So, let’s talk The Devil Wears Prada.
(No, I’m not kidding. Yes, I actually like the movie. I also like Saw, the JJ Abrams Star Trek, The Replacements, Mary Poppins, and most Pixar movies. Deal, alright?)
In Prada, a fresh-faced college journalism graduate, Andrea Sachs (played by Anne Hathaway), tries to get jobs at a number of news magazines, and fails. Finally she is hired as a personal assistant (“1st Assistant”) by the notoriously demanding Miranda Priestly, played by Meryl Streep, the editor of the landmark fashion industry magazine Runway. Sachs is told that if she works for Priestly for a year, she can get a job at any media organization in the country.
Sachs know nothing of fashion, and has mild contempt for the industry. She considers it beneath her, but choses to work at Runway because she want to succeed at magazine writing. “A million girls would die to work there” (as several people note), but Sachs only deigns to work there.
So, the stakes: Work for Priestly for a year, in an industry you have contempt for, in return for which you can get hired at any news organization in the country and begin to report on “real news”.
The obstacles: Miranda Priestly is the ultimate “drop them into the deep end” boss. She has exacting standards and is utterly, maybe insanely, demanding. Working for her is a brutal bootcamp. (Which is why people are willing to hire assistants who survive. “If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.”)
[Ob. gaming reference: Stories, and games, are all about high stakes and obstacles to those stakes. Characters — and by extension players — have to earn success, or the game’s no fun. See here for more.]
The stakes and the obstacles provide the fodder for perfect dramatic conflict. So what went wrong?
Spoilers below! Ye be warned.
For one, the filmmakers chumped out. (Fine, the chump-out was in the original novel.)
What do I mean? Writers force characters to make tough choices: Do I tell my boss about my coworker embezzling funds, or do I stay loyal to my friend (and become complicit in his thievery)?
Characters need to make tough choices, it’s where they reveal who they really are. (And not in interminable talky sequences, unlike Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows.) Writers chump out when they take the burden of choice off their character’s shoulders, when convenient things happen that just magically make the problem go away.
(Dexter is particularly bad about this. How many times has Dexter been close to being unmasked, only to have someone else step in and clean up his problem? All the way back to Doakes, at least.)
Sachs excels at her job. She achieves the impossible. At a critical juncture, Priestly demands the unpublished 7th Harry Potter manuscript for her daughters, and expects Sachs to get it while at the same time running about town to get a steak from a restaurant that won’t be open for another hour. And Sachs gets it. Has it bound. And makes sure it’s on the train with the two little girls.
Sachs does the impossible.
At another point Sachs is unexpectedly asked to assist Priestly at a party, by memorizing the faces and bios of dozens of guests. The other assistant Emily, a girl who’s been continuously abusive of Sachs, had weeks to prepare. Sachs had hours. Yet, at the party, Sachs comes through in a clinch and the other girl chokes.
As a result, Priestly decides to take Sachs to Paris for the annual fashion shows, because Sachs is the best candidate for the job. This is the (sorta) tough choice: go to Paris, because it’s what the job requires, or quit, forfeiting all the effort put into an impossibly tough job, allowing Emily to go in your place.
This is, in actuality, a silly little conundrum. It’s based solely around guilt. “Oh noes, I’m really good at an impossibly tough job, and this other girl is mediocre! How can I let myself succeed? Oh noes!”
Yet the writers don’t have the balls to allow Sachs to make the choice. Emily gets hit by a car, breaks her leg, and can’t physically attend the shows and parties in France. Sachs is relieved of the burden of having to choose.
But its worse than that. Despite the fact that Sachs had no choice to make, the writers try to play it off like she did. At the climax of the movie, Sachs has a moral crisis because Priestly protects herself from being fired, via politicking and, in the process, prevents one of her underlings (Nigel) from being hired by another company.
Oh, it’s so terrible! Oh, it’s so bad!
Sachs says “I could never do what you did to Nigel.”
Priestly responds, “You already did, to Emily.”
Bwuh? No, she didn’t. Emily broke her leg. Sachs didn’t stab her in the back, Emily was in the hospital. She couldn’t do the job, Sachs was just stepping in.
I wish Sachs had been forced to make the tough choice, but you writers chumped the hell out. You took the decision off her shoulders, and as a result she has is not complicit in the situation. Yet both Priestly and Sachs act like she was. Achiever’s guilt.
It’s maddening. It completely robs the climax of any real emotional or moral insight and impact. Sachs feels guilty, because of an accident she had nothing to do with, and as a result leaves Priestly without an assistant in the middle of Paris Fashion Week. That’s not a bold statement of personal empowerment, it’s a foolish little decision, made by a silly, stupid little girl. (Which Sachs isn’t.)
This movie could have been great. It could have been a compelling story of how one person survived an impossible situation, thrived, and as a result succeeded in her industry.
I’m not a feminist, but I believe that both men and women both have the strength to endure and succeed. The more painful the circumstances they endure, the more incredible and praiseworthy their success. And movies which illustrate this have the potential to be meaningful, because they illustrate deep truth:
People must sacrifice to succeed.
This is a truth as old as humanity. And Sachs sacrificed and succeeded.
And what does she get from it? Her narcissistic friends constantly guilt trip her about not spending time with them, because she’s doing a tough job for one year. Sachs gives them $1900 Marc Jacobs purses and $1100 Bang and Olufsen phones as gifts, and still they complain. Sachs misses her boyfriend’s birthday party, because of another Priestly demand, and her boyfriend guilt trips her, like she’s doing a bad thing by ensuring her future. And Sachs guilt trips herself, about the Emily situation.
And at the end of the movie she comes crawling back to the boyfriend, saying she’s wrong. By then Sachs has excelled in the job, earning the respect of everyone around her (Gisele Bündchen complimenting her on her fashion sense), including her insanely demanding, impossible-to-please boss. So why are we, as an audience meant to think that’s a bad thing?
Why does she have to apologize for excelling? Excellence is never something one should apologize for.
Yet a strong, capable, confident woman, who did the impossible, is forced by the script to apologize to the weak, effeminate boyfriend for being successful. This is chick lit, written by a wealthy East Coast liberal woman, trading in the ugliest stereotypes of women.
And you know what? Sachs wasn’t wrong. At the end of the movie, she’s interviewing for a news magazine, the dream job she came to New York to find, and she gets it. Because of Miranda Priestly.
The editor says he called Priestly, who said “Of all the assistants she’d had, you were the biggest disappointment, and if I don’t hire you, I’m an idiot. You must have done something right.”
Sachs sacrificed, and succeeded because of that sacrifice. She isn’t a silly little girl, as much as the script tries to portray her as one.
Life is tough. Success takes hard work. This is a truth the movie could have illustrated vividly. But the writers missed the point of their own premise.