and go on feminist-yes, that awful f-word, feminist-rants about the continued anti-women undercurrent in popular culture. I could rant for days about the frustrating legislation that keeps getting proposed and seems to undeniably target women (or, more specifically, poor women). I could point you to Killing Us Softly, a video by Jean Kilbourne about how advertising depicts women. But the question remains: what are you going to do?

Ephron pointed out that women can’t rest on the excuse anymore that no one is giving them options. Sure, there are still people who want to make it hard and have certain ideas about what woman “should” or “shouldn’t” be doing. But they, quite frankly, are assholes. There’s no longer the expectation that you will only “marry” greatness. There’s an expectation you will be great. Work hard, defy odds, be great. Those are the lessons all the best women in my life have taught me, and the ones Ephron endorsed.

One quote in particular stuck out to me, mostly because I cringe every time someone says I’m “unladylike”.

Whatever you choose, however many roads you travel, I hope that you choose not to be a lady. I hope you will find some way to break the rules and make a little trouble out there. And I also hope that you will choose to make some of that trouble on behalf of women.

Freshman year a particularly self-important guy first told me that the way I spoke wasn’t ladylike. Another delightfully forward thinking college student told me I should keep my legs and mouth closed if I wanted anyone to see me as a lady. Hell, there are girls in my sorority who would use the phrase “not ladylike” to describe girls they didn’t like. But if being a lady means following arbitrary rules and cleaning up messes, well I think I’ll stick with being a woman. For Ephron and all the other badass women out there, I hope I break the rules and make a little trouble. And to the boys who told me to shut my legs and shut my mouth, I hope your daughters join me in my rule-breaking trouble-making someday.


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