The Devil Wears Prada : Adaptability vs. Individuality

I love this movie and it sits right there with “The Intern” in terms of repeated viewings, but I’ll never really understand if we’re all supposed to collectively think of Miranda Priestly as the “Devil” in the film. A character with certain questionable traits, sure, but to go so far as to call her the devil, is a bit too much.

The Devil Wears Prada is the kind of movie everyone would enjoy. I especially love how despite the film being largely dominated by female characters, it never plays out like a “chick flick”. I have personally never met a guy who disregarded the movie solely on the basis of the female driven characters and the “Runway” world of the film.

It follows the journey of Andy, (played by Anne Hathaway) the newly hired assistant and Miranda Priestly, (portrayed by Meryl Streep) the editor-in-chief of Runway. Right from the beginning, two things are made very clear. First, is that Andy is not interested in fashion at all. She wants to be a journalist but getting a job with Miranda Priestly will supposedly open a lot of doors for her, which is the sole reason she is even interested in getting a job at Runway. And the second, is that Miranda Priestly, the perfectionist, is a very intimidating woman in a position of power and influence, who is essentially the invisible hand behind the entire fashion industry. She is the “man in the room”. She has a vision and a plan in place for everything and she does not accept sub-par performance from anyone, whether on her payroll or not. Hers, is the only opinion that matters and she knows it. She has worked for it to be that way.

I am fully aware that the basic idea behind the book, and ultimately the movie that was based on it, was that you should not let your work change you to the extent that you are no longer someone you can look in the mirror and be proud of. And while I completely agree with the idea, I do not think the movie necessarily gets us to reach that same conclusion. I agree that certain characters in the film haven’t aged as well (yes, I am looking at you, Nate), but even when the movie first came out, I think it was more of a political statement on the idea of accepting women in a position of power rather then critiquing them constantly. Andy drives the message home when she says “If Miranda were a man, no one would notice anything about her except how great she is at her job.”

Meryl Streep’s understated portrayal of Miranda Priestly adds a lot of nuance to the plot and the character arc. It actually makes her more intimidating. And it is human psychology that the more intimidating we find someone, the more we wish to seek their approval. The movie both agrees and disagrees with this. For instance, while it is clear as day that Andy and Emily both admire Miranda’s work ethic, vision and commitment, it is only the former who is able to speak up to the boss and that is the sole reason she gets hired for the job in the first place. By refusing to submit to all of Miranda’s assertions, Andy is able to command respect for herself, which impresses the dragon lady herself. The idea is not to fully surrender yourself to the wishes of the other, but to maintain your personality and your individualism.

I find that the film takes a very interesting approach to convey this message. Initially, when Andy feels neglected and unappreciated by Miranda after getting the job, she goes to her only friend in the building, Nigel (who happens to be her only real friend in the movie). Till this point, you can safely say that Andy is very much herself. She has not compromised any part of her trying to fit in with her co-workers. However, keeping in mind that the purpose of the movie is to teach us to be comfortable in our own skin, the following scene with Nigel that inspires her to undergo a major glow-up can be somewhat confusing and ironical. Even so, even years from now, their conversation stands out to me and I actually agree with Nigel’s perspective.

“You only deign to work” – Nigel

She changes her clothes and suddenly everyone takes notice of her. That’s shallow. Sure. No other way to look at it. But, the message here, is not her major wardrobe upgradation. The point is that to get anywhere, you need to put efforts. To understand your environment. To gain perspective and empathy towards it, even if you may be unable to share the same opinion. Suddenly, it does not sound shallow anymore. The above conversation with Nigel is my favourite in the entire movie, since it gives a depth to the story and the characters rather than just showing us a physical metamorphosis. It is not shallow anymore, but rather a conscious effort to empathise with her environment and maybe even be more respectful towards it. It also shows us that we need to stop with the self-pity. To appreciate the opportunities that are provided to us rather than indulge in self-obsessed destructive behaviour.

Yes, this is not Andy’s dream job. It is not her passion. But it is the stepping stone to help her be one step closer towards her goals. So many of us do not have the luxury of just pursuing our passion. Personally, I actually feel it’s a rather romanticised concept these days. Not everyone has to have a burning passion in their lives. Most of us, very realistically, have to live a life we would not have ideally picked for ourselves. Just like Andy. But, we have to learn to live and thrive in whatever we do. We have to learn to respect and appreciate it. And recognise that it deserves as much of our efforts as anything else. If changing her clothes gets her one step closer to respecting her job, then I do not think that is shallow in any way. Nor do I think that has to necessarily mean she is no longer the same person she used to be. Ergo, her friends are basically jerks for being unsupportive of her job and its demanding schedule.

We also cannot ignore that Miranda has her own grey areas. Andy knows some of these things, and some she discovers the hard way. While Miranda’s excellence, dedication, perfectionism and outright genius are her redeeming qualities, she is also manipulative and self-centred. She is willing to put down others to get things to work out for herself. And for someone who personally feels that being selfish is okay as long as it is not at the cost of someone else, I just cannot bring myself to accept these traits of hers. Not because she is a woman and therefore should be critiqued differently, but just because it is an unflattering trait on anyone, period.

Having seen potential in Andy, Miranda deliberately tests Andy’s qualities and her loyalty. She actually feels she is training Andy in doing so, and not manipulating her. Training her to be a better leader and to be more successful. Ironically, it is when Miranda spells out their similarities, that Andy feels the most estranged from herself. She does not like the person she has become. She does not like how easily she was willing to replace Emily (her colleague) to benefit her career. She adapted to her career, sure. Undoubtedly and very successfully. But to her, it came at the cost of losing her individuality in the process. It’s a fine line. But Andy knows what needs to be done. She prides herself of being a good person, and someone who knows right from wrong. She knows better than to stick around in an environment which she feels is toxic. And she knows when to walk away.

A compromise is reached. Heeding to all the new things that her stint at Runway taught her, an older, wiser Andy rediscovers a version of herself that is willing to adapt to the requirements of her new job, but to continue being the person she would be proud of. It does not have to be black or white. The way it had been for Miranda. Andy resolves to achieve both. And in doing this, gains Miranda’s ultimate respect. By finally being indifferent towards it…

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