There’s a moment in The Devil Wears Prada (Fox) when Anne Hathaway, as the put-upon editorial assistant Andy Sachs, defends her monstrous boss, fashion editor Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), by saying: “If she were a man, the only thing people would talk about is how good she is at her job.” But by the film’s end, Andy, along with the movie itself, backs down from this vaguely feminist claim. In the end, Miranda’s sadistic perfectionism and deliberately insatiable demands aren’t seen as evidence of her professional acumen or her commitment to Runway magazine; they’re just evidence that she’s a royal bitch. The Devil Wears Prada is a movie that revels in pleasure: the pleasure of fashion, of luxury, of power and ambition. It’s also a tremendous pleasure to watch. (And who cares if the clothes aren’t authentic? They’re fabulous.) Nonetheless, there’s something mealy-mouthed about the way the movie dangles all the goodies of worldly success before our eyes, then scolds its heroine for wanting to grab a little of that pleasure and power for herself.
When Andy finds herself making choices that privilege the professional over the personal—missing her boyfriend’s birthday dinner, for example, when she’s required to attend a Runway gala—we’re meant to understand that she’s drunk the Kool-Aid of careerism. Yet the sacrifices we see Andy making for her work—late hours, low pay, being forced to run menial errands for her superiors—are only comic exaggerations of the standard compromises that many young people, male and female, are asked to put up with in entry-level jobs. Are we supposed to agree that Andy really has sold her soul by privileging the mandatory work eventover the birthday boy? (Hey, she brings him a cupcake at midnight and apologizes profusely, wearing a gorgeous evening gown. I’ve had way worse birthdays than that.)
When, at the movie’s climax, Andy wails about having betrayed her friends and family for the sake of her vampiric boss, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d napped through a scene or two. What did she do that was so shameful? Even the moment that’s presented as Andy’s moral nadir is rigged so as to render her powerless: Miranda Priestly, the most powerful woman in fashion, has just threatened to fire her and blackball her throughout the industry unless she agrees to do something mildly unethical—really, it’s just un-nice—to a Runway colleague (who, incidentally, has treated Andy like utter dirt from her first day on the job). In other words, Andy’s great descent into the ethical underbelly consists of not being the sweetest and most self-sacrificing person on-screen. To reframe Andy’s defense of her boss: What if this were a movie about a man—a young man apprenticing himself to a hard-boiled older mentor? I can’t help but think that the moral compromises required in order to sully the hero’s character would be much greater, and that he wouldn’t have to apologize for caring about his job.