Dir. David Frankel. Starring Anne Hathaway, Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt
“I wouldn’t care if you were pole dancing all night as long as you did it with a little integrity,” Nate (Adrian Grenier) tells Andy (Hathaway) one evening. It’s an interesting line—one that immediately follows a quip about how the guy who makes “port wine reductions” isn’t exactly immune to the world Andy is beginning to embody—because the word “integrity” is being used to mean “virtue” here. The movie is not really about doing the right thing, even if there are fairly important plot elements after the midpoint in which people clearly do bad things to each other (i.e., Andy takes Emily’s spot on the Paris trip, Miranda sacrifices Nigel to save her job). It’s about doing the thing which is most you, which is the sort of thing one believes in as long as one also believes identity is static. What Andy is, according to Nate, is someone whose indifference to fashion is rather a badge of honor. What Andy is, according to her father, is someone who got into Stanford Law and is downshifting into journalism, “and now you’re not even doing that,” he tells her over dinner. (Her father, for what it’s worth, is not as dumb as he looks; he appears to be able to see the future of the newspaper industry.) What Andy is, according to herself, is someone whose intelligence, tenacity, and quick thinking will win the day. Some agglomeration of these is what Nate is talking about when he talks about “integrity,” and it’s a queasy sort of bourgeois integrity indeed.
The most satisfying moment of The Devil Wears Prada, and it may also be one of the most satisfying moments of my entire life, is the scene where Andy learns where her cerulean sweater came from.
To this point, the movie has treated Miranda Priestley (Streep) as a mostly distant force, like a hurricane out over the Atlantic somewhere. It makes landfall on the East Coast in this scene. Andy has been carefully set up for this moment, and I’m not sure if the movie realizes how set up she was. After all, this is a recent college graduate with an offer to Stanford Law, a degree from Northwestern, a wonderful resume, and most of all, a daddy who can pass on checks for her to keep up with New York rent after college. What the movie has been trying to do is impress us with the background, but what it accomplishes is making Andy the epitome of the poor little rich girl, someone none of us can possibly pity. “It’s sort of comical,” Miranda says in her offhandedly withering way, “how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry, when, in fact” (and by now she has created an outfit the way we imagine Monet painted ponds) “you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room.” After this scene, there’s a cut to Andy complaining to Nate about how nuts Miranda is, blaming “two identical belts” for the beatdown she took at work. It takes a talking-to from Nigel later on to convince Andy that she’s underestimated the fashion industry, but that’s still a ways off, and it’s softened transactionally when Nigel gives her presumably unlimited access to the closet at Runway. It’s a head-turning transformation for her, one that Nate likes and that Emily (Blunt) grudgingly admires. Almost like magic, people stop saying so much about how a million girls would kill for her job. There’s a sense of gratitude that’s been added, but whether or not that’s been supplemented with a spirit of understanding is questionable. Does Andy go on the Internet and look up the cerulean jackets by Oscar de la Renta that Miranda alluded to? Does she ever really know that belts have connotations? Surely she would correct someone in her prescriptivist way for mixing up the connotations of two similar words, but does she ever genuinely try to learn what a belt does besides make her outfit look better in some nebulous way? The Devil Wears Prada never shows us any such scene, and in its absence we are left with the conclusion that Andy goes from using Miranda’s clout for her own advancement to…using Miranda’s clout for her own advancement.
The real heroes of the story are Emily and Nigel (Tucci), although they are not necessarily the heroes we’d like our kids to emulate. Although their lack of backbone means that they don’t get what they want, and indeed have what they want ripped away from them with both hands by Miranda, that lack of backbone also breeds humility and a sense of place. Anyone with an ounce of perspective recognizes that Emily’s priorities are awfully mixed up, and yet this is not a bad person. She has done exactly what so many parents have told their children to do, and what Andy’s father tacitly approves of: she enters the career field that excites her. If it makes her miserable or stressed sometimes, well, so would a deadline on a newspaper story. Nigel is more heroic than Emily, mostly because he’s more successful than her but also because of his increased perspective. Nigel realizes there’s a world out there beyond fashion, I think, but he is only second to Miranda in his understanding of what fashion can mean to someone. For people who believe in taste, glamour, aesthetics, Runway is a “beacon.” For people who don’t realize that such things exist and who discover them like an epiphany—as the child Nigel did—it can be life-changing. He strikes the balance between personal satisfaction and a sense of place better than anyone else in the film.
As much as Nate enjoys Andy with bangs—a haircut as out of style now as Andy’s lists of “excuses” to not sleep with a handsome writer, Christian, which sets back conversations about consent an easy decade—that snide comment about “integrity” is directed to a girlfriend who’s figured out eyelash curlers and statement jewelry. This lacquered version of her is not the one he fell for, and he blames it largely on the performance she’s taken up to make good at Runway. It’s a scene which has an immediate precedent in Mean Girls (“Hey, buddy, you’re not pretending anymore—you’re plastic!”) and one that has a later corollary in A Star Is Born, when a jealous Jackson accuses Ally of selling out on her message, whatever that was. And as it is in the other movies, this argument puts our heroine on the path to reclaiming the kind of person she really was all along. One could argue, and maybe ought to argue, that a person’s character is not elastic. We don’t snap into shape like rubber bands; give a person enough time and they’ll be like a six-month-old hairtie, distorted, thinned on one end and bulbous on another. The movie does not recognize that Andy might have genuinely been transformed—that nod she gives to Miranda as she passes the office is as transactional as her escapades in the closet, not a statement of enlightenment about haute couture—and this return to the status quo is deeply disappointing.
One of the early novels by the late Anita Brookner, Providence, follows a woman on the verge of thirty named Kitty as she chases, in the following order, a man and a job. Cleaning up after the dinner she’s made for the man, she has the thought, “I want to be totally unreasonable, totally unfair, very demanding, and very beautiful.” Miranda Priestley may be three of the four, and since we know Streep like we know ourselves, she has certainly been the fourth as well. The primary difference between Kitty and Miranda is that Miranda has never had a thought remotely like Kitty’s, because people who have to think those things will never attain them. Miranda has figured out that expectation is the next best thing to reception, and it’s why a phrase like “I don’t understand why it’s hard so hard to” passes her lips multiple times a day. Miranda wants what she wants when she wants it, and worse still for someone like Andy who does not recognize that these wants have roots, or that if one is running such a magazine one might overuse vague pronouns. (That Miranda knows how to screw with people via these requests, as when she gets Andy running all over town to pick up a steak she rejects immediately, is doubtless frustrating for the runner.) Should Miranda be kinder and more patient? Probably, because I’m sure we all could be. The movie at least recognizes that her qualities that seem so annoying or unsavory would be overlooked in a man, or twisted in such a way to become praise rather than dismissal, and yet the movie still perseveres in making her a villain for far too long. Worse, her moment of vulnerability is exactly the moment of vulnerability that we are meant to associate with powerful women. Without makeup, in a robe, as far from chic as Andy is from self-understanding, she confesses that her most recent marriage is ending. At least this isn’t Mary Queen of Scots, as Miranda’s got kids and doesn’t have to lament never achieving motherhood. But all the same, these are the most cliched concerns about powerful women, the ones that are meant to quickly rope us into sympathy for them and, maybe, to make us vindictively whisper “Yes!” with a clenched fist, like this is what Miranda deserves for stepping out of her lane, as if this is more her real self than the dominant herald of modern fashion.