"The Devil Wears Prada" has been on HBO recently: I watched it again a few days ago (I do think it's a funny, entertaining, well-crafted movie), and I was reminded of a feminist rant I had when the movie first came out.
Here's the deal. (Spoiler alert.) The purported arc of the movie is that our heroine, Andrea (Anne Hathaway), is a young would-be journalist in New York who can't find the kind of serious work she wants, and thus takes a job as assistant to the editor-in-chief at the biggest fashion magazine in the country. She justifies this as (a) a source of a much-needed paycheck, and (b) an entry-level position that could earn her some experience and gain her some connections in the profession.
But she sells out. She sells her soul. She is seduced by the glamour of the fashion industry into abandoning her high ideals; she prioritizes her work over her personal relationships; she stabs her colleague in the back; and she even winds up defending her abusive control-freak boss, Miranda (Meryl Streep) against her many critics. Eventually she realizes the error of her ways, walks out on her job, finds a better one, and grovels for forgiveness to everyone she injured along the way.
So here's my problem with the movie:
I couldn't see anything she did wrong.
I was watching very carefully the second time around, and almost every "soul-selling" step that the heroine took seemed perfectly reasonable and defensible.
And more to the point, just about everything she did would have been accepted without blinking in a male protagonist.
Let's take it a piece at a time. Here are the sins against her soul that Andrea supposedly committed.
1) She stayed in a job she didn't much care about, in an industry that's a snakepit of ego and ambition, working for a boss who treated her abysmally... just to get ahead in her career.
Well, yes. If you're serious about a career, "take this job and shove it" isn't always an option. Especially if you're just starting out. Sometimes you have to put up with very bad situations temporarily, to get what you need on your resume (not to mention to keep the paychecks coming). And sometimes you start out at a company you don't much like or care about, to gain experience you'll need to eventually work for someone you do care about. That's not selling your soul. That's having long-term goals, and the stick-to-it-iveness to go through the necessary, if sometimes unpleasant, preliminary steps to get there. That's being willing to prioritize your long-term goals over your immediate happiness and comfort. And theoretically, that's a quality our society values.
In men, anyway. This especially bugs me because her boyfriend, who's super-critical of her choices throughout the movie, is an equally ambitious, young, struggling would-be chef... and it's not like the world of high-end restaurants isn't a snakepit of ego and ambition, in which people stick with crappy jobs and asshole bosses to get the experience and contacts they need. But somehow, that's different.
And as it turns out, Andrea was right to do what she did. She did get useful experience and contacts, and at the end of the movie when she applies for the serious journalism job at the lefty newspaper, her recommendation from her old fashion-magazine boss is the tipping point that gets her the job. The job she cares about, and is good at, and that matters in the world.
Let me ask you this. Ingrid currently has a job that she loves -- and it currently requires her to travel out of town two and a half days a week. This is a little hard on me, and puts some stress on our relationship. I also currently have a job I love (freelance writing) that currently requires me to spend weekends and evenings writing... time that would otherwise be part of the diminishing time we can spend together. This is a little hard on Ingrid, and puts some stress on our relationship.
Is either of us doing something terribly wrong?
I don't think so. I think we're both doing exactly the right thing -- supporting each other in our respective careers, making space for each other to do what we need to do, and making a point of savoring the time we do have together. That, in my mind, is what you do when you love someone. Obviously there's a limit -- if Ingrid's job required her to move to Antarctica, I'd put my foot down -- but especially when a situation is a temporary, experience-gaining or stopgap situation, cutting your partner some slack so they can get where they're going in a career they care about is just part of being in a relationship.
And, as Ingrid pointed out when I first shared this rant with her, "If you had a work emergency and had to skip my birthday party, I'd be disappointed, but I wouldn't think you'd done anything horribly wrong." Thinking that a birthday party is the most important thing in the world... that's not what sane adults do. (In fact, Andrea stayed at the emergency work event only as long as she needed to fulfill the requirements of her job, and when given the chance to stay longer to fulfill her own personal ambitions, she cut out and went home to be with her boyfriend.)
But women aren't supposed to think like this. Nobody blinks an eye when men have to work late or miss special personal events for job emergencies... but women are supposed to be loving and emotional and think family and love are always, always, always more important than work. Andrea was making a difficult but reasonable decision... but somehow, she was still selling her soul.
3) She got sucked into the world of fashion -- a world she didn't care beans about before she took the job.
Yes. Interestingly enough, when you take a new job in a field you're not familiar with, you often get excited about it and drawn into it. For fuck's sake, that's one of the best things about taking a job in a field you're not familiar with. You learn new things. You expand your horizons. I didn't know that much about women's health care before my job at the Feminist Women's Health Center; or about gay politics before my job at the gay newspaper; or hell, about the music industry before my crappy job at Ticketmaster. I grew to know and care about these things more because of these jobs. That doesn't make me a sell-out. That makes me an open-minded person who's eager to learn.
You can argue that fashion is a vapid, trivial thing to care about. But you can also argue, as many characters in the movie do, that fashion is an art form, one that touches everyone's life. Nobody thinks Hank Hill of "King of the Hill" is a sellout because he's grown to care passionately about propane and propane accessories... but when Andrea grows to see that fashion isn't as vapid and trivial as she'd originally thought, somehow it means she was selling her soul.
4) She stabbed her friend and colleague in the back.
Now, this is an interesting one. Andrea's most serious sin, in her mind and everyone else's, is that, when Miranda told her that she would be going on a coveted trip to Paris instead of her fellow assistant Emily (Emily Blunt), her initial reaction was to say, "I can't do that, the Paris trip means too much to Emily." But when Miranda made it clear that refusing the Paris trip would mean risking not only her job, but her chance at a recommendation and her career prospects (I believe her words were, "I'll assume you're not serious about your career, here or anywhere else"), Andrea caves and accepts.
In other words:
Her boss decides (somewhat unreasonably, but not entirely so) that Andrea is a better and more capable choice for the Paris trip than Emily. Her boss offers her the assignment. She accepts it.
And this is bad because...?
That's what the working world is like. If you're a boss, you don't offer assignments based on how much it means to your employees. You offer assignments based on who you think the best person for the assignment will be. And if you're an employee, you don't refuse assignments because taking them would hurt someone's feelings. It's not like the dating world -- it's not rude or bad to take the job your friend is hot for.
It's not like Andrea connived and schemed for the trip. It's not like she tried to undercut Emily or make her look bad so she could get the trip. In fact, she tried to turn the trip down, and she tried to give it to Emily.
But in the end, she acted like a professional. She treated her job like a job, not like a social relationship. She accepted an assignment that her boss offered her, an assignment her boss decided she was better suited to than her colleague -- and this, in her own eyes and in everybody else's, makes her a selfish, backstabbing power-slut. Nobody would blink twice if a man did exactly the same thing -- but for Andrea, somehow it means she was selling her soul.
5) She began to have understanding and sympathy for her abusive, control-freak boss.
My very, very favorite line in the movie -- and one that I think sums up in a nutshell the movie's real message -- is when Andrea says to a fellow writer (I'm paraphrasing here), "If a man acted the way Miranda does, nobody would say anything at all except what a great job he does."
That pretty much says it all.
I think Andrea's character arc when it comes to Miranda is 100% reasonable. She starts out hating and fearing her; she grows to have some respect and compassion for her; and in the end, she decides that the compromises Miranda has made (personal and ethical) aren't compromises she would be willing to make.
But somehow, the fact that she ever had respect for Miranda's professionalism, and compassion for the pain that her sacrifices caused her... somehow, that means she was selling her soul.
There's an essay I read in "Harry Potter and Philosophy," arguing that ambition (the defining quality of the Slytherin house) is, in fact, a virtue. And I would agree. Like most virtues, taken to extremes it can become a vice... but the willingness to focus on long-term professional goals, and to work hard and make sacrifices to reach them, is definitely a virtue. And it's a virtue that our society generally values quite highly.
But not in women. In women, ambition -- being willing to put up with shit to get where you want to go, sometimes prioritizing your career over your personal life, becoming engaged with a job even though it's ultimately not what you care about most, treating it like a job instead of a slumber party, having respect for successful high-achievers in your field, and generally taking your career seriously -- isn't considered a virtue at all.
In fact, it's more than just not a virtue. It means that you're selling your soul.