Justifying My English Degree: “The Devil Wears Prada” vs. the Protestant Work Ethic

THE FILM: The Devil Wears Prada, 20th Century Fox, 2006

PRINCIPAL ACTORS: Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway

SYNOPSIS: A naive young woman comes to New York and scores a job as the assistant to one of the city’s biggest magazine editors, the ruthless and cynical Miranda Priestly.

THE CRITIQUE:

 -Let me know when your whole life goes up in smoke. Means it’s time for a promotion.

Work hard, don’t overextend yourself financially, and the world can be yours. That’s the philosophy that drives the majority of America, which has its roots in the Protestant Work Ethic, the idea that hard work and the willingness to do it are all that stands between us and the promised land. There are countless stories and films that bolster this belief, showing an American fresh off the bus who pulls themselves up by their bootstraps and become a true success in whatever field they pursue. They’re the sort of fairy tales we were told in the 70s and 80s and 90s to keep up our confidence as we went off to college.

However, another kind of movie started to creep in in the 80s, where working too hard became a sin. You would see a character, often a father or a single parent, working beyond the 40 hours expected in a week, either because they needed the money or simply loved the challenge of the job. Everything would seem fine… on the surface. In actuality, only the working person was happy, while everyone else in their lives was miserable because of their work habits. More often than not this was accomplished by showing wives and children neglected by hard-working fathers, the caretaking parent often portrayed as overwhelmed because the working parent wasn’t pitching in enough. Nathan Rabin puts it best in his critique of North, an example of his trend, when he says, “These films coldly exploit both the innate narcissism of children and the guilt of dual-income couples worried that their professional success is coming at the expense of their children’s happiness. Most parents try their best under challenging circumstances. They don’t deserve to have cynical kiddie fare propagating the message that if you miss little Timmy’s softball game even once he’ll end up a serial killer all because of your terrible parenting.”

But these movies, whether they be terrible movies like North or less guilt-inducing fare like Charles Shyer’s Baby Boom, usually use the family as an excuse for the guilt, or at the very least a marriage falling apart. In The Devil Wears Prada, the trend is tweaked, and in a fashion that tends to outright denounce the desire to get ahead rather than provide a familial exception.

At the beginning of the film, Anne Hathaway’s character Andrea “Andy” Sachs seems to be gearing up for a Secret of My Success kind of ascension, gathering up her earnest newspaper clippings and preparing for her interview at a prestigious magazine. The motivation, of course, is that by working the job for a year, she can write her own ticket at any magazine in New York, which is something most would kill for, no matter how hellish the job. What follows is a normal progression of learning the ropes and a montage of being overwhelmed by the job, but slowly getting the hang of it and eventually enjoying the challenge, even if she doesn’t fully go for the subject matter. The complications that arise are from her family, friends, and relationships, but it’s never put across all that convincingly.

When Andy gets a visit from her father, it’s constantly interrupted by work, and she’s admonished for always working so late, but it’s established that her family lives out of state, and only one parent bothers to make the trip to visit. It’s a scene that doesn’t sell the concern it’s pushing, the idea that maybe Andy is working too hard after all, and that busting her ass and paying her dues to get her dream job (an idea that’s supported by the Protestant work ethic) frankly isn’t worth it if she has to miss seeing Chicago with her dad. Her relationship with her friends is strained as well, particularly in a scene where she greets her pals at a club with about $3000 in free swag for them to make amends for working so much, and they proceed to mock her anyway and try to prank her boss (but still keep the stuff).

It’s about at this point in the film that the message becomes muddled, unsure of whether it wants to denounce working hard or simply ambition, and no further does it show this than with the relationship between Andy and her boyfriend Nate. Whether he’s guilting her for working late or harping on her for her ethical decisions (none of which seem vile), it’s Nate that’s supposed to symbolize the reason to forsake all of her hard work. While he might proclaim, “I wouldn’t care if you were out there pole-dancing all night, as long as you did it with a little integrity!”, there’s little more to it than simple yelling. While Andy might wail that she had no choice in making her decisions, not a single one of her career-advancing decisions have any ethical violations. The major faux pas she loses her relationship over, going to Paris instead of her fellow assistant, is rendered null ethically as the assistant Emily is laid up in the hospital, Andy given a pass by Fate. Even then, Andy wasn’t given the choice to go to Paris, she was awarded with it for proving herself the more skilled and capable worker, the prize of a meritocracy that’s championed by the Protestant Work Ethic.

Everything that Andy receives career-wise in the movie is earned through hard work, gumption, and a little luck, but she’s constantly berated by those on the outside for daring to smile at the spoils. Instead of being lauded for getting the job “a million girls would kill for”, she’s hounded by guilt for paying the price that it asks. Of course, she still gets a pass in the end because this is a movie, and gets a shot at her dream job, perhaps as one favor despite walking out without a word (though instead of working at a magazine based at a skyscraper, it’s at an under-budgeted though earnest also-ran).  It’s well presented in the movie that if Andy hadn’t left, she would become a likely protege to her boss, and there’s nothing to suggest she wouldn’t enjoy it. Instead, it pushes the moral that it’s okay to work hard, but not too hard, to always make time for your friends and boyfriends because they’ll never understand that publishing, no matter WHICH magazine or newspaper you work for is a high-hour high-stress job, and most importantly that if you enjoy your high-hour high-stress job, there’s clearly something wrong with you.

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