One of the great privileges of coming back to a work you saw when you were young, or at least younger, is the way a story can change over time. Benny, the upwardly mobile landlord, might have seemed like the villain when “Rent,” Jonathan Larson’s musical about bohemians and HIV, premiered in 1996, but with 20 years of hindsight, he seems like a sympathetic pragmatist.
The same is true for “The Devil Wears Prada,” David Frankel’s adaptation of Lauren Weisberger’s novel, a thinly veiled account of Weisberger’s time working for Vogue editor Anna Wintour, which was released 10 years ago today. The movie follows an aspiring young journalist, Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway), as she finds herself working for Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), the imperious editor of Runway. At 21, newly out of college and fact-checking for a political magazine, I was glad I’d avoided Andy’s fate. But with a decade’s experience, five of those years spent as a critic, I find Miranda Priestly not just a lot more sympathetic; it feels as though she foreshadowed an entire genre of female antiheroes.
It’s absolutely true that Miranda Priestley seems like a dreadful employer. She plays games with her assistants, she has a narrow vision of physical beauty that limits her creativity and daring, she doesn’t care if people burn out, she abuses the loyalty of her longtime colleagues for her own gain, she’s a poor communicator, and she uses her own excellence to browbeat everyone else.
But re-watching “The Devil Wears Prada,” I was struck by the idea that animates every barb that Miranda slings at everyone in her path. She’s so perpetually cruel to the people around her because they don’t seem to see their own potential the same way that she does. If she’s disappointed in them, it’s because she believes them to be capable of more, not because she expects them to fail. She crushes them because she so often feels crushed herself.
And Miranda is particularly hard on Andy because she has higher expectations for her.
“I always hire the same girl. Stylish. Slender, of course. Worships the magazine. But so often they turn out to be … disappointing. And stupid. So you, with that impressive résumé and the big speech about your so-called work ethic, I thought you would be different,” Miranda tells Andy in a speech, mid-movie, after Andy has failed her yet again. “I said to myself, go ahead, take a chance, hire the smart, fat girl. I had hope. My God. I live on it. Anyway, you ended up disappointing me more than them. More than any of the other silly girls.”
If Miranda were a man, she might be the hero at the end of “The Devil Wears Prada,” the character who sees the greatness in Andy and pushes her to achieve it. Instead, her role in the movie is more ambiguous. She becomes the person against whom Andy defines herself, the avatar of everything Andy doesn’t want to be, who nonetheless gives Andy the reference that helps her pursue a career as a reporter.
I’ve written a number of pieces over the years about the gender dynamics of the Golden Age of television, in which men, even criminals, are rewarded for leaning in to masculine attributes such as strength and aggression, where women are punished for displaying emotion and interests in domesticity and romance. Characters such as “Breaking Bad’s” Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and the titular hero (James Gandolfini) on “The Sopranos” are beloved even as they commit murder, lie to their families in the name of providing for them and even blur the boundaries of sexual consent. By contrast, characters such as Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham), the self-obssessed heroine of “Girls” who inflicts more damage on herself than anyone else, are excoriated for merely being annoying.
But as television in particular and pop culture in general have evolved, there’s another trap for fictional women, one that Miranda embodies perfectly. She tries to behave as fictional antiheroes do, leaning hard into competence, high expectations and outrageous displays of excellence. She does her best to suppress annoying, even embarrassing emotions about her troubled marriage or a rivalry at work. In doing the former, though, she’s seen as difficult as well as outstanding. And in doing the latter, Miranda has created a dangerous situation for herself: She’s so impervious that any publicly expressed emotion or any personal failing becomes a vector to attack her, to try to expose the vulnerable self that presumably lies below the razor-sharp surface.
Miranda is no Lady Macbeth, calling on the spirits to unsex her; as she explains in a memorable soliloquy, she fully embraces her role at the apex of an industry with tremendous power to define what women buy and wear. But she does illustrate the dilemmas that antiheroines from Cersei Lannister (Lena Headey) to Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) would face on subsequent dramas such as “Game of Thrones” and “Scandal,” respectively.
For women in pop culture, staying in your lane and being good, meek, submissive, feminine, emotional, compliant — all of these things are potential pathways to destruction. Hannah Horvath is disdained on “Girls”; in “Game of Thrones,” Sansa Stark’s (Sophie Turner) eagerness to please and willingness to do as she is told earns her emotional abuse and rape.
But women who try to occupy the roles traditionally occupied by men, be it big economic mover, adviser to the king or counselor to the president, and to act with the same authority and demands for excellence traditionally reserved for men, encounter a new danger. The desire to take down a powerful women through her personal life, be it Miranda’s divorce, Cersei’s incest or Olivia’s participation in adultery, isn’t merely about knocking her out of her position. It’s about proving, as a creature of sentiment, that she never belonged there in the first place.
“You can see beyond what people want, what they need, and you can choose for yourself,” Miranda tells Andy near the end of “The Devil Wears Prada.” “Everybody wants this. Everybody wants to be us.” But though she sees so much of the world so clearly, Miranda’s forgetting something, or at least refusing to acknowledge the dynamic in which she is trapped. In earning the right to choose for everyone else, she has zipped herself into a life as regimented and limited as a skintight pencil skirt.