THE DEFENCE OF PERFECTION: Analysis of The Devil Wears Prada
“The truth is, there is no one who can do what I do.” - Miranda Priestly
Miranda Priestly is the “perfectionist mindset” brought to life in one person. The iconic editor in chief of Runway, a publication resembling Vogue, knows exactly what she wants and exactly HOW she wants it. No detail is too small for Miranda and no excuse is acceptable for failing to meet her high standards. The devil in The Devil Wears Prada is supposed the villain of this story yet her pursuit of excellence also makes her a role model for working women everywhere. Here’s my take on how channeling miranda’s perfectionism will make you the consummate professional, if you’re willing to pay the price.
Perfectionism is defined as striving or flawlessness and being extremely critical when that bar isn’t met. The image that sticks in most people’s minds is the chaos that ensues before Miranda’s arrival at work. So before we even meet this character, this portrait of how she impacts her environment tells us that she runs the tightest of ships, and her expectations of perfection motivates her entire staff to be better than they are. While everyone is always scrambling and struggling to get things right for Miranda, she herself never appears to be out of control. She always maintains a precise mental picture of her plan. She also has an encyclopaedic knowledge of her industry, thus the picture that emerges is that Miranda is on a higher level than everyone else and far from lowering herself to be understood by mere mortals, she demands that others keep up. Her first name even comes from the Latin ‘mirandus’ meaning “wonderful, marvellous, worthy of admiration.”
There are three distinct types of perfectionism: Self-orientated perfectionism, which means having high standards for yourself and being self-critical when you fall short. Socially-Prescribed perfectionism, which is the feeling that you need to live up to external expectations for validation. And other-oriented perfectionism, which means expecting perfection from others and being highly judgemental of their performance. Miranda is a textbook illustration of other-oriented perfectionism. She accepts nothing less than the best from her employees and eviscerates them when they don’t meet that standard. As a boss, she creates an environment where everyone lives in a constant state of terror. But on another level, Miranda’s exacting standards have a very positive effect. We can see the beneficial results of Miranda’s mentorship in the transformation of her assistant, the movie’s protagonist, Andy.
Let’s take a minute to look at who Andy is when the movie begins. She’s woefully unprepared for her job interview asking who is Miranda before entering the room and admitting that she doesn’t read Runway. She has no real experience outside of her college newspaper, nor can she find work anywhere else and she has a condescending, “holier-than-thou” attitude about fashion with Miranda’s right hand man, Nigel, lecturing Andy “Because this place, where so many people would die to work, you only deign to work.”. We know this young woman is smart and passionate. She’s willing to give up what would be a more secure career path in order to pursue her dream of writing, having turned down Stanford Law School to be a journalist. But she hasn’t really accomplished anything yet when she arrives at Runway.
What she learns from Miranda, is excellence. Andy starts off not understanding the importance of details. This lesson is epitomised in the scene at the run-through, where she doesn’t see any difference between two belts. To Miranda, there is a glaring difference and to underline her point that details are everything, she picks apart Andy’s outfit saying that “What you don’t know is that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis. It's actually cerulean.” Proving to this young woman who an eye for detail is key to unlocking a big-picture understanding of the world, continuing on by saying “That blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs. And its sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room.”
The other key skill Miranda teaches Andy is resourcefulness. When you have someone standing over you demanding the impossible, you’re forced to find a way to make it happen. An example of this is when Miranda asks Andy to find the unpublished manuscripts of the next Harry Potter book. Andy surprises herself with what she can accomplish under intense pressure also shown in the scene when the other assistant Emily forgets the name of a guest at a gala hosted by Runway, making Andy jump in with the correct name and details. What we keep hearing throughout the movie is the working for Miranda will open any career door. At first we might think this is because of Runway’s prestige, but we come to realise that it’s even more so about the qualities that working for Miranda instills in you: resilience, a tireless work ethic, and the commitment to go above and beyond.
By the end, Andy emerges as a capable professional ready to go after her dream of being a journalist - something she wasn’t equipped for at the beginning. Lauren Weisberger, who wrote the book The Devil Wears Prada is based on after her stint as an assistant at Vogue, has said that in spite of her struggles there it was “one of the most valuable times of her career” as she got to learn from high-powered people at the top of their game. In addition to these valuable skills imparted by Miranda, there’s one key thing that Andy and Miranda have in common from the beginning: self-respect. When Andy starts at Runway, Miranda’s senior assistant is Emily. Emily seems far more suited for this job, as she is fully committed to the work, has a passion for fashion and worships the ground Miranda walks on. But what she lacks is Andy’s sense of self. Emily would never dare to talk back to Miranda or assert herself in a meaningful way - which is what Andy does. Despite her poor performance at the job interview, Andy refuses to be dismissed by saying “I’m smart, I learn fast and I will work very hard.”. And her faith in herself prompts Miranda to give her a second look. The reason Andy’s self-assurance sparks her interest is that it reminds her of herself. It’s a key part of her perfectionist identity.
Through Miranda, the move highlights the double standards that working women face in their pursuit of perfection. In the book, Weisberger based the Miranda character on her old boss, Vogue’s Anna Wintour. But for her performance in the film, Streep went in a different direction by channeling men she knew in Hollywood, starting with Clint Eastwood. Streep explained that Eastwood’s quiet tone of voice requires everyone to “lean in to listen” thereby making him “the most powerful person in the room”. Meanwhile, she said that Mike Nichols, who directed her Silkwood and Heartburn, inspired Miranda’s biting wit and her ability to be both mean and funny.
Many women of Miranda’s generation had to develop a hard shell to survive in a male dominated workplace and they often had no choice to emulate men in order to be accepted, characters like Peggy from Mad Men is a prime example. Yet, even though Miranda’s personality is based on men, the premise of this movie would never work if the character actually were a man because there is nothing novel or surprising about a powerful man being demanding and cut-throat as he chases success. In her world, Miranda is well-aware of how she’s perceived saying in an emotional scene “Just imagine what they’re going to write about me. The Dragon Lady, career obsessed.” She knows people will judge her harshly for being an exceptionally powerful woman regardless of what she does with one character saying “She’s a notorious sadist.”.
Miranda’s trademark look was inspired by model Carmen Dell-Orefice and French lawyer Christine Lagarde. But she also bears a striking resemblance to another iconic working woman - Cruella DeVil. Cruella and Miranda are both self-assured, career-oriented fashionistas. And the name “Cruella DeVil” - an only loosely camouflaged version of “Cruel Devil”, reminds us of Miranda too as she is openly cruel and is also explicitly called “The Devil” in the film’s title. So what underlies the impulse to make this character-type the bad guy? Whether exclusively or via subtext both of these characters are vilified in their societies for not fitting neatly into the role of the self-sacrificing domestic woman. So you could argue that Cruella and Miranda symbolise the “evil” of being a career woman, with Cruella saying “More good women have been lost to marriage than to war, famine, disease and disaster. You have talent, darling. Don’t squander it.”
Their other sin is getting older, and executing to be treated as relevant. The Devil Wears Prada also uses Miranda to explore the problem of work/life balance, another area where women are judged by an unattainable standard. As soon as Andy starts succeeding, her relationship with her boyfriend Nate hit the rocks. One thing that doesn’t hold up so well about this 2006 film is that the story ultimately frames Nate as “right” to object to the demands of his girlfriend’s career. A popular take in recent years is that Nate is the true villain of this story for not supporting Andy’s career when in one scene he agues with Andy saying “You know, I wouldn’t care if you were out there pole dancing every night as long as you did it with a little integrity.” Like Nate, Miranda’s husband isn’t happy about coming in seconds to his partner’s career. Miranda’s commitment to being the best in her field sometimes means radical sacrifices in her personal life. We watch her undergo a painful divorce with her quoting “The Snow Queen drives away another Mr Priestley.”. But in the end, Andy manages to snag the job she wants and keep her man happy, seemingly no longer having to worry about these kinds of trade-offs. In the years since the movie came out in 2006, there’s been a backlash against the overly simplistic and idealistic “having it all” narrative that Andy’s ending perpetuates. We might apply this critical eye to Andy’s foreshadowed future at the end of The Devil Wears Prada. Just because she’s not working for Miranda now, does that mean she’s going to severely limit her work hours to keep her boyfriend happy? And if so, will this really get her to the top of her field as a journalist? The unattainable ideal of “having it all puts unhealthy pressure on women to excel in both work and home realms without letting anything slide through the cracks. Ironically, it’s another form of perfectionism.
Miranda proves the adage that “the perfect is the enemy of the good’. Ultimately, her perfectionism is both her greatest strength and her fatal flaw. A perfectionist’s resting state is dissatisfaction because in their eyes, things are never exactly right. So perfectionism can be a tyrant making nothing ever feel good enough. Streep even said that embodying Miranda left her in a permanent bad mood on set, “I think when you’re a taskmaster and very very disciplined and controlling, that everything is not quite right all the time.” Miranda’s staff also suffers to due to her perfectionism with Andy ranting that “She is not happy unless everyone around her is panicked, nauseous or suicidal.” Her way of making people feel small and inadequate - isn’t a good strategy in the long run. Studies have shown that happy employees are actually more productive and that people who feel appreciated and respected by their bosses are more likely to stick around. So ironically, even though Miranda ensures that the work is flawless, she falls far short of perfection as a leader. Miranda’s perfectionism is, at its core, a form of egocentrism. After all, what constitutes “perfection” is subjective and in this world, perfect is really just whatever Miranda thinks it is, with Stanley Tucci’s character stating, “Her opinion is the only one that matters.”.
Eventually, Andy realties that she only wants to follow this perfectionist mindset so far. She gets a a wakeup call after Miranda betrays Nigel, Andy’s beloved work ally who’s looking forward to an amazing opportunity to leave Runway. He spots his freedom on the horizon, screaming “This is the first time in 18 years I’m going to be able to call the shots in my own life.” And this statement is a reminder that working for Miranda requires a complete effacement of your own identity - a point that’s also underlined by everyone calling Andy the wrong name for most of the movie. In the end, Miranda steals this opportunity from Nigel to give it to Jacqueline Follet, in order to prevent Jacqueline from taking her position. Nigel is one of the few people Miranda actually respects and values so if she’s willing to do this to him, there’s really no one she won’t screw over. Everyone else always comes a distant second to Miranda herself. In the aftermath of this betrayal, when the words of praise Andy has long desired from Miranda finally come, “I see a great deal of myself in you”, Andy takes them as an insult by replying “I couldn’t do what you did to Nigel, Miranda, I couldn’t do something like that.” She realises that she has become Miranda, not just in the good ways, but also in the total self-centredness by taking Emily’s job after Emily’s car accident. At the movie’s table read, Streep changed Miranda’s last line in the car scene from “Everyone wants to be me.” To “Everyone wants to be us. But Andy rejects Miranda’s self-entered perfectionist by any means necessary value system. In the moment on the red carpet when Miranda realises her assistant isn’t obediently following behind her, we can see shock subtly register on her face. For once, someone didn’t want to be her. There might also be a small part of Miranda that’s impressed by Andy here. By separating from her mentor, Andy is following her own star and that means she’s continuing to be a lot more like Miranda than she even realises. In the end, it’s clear that the ex-boss respects the competent professional women her protégée has blossomed into, when in one of the final scene’s at Andy’s new job interview, the employer says “Saying that of all the assistants she’s ever had, you were, by far, her biggest disappointment. And if I don’t hire you, I am an idiot.” And when she watches Andy in the final scene, we gather from Miranda’s expression that deep-down she’s proud and happy for this next-generation working woman, who made it out of Runway with her humanity and core principles intact.
She may be her movie’s villain, but Miranda Priestly is an icon. Indisputably the best part of Devil Wears Prada, and she achieves the kind of career success most of us can only dream of. Director David Frankel said that “My view is that we should be grateful for excellence. Why do the excellent people have to be nice?” What’s so empowering about Miranda’s character is that her sense of superiority is earned, and what everyone keeps telling Andy is true, it’s a privilege to learn from this incredible woman. So we can learn from her to hold ourselves to lofty standards even if we don’t achieve perfection, we just might arrive at greatness.