October 01, 2006

Would Rousseau wear Prada?

The Devil wears Prada comes across as a mediocre Hollywood bildungsroman- there is nothing particularly wrong with it- and lots including a typically brilliant performance by Meryll Streep is right but it is a conventional tale where a little country girl goes to the city and grows up. Such tales are more fascinating than works of genius- they tell us more about the conventional dilemmas of society. It doesn't take much to see that The Devil wears Prada is a profoundly political film- it is actually a more feminist film than many in the genre where the girl takes off her glasses, loses her IQ and finds a man- in this taking off your glasses might lose you the man- an unusual admission in a populist Hollywood film that women can contribute character as well as looks to a relationship.

More seriously, and there is something serious about Pop Culture, what the film is about is the sacrafices that you make at work, whether as a man or a woman (though Slate magazine's reviewer questioned whether the film would be the same with a man in the lead role), to get ahead. At one point one character says to another who is depressed, that when they confess their life has been torn apart, then they will know they are about to be promoted. This film gives us the sense of human beings walking around a self created hell for the pleasure of it. Counterbalanced to that is the everpresent fear of failure, of the sack, of failing to meet the tyrant's eye.

This film therefore does more than just present a nice portrait of a girl growing up, it actually reinforces the importance of considering how employment and life fit, or to use the cliche, how the work-life balance functions. The director probably goes no further- but I think there is more. The work-life balance is a mere metaphor for something else afterall- that is the idea that human beings are more than the results of their work and the impression they make between nine and five. Classic economic theory tells firms to ignore any extra dimension to their workers: classic moral theory might tell us to worry when firms do what they must under the economic laws.

The film thus opens up that perrenial of argument about the market- what does it do to people? Does it make them happier or sadder? Do we end up as Rousseau predicted as disfunctional slaves and tyrants, working all hours to stay ahead of the neighbours or keep up with the Joneses or do we like Smith predicted enlarge our horizons and feel more intimately the needs of our fellow citizens who are unlike us? This film is ambivalent- on the one hand tyranny is abhorred but on the other the main character discovers through her slavery fashion (presented as an art in this film) and its pleasures. She smashes her personal relations but by overcoming the tyrant's demands she proves herself to herself- she exchanges the role of a girlfriend and friend for that of a sophisticate and success, going from convivial gatherings to glorious parties.

Whether the choice is one that is offered within our society or whether it is one she gains from is dear reader your decision, but it is a view of modern society that that is your choice- will you cleave to equal relations with friends and families or empower yourself through work. Reviewers have clashed over this: the New Yorker's David Denby was inspired by the world of fashion whereas Joanne Laurier from World Socialist Website was revolted. Division amongst the reviewers may well in this case represent the genuine choice involved. The broadbrush of a populist movie may not present the subtleties of the situation but it does present a decision taken within the present social regime starkly and its worth pondering.

Of course our heroine is able to survive (this is Hollywood!) but the questions remain long after the credits have rolled.


Anonymous said...

I can see Rousseau with a Prada bag.
The clean lines might suit his puritan spirit.

Gracchi said...

Yeah quite right- Rousseau would be pretty cool in prada- philosopher's fashion could become a new version of philosopher's football-

Now what would Hobbes wear...