This week my horoscope warned me that I may be tempted to betray my principles and “sell out”, but that I must listen to my conscience and nurture my nobler instincts, no matter how much cash it costs me. By a wacky coincidence, only a few hours after reading that sage advice, I was watching The Devil Wears Prada (2006) on TV, and musing over the lead character’s own ethical quandary.
In theory TDWP should be a straight morality tale, about a young, idealistic graduate who is so desperate to get a break into journalism, that she ends up selling her soul to the fashion industry (boo!), and losing the love of those closest to her in a mad dash for success and the approval of new peers… which is sort of how it plays out, except that they make the world of fashion seem too fun and fabulous, and fail to provide any sort of compelling alternative, or convincing reason why she would want to give it all up, just as she appears to be making serious progress. You become so caught up in her struggle, sympathising with her setbacks, and cheering on her victories, that her sudden change of heart, in the dying seconds of the third act, can’t help but feel like a crushing anticlimax. It’s like following a film about a team of climbers clambering up Everest for ninety gruelling minutes, only for them to stop a few feet from the peak, turn to the camera and say “Y’know what? It’s really cold up here, and I’m kinda tired, and when you think about it, mountain climbing’s actually pretty pointless”… and then it cuts to them sitting in a lodge at the foot of the mountain, sipping hot chocolate. And we’re supposed to feel what, exactly? Happy that they gave up, so close to their stated goal? It’s not that I was pulling for a happy ending, necessarily, where she becomes Queen of All Fashion and everybody worships her… I just feel that the ending they went with seems as tacked on and twisty as anything that ever sprang “from the mind of M Night Shyamalan”.
For me the problem is that we really don’t know what Andy (played by the ridiculously cute and adorable Anne Hathaway) actually believes in to begin with. What are the principles that she betrays? She likes wearing baggy clothes, and eating grilled cheese sandwiches, cooked by her whiny, petulant, boho-chic boyfriend. She likes hanging out with her incredibly immature and unsupportive friends. And… um… she wants to be a “serious journalist” someday. But those don’t really qualify as “principles”, do they? Presumably the job was supposed to be so demeaning, that it constitutes an insufferable affront to her dignity in and of itself… but again, the movie makes these menial tasks look like rewarding little missions which boost her self-esteem and sway, rather than grinding chores that reduce her. And it’s ludicrous to imply that if Andy were a full-time journalist, she’d be able to maintain a full and fulfilling social life, while keeping regular hours at the office, where she’s surrounded by upright, nurturing, deeply spiritual types, who never dump the donkey work in her lap. Andy supposedly gave up her nascent career at Runway because she was afraid of turning into a tyrannical, back-stabbing magazine editor… but who’s to say she won’t become a tyrannical, back-stabbing newspaper editor instead? Is it only the glossy paper the articles are printed on that turns people evil? And really, we only have an off-hand comment from Miranda herself to suggest that there’s any similarity between the two women at all.
So, what exactly did Andy do “wrong” during the course of the movie? She put her work before her friends, true… but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing… especially since her friends were so dickish to her… even when she gave them expensive, unsolicited gifts! She began to pay more attention to her outward appearance, and material possessions, but it never seemed to be an obsessive personal interest… it was presented more as a necessary evil of her working environment. She almost crushed the dreams of a colleague, by replacing her on a much-mooted trip to Paris, France (where they wear the fancy pants)… but said colleague had been a royal bitch to her ever since they started working together… and the Paris switcheroo was their boss’s idea, rather than something Andy dreamt up herself, just to screw someone over. She didn’t lie, cheat or steal… she just worked too hard to keep the only job she’d actually been offered… and everyone dumped on her for it! Obviously she ignored pretty much all the guidelines that are supposed to lead one to Enlightenment… but they’re nearly impossible to keep anyway, when you’re living in the real, rent-paying world… so maybe all her friends were secretly Buddhists? Really, really bitchy Buddhists? Hmmm…