Phoebe Maltz Bovy on the end of the self-deprecating nebbishette

Recently I picked up a used copy of the late screenwriter Nora Ephron’s 2007 essay collection, I Feel Bad About My Neck. A memorable title and, despite being several years away from the age when women apparently begin caring about necks (43, per the When Harry Met Sally screenwriter), I imagined I’d find the content relatable. 

What it struck me as, rather, was familiar. The voice is one I know well, both from Ephron’s personal contributions to the culture, and from the stance it represents. It is the voice of the nebbishette, a term I have Googled, only to find references to my own writing, so obscure it is, yet ubiquitous.

Who is—or was, more on that in a moment—the nebbishette? The nebbish but a woman. Woody Allen-like in her self-deprecation, if not in her allure to the opposite sex. 

The archetype is Rhoda Morgenstern, on 1970s American sitcom, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Played by non-Jewish actress Valerie Harper, Rhoda was best friend Mary’s snarky sidekick. Mary got dates while Rhoda did not. Mary was effortlessly chipper and slim while Rhoda cracked jokes, often at her own expense, and dieted. 

Whatever Rhoda was, she was not a princess of any kind. She grew up in the Bronx and had street-smarts. Her outer-borough scrappiness was more Woody Allen than The Nanny.  

Who are the other nebbishettes? Mindy Cohn’s character of Natalie Green from The Facts of Life. Jennifer Weiner’s persona in novels and op-ed columns. And maybe even Fran Drescher as Fran “The Nanny” Fine. To be a nebbishette is not a physical attribute, but rather an attitude. It’s being a Daria, but one who uses John Frieda hair products and wants to know if the yogurt is fat-free or merely low fat. 

If the nebbish suggests a 1970s Woody Allen, the nebbishette has more of a 1990s or early-2000s vibe. She was never as much of a thing as the nebbish, though, unless you buy into my theory that Lena Dunham’s Hannah Horvath on Girls was basically a lady-version of George Costanza.

Not every nebbishette has been Jewish. I think of course of Tina Fey, as the frumpy Liz Lemon on 30 Rock. Also of the late British comedian Victoria Wood, “well known for her down-to-earth and self-deprecating humor.”

But the nebbishette is a Jewish form, a Jewish archetype, which is why I took Jewish offence when Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby denounced self-deprecation in her Netflix special, Nanette. 

But back to Nora Ephron’s neck-book. It is, in ways both refreshing and irritating, a throwback to the days when a rich woman could write a book about her everyday life without the use of privilege disclaimers. 

Ephron makes casual reference to large expenditures on housing, beauty procedures, and accessories, without, as the kids say, situating herself. She writes in a way that presumes her own experience to be a normal one, as though we all contemplate facelifts and Birkin handbags. When we are at the fruit stand wondering whether $8 is an acceptable price to pay for a container of strawberries, it’s a bit much, but I also don’t think I’d prefer a version where Ephron solemnly acknowledged that she was living a rarified life. (The fictional character I most identify with is Mrs. Kim from Kim’s Convenience in the show’s opening sequence, for a reason.)

But Ephron, in print, has to be relatable because she is an everywoman, or not even. She was, or her persona is, that of a nebbishette. 

Most of the essays are self-deprecatory in terms of age. Past whichever year—43, year of the falling neck, or 34, after which point you’re not to wear a two-piece swimsuit (apologies to the fellow participants of our local baby-and-toddler swim classes)—women aren’t what they, we, used to be. Ephron was writing from the vantage point of a woman in her 60s, reflecting on decades’ worth of invisibility.

But what of a young Ephron? Surely this woman, with her multiple marriages and glamorous career, couldn’t have been nebbishy? 

There’s an essay on how Ephron interned for U.S. President John F. Kennedy, which concludes with her observing, “it has become horribly clear to me that I am probably the only young woman who ever worked in the Kennedy White House that the president did not make a pass at.” She speculates, “Perhaps it’s because I’m Jewish. Don’t laugh; think about it—think about that long, long list of women JFK slept with. Were any of them Jewish? I don’t think so.” 

Ephron’s following essay is about another former U.S. president, Bill Clinton, and even mentions Monica Lewinsky, so she doubtless knew there was nothing inherently connected about a woman intern’s Jewishness and her interest to a philandering politician. But it is extremely nebbishette, properly on-brand, to be the only young woman not picked by a man who’ll have anyone.   

By the time I got to the section on hair, I started to think social-justice warriors have a point. Ephron, expert on the subtle distinctions between different, adjacent upscale Manhattan neighbourhoods, makes sweeping generalizations on a continental level. One is negative: “I am never going back to Africa; the last time I was there, in 1972, there were no hairdressers out in the bush, and as far as I was concerned, that was the end of that place.” Africa, a continent where no one can do hair, that certainly adds up.

This is followed up shortly with, “I envy all Asian women—I mean, have you ever seen an Asian woman whose hair looks bad? (No, you haven’t. Why is this?).” I suspect that this was intended as a self-deprecating reference to frizz, that plight of the nebbishette. But also, come on.

The self-insulting nebbishette act seems to have gone the way of the curmudgeon, where humour is concerned. I’m reminded of The Man Repeller blogger and self-deprecator par excellence Leandra Medine Cohen.

As she presented herself, she was a dorky Jewish girl, dressing in strange ways that would put off men, like a modern-day Rhoda. As she seemed to a wider audience, she was a rich white lady. I will spare you the 40,000 words speculating on why exactly a Jewish woman of Turkish and Iranian ancestry was so readily cast as “white,” because the point here is that the nebbishette is no more.

The nebbishette existed in a particular sphere: an all-white world (a world, that is, that tuned everyone else out) where Jewishness was the only plausible form of difference. Where a brunette was racialized. It doesn’t resonate, and as such, doesn’t always hold up.

But there’s a timelessness to the nebbishette stance, and I think she has a future. I have no choice but to think this, as my neck has only a few more good years.

The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @bovymaltz