The Who Wears Prada?

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Brooke Niesen

The Devil Wears Prada is a comedy drama film created in 2006 about Andrea “Andy” Sachs who goes to New York City after graduating from college in search of a job in journalism.  Instead, Andy lands the “dream job” working as an assistant to Miranda Priestly, a fashion magazine editor who arguably dominates the fashion industry.  Although she wants to be a writer, Andy desperately needs money and therefore accepts the job.  She hopes this job will be an opportunity to gain experience and make connections with people in the industry that can help her land journalist opportunities in the future.

At the beginning of the film, Andy does not feel that she fits in with the fashion industry.  She dresses very plain, and she is not one to gossip or backstab others, which is the normal course of business in the fashion industry.  But as the film progresses, she begins to embrace her role – dressing in designer clothes and committing to the (ridiculous) jobs that Miranda assigns to her.  Andy begins to put her job before her friends and relationships, causing obvious problems.  She works extremely long hours, even missing her boyfriend’s birthday party for a work event.  She stoops so low as to stab her colleague, Emily, in the back by accepting an invitation to Paris that was really meant for Emily.  The list of undesirable behavior grows, and according to her friends and boyfriend, Andy changes everything about who she is because of this job.  Andy is criticized and punished for putting her job first when, in fact, she should be praised for working hard, the same way men are praised for identical behavior.

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The dominant reading of this film is that Andy is a heartless, soul-selling bitch who puts her job before everyone and everything else in her life.  Andy gets to the top in her career by stepping on the backs of others to get there.  Her once important morals have supposedly vanished and now all she cares about is being the best assistant to Miranda.  Throughout the film, her friends point this out to her repeatedly and her boyfriend even ends up leaving her because of how much she has changed.  And not only is she ditching her friends and changing her style, she is doing all of this to serve another heartless bitch, Miranda.  All the while knowing that Miranda doesn’t care about her, and only uses her to get her coffee and fetch her dry cleaning (along with countless other outrageous, and sometimes nearly impossible, tasks).  This film does a great job of making the viewer see Andy through the eyes of her friends and boyfriend, leaving no question that she has betrayed herself and everyone that is important to her because of her job.

This supports the perspective that any woman who puts her job first has her priorities completely wrong and is selling her soul, which is simply unacceptable.  But would this be the case if this story was about a man?  Herein lies the flaw in this interpretation of The Devil Wears Prada.  I strongly believe that if the main character in the film was male, not only would his actions be completely accepted by society, he would be applauded for being tenacious and driven.  Andy is criticized for taking a job she didn’t want to get ahead in her career and prioritizing her job over her friends, boyfriend, and colleague.  We see similar instances every day in our own lives and constantly in films/TV shows.  Criminal Minds, Interstellar, Elf, just to name a few from a range of genres.

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What frustrates me is that although everyone who watches this film will see Andy as a selfish, backstabbing, workaholic, not everyone will realize that we accept these qualities in men and do not criticize them.  This is because individuals do not read the same text in the same way.  As discussed in Textual Negations: Female Spectatorship and Cultural Studies, people interpret based on their own social and historical background.  Stuart Hall developed a model that explains how the communicative process operates within a specific cultural context and thus proposed an encoding/decoding model (McCabe, p. 39).  Ultimately, Hall declares that “dependent on where the individual is positioned within the social structure, and how they are shaped by affiliations associated with class, gender, sexuality and/or ethnicity, reader/spectator response is determined either by aligning with, negotiating or even opposing the “preferred” meanings at the moment of reception” (McCabe, p. 40).  With that said, it is safe to say that many viewers will interpret the movie in this way (seeing Andy in a negative way), as the director of the film intended, because they do not fit into the same category as Andy and therefore, do not relate with her.

I, on the other hand, immediately identified with Andy and her situation.  I am a woman in business and I plan on pursuing a demanding career.  While most may think that what Andy did was “wrong” and “unacceptable for women,” I admire what she did and completely understand that it may have been both necessary and reasonable.  Men and women alike deserve to have well-paying, demanding jobs and should not be criticized for doing what is necessary to be successful.

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As I viewed this film, I considered how I would feel and what I would do if I was Andy.  It was through this lens that I applied an oppositional gaze.   Instead of feeling bad for the people in Andy’s life that she was “letting down,” I admired Andy for taking a risk that allowed her to experience such an amazing opportunity and doing what she needed to do to take the next step in her career.  Many professionals (men especially), backstab their colleagues, miss their partner’s birthday dinner for work emergencies, and work long hours all to continue on a path that will lead them to greater success.  Men are not criticized for it, and women should not be either.

I found it difficult to shift my focus to viewing this negative interpretation of Andy as positive because I feel very strongly about the inequality of men and women in the workplace.  However, I found some relief in the fact that a woman (two, in fact), were represented as strong, dominant females in the workplace.  It is rare to see women with such important leadership roles in film and through this, I was able to shift my focus to other aspects and find the good in the text.  In Textual Negations: Female Spectatorship and Cultural Studies, McCabe quotes Christine Gledhill when she says, “The image of the woman has… been a site of gendered discourse, drawn from the specific social-cultural experience of women and shared by women, which negotiates a space within, and sometimes resists, patriarchal domination.  At the same time new definitions of gender and sexuality circulated by the women’s movement contest the value and meaning of the female image, struggling for different, female recognitions and identifications” (McCabe, p. 48).  Clearly the women’s movement is making a difference and women are finally being recognized and are being represented more equally to men, as in The Devil Wears Prada.  Although the image of women in film is not yet ideal, I believe that this is a step forward.

I have taken more away from The Devil Wears Prada than I could have ever imagined.  A few months ago, I was completely oblivious to the representation of women in film, as this was something I never really paid attention to.  But now, as I look at this film with an analytical eye, I see so much more than bitchy business women with great shoes.  I see strong, determined, independent women that strive for the same success as men.  Andy, as well as all women in business, should not be looked down upon for putting their careers first, especially since it is acceptable for men.  In the end, Andy ends up quitting the job because she realizes the damage it has caused.  But ultimately, for me, the ending is irrelevant.  I hope that we continue to move towards total equality between men and women, in film and in real life, and that soon women will not only be represented as successful business women,  but they will be praised for working as hard as men.

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