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.
If feminism is about choices across a spectrum of options, the lesson life teaches is that every choice requires giving up something in return. That's the hardest lesson for all of us, feminist, post-feminist, man, woman or child. Instruction inevitably comes from unexpected directions and places. Increasing numbers of women now in their 30s seek fertility treatments, learning to their surprise and disappointment that age influences a woman's ability to conceive the child she covets. As working women miss seeing baby's milestones -- the first steps, the first words -- they begin to think again about what's really important.
Linda Hirshman, in a lengthy essay in American Prospect magazine, confidently told women that full-time mommyhood is a colossal waste of intelligence. This was an echo of Simone de Beauvoir, the founding mother of modern feminism, who described a pregnant woman as nothing more than a human incubator containing "only a gratuitous cellular growth." Miss Hirshman discovered that a lot of women today are riding a pendulum now swinging in another direction. Many were enraged, others felt pity for her limited perception of what women are all about.
These polarizing exaggerations and generalizations help define the center where most of us live. Modern middle-class women have choices that our mothers and grandmothers could not have dreamed of. Some women will take their chances and put off giving birth to their children until they have started careers beyond the hearth and nursery. Others will have their children first and look for rewarding work when the kids are safely in school. Still others will make the costly sacrifices and take the hard risks required of the super ambitious.
Both the radical feminist and the feminine mystiques are gone, blown away on the winds of change. Although Miranda Priestly grooms her assistant to step into her Manolo pumps, the shoes don't fit. With a cunning sneer at all those underlings who can't make it to the top, she turns to her assistant and says, "Everybody wants to be us." No, Miranda, that's not quite right. But then the devil always speaks with a forked tongue, and hell hath no fury as a scorned woman boss.