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The Devil Wears Prada

The Devil Wears Prada is a sophisticated urban fairy tale with a conflicted moral.
The story’s Cinderella, Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway), is forced to choose between designer Stuart Weitzman shoes and her soul. Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) is a domineering sadist who has cowed the fashion industry through the sheer force of her personality.
She’s the bad guy, the Cruella de Ville / Maleficent of this adult-themed Disney-sque movie.
Andy is fresh out of college and filled with lofty ambitions when she meets Miranda, the fashion editor of a highly successful glossy magazine. Unable to find work in any of New York’s newspapers, she applies for a job as Miranda’s second assistant, thinking that it will get her foot in the door. 
When she interviews for the position she’s dressed up like a dinner snack, wearing a frumpy sweater that fits her size six body too tightly. She might as well have “human chum” tattooed on her forehead, but Miranda hires her anyhow, maybe sensing the girl’s inner masochism.
A born pleaser and straight “A” student, Andy initially attempts to resist Miranda’s influence but eventually becomes seduced by the older woman’s powerful personality. She attacks the jobs mundane tasks with gusto, taking Miranda’s insane demands seriously.
In no time at all she’s transformed into an overachieving nobody, Miranda’s shadow. She frets over coffee, lives at the beck and call of her mistress, even does Miranda’s children’s homework. Her job obscures other parts of her life, and her lover Nate (Adrian Grenier) is less than thrilled to share his life with Miranda’s constant beeper.
The Devil Wears Prada moves in two directions simultaneously. The film starts out as a Killing Mrs. Tingle for the working set. In nature a creature this mercurial and fickle would be beaten to death by her underlings. Andy is a spunky, can-do kid, and we expect that she’ll exact some revenge on Miranda – teach the old bag a lesson.
On the other hand, Andy takes pride in her work and succeeds. She grows as a person in direct proportion to the amount of hours she works, and the film absolutely gushes over the fashion industry it seems to criticize.
The Devil Wears Prada attacks female careerism and feminism by showing what happens when women sacrifice their lives to their jobs. This reading says that behind every successful woman are at least two bitter divorces, neglected children and a highly paid psychologist.
Female professionalism and relationships are mutually exclusive, says this narrative. You can serve capitalism or you can be maternal, not both, and children always suffer when mommy tries to be the bread earner. Men are justifiably turned off when women take control. The devil is in the details and the details of Miranda Priestly’s life are unpleasant, suffocating and mean-spirited.   
But Andy flowers under this cruelty. She makes difficult choices that define her life, adapts to her situations, overcomes her challenges. She grows in unexpected ways, frightening her friends and boyfriend, who want her to remain a child.  (The suitable response to Nate’s whining when Andy misses his birthday is an exasperated sigh.)
Work changes us. We evolve under our stresses, learn how make difficult choices, sacrifice ourselves to tasks that have little to do with us as individuals. But work also gives our lives meaning, test us, forces us to accept parts of ourselves that we might otherwise disavow. In short, work is a way we understand ourselves.
The movie supports Andy’s decisions. Who wants a boyfriend who pouts when his girlfriend gets a chance to travel to Paris for her work or friends who chide her because she must keeper a beeper on her at all times? They sound like absolute jerks to me. She’s better off putting her energies into her career than folks who are so afraid of change that they’d rather their loved ones fail with them than succeed alone.
But the film is uneasy with itself.  On the one hand it wants to condemn Miranda as a dragon, a manifestation of feminine forces run amok. Andy should not have to choose between this woman’s whims and her personal life. But the fact is that Andy is better off knowing Miranda – and adopting her work ethic – than she was hanging out with her slacker friends.
The Devil Wears Prada suspends these two diametrically opposed viewpoints until the end, when it disintegrates into platitude. Three quarters of this film are complex and difficult, good art.
To beat the devil you must become the devil, but sometimes hell is just a place we go to figure out who we are.

 

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