Someone asked Meryl Streep whether her new movie, "The Devil Wears Prada," is a feminist film. A look of horror spread across her face. "Well, there's a way to kill the box office." Better to lure male moviegoers with a profusion of beautifully draped bodies of the sensuous female of the species.
Nevertheless, her movie is very much a feminist film, and a morality tale, too, dramatizing what a woman (like a man) has to do to get to the top of a tough trade. In this case, the trade is the world of fashion. Meryl Streep makes it clear that she modeled her character after certain men she has known in the entertainment industry. (No names provided.)
Miranda Priestly, her character, is the editor in chief of Runway magazine, which largely resembles Vogue as the arbiter of high-fashion taste. She is the archetype of the ruthless character who will do anything and everything to get where she wants to go.
There's a moral in this morality tale, with added fun in the patina of glamour from head to toe, from the haut coiffure of platinum hair to $700 Jimmy Choo shoes. Miranda, with an instinct for Machiavellian manipulation, has unerring taste and determination to make everyone else bend to her fashionista rules.
The feminism is instructive, too. The fatal flaw in feminist rhetoric has been its inability to confront what a woman jettisons as she muscles others out of her way on the ladder of corporate success. The emphasis has been on the "morally superior" feminist, so called, who is just naturally better than a man, more nurturing, more sensitive, more generous spirited, all in a different, softer voice. The message reversed Henry Higgins famous plaint: "Why can't a man be more like a woman?"
Miranda Priestly is the flip side of such theorizing. She's like Sammy Glick in Bud Schulberg's 1941 novel, who will stop at nothing to get to the top and stay there. A ambitious woman must learn the same tricks of the trade as the male CEO. Andrea Sachs (played by Anne Hathaway), the character Miranda mentors, ultimately decides that Miranda's choices are not for her. She scorns the Faustian bargains of the fashion runway for a job on a newspaper. (Whether this is merely jumping into a different frying pan sizzling over the same fire is a subject for another day.) In her new job Andrea is unlikely to make editor in chief nor earn enough to blow $15,000 on a handbag like the one Miranda carries in the opening scene, but she believes she saves her soul.