Saturday, July 15, 2006

On what the devil really wears

Okay, so I'm sure that the percentage of Practically Harmless readers who have seen or are likely to see The Devil Wears Prada is somewhere around, well, me. However, I did see it, and while I did, for the record, enjoy the heck out of it (Meryl Streep rawks as passive-aggressive editor-in-chief Miranda Priestly, and while I know she's supposed to be the titular devil, I want to be her), I had some issues with it. And now you're gonna hear about them.

Anyone planning to see the movie - consider this the slightest bit spoliery.

The biggest thing, and realize that this comes from someone who was employed in a similar position up until quite recently, is that the writers really used the fashion industry as shorthand for "shallow and valueless pursuits." Instead of actually trying to show, through what she did and said and how she acted, how main character Andy turned into something distasteful because of the job she had, they just got lazy and said, "It's the fashion industry! Everyone knows it's shallow and vapid, because it's the fashion industry! Andy's gonna get all shallow and vapid, because she works in the fashion industry!" She started dressing better. She stopped slacking off at her job. She started seeing her coworkers as human beings. But it's the fashion industry, which means she's becoming - all together, now - shallow and vapid.

It's just lazy, says I.

Now, this might just be the Stockholm Syndrome talking, but as a former Much-Abused Assistant, I can really identify with the character of Andy Sachs. I, too, was a young woman, reasonably fresh out of college, completely unconcerned with fashion but facing down the barrel of a resume-building entry-level job that would pretty much let me write my own ticket in the future. I started out with a lot of disdain for the industry, and a lot of that, I still have (there's a lot of superficiality going on, and a lot of politics), but I also gained a lot of respect and understanding.

For instance, I learned that a significant chunk of the economy is supported by retail, design, and production, and it really does range across all income levels, from the Mercedes-driving, Manhattan-loft-dwelling trust-fund baby who sits on her ass and pretends to design hideous chiffon sundresses so that Daddy thinks she's doing something productive all the way down to the college student supplementing her scholarship money folding sweaters at Old Navy. Moreover, as far as a fashion publication is concerned, there are a whole bunch of people involved who couldn't care less whether they're producing a fashion magazine or Philatelists Monthly, as long as the magazine is getting out on time and their name is spelled right on the paycheck.

Yes, Andy's job was hard. It was demanding. It sucked that she had to miss her boyfriend's birthday party, and it sucked that she was forced to attend the gala on such short notice. But she was working a high-prestige, dues-paying job, and them's the breaks. It's the kind of decision that a person has to make for herself. What do I value more: personal time, relationships, sleep, health, job satisfaction, and a sense of fulfillment, or a job that looks good on the resume and will most likely to lead to better jobs in the future? When you get to the point where the former starts to outweigh the latter, that's when you quit your job and find something more livable.

What bugged Andy's friends wasn't the fact that she was devoting so much of herself and her time to her job; it was that they didn't think that her job was good enough, had enough value. If she'd had to miss her boyfriend's party to work late for her job as a PR flack for the CDC, he probably wouldn't have had nearly the same reaction - even if she'd only been schlepping crudites at her boss's cocktail party. But she was working late for her fashion industry job, so it was perfectly acceptable to accuse her of losing track of her values and sense of self. When her boyfriend accused her of losing her values, it was only because initially, they'd both had equal disdain for the industry, but now she was being open-minded and starting to learn that her colleagues (most of them, anyway) were actually human beings as worthy of respect as anyone else, and he was still disdainful.

From the beginning, Andy said that job was going to be both high-stress and high-reward. She said that if she could tough it out for one year, the rest of her career would be smooth sailing. Her friends could have accepted that and gotten off her back a little, respecting that she was doing what she'd decided was necessary for her future success. Instead, they accepted her expensive designer gifts, played keep-away with her phone while her boss was trying to call, and laid a world-class guilt trip on her for not devoting more time to them when she was obviously stressed paper-thin as it was.

Miranda, bless her heart, was at least consistent in her ridiculous and impossible demands, and the brass ring was very much in evidence. Her friends, on the other hand, demanded her time and attention, accepted her best efforts and pricey gifts, and offered nothing in return in terms of compassion or understanding. I'm not going to pretend that Miranda wasn't beastly (been there, done that, got the ulcer and a really great pair of chandelier earrings), but from where I was sitting, it looked like the devil was wearing Converse.

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