Today is the birthday of The Devil Wears Prada movie. Eleven years ago, to the day, a little movie adaptation of a popular book hit theaters. It was a crossover moment in many ways: fashion films hit it big, Anne Hathaway grew up, and Meryl…was Meryl.
Yet it’s not a movie without flaws. Yes, it is one of my favorites, the type of movie I put on when feeling sad about myself or generally mindless and in the need of some Meryl high-camp that isn’t Julie & Julia: I turn to The Devil. Yes, it has a fairly positive critical and fan review but there is one glaring hole in it that is the reason I usually doze off when Andy (Hathaway) gets to Paris or, really, shut it off: it’s very anti-feminist ending that we all blithely ignore.
The movie is about hard working women fighting for advancement and understanding, a world where beauty and belongings are to be valued as not only things with aesthetic purpose but as cultural currencies that offer gateways to upper echelons. It represents the notion of the “femme feminist,” the idea that an empowered woman can be empowered while embracing historically feminine traits that appear locked into gender roles. That is feminist, yes.
That’s obviously not where the film stumbles: it all has to do with Adrian Grenier.
Grenier plays Nate, the boyfriend of Andy. He works in restaurants and, along with Andy’s friends, repeatedly complains about her industry being vapid and surface level while reaping the benefits of her work via free swag, more money, and an undeniably foxy girlfriend. As Andy’s transition from dowdy thinker to empowered high femme occurs, Grenier’s Nate enjoys it all but offers the critique that Andy isn’t “who she once was” because she changed her diet and clothing—and that that reflects poorly on her as a loss of self.
OK, sure. I guess? Where this gets tricky is that she pursues this career head on, embracing her thriving and doing things like—I don’t know.—going to work obligations at The Met that involve her meeting with high powered writers that she aspires to be like. And what happens when she gets home to Nate? He scolds her. Yeah, sure, it was his birthday—but any supportive boyfriend would not be miffed at their partner’s success at work, understanding that they are finally doing something great while doing the job that they must do since the two are unable to play hooky and be rich.
Instead, their relationship decays and dies as Andy’s career floats higher and higher. By the film’s deflating conclusion, Andy leaves Miranda (Streep) in Paris after realizing the real hollowness of the industry, flying back home without a job or life or much of anything—including a boyfriend. While she has seen through the industry to see her true self, this also means that she has abandoned one thing for another: the notion of empowerment that she found in exchange for Nate’s idea of who she as a woman should be. This wouldn’t be such a salty, flawed ending if it weren’t for the fact that Andy meets with Nate in the penultimate scene, where he essentially takes her back because she left said fancy fashion job. Nate shares news that he lands the job he always wanted, Andy bows to him in recent unemployment, and Alison Bechdel cringes as this all happens.
You could say that this final act “twist” is about Andy finding her true self. Yes, of course, that is true. While a person who is empowered is allowed to find love and pursue happiness, what is so uncomfortable and maddening in this film is that it isn’t a matter of self-discovery found alone but instead an “I told you so!!!” moment for the repeatedly hollow asshole of a boyfriend. It sucks the power from Andy and the film, relinquishing it all to a male foil character who should be written out of the movie, relegated to a friend who could have said, “You’ve changed.” in a scene. That would have justified everything. Instead, Andy and the film collapse under relationship assumptions and the semi-abusiveness of a longtime lover who doesn’t have your best intentions in mind.
Yes, I love, love, love The Devil Wears Prada. It has Madonna montage scenes, flamboyant fashionable wanderings, amazing cameos from industry insiders, Parisian love affairs featuring a topless Simon Baker, and Stanley Tucci as a hybrid Hamish Bowles / André Leon Talley / Grace Coddington. It is a new classic.
What it is not is a perfect film. It’s feminism shoved into a studio setting that demands cultural crossover via the performance of romantic comedy for money. The woman—Andy—cannot just be herself: she has to be policed and caged by the desires of her boyfriend. That really wets the fabric of the film, demanding it be shutoff before Andy actually returns to New York, as to leave the character empowered instead of dragging her back to the ground by a shitty boyfriend who wants to rub her face in the dirt.