Does the Devil Really Wear Prada?

Because I’m rather happy with it. And it’s something that I’m actually passionate about, I’m posting my CHID paper here, minus the work cited.

We live in a man’s world. There are very few who have not heard that saying. And there are facts to back it up. We live in a world where a woman will make 15% less than a man will for doing the same amount of work and having the same credentials. We live in a world where there are societies and traditions of networking that still and will continue to belong to the “old boy’s club.” We also live in a world where politicians and CEOs are mainly seen as old white heterosexual males with a certain pedigree and education. But when there is an industry created, for the most part, by women intended for women, it is seen as living proof of the superficiality of the fairer sex. The fashion industry, and consequently, the women who work in it, is frequently dismissed for its vapidity and oft ridiculted through its portrayl in film. This attitude further demonstrates society’s one dimensional view of women and their capabilities. In particular, the portrayal of Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada magnifies the extremities of societal bias against career women.

A few things to remember: one, the fashion industry is a multibillion-dollar industry, and two, it is an industry that tends to have women in the top positions. If it were up to the directors of films on fashion, it would be nothing but a world of cliches: “the harridan of a boss, bitchy journalists who never eat and seem able to afford Chanel couture despite earning about $6 a day, sleazy photographers, queenly designers, and expensive freebies raining down like wedding confetti” (Freeman 87). What the directors do not realize is that if the fashion industry is in fact a multibillion-dollar industry (which it is), it could not possibly survive if the many people behind it were exactly as they portray them. In fact, it would probably collapse. If one were to look at the story of The Devil Wears Prada through the eyes of the so-called villain, the intimidating editor-in-chief, as opposed to the young impressionable protagonist, one would see a very different picture. Mirand Priestlyis not merely the “dragon lady” who cannot manage to hold onto a workable marriage that the director would make her out to be. She is simply striving for what everyone else, regardless of gender, wants out of life, and that is both fulfillment from one’s job and having a “close, committed, and lasting intimate connection” (Gerson 267). And that means doing what needs to be done.

Throughout the entire movie, one learns about Miranda Priestly, ill-disguised as an allusion to Anna Wintour (editor-in-chief of Vogue), from the impressions of the people around her; the audiences hears about her impossible demands, impatient nature, cold demeanor, and her ability to make or break one’s career. In essence, she is the most powerful woman in fashion. THrough that character development, the movie manages to depict a “woman who seriously devotes her life to [the fashion industry] as being blind to the important things in life and an all-around self-deluding bitch” (Freeman 89). However, this reduces her characters; she is also a woman who strives for excellence in her work and upholds high standards. Moreover, she has moments of vulnerability, poignantly deliverd by Meryl Streep, as she strives to keep both her marriage afloat and some upstard from taking her job. And all that glamour and privilege comes with a price. In the end, she keeps her influence and powerful position but at the expense of others’ happiness and her husband leaving her. She puts it best in the end as she pushes Andrew to make a choice: “You can see beyond what people want and what they need. And you can choose for yourself…You want this life? Those choices are necessary” (Meryl Streep). And she is willing to make them time and time again.

Now what if the character of Miranda Priestly is reworked into a male role where, perhaps, his position would be a top advertizing executive instead? Would the same slant be applied? Would we as an audience judge his actions the same way? Most likely not. Even if the same labels were applied, the characteristics would not hold the same connotations for a man as it would for a woman. What is labeled “bitchy” and “ruthless” in a woman is deemed “stern” and “unyielding” in a man, qualities that help lead to a promotion. It would be seen as nothing more than doing what needs to be done in order to climb the corporate ladder and maintaining his own standards of excellence. Furthermore, a man putting in long hours for his career would hardly induce much judgment as concepts of traditionalism, even modified traditionalism, are at work. In stark contrast, from what the audience can infer from the brief glimpses into her home life, Miranda Priestly’s relationship with her husband is constantly strained–and eventually deteriorates into divorce–because she has the nerve to work long hours for something she loves and has spent most of her career building. Her dilemma is something many career women, regardless of what industry, must face. And clearly, it is created through a society operating on a framework of inequality and a double standard.

Traditionalism has placed a woman’s role in the home, raising the children and managing the household; having a higher education and a career generally is not in the picture. Moreover, they are reduced to having frivolous interests and “womanly” pursuits which leads society into thinking that women, themselves, are frivolous creatures in general. When they do have a career, women have to balance intelligence and appearance so much more than men do or else they risk not being taken seriously for their work. On one hand, sexual harassment can become an issue when a woman gets objectified for the way she dresses. Conversely, being deemed “serious” becomes synonymous with “dowdy” or “lesbian” because she is not feminine enough. Women continue to struggle with cultural boundaries that men simply do not have to face; they are constantly bombarded with gender stereotypes and lack a workable network that allows them to reach high positions.

Not only that, the concept of male privilege is a prevalent factor in the continuation of the glass ceiling. Often, women are met with discriminatory treatment when working in male-dominated occupations: “women fire fighters report concerns as to whether their co-workers will back them up in dangerous situations [and] when women are members of a token group in the workplace they are often ‘over supervised’ and scrutinized” (Bose & Whaley 202). And, rarer still is a woman holding a higher corporate position. In fact, in Washington Sate alone, out of 73 top publicly held companies, only 18% of executive positions and 14% of board seats are held by women (Harris). What is worse is that this is an ignored issue by men who have the power to help change it; instead of seeing a “systemic tendency in disciplinary frameworks or epistemology to overempower men as a group…for men’s centrality in all the inner sanctums of our most powerful institutions,” (McIntosh 96) they frequently choose to fall back on archaic justification as women being the “weaker” sex. So, maybe a character such as Miranda Priestly should be admired for being able to survive and thrive in a corporate world, despite society operating under a history that favors men.

Ultimately, all “women and men face rising conflicts over how to resolve the basic, tensions between family and work, public and private, autonomy and commitment. They are searching for new strategies for reconciling an “independent self” with commitment to others” (Gerson 258). And while the rigid structure of the male breadwinner/female caretaker household has faded somewhat, finding new solutions to the moral conflict between personal commitment at home and achieving one’s career goals is quite difficult with the residual influence of traditionalism. Times are changing with the current rise of public opportunities for women, meaning they can look “for definitions of personal identity that do not pit their own development against creating committed ties to others” (262). Men also have the same thoughts; “work along could not provide their lives with meaning [and they] hope to balance paid work and personal attachments without having to sacrifice the self for a job or paycheck” (266). How interesting that both are seeking the same thing, and yet, emphais different aspects of it. Women are seeking personal fulfillment in self-sufficiency because it was previously not available to them. They have watched their mothers stay in relationships longer than they perhaps should have and focus too much on their children all because the home was their “sole source of satisfaction or survival” (266). In contrast, men seek meaning to their lives beyond the workplace without having to compromise their own career goals because they have historically been placed as the breadwinner under traditionalism. Of course, men are applauded for it whereas women tend to be judged for making certain career decisions like Miranda Priestly did in The Devil Wears Prada. Women, it seems, are fighting an uphill battle.

If that was not already bad enough, people working in the fashion industry must work against more bias. Somewhere along the way, something that is supposed to be fun and a form of creative expression got lost. It became so “frivolous,” which by definition (self indulgently carefree) (Webster’s dictionary 2008) has connotations of triviality and worthlessness–as opposed to entertaining–that people have to create superficial worries such as becoming thin to the point of being unhealthy. While the people involved are not curing cancer, what they are doing cannot be deemed anymore worthless than pursuing a career in automobile editorial, sports, or film even. Reading a fashion magainze, which features some of the best photographers in the wolrd and depits the life of glamorous women, is an excellent escape from reality. It gives a woman a peek into a life where one can fit into luxurious couture to attend glamorous events and gets Bali salt scrubs monthly. It is not meant as a critique on women; the idea that fashion makes women feel bad about themselves is utterly ridiculous. While observing pretty young things live glamorous lives may incite some envy and viewing painfully thin models might inspire slight self-consciousness, a reader does not necessarily come away thinking that skeletal frames are normal. To my understanding, fashion is not some insipid cult that turns women into bimbos; women are quite able to distinguish between the fantasy presented in the magazines and reality. Why is it that mainstreem movies present an escape from reality as well, but yet, society does not hold people in the movie industry (who uphold an image of beautiful people) accountable for the degradation of women as it does Anna Wintour?

In fact, Vogue may be doing more for women than we all think it does. At the commencement at the Fashion Institute of Technology in 2003, Anna Wintour demonstrates her ability to move with the changing times. She states that “At Vogue, these days, we do [not] just cover the collectons; we cover style in its many and every-multiplying incarnations, from the man who designed your Nokia cellphone to the people responsible for the cool new Altoids. We ask questions about what it means to look great for women of different body types and of different ages. And we recognize that the fashion and beauty industries can empower women” (Wintour.

In the end The Devil Wears Prada does not do justice to an industry that I have come to admire; the cinematographical slant on the life of Miranda Priestly further illustrates the moral dilemmas career women face and serve to demonstrate society’s one dimensional view towards women. It is easy to limit the fashion industry to pretty dresses and glamorous events, as easy as it is to dismiss its worth for being an industry mainly composed of women. Rocket science it is most certainly not but it is hardly worthless. Essentially, if a person happens to find personal fulfillment by having a job in fashion, that gives it worth. No matter how much others try to reduce it, if it accomplishes that one thing, it is on track with what we are looking for, which is intimate connection along with a fulfilling career. How one goes about balancing all that is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it is time for the creation of the new moral order, one that allows a woman to move beyond the home without giving up her personal life. Are men willing to form an allyship in the efforts of creating that new moral order? More importantly, are men willing to relinquish some of their privilege if it means achieving the ideal balance? Hopefully, we shall see.

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One Comment to “Does the Devil Really Wear Prada?”

  1. *applause*

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