A Postfeminist Approach to the Female Empowerment Contradictions in “The Devil Wears Prada”

The Devil Wears Prada (Frankel, 2006) is a film based on the novel of the same name written by Lauren Weisberger (2003) following young Andy Sachs in her quest for survival at the prestigious fashion magazine, Runway. Following the same conventions of the chick-lit subgenre in film media, we are introduced to autonomous female characters who are suggested to be economically independent, confident, and ambitious while being emancipated in their own femininity. Andy who is a smart twenty-something girl, however, does not affiliate to the postfeminist sensibilities of her fellow co-workers and stands away from the emphasis on self-surveillance, discipline, and consumerism, which Gill (2012, p.137) argues are relatively stable features of a postfeminist discourse. Later, she undergoes an infamous makeover which is supposed to help her overcome her work-life problems and empower her through the individualism that she gains through fashion and consumerism. As we approach the end of the film and as Andy’s career is taking off, her personal life starts going up in smoke and a decision between love or career must be made. Eventually, she decides to quit her job and meet with her ex-boyfriend to tell him that he was always right, admitting that she had been wrong for wanting to change her persona to appeal to her boss, the strong Miranda Priestly.

Rosalind Gill (2012, p.146) argues that there exists a problematic in post-feminist popular culture since its readings, while not necessarily contradictory, are exclusionary of Second Wave Feminism traits, which represents the return to an era in which women had to follow the traditional femininity values. To understand the extent to which The Devil Wears Prada offers contradictory constructions of female empowerment (which only mirror the real-life post-feminist media culture we are exposed to everyday) we must delineate its two main characters and use them as physical embodiments of both Post-feminism and Feminism, with Miranda Priestly and Andy Sachs being the recipients, respectively.

In the opening scene we are introduced to Andy in a sequence where she is contrasted and compared against more sophisticated women who do follow the sensibilities of post feminism by trying their best to look desirable, choosing between different outfits and whose individuality is enhanced using different luxury brands for their purses, wallets, coats, and heels. We as spectators are supposed to laugh at that contrast and therefore criticise Andy from the very beginning for being inadequately feminine.  An example of this mockery is the diet part of the sequence, where one of the women has a few almonds for breakfast, while Andy opts for an onion bagel, which is full of fat and saturates (Figure 1). This would be later mocked by Nigel, one of the few male characters of the film, by noticing Andy’s unpleasant breath. Andy is not supermodel looking as the other women in the sequence are, but she can still be subjected to an awful kind of scrutiny as an ordinary woman, similar to what Angela McRobbie (2004, p.118) noted from the comments on women’s looks, after watching the show What Not to Wear: “Look at how she walks; she shouldn’t put that ketchup on her chips”.

Figure 1

As spectators, we know that Andy is not as successful as her supermodel counterparts in the sequence – she is looking for a job after all- and, indirectly, that this success can only be achieved by remodelling the body and having discipline to have a controlled figure to portray success (Gill, 137-138). One of the first contradictions is that this success seems to be restricted to thin, white or whitewashed, upper-class women. Post feminism in this instance seems to disregard black or working-class women, who simply cannot be part of the club given their positions as race minorities or by not having achieved social mobility. Here, the modern woman, who is predictably white (Negra & Tasker 2007, p.101), is the one who is or can be part of the club, which is highly problematic.

It is not to be understood, however, that Andy embodies all the traits of Feminism, but she should be understood as being away from and being a contrast to the post-feminist sensibilities, during the first half of the film.

The second sequence of the film introduces us to Miranda Priestly; being the physical embodiment of post-feminism in a white, upper-class woman, the women who work at Runway are subjected to her gaze. As Miranda enters the Runway Magazine headquarters, the women go from wearing comfortable shoes, to high heels, from not wearing make-up to applying lipstick and to being fully aware and conscious of their looks (Figure 2-4). In feminist academia it has been suggested that women who identify with third wave feminism and whose views are close to those of post-feminism have reclaimed beauty practices as being self-chosen (Lazar, 2011, p.37) , however, in the film, the women at Runway are suggested to be doing it only to be likeable to their boss’ eyes, since they know that by conforming to those narrow beauty ideals they will gain success, approval and access to ways of life which would otherwise be denied to them (Lazar, p.40). The idea of women having to take part in traditional feminine activities regarding their bodies to attain success or approval is contradictory to the belief in postfeminist media texts that suggests women are free from oppression.

Figure 2
Figure 3
Figure 4

The women in The Devil Wears Prada are coded for a strong and erotic impact for the male spectator, who projects his gaze (Mulvey, 1992, p.162). However, in the world of the film there is little regard as to what men may think of women who do not follow those beauty standards and more as to what fellow women think, especially Miranda Priestly, in what Gill argues is a self-policing narcissistic gaze (p.139). Therefore, when Andy meets Miranda, this one cares little about the young woman’s intelligence, resumé or several journalistic national championships and, instead, focuses on her unfavourable looks. However, Andy also represents potential for a post-feminist character, she is pretty and white, therefore, in this media text, she can evolve and become a “better” version of herself, landing the job that will eventually transform her.

The actress Anne Hathaway who plays Andy, is no stranger to the infamous makeover paradigm, having been part of another one in her debut film The Princess Diaries (Marshall, 2001) where a suggestively gay stylist transforms her from nerdy-unibrow high school girl, to a “proper lady”. In The Devil Wears Prada the same transformation comes with the help of another gay character, Nigel.  Rosalind Gill (p.143) argues that gay men in post-feminist media texts occupy an “explicitly feminized position offering advice, based on their culture capital as wealthy stylish men”.  This represents another contradiction and problematic in what the postfeminist text is indirectly communicating. First, the fact that Andy’s life is somewhat flawed by not subscribing to the femininity ideals of her new environment, automatically devalues her as a woman and more so objectifies her. Second, the fact that she must turn to a man, regardless of his sexual orientation, to get a transformation that will fix her life, give her confidence, and “magically” resolve all her problems, puts her under the oppressive male gaze and reverses the postfeminist assumption that feminism is a thing of the past, by highlighting that equality has not been achieved as McRobbie (2008, p.12) once argued on the movement.

Halfway through the film the makeover sequence takes place, showing Andy in designer clothes, being complimented by her co-workers, and acknowledged by her boss (Figure 5). She walks around Manhattan with several different coats and styles that mimic the elite woman (Figure 6). The background music, “Vogue” by the feminist icon of pop culture, Madonna, intensifies the message that the film is trying to tell the audience: that Andy is -finally- wholly emancipated since she has achieved the beautification goals (Lazar, p. 41). In less than two minutes Andy Sachs went from unconfident, anxious and disastrous employee to a calm, purposeful woman exuding confidence only by wearing some make up and a new pair of Chanel boots. Regardless of how post feminism thrives to recognize feminism as a thing of the past, its own sensibilities and the sexualized nature of its capitalist-neoliberalist conception are the ones that subject women to social marginalization; as Marks(2012) argues, this is achieved by the semblance of women liberating themselves that she notes Baudrillard coined the “myth of emancipation”, which ultimately forces women into a position of subordination where the patriarchal society determines their value based on their sexuality. This sexualized culture echoes with Gill’s observation of the proliferation of discourses about sex and sexuality across media, including erotic representations of not only girls and women but also men (2012, p.138) which only mirrors the beautification goals that we are immersed in today through social media where sometimes the need to attain the trendiest beauty standards and being liked have become essential parts of these platforms.

Figure 5
Figure 6

Nonetheless, there are other issues in postfeminist media that may prove to be more contradictory. Gill (2012, p.141) talks about the necessity that postfeminist media culture has to implement a vigilance on the self; with magazines such as Cosmopolitan writing articles such as “What kind of friend are you?” “Are you a good lover?” or “How to Keep Him Interested?”. The self needs constant vigilance, as Gill argues. This vigilance is always an important aspect in postfeminist media texts and, possibly, the most problematic, given that it takes the form of the old question: “love or career?”.

In The Devil Wears Prada, the spectator is exposed to the postfeminist mantra that the independent working women of today are reminders of the incredible economic and cultural gains of the last half century, as Negra & Tasker argue (2007, p.100). However, it is this same recognition of the modern woman’s capacity to earn her own livelihood the one used to “rationalize the dissolution of the marital institution” (Negra & Tasker, p.102). However successful her career may be, Miranda Priestly’s private life is hanging by a thread with her marriage on the verge of collapse. In the scene we can see her arguing with her husband after he had to wait for her at a restaurant because she was busy working, which made him feel clearly mocked and embarrassed (Figure 7). The second and last scene portraying Miranda’s rocky marriage, is nearly at the end of the film when it is confirmed that her husband is about to file for divorce. In this scene we can see Miranda in a devastated state of mind, suggested by her lack of makeup, her eye bags and her not so stylish nightgown, as she tells Andy what she thinks the newspapers will say of her once the divorce is announced: “Dragon lady, career obsessed; Snow Queen drives away another Mr. Priestly” (Figure 8). This scene irrevocably warns and schools women on the risks of becoming too successful and the importance of not allowing their careers to overwhelm their marriage as Negra & Tasker argue.

Figure 7
Figure 8
Figure 9

This same issue takes form in Andy’s relationship, which starts to go down as soon as she becomes more successful. Andy’s boyfriend, Nate, gets upset when she starts arriving late from work or missing his birthday celebration for attending a glamorous event as part of her job; Nate can simply not understand why Andy is working in such a “superficial” environment and outspokenly disapproves of her job. Nate and Andy take a break (Figure 9) and she flies to Paris for Fashion Week with Miranda, after choosing to go, even if that implied depriving her colleague, Emily, of going instead of her. This represents another clear feature of postfeminism: the individualism and freedom of choice to please oneself (Gill, 2012 p.139). Andy, however, slowly starts to apply self-vigilance on the kind of woman, lover, and colleague she is, noticing how her career is affecting her private life and relations.

Figure 10

Post feminism and its ideal character, Andy, are faced one last time when Miranda tells her that she sees a great deal of herself in Andy because she can see “beyond what people want and need” and she can choose (Figure 10). She can choose to become successful; she can choose to get ahead in her job even if that implies stepping on her co-worker; she can choose to leave for Paris even if that means breaking up with her boyfriend. However, Andy would not be the perfect character in a postfeminist media text without the plot twist of the final minutes. After going through a vigilance of the self, Andy chooses to leave Miranda and walks away from her, seemingly liberating herself form her tyranny by throwing her work phone in the Fontaine des Fleuves. This action is seen as courageous and the film wants the spectator to praise Andy’s decision to leave her job at the best moment of her career. Nonetheless, this becomes problematic when, in the following scene, Andy meets her ex-boyfriend Nate and technically apologizes for her behaviour and for letting her job get on the way of their relationship.

The nature of the contradictions of post feminism discourses, as Gill argues (2012, p.137) lies in their entanglement of both feminist and anti-feminist themes; in the paradox of being a successful woman, but not too much to fail in your relationship or marriage; in the idea that women are free and empowered, but only if they follow beauty ideals judged by the patriarchal society; or the assumption that the modern working woman is only white, straight, thin, and elite, ignoring women from other races or social backgrounds, therefore ripping them off their value by assuming they simply do not exist. The chick-lit subgenre thus is a hybrid production where women are given sexual freedom, the rights to drink and smoke and have fun in the city (McRobbie, 2008, p.12) while also the responsibility to attend or not forget about anti-feminist traits such as wanting to get married or choosing a man over their careers. This resonates with the anti-feminist sentiments of traditional women who regarded feminism as a synonym of denigrated motherhood and the pursual of selfish goals and wearing a suit (Gibbs, 1992, p.52).

By the end of the film, Andy does not go back to her old-fashioned style and, instead, embraces her emancipation, while trying to fix her love relationship and look for a less self-consuming job that will allow her to fulfil her responsibilities as a woman: to be successful and desirable without interfering in her relationships with the opposite sex; or so it can be read from the media text using a postfeminist approach.

Therefore, it can be argued that the extent to which postfeminist media culture offer constructions of female empowerment which are profoundly contradictory is highly significant in films such as The Devil Wears Prada. While some postfeminist theorists have argued that these narratives are not necessarily anti-feminist but, instead, constitute a “new feminism” where elements of traditional femininities are embraced (Jordan, 2016, p.21), the ambiguities in their representations of female success, from career to body, to freedom of choice, constitute not a balance between feminist and anti-feminist traits as Gibbs suggests (1992 p.52) but a double standard that dilutes the economic and cultural gains women made in the last fifty years by remaining subjected to patriarchal standards in a modern world that dares to consider feminism as nothing else but a spent force (McRobbie 2008, p.12).

Figure 11

Bibliography

Frankel, D. (Dir) 2006 The Devil Wears Prada

Gibbs, N. (1992) The War Against Feminism. Time (9 March) pp. 50-55.

Gill, R. (2012) Postfeminist Media Culture. In M.C. Kearney (Ed.), The Gender and Media Reader, pp. 136-148. London: Routledge.

Jordan, A. (2016) Conceptualizing Backlash: (UK) Men’s Rights Groups, Anti-feminism and Postfeminism. Canadian Journal of the Women and the Law, 28(1), pp.18-44.

Lazar, M. (2011) In Gill, R. and Scharff, C. (Eds) New Femininities: Postfeminism, Neoliberalism and Subjectivity. UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

Marks, A. (2012) Postfeminism and the Modern Woman: A Cause for Concern. Equality and Diversity [online]. Available at: https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/equityDiversityInclusion/2012/03/postfeminism-and-the-modern-woman-a-cause-for-concern/

Marshal, G. (Dir) 2001 The Princess Diaries

McRobbie, A. (2004) Notes on ‘What Not to Wear’ and Postfeminist Symbolic Violence. In L. Adkins, and B. Skeggs (eds) Feminisms after Bourdieu, pp.99-109. Oxford: Blackwell.

McRobbie, A. (2008) The Aftermath of Feminism: Gender, Culture and Social Change. London: Sage.

Mulvey, L. (1992) Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. In A. Easthope and K. McGowan (Eds), A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader, pp. 158-166. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Negra, D; Tasker, Y; Spigel, L; McRobbie, A (2007) Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture. Duke University Press.

Weisberger, L. (2003) The Devil Wears Prada. New York: Doubleday.

Image Sources

Figures 1-11: The Devil Wears Prada (2006) Directed by David Frankel, [film] US, Twentieth Century Fox.

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