The Real Villain in ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ is Toxic Work Culture
Fifteen years after it premiered, ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ continues to teach ambitious young people that exploitation is the price you must pay for success.
Andy gets caught up in the glamour of it all, experimenting with dalliance and designer footwear. Crucially, though, she finds her way home again. She tosses her still-trilling work cell into a French fountain and gets back together with her cute, needy boyfriend. She gets a job that aligns with her values, one at a real newspaper where nobody cares how cerulean her sweaters are, and her exposé on the janitors’ union no doubt receives the appropriate appreciation.
In 2006, my mom cheered at this point of our movie night. Maybe because of the years she’d spent working shitty jobs for shittier bosses. Maybe because of the associate’s degree she tucked away when she realized the post office job she’d gotten to tide her over would always pay more, and that neither of these professional pursuits would ever bring her to Paris.
The predominant narrative in American society is of career success as an indicator of good character. As journalist Rainesford Stauffer describes in her book An Ordinary Age,we link our career goals with our selfhood through concepts like the dream job, announcing professional milestones with all the weight of weddings and births.
And yet, our corporate work landscape is defined by scarcity of opportunity. It is a rigged competition that masquerades as meritocracy, steeped in inequality, racism, sexism, classism, ableism, and every other repugnant fundamental ingredient of our culture. Watching the film today, as toxic work culture and unfair labor practices across all industries face increasing criticism, and journalism grapples with the latest reckoning over its lack of diversity and opportunity, the lessons and failings of The Devil Wears Prada are increasingly clear.
Andy and her resolute deficit of fashion sense are seen as a shocking pick for the Runway job. Her labor and naivete are exploited. She’s mocked for not knowing what an eyelash curler is, for eating carbs, for wearing polyester. And yet, she is also a white, straight, cisgender young woman with a degree in journalism. She is, as I’ve come to realize, exactly the person you’d expect to walk unprepared into an interview for a coveted, entry-level position and come away with the job. You can tell a lot about an industry by the identities of its outsiders.
Thirteen years after watching The Devil Wears Prada for the first time, I moved to New York City (where else?) to begin my journalism career on the very same day I graduated. During my first interview with the woman who became my boss, I was coming off one of the worst weekends of my life. I’d been celebrating a friend’s birthday when I received a phone call informing me that my mother was beginning what was described with corporate tact as the “end-of-life process.” I’d sprinted from the party.
I sat with my mom, as she lived.
That harrowing day fresh in my mind, I told my future boss that my mom was sick, and her situation was precarious. That I might occasionally have to leave work unexpectedly. She told me she understood and offered me the job. Despite making just over minimum wage with no health care—a situation much like what I’d already experienced with my previous stints of employment as a server, daycare provider, and work-study aficionado—I saw this journalism-adjacent position as my first “real job.”
I wasn’t Andy, hustling across the city in a series of stunning coats and The Chanel Boots. Instead, I was driving three hours round trip in and out of the city each day in scuffed Doc Martens. But I was, as I pointedly reminded myself, hustling. Arriving early and staying late in a role that let me—among many other things—write.
A month in, I got a phone call like the last one. I hesitated for only a moment before telling my boss I had to leave.
She gave me a laptop to take with me: “In case you feel like getting any work done while you’re there. You know, if things get slow.” She told me what I could work on, mentioned how being productive always made her feel better. As I drove, uncertainty twisted inside me. Was I being dramatic? Catastrophizing? Irresponsible, for walking out of my brand-new job?
I made it to my mom’s bedside. I held her hand. We wept. She lived.
Then, one slow Friday at work, three months into my first real job, I got the call again. They had learned not to say outright that she was dying. Someone must have turned up a copy of The Boy Who Cried Wolf, because corporate tact now required they cloak everything in euphemism.
“Your mom isn’t doing very well today. If you can, you should probably come by.”
I tamped down my fear immediately this time, doused its flame with a bucket of ice-cold guilt. Maybe because I was embarrassed by my previous reactions. Maybe to convince myself that not being scared was the same as having nothing to be scared of. I told my boss I was sorry, but I would have to leave once I finished the task I was working on.
I didn’t want to be dramatic, didn’t want to bring personal issues and excessive intimacy into the office—didn’t want to, as Emily suggests to Andy with furious sarcasm, “Crawl into bed with [my boss] and ask for a bedtime story.” I finished the task I was working on. Studiously ignoring my building hysteria, I prepared to leave.
It should be noted that my boss was not Miranda Priestly. She was not cold or explicitly mean. There is surely a way of telling this story from which one would likely conclude she had done nothing wrong at all. And yet, when I told her I was finally leaving, she asked me to stay. There was a problem with our email servers, and she just hated speaking with customer service. Would I call instead, and wait in the office to tell her what they said? I could even get some more work done, too, while I was on hold.
I stayed. I told myself again (and again) that I was being dramatic. That the last two times, my mom had been fine. Ultimately, customer service couldn’t fix the issue, and I finally told my boss I had to go, much later than originally planned.
I was merging onto the highway, three miles from my office, when I got the phone call. Ten minutes into a drive I would have finished hours before if I’d left on time, my mom reached the end of the end-of-life process. I have thought that day over more times than I can count, wrung out every what-if.
The Devil Wears Prada—and the already-formed conception it reinforces of work culture, a conception bombarding us from many directions—is a window into the consequences of sacrificing our real lives in service of “dream” jobs that exploit us. Jobs that thrive on subtly convincing us not to allow ourselves space for personal issues, that may claim to encourage “self-care” but break down by design when we stop to breathe.
My parents . . . believed there was a kind of work you could do that could never hurt you.
Still more insidiously, the film, and others like it, seem to criticize toxic work dynamics while sneakily reinforcing that they must be borne by those truly seeking to get ahead—and that those who do bear them are more deserving of success. Those were the principles that made me allow my boss to hold me there with only the feather-light touch of unspoken expectation, instead of walking out, next paycheck be damned, to be with my mom.
In retrospect, I know I almost definitely could have told her no and kept my job. I could have made the situation explicit, named what she was asking and forced her to claim it. But by making myself pretend it was all right for me to stay an hour, I gave her permission to pretend it was all right for me to stay there. It is because this understanding exists as an undercurrent that the sacrifices it begets stay below the surface and the dynamic survives.
Despite everything she endures, Andy ultimately gets exactly what she is banking on when, in the thick of the worst part of her time at Runway, she tells her dubious father, “You have to trust me. Being Miranda’s assistant opens a lot of doors.” When Andy interviews for her new job as integrity editor at Respectable Journalism Weekly, it is Miranda’s recommendation that convinces them to hire her.
Ostensibly, the message of The Devil Wears Prada is simple: Don’t sacrifice your life and well-being and selfhood for a job.
Behind that message is the same backbeat that’s always been: Those who can’t handle it will fall by the wayside, and we’ll pretend we consider them justified instead of weak. Pay your dues (whatever the cost), and you’ll get what you think you want. But more than any movie, it was watching the people around me—my mom getting up at 5:30 a.m., pushing a rolling mail bin around the post office when she could no longer stand on her own; my dad coming home late with grease eternally tracing the lines of his palms—that taught me what it meant to work.
My parents wanted me to learn something different, believed there was a kind of work you could do that could never hurt you. They poured this idea of what could be into me, across movie nights and graduations and everything in between. When I got my “first real job,” they celebrated for me and for themselves, for the effort that had gone into propelling their child toward “making it” by the clearest metric our culture has to offer. I was raised to think of the American Dream Job by people who never felt they could.
The Devil Wears Prada taught me about fashion and Jarlsberg cheese, but it didn’t teach me anything new about work. It just reinforced a lesson I had already dutifully learned. I remember my earnest enthusiasm when I started my first real job, the way it was shot through with determination, the implicit understanding that if it was hard, that meant it was working. When I remember that version of myself today, I want to shake her, hug her, tell her to run.
Lindsay is a freelance writer and chronic over-thinker focused on culture and politics. Her writing has been staged by Infinite Variety Productions in New York City, developed into a short film at Prague Film School, published in various places, and described by her mother as, “Cool, but kind of weird.”