In the movie “The Devil Wears Prada“, Meryl Streep plays the role of Miranda Priestly, an icon in the fashion industry who is editor of Runway magazine. Anne Hathaway plays Andrea Sachs, a young journalism graduate looking for employment in a very competitive environment. Andrea ends up taking one of the few jobs available, as a personal assistant to Meryl Streep’s character Miranda. Andrea knows nothing about fashion, and for much of the movie, is openly skeptical and dismissive of the importance those around her place on fashion. At one stage, Miranda, tiring of Andrea’s lack of fashion awareness, gives the “Cerulean Sweater Speech”, poking fun at Andrea’s dowdy cerulean sweater she had on, while at the same time providing a backstory on the fashion industry and the role it played in making that color of sweater fashionable. Andrea eventually learns to “play the game”, becomes fashion literate herself, and begrudgingly accepts the importance of the fashion industry, before leaving and finding a real journalism job.
I enjoy that movie. Meryl Streep is, as always, fantastic in her role. But it’s the part of Andrea that I can really relate to, a young person just entering the “real” world, someone who is baffled at what those around here deem to be important in life. I must say, I myself am constantly baffled at those around me in a very similar “fashion” (ha-ha), as I wonder about what people focus on as “important”. For example…
We are a few days from the end of the Obama era. Newspapers are printing a rash of stories about the legacy of Barack Obama, and what it’s meant for America. The New Yorker posted a piece on his last speech, and the importance of Obama’s definition of what America “should be”. GQ wrote a piece stating Obama will go down as one of the greatest Presidents in American history, with a heavy focus on his character as a defining feature. New York Magazine published a compilation piece, gathering the thoughts of 53 historians to weigh in on their view of Barack Obama’s legacy, with the focus of those views ranging from the impacts of Obamacare to his attempts to change overall political discourse. Countless other pieces have been written, focusing on his legacy in bringing health care to the forefront of the American consciousness, the major shifts in foreign policy such as opening up relations with Cuba, or his relationship with Congress and inability to reduce partisanship, despite his best intentions.
There have also been some wonderful tributes to Michelle Obama, with various stories focusing on her legacy of promoting healthy lifestyles, her overall legacy and how it was shaped by her personality, or her uncanny ability to relate to everyday Americans. She has been celebrated in a way few other First Ladies have been celebrated, and her upcoming departure has been met with both celebration of her accomplishments, and with tears. But even a woman as revered as respected as much as Michelle Obama is subject to the same biases faced by all women in the United States. One of her lasting “legacies” is based on her external appearance and how she presents herself.
The New York Times posted a piece this weekend entitled “What Michelle Obama Wore and Why it Mattered“. Here’s where I put on my “Andrea” hat, as a person who discounts the role of fashion as being an important social institution. I “get” the interest in what she wears. I obviously get why Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, InStyle, and other fashion/women’s magazines have provided summaries of Michelle Obama’s clothing choices over the years. I’m not bashing the fashion industry, or people who are interested in it. A fascination with Michelle Obama’s fashion is on par with, oh, some guy’s fascination with birds and birding. I’d never poke fun at what makes people “tick”, what gets them excited. However, as somebody who loves birds and birding, I’d also never judge another human being based on how good of a birder they are. Far too often, however, women in general are judged based on appearance, clothing, or behavior rather than accomplishments. The same types of articles that appear in fashion magazines also show up not only in the New York Times, but also the Washington Post, Time Magazine, and other mainstream news organizations. How many similar stories have been written about Barack Obama’s clothing choices over the years? How many stories have ever been written about ANY (male, of course) President’s choice of clothing? Other than the rare puff piece such as the takedown of Barack Obama’s tendency to wear “dad jeans“, the answer is like somewhere between “zero” and the number of fingers on one hand. Men and women are simply judged differently.
Serena Williams has dominated women’s tennis for many years and is one of the greatest female athletes in history, yet rather than focusing on her remarkable accomplishments, she has often been subject to “body-shaming” and criticism over her appearance, and even was recently called “a hooker” for a basic Sports Illustrated cover where she (gasp!) dared to show her legs. After Hillary Clinton lost the election, stories popped up about her (gasp!) make-up free appearance, with other stories during the campaign discussed her clothing and appearance and the impacts on her “likeability”. Oprah Winfrey is constantly analyzed for her weight (as are many women). Actresses like Renee Zellweger are expected to maintain a youthful, “sexy” appearance, yet are subject to exhaustive speculation and questions of “did she or didn’t she” with regard to elective surgery to try to maintain that appearance. It’s obviously not just outward appearance that dictates how a woman is (unfairly) judged, it’s demeanor as well. During the campaign, Hillary Clinton was first criticized for not smiling enough, and then criticized for over compensating and smiling too much. Women seem to necessarily walk a tightrope between acting aggressively and confident and being called “a bitch”, and acting more passively and be dismissed as a “ditz”. Women are often expected to display a moderate amount of sexuality, but if they go “too far” and they are labeled as bimbos and sluts. It’s often a no-win situation, where your actions and accomplishments mean very little compared to your appearance and demeanor.
When I see a statement in a story such as the New York Times piece that “clothing played a role unlike any it had ever played before in a presidential administration”, I immediately go into Andrea Sachs mode, and scoff at the ridiculousness of such an assertion. When I see a piece from a respected news organization like the New York Times that tries to convince me that what Michelle Obama wore “mattered”, all I see is a perpetuation of the same unfair criteria of how women are judged compared to men.
The one aspect of The Devil Wears Prada that was disconcerting was when Andrea began to become assimilated into the culture and world of Miranda Priestly. She started to “walk the walk” in order to fit in and keep her job at Runway. That part of the movie perhaps hit a little too close to home, as it so perfectly depicted the lengths women have to go to, to fit in and be accepted in a world that judges them solely by appearance and behavior. By the end of the movie, Andrea recognizes what’s TRULY important in life, ditches Runway and Miranda Priestly, and accepts a much less glamorous job as a entry-level journalist. As a society, we’re at that same stage in our evolution. Particularly at a time when a misogynistic pig of a man is about to assume the role of the President, It’s time to ditch this “Runway” world, and start to judge women (and all human beings) based on factors other than appearance or behavior. Sorry, New York Times, I just don’t buy the premise of your story.