Fast Company

Women As Heroines of Their Own Lives by Anne Kreamer

This month, Anne exchanges email with Nora Ephron, film director and author of the recent play Imaginary Friends.

Anne Before you became a world-famous director of film comedies like Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail, but after you graduated from being the most famous female journalist of your generation, you were a screenwriter. You wrote the movie Silkwood about a real-life corporate whistle-blower. So when Time named three women Persons of the Year for their whistle-blowing, I thought of Karen Silkwood. What attracted you to that story?

Nora What made Karen Silkwood a movie was that she was such an unexpected sort of whistle-blower. She was a real piece of work: complicated, difficult, and a bad candidate for industrial espionage, which is what she was engaged in at the time of her death. Sometimes the most unlikely people turn out to be heroes. That's Karen's story, in one of those one-sentence nutshells that studios love so much, and it's what made me want to write about her.

Anne Would any of the recent real-life whistle-blowing stories make a good film?

Nora So far, I haven't read anything that would make me think that their stories were movies as opposed to television movies, which are, of course, different things. Compare Karen Silkwood with Coleen Rowley [of the FBI], for in-stance, whose whistle-blowing is consistent with the way that she has lived her entire life. From a screenwriter's point of view, you don't have the sort of character development that you've got with Karen Silkwood.

Anne In 1996, when you gave the commencement address at Wellesley College, you admonished the young women to be the heroines of their lives. What did you mean?

Nora I didn't mean "heroines" in an epic sense. I meant heroines as protagonists, not supporting actors in the story of their own lives -- women who understand that they have choices and who have enough advantages that there's no one but themselves to blame if things don't turn out the way that they'd hoped. Someone very smart once wrote that the hardest thing for women to give up when they begin to achieve equality will be the habit of an alibi.

Anne We're not postfeminist -- we're post-alibi! You've worked in male-dominated professional worlds: journalism during the 1960s and 1970s and Hollywood during the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. How did those fields and eras differ in allowing women to be heroines?

Nora Journalism today is very different for women. When I started out at the New York Post in 1963, there were only two women reporters at the New York Times -- well, maybe three, but the point is that there were hardly any. The movie business has also changed dramatically in the past 10 years. There are many, many more women executives, producers, and agents. And while the number of women directors is small on a percentage basis, there are many more women directing.

Anne Given that you don't make "big" movies, is it more difficult than it was a decade ago for you to make the films that you want to make?

Nora It was hard 10 years ago, and it's even harder now. A studio would much rather make a $110 million action movie with a big star than a $10 million movie with a little one. I wish this weren't also true for the theater -- but it is. Bigger and dumber is better. And it's even true for publishing.

Anne Because big profits in blockbuster-sized tranches of cash are the obsession of the entertainment conglomerates.

Nora The dirty little secret of the movie business is that there are no profits. In fact, italicize that: There are no profits. The entire movie business is a Ponzi scheme that's set up to allow a small number of people to live lavishly. And those people -- many of whom went into the business because they wanted to make good movies -- after a few years, they just want to keep their jobs. They're sort of like Al Gore: They want to stay in office so badly that they've forgotten why they wanted the job in the first place.

Anne Al Gore syndrome: Preventing that chronic illness is something that we all need to do in our professional lives.

Are You Self-Medicating for the Anxieties du Jour? by Anne Kreamer

It's easy to dismiss reality TV as junk, but if you look a little deeper, you'll see why it's so popular. It's the same reason why books on Buddhism are selling: We all need some relief from the angst of the moment.

Are You Self-Medicating for the Anxieties du Jour? Anne Kreamer leisure, leisbooks It's easy to dismiss reality TV as junk, but if you look a little deeper, you'll see why it's so popular. It's the same reason why books on Buddhism are selling: We all need some relief from the angst of the moment.

Contrary to conventional cultural criticism, reality television does not represent the end of civilization as we know it. As inspirationally bereft as ABC's Are You Hot, Fox's The Glutton Bowl food show, NBC's Playboy Fear Factor, and the E network's Anna Nicole Smith series are, the frenzied popularity of this programming isn't difficult to understand: It's a way Americans can self-medicate. Obsessing over Michael Jackson's gothic lunacy or zooming in on the sweet pathetic nobodies on American Idol helps distract us from thinking and fretting about terrorism and the messiness of post-Iraqi-liberation all the time.

That's my take on the business-culture intersection. I checked it out with Joni Evans, consummate keeper of the business-culture flame. In her role as agent for Dr. Brian Weiss (author of Many Lives, Many Masters) and as a senior vice president at the William Morris Agency, the outfit responsible for bringing Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and The Weakest Link to the United States, Evans has a different view of the market's reaction to these reality offerings. "Reality TV isn't an escape from Iraq," Evans says. "What it illustrates is that people realize that nonfiction is more interesting than fiction." Nonfiction, in Evans's book, spans media offerings as diverse as the surface-only Survivor to below-the-surface chronicles like Bob Woodward's Bush at War. The cocktail-party circuit, Evans says, where real business also gets done, does consist of tough talk about substantive issues. "People are trying to make their own sense of reality," Evans says. "Is what's going on with the world good, or bad?"

My response to Evans: I don't think regular Americans are hearing what she's hearing. People who read Bush at War are also watching I'm A Celebrity -- Get Me Out of Here? I doubt it. I think real reality is so complicated and nervous-making right now that TV is giving us spectacularly inconsequential human comedy and calling it "reality." In some postmodern torque of irony, reality TV lets us keep our minds off of reality.

There's a second antianxiety medication that Americans are turning to: behavioral therapy, using techniques like meditation or relaxation. Here our cultural institutions are way ahead of the market. According to Publisher's Weekly, about 560 new spiritual and religious guides will be published this summer. Last December, a Gallup poll found that nearly 25% of all Americans are likely to choose a book about spirituality when selecting a book to read.

According to Evans, the current explosion in spirituality books has been building for a long time -- and predates the threat of war, the downward slide of the economy, and the other anxieties du jour. "The rise in spiritual publishing is a direct expression of our contemporary state of existential flux," Evans says. "How do we make sense of it all?"

What I found really interesting about those 560-odd pop-metaphysics summer books is the kinds of titles being released. I expected sanctimonious evangelical tracts. Instead, I was encouraged by many of the titles.

First, more than 60 of the titles were Zen- or Buddhist-related -- more than 10% of the books, even though only about 1% of Americans label themselves as Buddhist. As our leaders have hurtled us, for better or for worse, into quasi-permanent war, we are, if the book publishers have got it right, searching for meaning as well as calm. The best-seller status of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones proves that Americans will embrace tough content if it reveals glimmers of heartfelt hopefulness.

Kids have been onto this kind of literary self-therapy way ahead of grown-ups: This month's first printing of 6.8 million hardcover copies of the latest Harry Potter installment, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, demonstrates how smart kids are. Harry gets to beat Voldemort, the Osama bin Laden of fiction, repeatedly. That feels really good.

So the crazes for reality TV and pop spiritual books are different currents in the same cultural stream -- possibly because Americans intuitively understand what Franklin Roosevelt said about Depression-era national panic back in 1933: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror. . . ." And what showed up in the years immediately after FDR's famous exhortation? Fabulous pop-culture confections: all the classic screwball comedies, The Wizard of Oz, and Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

On the other hand, what followed those fanciful offerings was World War II.

What's the News About the Nightly News? by Anne Kreamer

This month, Anne exchanges email with Tom Brokaw, anchor and managing editor, NBC Nightly News With Tom Brokaw.

Anne Americans have never been all that interested in foreign news. But in light of September 11, the current confrontations in Israel, Iraq, and North Korea, and Americans' intellectual unpreparedness to cope, do you regret that over the past 20 years, big media reduced foreign coverage because editors, executives, and producers had decided that their audiences just weren't interested?

Tom Actually, the two subjects that were not ignored were the Middle East and terrorism. All of the networks did a substantial amount of reporting on the Taliban in Afghanistan, the rise of Osama bin Laden, and the failure of peace efforts between the Palestinians and the Israelis. What we no longer do is use the incidental or episodic foreign development as a filler in a broadcast. Having said that, I agree that given a choice between a routine domestic story and a foreign story, we're much more likely to go domestic. Foreign-news coverage tends to be crisis driven. Moreover, foreign policy has been only a faint image on the campaign radar screens in the last three election cycles, and that has added to the public malaise on global developments. One of the many changes in the American culture following September 11 was an increased appetite for foreign news. I suspect that will remain for as long as the terror threat seems viable -- which could be a long time.

Anne On the one hand, with 24-7 news channels and Internet news sites, consumers can completely customize their personal input of news. On the other hand, while we've all read about the imminent demise of the nightly network news as a format, you're coming off an all-time ratings high, and during crises, Americans do seem to crave a trusted source -- someone like you. Is this a contradiction?

Tom A well-organized summary of the day's most important developments still has a place in this crowded news and information universe. My guess is that most viewers are also dedicated consumers of other sources of news. The evening broadcasts simply complement their other news resources. For the foreseeable future, I believe that there will be a place for the nightly network broadcast, but its chances of survival would be greatly enhanced if it were expanded to one hour. That said, I'm not confident that will happen in my professional life.

Anne When it comes to the civic discourse, isn't it a bad thing that TV news lost the semiexemption from conventional profit margins that it had in the 1960s and 1970s?

Tom During the 1960s and 1970s, the network news was essentially a duopoly: NBC and CBS, with ABC still being a relatively minor player. The broadcast networks were so rich that they were willing to indulge their news divisions with fat budgets to shore up their "public service" image with Washington overseers. In fact, a staggering amount of money was spent, not on the essence of editorial coverage but rather on the trappings of it: chartered planes, layers of unnecessary personnel, redundancies in the assignment organization. The greater financial test, I believe, is whether the networks will continue to find room for news broadcasts that are in the public interest, if not high on the popular-issues list. For example, the future of energy consumption is not a subject that's likely to generate huge audiences, but it is an indisputably important subject. Even a low-rated network-news broadcast attracts several million people, especially when it is recycled across cable platforms. Will networks be willing to underwrite those broadcasts? It is increasingly a difficult proposition.

Anne Do you think that the "right here, right now" urgency in our culture is more bad than good? Worse than it was 10 or 20 years ago? And do you think that anti-American sentiment around the world is just a price of empire?

Tom I'm not sure that the American culture has ever been anything but right here, right now. It's part of our national character, but it is accelerated by the tools of modern technology, which are designed for speed and dispersal. The second part of your question, about anti-American sentiment, is much more complex. I do think that it is partly the price of empire, partly envy, and partly the result of a kind of American myopia in which we're determined to see the rest of the world only through our prism.

Want to Know How She Does It? by Anne Kreamer

This month, Anne exchanges email with Allison Pearson, author of the best-selling novel I Don't Know How She Does It.

Anne One day, a few years after I had left my executive job at Viacom to start my own company, I was on the subway. It was midday, and I was sitting on a train with a funky grab bag of ordinary middle-class people. According to the norms by which I previously had some standing in the world, I no longer existed. I had to construct and, more important, believe in a new definition of success. When I read I Don't Know How She Does It, I was delighted by how exquisitely you captured the crux of that struggle. How would you define success for a (Western, professional) woman of the 21st century?

Allison Success for a Western woman is still bound up with a traditional male idea of achievement. Basically, women entering corporations are obliged to say, "Unsex me here!" like doomed Lady Macbeths. The price of competing equally with men is to remain childless - but men don't have to pay that price. Gender plays a big part: Women bring new life into the world, and I suspect that they have a surer grasp of what's really important. Sucking up to superiors, playing office politics, and sitting through time-wasting meetings that are really male arenas of grooming and display - women lose patience with all of that big-ape rubbish once they've had kids and need to get home to read them a bedtime story.

Anne I think you're onto something with how intolerant women become of time wasting at work after they have children. If we feel as though the work that we do may make a substantive difference in the quality of someone's life, then time away from our kids feels like a reasonable trade-off. But if the job feels socially useless, or worse, then time away from the family feels wasteful and stupid. Do you get the sense that women want something more than just personal "lifestyle" balance?

Allison From talking to women, I got the impression that making large amounts of money is less important than a sense of being appreciated and of working in a personally rewarding environment. Every woman I interviewed wanted greater flexibility in her working life - and was willing to trade pay to get it. Why are companies so damned slow to respond to this need? The passionate response to my novel suggests that both men and women have a profound sense of something being not quite right about the way we live now. There's a feeling that if things don't change, then we could be storing up trouble for ourselves and for future generations.

Anne What about the man's role? In your novel, it felt like Kate didn't seem to respect her husband, Richard, even though he did a pretty good job of holding down the fort while she chugged away at work. He didn't seem as sexy as her almost lover, Jack Abelhammer, the titan of industry, did he?

Allison I don't really believe in the househusband. Here's the problem: Woman wants man to become more domestic, more like a woman, so man familiarizes himself with the laundry basket and becomes more like a woman - and woman no longer wants to have sex with him because he's not enough of a man! It's not fair, but then biology has little to do with justice.

Anne When all is said and done, how do you define success for yourself?

Allison I find the definition changing. A year ago, having I Don't Know become a best-seller would have been near the top of the list. Now I just want my two kids to know that they have their mum back after her long absences spent writing and promoting the novel. You can't imagine how much they hate my computer!

Anne So will you unplug and stay home now?

Allison I did suggest to Anthony, my husband, that I might stay home full-time with the kids, and he got this look on his face - sort of a sphinx with a migraine - and said that he would pay me to go to work. He reckoned that I would be unbearable to live with if I didn't do some kind of job. People have said that Kate Reddy gives up work at the end of the novel, but that isn't so. We leave her knowing that she's going to climb back onto the machine: She can't help herself.

Anne The trick is that the machine that Kate is climbing back onto is one of her own making. By the way, "She Can't Help Herself" would be a great title for your next novel.