All Rise for the Rom-Com Journalist
by: victoria pandeirada
Growing up in the early 2000s rom-com renaissance, during the juggernaut of Jennifer Garner and Reese Witherspoon movies, it only made sense that I became obsessed with Nora Ephron’s work. Nora Ephron was an American filmmaker, essayist and humorist known for her profound influence on the romantic comedy genre, creating films like When Harry Met Sally and You’ve Got Mail. I quickly learned that no one was better at giving you a satisfying romance story than she was. The writer and director served uncomplicated, white, heterosexual love stories on a Williams Sonoma serving dish.
The easy-to-watch Nora Ephron movies like Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally, and You’ve Got Mail all starred charming people, like Billy Crystal with fake lamb chops and a pixie-cut clad Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail, in what I like to call occupational porn. Occupational porn—not to be confused with sexually role-playing a food critic who owns a New York City loft—is what I call movies that feature plots driven by two people with glamorous jobs who live in beautiful cities. These occupational pornos are often specific to the romantic comedy genre and are not as commonly found in the real world.
Occupational porn is not unique to Ephron’s movies—it pretty much applies to any Nancy Meyers movie or early 2000s rom com—but Ephron's work defines the medium. 1998’s You’ve Got Mail follows the unlucky romantic journey of a bookshop owner, the protagonist of 1986's Heartburn is a food critic, and Meg Ryan plays a New York City journalist in When Harry Met Sally. The same goes for Meyer’s films, which follow movie trailer producers and fashion e-commerce CEOs. These kinds of movies all, at some point, seem to have one of the love interests dramatically proclaim that Character A, with (insert liberal art school job), simply could never be with Character B (insert liberal art school job) while standing behind a color-coordinated bookshelf.
These occupational pornos glorify metropolitan life and creative jobs so much so that their actual plots often took a back seat for me. The alluring lifestyles easy-to-come-by romances felt so aspirational that I decided to major in “fashion communications.” This involved several thankless, unpaid internships that I convinced myself were glamorous. At one internship, I packed enamel pins in a studio in Chinatown without air conditioning in exchange for vegan hot dogs and free merchandise. I loved watching movies and reading books about writers, artists and book publishers so much that it almost became my identity. After University, I flip-flopped between three jobs as a writer, a marketing assistant for a publishing house, and a graphic designer, the last of which is still my current one.
I’m not attributing all of my career moves to romantic comedies, but they definitely played a role in how I perceived what it meant to be a professional. I wanted to be exactly like these high-powered women I saw on screen, and I truly believed I would have no issue getting there. I am not alone in this: In December of last year, comedian Ariel Elias tweeted, “Romantic comedies gave me unrealistic expectations about finding work at a magazine.” The tweet got 52, 000 likes.
These occupational pornos never mentioned rent or featured a character that still lived with their parents. Sure, Ephron wrote complex female characters and was the queen of wit and wisdom, but it’s hard not to talk about her films without acknowledging the same blinding privilege that remains in liberal art schools and the creative industry: the privilege that excuses young people from having to pay their full rent, and Ephron’s characters from ever being seen carrying their dirty clothes to a laundromat.
When I recently read one of Ephron’s memoirs, I Feel Bad About My Neck, it seemed almost like a parody of one of her glamorous characters. Maybe they were parodies of her—Ephron was as cultured and charming as the characters she wrote about. In one essay, she lamented having to say goodbye to her Manhattan brownstone. In another, she recounts reconnecting with a cabbage strudel she once ate. In a world where everything feels like it’s being set on fire, reading her earnest essay about something so trivial as strudel was bizarre.
But Ephron's lavish tastes and appreciation of beauty are also the reasons I re-watch You’ve Got Mail over and over instead of catching up on the latest devastating true crime documentary. Her essays suggest drowning yourself in capfuls of bath oil and taking up French cooking, which do seem like far better alternatives to having to face the current news cycle, or, at least, fine ways to temporarily distract yourself from it. Ephron’s indulgent way of life, and how it bled into her stories, may have influenced me to work in a dying print industry and otherwise go after a creative career over a lucrative one, but they also provided me an escape—a place, however unrealistic, where meet-cutes are exclusively set in book shops and your biggest concern is tracking down cabbage strudel.