Sympathy for the Devil
By MAUREEN DOWD
I considered myself quite a benevolent boss until I learned that my old assistant Marc was secretly slipping Saint-John's-wort into my smoothies in hopes of perking up my mood.
Maybe I just seemed benign compared with a fellow columnist, whose assistant had such a bad panic attack when her boss was due back from vacation that she had to be rushed to the emergency room, where she was surprised to find herself part of an epidemic of palpitating assistants dreading the return of their bosses.
Or maybe I figured I was a peach because I only asked assistants to help select my cellphone ring — 50 Cent's "In Da Club" or the Fox Sunday football theme? — rather than throwing a cell at them while grabbing their throat, biting their lip and head-butting them, Naomi Campbell-style.
Whatever tart remarks I'd made, I was not in a league with David Spade, whose assistant, Skippy, got so agitated that he shot the star — who was playing a snide assistant on "Just Shoot Me" — with a stun gun. (From now on, my first requirement for assistants is that they always show up for work unarmed.)
So, given my relatively angelic self-image, I was surprised, at a screening of "The Devil Wears Prada," to find myself sympathizing with the devil — Meryl Streep's Miranda Priestly, the Anna Wintoury editrix of a top fashion magazine who is described as "a notorious sadist, and not in the good way."
Is it so wrong of Miranda to expect her assistant, Andy Sachs (played by Anne Hathaway), to know how to spell Gabbana, reach Donatella and ban freesia? Is it so bad to want help getting a warm rhubarb compote for Michael Kors? Or to have an assistant who knows what an eyelash curler is?
This was, after all, the business they had chosen, as they say in "The Godfather." It might be heresy for Bergdorf blondes and Park Avenue princesses like the Sykes sisters — Plum, Peach or Apricot — but it doesn't matter if my assistant mixes up camisoles and cardigans in conversation, as she has been known to do. Here in the nation's capital, size 6 is not "the new 14," but a cause for celebration; a knowledge of cloture, not cloche, matters; eyelashes attract less attention than earmarks; and red Fox TV is more essential than red fox Fendi.
It's not that I agree with the contention, espoused in the movie, that if the malevolent Miranda were a man, no one would notice anything except how good she was at her job. Certainly, strong women are more easily caricatured as castrating and shrill termagants and harridans. But that doesn't mean that there aren't some powerful women who are bullies, just as there are male bosses who are bullies. The Devil can wear Timberland.
It just seems better, this time, to side with the Wicked Stepmother than the opportunistic Cinderella.
After a high-fashion makeover, Andy — the character based on Lauren Weisberger, the tall, lithe blonde who worked as an assistant to Anna Wintour at Vogue before writing her whiny hiss-and-tell best-seller — decides to reject the high-end porn of the fashion world, where everyone is "one stomach flu away" from their goal weight, and return to her real values.
Unfortunately, this Cinderella's primary value turned out to be voyeurism, profiting by keeping her nose to the glass and poaching off her glamorous former boss's life. The only thing worse than the Devil who wears Prada is a person who profits from the fact that the Devil wears Prada.
Even with a dazzling performance by lovely Meryl Streep, who tucks the picture in her Chanel bag and runs off on her Manolo stilettos with it, "the story is glossy junk begat of just-plain junk," as Lisa Schwarzbaum writes in Entertainment Weekly.
"The Devil Wears Prada" is not "All About Eve." As a friend noted, it's more like Rona Jaffe's "The Best of Everything" with fashion, a fun look at what it's like to be young, servile and breathlessly climbing in Manhattan, dealing with a tough woman for a boss and the struggle not to let your professional ambition supersede your romantic ambition. (Except for Faye Dunaway in "Network," Hollywood de-eroticizes women in power.)
Eve Harrington plotted to be rich and famous by becoming Margo Channing. In this age of media exhibitionism, Lauren Weisberger plotted to be rich and famous by writing about how she didn't want to become Anna Wintour. The enterprise is no less vampiric, second-order cruelty as opposed to first-order cruelty.
Whether Anna and Miranda are sacred monsters, at least they are themselves. It's more admirable to be the beast to which the parasite attaches itself than to be the parasite.