Readers Write In #463: The Devil Wears…Propaganda?

Posted on May 9, 2022

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By Madan Mohan

Can you take a book (for the purpose of shooting a middle budget Hollywood movie), adapt it reasonably faithfully and still change just enough of it that the whole thrust, the crux of it is altered more than significantly and the message is rendered ambiguous or even mildly positive? With potentially damaging consequences? The answer, if we take the example of The Devil Wears Prada, would appear to be…yes.

The Devil Wears Prada, made on a budget of $40 mn, hit gold at the box office and grossed over $ 300 mn. It beat out competition from bigger films in spite of not being an action franchise film or a rom-com or any other category of film that would tick the boxes, so to speak. The movie received rave reviews and critics hailed it as better than the book, which, in spite of its own bestseller status, had been flogged by several critics.  But why?

An important clue lies in something Meryl Streep said about why she took on the role of Miranda Priestley, the ‘devil’ in the title and Andrea’s tyrannical boss.  She smelled an opportunity to redeem the image of the Hollywood female villain (a la Cruella De Vil, whose hairdo informs Streep’s own for the role of Miranda Priestley) and humanize her. For context, the character of Priestley is alleged to be based on the queen of Vogue reigning for nearly the last 35 years, Anna Wintour (and the author of the book Devil Wears Prada, Lauren Weisberger, worked as Wintour’s assistant in her first assignment out of college).  She also remarked that the perspective of the book was one sided and she wanted to understand and bring out what Priestley brought to the table that made her so successful.  Hence, the scene
from the movie where Miranda lectures Andrea (or Andy as she is always called) on the importance of being fashionable (a scene that does not take place in the book).

I wonder if Anna Wintour herself could have articulated the raison d’etre of the fashion industry any better.  She would surely have appreciated this little…favour from her friend Streep, wouldn’t she?

I saw the film for the first time somewhere in the 2000s or early 2010s, on TV, as we tended to do in the pre-Netflix era.  I was intrigued by the premise and wanted to read the book but couldn’t get around to it and the reviews suggesting the movie surpassed it perhaps discouraged me.

I don’t know quite what pushed me to read Prada recently…other than that I have been on a reading spree again.  And well, I began to get some answers alright.

The Miranda Priestley of the book is a particular kind of cruel, inhuman, misanthropic and vindictive boss who compounds matters for her subordinates by giving the briefest of instructions whilst in fact having very specific expectations.  As an example, she asks Andrea to get her the review of a restaurant that she read in the paper today (this is more or less verbatim as described in the book) and only when Andrea asks a follow up does she mention, with the exasperated complaint “Andrea I am already late for the meet”, that it was an Asian fusion restaurant.  After Andrea spends the better part of a day pleading with contacts (in all the New York published newspapers that Miranda reads) to help locate the review, Miranda demands an update and when informed that they are unable to find such a review, she says, “Andrea, I’ve told you at least five times now that the review was written about a new restaurant in Washington” (she never did, by the way).  The review, it turns out, had appeared in The Washington Post.

Without going into confidential details, yes, I have worked for a boss who believed in issuing one line instructions and acting outraged that we did not understand what he wanted (even though people in his ‘trusted circle’ found it just as hard to decipher his messages as ‘neophytes’ like me). And as it was for Miranda’s assistants, every such ‘failure’ to ‘understand’ was accompanied by the threat of being fired.  It’s not fun and games at all and if you think this is about dumb employees requiring too much information to act, you’re kidding yourself.

She also never lets assistants know exactly when she will be in office for breakfast or lunch but expects it to have already been served when she is at her desk (thereafter applying insane pressure on the assistants to arrange for food ASAP).  In one memorable instance, she berates Andrea who rushes to arrange lunch from the restaurant and when she triumphantly serves lunch to Miranda, the latter informs her that she had already had lunch at some restaurant and angrily asks her to clear the food away.
 
While I shall not bore you with a laundry list of sundry cruelties inflicted by Miranda on Andrea and Emily, an important difference is also the way the book ends as opposed to the movie.  No, Andrea does not walk away because she suddenly develops self righteous disgust when Miranda tells her she reminds me of her younger self.  Andrea walks away because having agreed to stay on one more day in Paris to assist Miranda even after hearing that her bestie Lily has suffered a terrible accident and is awakening from coma, Miranda berates her because her daughters’ passports expired (as if Andrea was responsible for this mishap) and asks her to ensure, come what may, that her daughters don’t miss their flight. Finally pushed over the edge by Miranda’s obstinate refusal to understand that she is asking for the impossible, Andrea gives her the proverbial finger and catches the next flight home to be with Lily.

Now…(if you haven’t read the book), you didn’t know that, do you? Does this make Andrea’s decision to leave her job more understandable to you as opposed to what comes across as confused self-righteousness in the movie?  By the way, the movie boyfriend Nate too exudes a whiny self-righteousness whereas in the book, he (named Alex here) is much more supportive and patient and often makes sacrifices from his own job as a teacher (not chef) that he finds are increasingly not reciprocated by Andrea as she is working for a tyrant. In the book, Andrea does not get a glowing reference from Miranda for her next job and they do not exchange a wordless smile as their glances meet on the street. Rather, the publisher who agrees to print Andrea’s article for a pretty decent fee completely understands Andrea’s decision as, it turns out, Miranda’s reputation precedes her.

This tone of a nod-and-wink open secret is not worlds apart from real life; listen here to Meredith Viera commending Tim Gunn for “not being afraid to say it (it being an unsavoury incident involving Anna Wintour)”.

If this article wasn’t already as long as Wintour’s shawls, I would also describe excerpts from Jerry Oppenheimer’s non fictional and unauthorized biography of Wintour Front Row, which broadly tallies with the description of Miranda in Prada.

But back to Gunn. Gunn, in essence, is not afraid of being ‘cancelled’ by Wintour for daring to break the Omerta code.  Perhaps, on the other hand, Streep and director David Frankel were.  After all, you could be permanently disinvited from the Met Gala if you rubbed Wintour the wrong way, as Gunn seems to have been.

It does appear that Wintour’s minions in the media were afraid as they venomously upbraided Weisberger’s book.  Weisberger observed a dissonance in the reactions she received – people from outside New York City came back saying they too had worked for a bad boss and could relate while people from NYC were more like, “How dare you!”. As a non-NYC denizen, I could indeed very closely relate Andrea’s experience to my own.  And as for the complaint about ‘singling out’ female bosses, well, a just solution would b e to make it harder for toxic bosses of any gender to get their way, rather than giving ‘permission’ to female devils because male ones got to all these years.  I can assure you I am not the one barracking for toxic male bosses and I don’t know who is other than wannabe toxic bosses and…the uninformed.

Yes, the uninformed.  What the experience of contrasting the movie and the book has taught me is that as well informed as people may consider themselves to be (and with justification), it is very easy to sway them/us with propaganda if we don’t know the context in detail. Frankel and Streep (not sparing Aline Brosh MccKenna or Wendy Finerman of the blame either) successfully spun the movie based on a hit piece roman a clef on Wintour into a subtle propaganda vehicle that presents her instead as a tough boss who can prepare you for the jungle of life and a tough boss who recognizes and admires talent.

And…what has been the consequence of that?  That more and more assistants and other Vogue employees have likely been shredded out of the Wintour den in the years since with tales to tell that, now, nobody except the already informed will believe because the movie showed her to possess a modicum of fairness.  There is a highly watched video that analyzes Priestley as a ‘defence of perfectionism’ and when I read the comments praising the character, I feel like correcting them…and I remember that I would have been part of the chorus had I not read the book!

But more importantly, spinning Wintour’s toxicity as a mixed blessing perhaps also allowed Hollywood to protect the toxic within their own. And we know now that some of those toxic bosses, notably Weinstein, went too far, way too far.  Streep, the political animal and vocal feminist, of course never knew anything whatsoever about Weinstein but  was horrified when she heard about it, no?  I could also write about how Spielberg and Streep completely wiped out the very name of Mike Gravel from the movie The Post but that’s for another day.

Art entertains us, gives us pleasure and maybe even succour in tough times.  Which is all mostly for the good.  But precisely for these reasons, we must also be cautious about the potential of art to mislead and misdirect, particularly when they are based either directly or loosely on real life subjects.  And while I would never, as a diehard free speech advocate, support censorship of cinema or any other art medium, I am never going to say anymore that art does not have consequences.  Not only does it very much have consequences but in intelligent and sophisticated hands, art can be employed as a medium of insidious propaganda that can serve to protect well-heeled interests while superficially providing a movie that was mostly very well made and made for engrossing viewing.  Yes, I get it, the movie is great to watch irrespective of its possible goals; well, rat poison tastes great too, asks the rats (except you can’t, they are dead!).

PS:  I have much to say about the ‘success’ narrative used by Wintour’s acolytes as well as unsuspecting fans of her ‘work ethic’ and ‘perfectionism’ to justify her toxicity.  But, for brevity’s sake (ahem!), that will have to be either for the comments or a follow up piece.