Essays · Movies

‘The Devil Wears Prada’ and the Underserved Story of the Successful Career Woman

Devil Wears Prada inspired cruella
Twentieth Century Fox
By  · Published on July 12th, 2016

The Devil Wears Prada, which just turned 10 in June, did something pretty unusual we don’t often see in contemporary mainstream Hollywood films. It portrayed professional females – some, already at the top of their game and some, newly kicking off their careers – as they relate to their jobs and professional ideals. Sure, there were romantic interests and failed marriages as part of its storyline, but The Devil Wears Prada was predominantly about office-based female workforce: sitting in cubicles, running unglamorous errands, and leading companies that define an entire industry. Whatever sub-plotting sprung off from Andy Sachs’ (Anne Hathaway) 11-month-long adventures as the assistant to Runway Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) fed the main narrative: a young, fresh-out-of-college woman finding her career sea legs and establishing her professional identity.

And that’s worth looking back at, as in the 16-years-and-counting of 21st Century mainstream Hollywood, the pool isn’t very large when it comes to films about ambitious, competitive, and successful women navigating their jobs in corporate environments. According to a 2014 study conducted by Department for Professional Employees, “women make up more than half of the professional and technical workforce in the United States.” So it’s disheartening that I was able to come up with only a handful of cinematic examples from the 21st century –a time with an ever-growing female workforce– that examine career women and their occupations, even after conducting an informal Twitter survey on the topic. Yes, our era produced several worthy genre films like Zero Dark Thirty, The Martian, Spy, Interstellar, and even the recent (very good) Ghostbusters that portray smart, dedicated women with brains and professional chops. But when I zeroed in on jobs that the majority holds (which generally don’t involve dangerous fieldwork, ghost hunting, or missions to Mars), their film reflections shrank fast.

I noticed that some of the remaining mainstream examples –Bridget Jones’ Diary, He’s Just Not That Into You, Trainwreck, and Hello My Name Is Doris among them– favored positioning office environments as fodder for romance. The rest, which includes the likes of Erin Brockovich (featuring a character who won’t apologize to her boyfriend for her success), Two Weeks Notice (with Sandra Bullock’s professional competence and ethic always at its center), and Joy, made concerted and successful efforts in portraying women in the professional sphere. Recently, it was Nancy Meyers’ The Intern (coincidentally or not, also starring Hathaway) that came closest to capturing that The Devil Wears Prada magic. And it even improved upon some of Prada’s themes by allowing the young entrepreneur Jules to take pride in her professional agency and enjoy her success. In the end, Jules, the head of a sensational online fashion retailer, refused to work under a male CEO and lighten up her workload for the sake of a flawed husband who didn’t know how to deal with his wife’s professional triumphs.

So how well did The Devil Wears Prada’s interpretation of professional women age over the last decade? I loved the film when it first came out in 2006. And I still love it, even though my attachment to it shifted in its shape and reasoning. Revisiting it just a short while ago, I found myself being both annoyed and fascinated with the way Andy was made to disentangle her challenges. I was equally startled by the interaction between the other main women in the film, which includes Miranda’s first assistant Emily (Emily Blunt). Andy initially comes across as pretty off-putting in her high-minded stance against a very important job she is lucky to have. (And no, I don’t think working for one of the most important businesswomen in the world is beneath her.) As her co-worker Nigel (Stanley Tucci) eloquently puts it, she initially only deigned to work at a place where countless others would kill to work. But following that wake-up call, Andy’s journey takes a glorious and beguiling turn. Not only does she wildly grow in her profession, but also finds herself on the fast track to even greater success. You watch her become the kind of reliable colleague and assistant who can observe and anticipate what she should do before others ask it from her.

But then, The Devil Wears Prada stifles in other areas in my 38-year-old eyes, some of which my 28-year-old self was a bit slower to detect in 2006. For starters, I refuse to see Miranda Priestly as a cold-hearted villain even though the film paints her character pretty unflatteringly on several occasions. During the only scene where we witness Miranda’s vulnerability as she sheds quite tears over her divorce in a Parisian hotel room, she focuses on table arrangements of a Fashion Week dinner, instead of dwelling on her marital problems. While I confidently say as she should, I am unsure if the film is fully behind Miranda’s unflinching professionalism at that very moment and whether it prefers our approval or judgment. When it comes to the portrayal of Emily –who unapologetically loves her job and the fashion industry– I now hold similar reservations. Although she trains Andy willingly and competently, we’re seldom shown her approachable side. Despite Andy’s continued efforts, Emily remains unrealistically mean towards her until the very final scene. But when competitive tensions grow between the two women over the Fashion Week trip to Paris, The Devil Wears Prada inexplicably expects the viewer to side with Emily and has Andy apologize for her success. And even then, Emily is portrayed as a glamorous two-dimensional caricature. It’s almost like the movie confuses having thick skin with having no kindness or empathy.

Perhaps most problematically, we are also expected to applaud Andy when she apologizes to an awful ex-boyfriend, who can easily be one of the worst cinematic love interests of all time, for being good at her job. The Devil Wears Prada goes out of its way to portray him as the guy who got the raw end of the deal. We are supposed to think Andy’s busy work schedule and late nights in the office have been tough on him and worse, we’re expected to care about his feelings. We are asked to assume that Andy ditched her dignity by starting to grow an interest in fashion (hello, it’s her job) and treated her boyfriend and friends unfairly…for shoes, bags, and accessories. As far as I’m concerned, she did not owe an apology to anyone for prioritizing her early career to invest in her future.

But despite all its faults, I continue loving this film. It’s a thoroughly entertaining watch, it features one of Meryl Streep’s best performances ever (I mean it) and understands profoundly what’s expected of women in the modern-day workplace and how they’re unfairly judged about their work/life (im)balance. Dig deeper under its surface, and you’ll find many feminist statements and breadcrumbs throughout The Devil Wears Prada. In one scene, Andy fiercely defends Miranda to a brief romantic interest over dinner: if Miranda were a man, no one would mind any of her toughness and instead, they’d praise her for her excellence at her job, she says. And who could argue with that simple womansplaining of feminism to an arrogant guy who calls Andy “baby” and thinks she’s “crossing over to the dark side”? In another scene, Miranda refers to an editorial piece about “Supreme Court women” and immediately corrects herself by saying “woman” instead, with a piercing emphasis, reminding the careful viewer that it’s a man’s world out there.

But it’s time for a new Prada. Given The Intern’s recent Box Office success ($194+ million worldwide, with a production budget of $35 million), I think the audiences, male and female, have more than earned it.

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Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.