Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Critic Wears Prada

Last night I watched The Devil Wears Prada. Just to be clear, I am writing this wearing a hoodie and Spiderman t-shirt: a clue, perhaps, that the high fashion world of The Devil Wears Prada is rather strange to me. As depicted in the film, the fashion industry is highly competitive and cruel, with ambitious young women obsessing about weight and a tyrannical boss played terrifyingly by Meryl Streep bullying them all into obedience.

Yet there are interesting elements to the world too. Streep's character Miranda makes a fascinating defence of fashion, arguing that even those of us who dress down in casual clothes are actually buying into trends started by fashion elites years earlier. Miranda says the the 'lumpy blue sweater' worn by Andy, played by Anne Hathaway, is a colour chosen first by a powerful fashion designer, which gradually seeped down into popular culture:

And then it, uh, filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room from a pile of 'stuff'.

So I, in my comfortable old Spiderman top, am at the final ripple of a wave generated by elites on another continent. In another scene Stanley Tucci's character Nigel makes a similar defence:

This is not just a magazine. This is a shining beacon of hope for... oh, I don't know... let's say a young boy growing up in Rhode Island with six brothers pretending to go to soccer practice when he was really going to sewing class and reading Runway under the covers at night with a flashlight. You have no idea how many legends have walked these halls.

So this is an assertive, deeply elitist culture that takes itself very seriously indeed. Interested by this, I looked up Wikipedia's article on the reception of the film to see if there was any debate about it. From there, I found this article in The Guardian by Hadley Freeman, denoucing the film for sexism, because Andy's relationship falls apart when she prioritises her work at the fashion magazine:

Similarly, Andrea's boyfriend finds it equally annoying that she now has to work late and occasionally misses having drinks with him because of her job. In fact, this becomes such an issue that he threatens to leave.... "You had a choice!" is his repeated cry, as though it is perfectly normal to demand your girlfriend quits her job because she couldn't have dinner with you. But then, men who work hard are manly; women who work hard are blinkered to the important things in life like, you know, being on time for dinner.

The problem is not that these women work in fashion - it's that they work, full stop.

Alright. After this I flicked over to BBC 1 where the Nicholas Cage film Lord of War was showing (I had a productive evening indeed). Cage plays a cynical arms dealer who sells weapons illegally to brutal warlords around the world. His wife is oblivious and remains at home while he travels between wartorn Africa and the collapsing Soviet Union. Lo and behold, minutes after reading Hadley Freeman denounce The Devil Wears Prada for showing conflict in a relationship because a woman was prioritising work, Lord of War was showing Cage's relationship falling apart because he was prioritising work.

In other words, the exact same narrative was at work in both films: one member of a relationship becoming obsessed with work to the point where the other feels neglected. Hadley's view that this indicated an anti-female sexism, an unwillingness to show women as being happy in work, does not fit Lord of War.

Actually I can think of lots of films where the male protagonist loses his female partner because of obsessive dedication, especially to a job. A few examples:

Zodiac - Robert Graysmith loses his wife and children when he becomes obsessed with tracking down a serial killer.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind - Roy Neary's wife leaves him when he becomes obsessed with sculpting the Devil's Tower mountain, implanted in his head by aliens.

Falling Down - police officer Prendergast is retiring to be with his troubled wife, but decides that he loves the job and decides to remain. Similar theme: choosing between family and work.

Invincible - Vince's wife leaves him when he prioritises playing American football over looking for a job. Vince ends up becoming a professional footballer.

Fantastic Four - Reed Richards is obsessed with science and his work, almost loses his fiance Sue Storm.

Liar Liar - Fletcher Reede is a work-obsessed lawyer who compulsively lies to his ex-wife and child about spending time together while really prioritising work.

Rocky IV - Rocky Balboa decides fight a Russian giant who has already beaten his friend Apollo Creed to death in the ring. His wife Adrian argues bitterly against his decision to fight: 'It's suicide. You've seen him, you know how strong he is. You can't win.' She lets him go to train in Russia alone, before relenting and joining him later.

Batman Begins - Rachel Dawes tells Bruce Wayne that they cannot be together until Gotham City does not need a Batman. That is, Wayne's obsessive drive to fight crime as Batman blocks his relationship with Dawes.

Spiderman films - Peter Parker repeatedly tries to form a functional relationship with Mary Jane, but his determination to fight crime makes him too busy or too scared of endangering Mary Jane to marry.

I'm sure I'm missing others. I have it in my head that the idea of a police officer, in particular, who loses his family because of his unhealthy devotion to the job is a rather tired cliche. But these examples at least challenge Freeman's claim that 'men who work hard are manly; women who work hard are blinkered to the important things in life like, you know, being on time for dinner'. Again and again we see male characters in movies struggling to balance home and work life. In some cases their failure to form relationships is seen as heroic: a sacrifice like Batman's crusade against corruption and crime. In others, like Fantastic Four, the over-working man is seen as flawed, he has to learn to edge away from academic things and engage with his fiance. There is nothing manly about Reed Richards's geekiness.

So where on earth does Freeman take her outraged idea about there being double standards between the portrayal of working men and working women? She picks the single example of The Devil Wears Prada and another example of Sex and the City, both of which she says show working women struggle to form balanced lives. She does not look at the great number of films which show men struggling over the same thing.

It it unwise to make angry conclusions when looking at only a fraction of the available information. One could watch Batman and conclude that the writers believe men who try to make the world better are destined to loneliness and solitude. That would be an poor interpretation, though, just as Freeman's interpretation seems to be here.

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