Society is forever presenting women with false choices. You can be a good mother, or you can have a rewarding career. You can be self-sufficient, or you can have a happy marriage. You can be a prim virgin, or you can be a self-loathing slut. But never both and never anything in between. The choice is either A or B.
The Devil Wears Prada cheerfully sets up its own false dichotomy: A woman can be ambitious, or she can be a good person. And this, too, is misogynistic crap. It doesn’t matter that a woman wrote the smug, self-righteous novel on which the movie is based. Underneath the pretty clothes and tidy conclusions, The Devil Wears Prada is simplistic and insulting.
Anne Hathaway plays bright-eyed aspiring journalist Andy Sachs, who lands a job as second assistant to Miranda Priestly, editor-in-chief of the fashion magazine Runway. Andy isn’t particularly interested in fashion, but Miranda is legendary, so Andy believes (with good reason) that she can use the job as a springboard into a publication more to her taste. As the months drag on, however, sweet little Andy wonders whether all the frustration of working for such a haughty, demanding, manipulative boss will pay off.
This is all a roman à clef, of course. Author Lauren Weisberger briefly worked as an assistant for Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue, and The Devil Wears Prada is her revenge. The film adaptation is more nuanced than Weisberger’s insipid foray into chick lit, but the credit for that goes almost entirely to the inestimable Meryl Streep.
Streep plays Miranda as a smart, self-aware, unapologetically authoritative businesswoman with an artist’s eye and Machiavellian political savvy. Not everything about her is admirable by any stretch of the imagination, but she’s far more compelling than bland, whiny, self-satisfied Andy. Indeed, Andy is terribly spoiled. She complains that Miranda doesn’t thank her for delivering coffee, as if she were back in kindergarten and deserving of a gold star for effort. She celebrates her ignorance of the industry covered by the magazine where she works, as if that ignorance were a mark of her superiority rather than her lack of professionalism. She works for Miranda Priestly for months and seemingly learns only to disdain the woman’s shortcomings without ever emulating her considerable strengths.
In one isolated scene, Miranda’s art director (played by Stanley Tucci, also far better than this dreck) cuts Andy to size for sneering at her job rather than learning from it or even making more than a token effort to do it well, but for the most part, The Devil positions itself as a broad Faustian tale. Character after character shames Andy for selling her soul to the Prada-clad Mephistopheles, and yet the turning point — the point at which Andy’s ambition allegedly overcomes her goodness — is farcical, for Andy does nothing unethical, immoral or otherwise debased. Do the makers of The Devil Wears Prada truly believe that a woman should resign her position when offered a legitimate job promotion out of consideration for the feelings of a passed-over co-worker? Really? Because that’s all that happens at the movie’s ludicrous climax.
The movie also clucks its tongue disapprovingly when a job emergency forces Andy to miss her boyfriend’s birthday party. When she finally makes it home, after struggling all evening to extricate herself early, she carries a Magnolia Bakery cupcake with a birthday candle and wears an expression of true regret, but her darling Nate (Adrian Grenier) still stomps petulantly out of the room, as though he were a child and not a grown man who should be supporting his loving girlfriend instead of throwing tantrums about the demands of her job. I might be more understanding of his disappointment if he didn’t cheerfully announce later in the movie that he’s landed a position as sous chef at an acclaimed restaurant in Boston. The culinary industry is notoriously demanding, and Nate surely will expect Andy to be understanding when he has to work late nights and face unexpected, time-consuming emergencies. His failure to offer her that same consideration is selfish, immature, hypocritical and sexist.
To be sure, high-pressure, high-stress jobs aren’t for everyone, but that’s a matter of temperament, not morality and not gender. The Devil Wears Prada wants us to believe that Andy would have to cross over to the dark side to succeed in magazine journalism, that she must sacrifice her ambition — exorcise her inner Miranda, if you will — to restore her humanity, never mind the fact that she never lost her humanity in the first place. This isn’t Faust; this is an anti-feminist fable that should have died in the 1950s. Streep deserves better than this. So do women everywhere.