The pro-freedom lessons in ‘The Devil Wears Prada’
If you haven’t seen the movie “The Devil Wears Prada”, you should. Tonight. It’s on HBO, I believe. It has some interesting lessons regarding freedom.
The movie follows the adventures of Andrea, a serious, intellectual, hot, young woman who wants to be a journalist, as she works for a difficult editor of a fashion magazine. This woman, Miranda Priestly, played perfectly by Meryl Streep, is the ultimate gatekeeper who defines what is hot and what is not. She has the power to make or break careers in the fashion industry, and she wields it ruthlessly. She dictates what food her staff eats, and the clothes they wear. She delights in making impossible demands, for example giving her assistant 6 hours to get two copies of the next unpublished Harry Potter novel, or demanding that they find a plane to fly her out of Miami despite the hurricane pummeling the city.
Andrea, who turned down a scholarship at Stanford law, is the antithesis of most of her coworkers. She is slender rather than anorexic. She wants to be a journalist. She views the industry as being shallow, and rather beneath her. She merely puts up with Miranda due to the doors that working on this magazine will open for her. Initially, she eschews designer clothes, and sticks out like a sore thumb in the crowd of people working at the magazine whom she calls “clackers”, describing the sounds their stiletto heels make on the reception floors. Warning spoilers ahead
As Miranda’s assistant, she follows her boss around and watches her make judgments as to which clothes will be included in the magazine and which will not. For a clothing designer this is a make-or-break deal. Having one’s work shown on the magazine assures sales. Having it excluded pretty much seals its fate as a failed product. These sessions are thus very serious, stressful affairs for all the participants, except for Miranda, who is serenely serious, and Andrea, who views this as being slightly comical. That is, until she snorts when a designer is discussing the difference between two almost identical belts to Miranda, and receives a lecture from Miranda. Miranda, as she sorts the clothing into sets that will be photographed together, speaks in a dreamy, measured pace:
Miranda Priestly: [Miranda and some assistants are deciding between two similar belts for an outfit. Andy sniggers because she thinks they look exactly the same] Something funny?
Andy Sachs: No, no, nothing. Y’know, it’s just that both those belts look exactly the same to me. Y’know, I’m still learning about all this stuff.
Miranda Priestly: This… ‘stuff’? Oh… ok. I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don’t know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s actually cerulean. You’re also blindly unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar De La Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St Laurent, wasn’t it, who showed cerulean military jackets? And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of 8 different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of stuff.
Eventually, Andrea cracks. Berated for failing to find a suicidal pilot willing to fly Miranda out of a hurricane so that Miranda can attend her daughters’ piano recital, Andrea flees to the office of one of Miranda’s top assistants, played by Stanley Tucci, who while consoling is also unsympathetic.
Andy Sachs: She hates me, Nigel.
Nigel: And that’s my problem because… Oh, wait. No, it’s not my problem.
Andy Sachs: I don’t know what else I can do because if I do something right, it’s unacknowledged. She doesn’t even say thank you. But if I do something wrong, she is vicious.
Nigel: So quit.
Andy Sachs: What?
Andy Sachs: Quit?
Nigel: I can get another girl to take your job in five minutes… one who really wants it.
Andy Sachs: No, I don’t want to quit. That’s not fair. But, I, you know, I’m just saying that I would just like a little credit… for the fact that I’m killing myself trying.
Nigel: Andy, be serious. You are not trying. You are whining. What is it that you want me to say to you, huh? Do you want me to say, “Poor you. Miranda’s picking on you. Poor you. Poor Andy”? Hmm? Wake up, six. She’s just doing her job. Don’t you know that you are working at the place that published some of the greatest artists of the century? Halston, Lagerfeld, de la Renta. And what they did, what they created was greater than art because you live your life in it. Well, not you, obviously, but some people. You think this is just a magazine, hmm? This is not just a magazine. This is a shining beacon of hope for… oh, I don’t know… let’s say a young boy growing up in Rhode Island with six brothers pretending to go to soccer practice when he was really going to sewing class and reading Runway under the covers at night with a flashlight. You have no idea how many legends have walked these halls. And what’s worse, you don’t care. Because this place, where so many people would die to work you only deign to work. And you want to know why she doesn’t kiss you on the forehead and give you a gold star on your homework at the end of the day. Wake up, sweetheart.
In the end, Andrea does just that – she quits. But not before making a successful effort to succeed at her job. She becomes adept at predicting Miranda’s demands. Becomes indispensable. But after watching Miranda screw over Nigel in order to preserve her position, Andrea finally makes the decision to quit:
Miranda Priestly: You thought I didn’t know. I’ve known what was happening for quite some time. It just took me a little while to find a suitable alternative for Jacqueline. And that James Holt job was just so absurdly overpaid that of course she jumped at it. So I just had to tell Irv that Jacqueline was unavailable. Truth is, there’s no one that can do what I do. Including her. Any of the other choices would have found that job impossible and the magazine would have suffered. Especially because of the list. The list of designers, photographers, editors, writers, models, all of whom were found by me, nurtured by me and have promised me they will follow me whenever and if ever I choose to leave Runway. So he reconsidered. But I was very very impressed by how intently you tried to warn me. I never thought I would say this, Andrea, but I really, I see a great deal of myself in you. You can see beyond what people want, and what they need and you can choose for yourself.
Andy Sachs: I don’t think I’m like that. I couldn’t do what you did to Nigel, Miranda. I couldn’t do something like that.
Miranda Priestly: You already did. To Emily.
Andy Sachs: That’s not what I… no, that was different. I didn’t have a choice.
Miranda Priestly: No, no, you chose. You chose to get ahead. You want this life. Those choices are necessary.
Andy Sachs: But what if this isn’t what I want? I mean what if I don’t wanna live the way you live?
Miranda Priestly: Oh, don’t be ridiculous. Andrea. Everybody wants this. Everybody wants to be us.
At that point, quietly and with dignity, Andrea walks away, tossing her cellphone into a fountain. She quits by deserting her post. She has learned that she does, indeed have a choice. She can choose to work for the devil, or she can choose to walk away. This is, I think, the lesson the movie-makers intended. Despite their difficulties, everyone who works for Miranda is better off as a result of working for her. Their careers are advanced, or they get to design clothes, or they get free clothes or something. They stay, because the benefits of working with and for her outweigh the costs. This is the difference between working as an employee and being exploited in the Marxist sense. As difficult as Miranda is, she is being exploited by all those around her for her connections, her taste, and the money she can bring in. Once Andrea decides that Miranda is not worth the trouble, Andrea abandons her.
Anyone who has read Bernay’s Propaganda will recognize that Miranda Priestly is a member of the “secret government”:
THE conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.
We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.
Our invisible governors are, in many cases, unaware of the identity of their fellow members in the inner cabinet.
They govern us by their qualities of natural leadership, their ability to supply needed ideas and by their key position in the social structure. Whatever attitude one chooses to take toward this condition, it remains a fact that in almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of personsâ€”a trifling fraction of our hundred and twenty millionâ€”who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind, who harness old social forces and contrive new ways to bind and guide the world.
So why can’t Miranda Priestly be replaced? Why do all these people persist in catering to her? Why does her magazine wield such great power? In the movie, it is implied that Miranda merely has a positional advantage: she has the power to gut the magazine’s talented staff, and destroy the value of the magazine for its owners. But this is ridiculous; After all, the magazine, we are assured throughout the movie, is an entity that thousands of people would kill for a chance to work at.
The fact is, Miranda is powerful, not because she can destroy, but because she knows what people want. In an editorial meeting at the beginning of the movie, she makes a suprising judgment. She rejects a proposed layout because “we did it two years ago”. Why is that? If she truly was in charge of what was hot and what was not, “a maker of fashion”, why couldn’t she just rerun the fashions from two years ago?
The answer is, of course, that if she started doing such things, people would stop reading the magazine. In the end, Miranda derives her economic postion from her ability to successfully predict what content would make her magazine attractive to readers. If someone else produced a more attractive magazine than she did, her sales would tank, and she would be out on the street. This is, I think the weakness in Bernay’s analysis, and in the Marxist views of big business tricking people into buying things that they don’t need. Miranda Priestly must please her magazine’s readers. She can influence them and persuade them to a certain extent to alter their tastes. But if she does not satisfy them, they will stop buying her product and she will have to stand in line at Starbucks herself. She can successfully demand people around her cater to her whims only because she is so successful at catering to the whims of her masters, the general public, or at least the component of it interested in fashion.