Fourteen years after the character first appeared on screen, Miranda Priestly from “The Devil Wears Prada” is still on our minds.
Today, Priestly’s image is used in memes and articles as an example of an impossible-to-please boss. In the film, she’s the exacting editor-in-chief of the fictional (but openly based on Vogue) Runway magazine, played to chilling effect by Meryl Streep.
Miranda is the kind of boss who demands your professional excellence to acquire the next unpublished “Harry Potter” manuscript for her children, in addition to all your personal time, and will not thank you for it, because “that’s all.”
Anne Hathaway co-stars as the prideful yet naive Northwestern University graduate Andy Sachs, who moves to New York be a journalist but settles for an executive assistant role to Priestly when her choices become “this or [working at] Auto Universe.”
When I watched the movie as a teenager, I rooted for young Andy and her glamorous Chanel boots to get away from her rude, unpleasant and demanding boss. But after rewatching as a working adult, I’m struck to find I have a much more complex understanding of Miranda, and of how many missteps her Runway staff take in their careers. “Why is no one reahhhdy?” Miranda archly asks her inept staff, as I agree.
Miranda is no villain; she’s a businesswoman I understand.
To be clear, Miranda is not a positive model of how boss-employee relationships should go. Your boss shouldn’t expect you to be available at any hour of the day, even if you are their personal assistant.
“The person whose calls you always take, that’s the relationship you’re in,” says Nate, Andy’s aggrieved boyfriend, after she takes Miranda’s call in the middle of a fight. With a boss who demands her personal time, it’s no wonder that Andy experiences burnout symptoms that are exacerbated by having friends and a lover who don’t support her new career choice. (I must note: If you land a fashion job and your boyfriend’s response is to look at your face and utter an incredulous, “Was it a phone interview?” then dump him!)
But Miranda is more complicated than the “devil” she is labeled by the title of the film (and the novel upon which it is based). She experiences age and gender discrimination with executives vying to replace her with a younger, cheaper candidate. Even Andy agrees. After hearing a male colleague call Miranda a “sadist” over drinks, Andy chimes back that, “She’s tough, but if Miranda were a man, no one would notice anything about her except for how great she is at her job.” When women in real life act out masculine expectations of toughness, they experience backlash.
To stay on top, Miranda is hands-on planning each page of Runway, keeps abreast of industry knowledge and offloads her rivals to faraway jobs with a smile. She is definitely mean, and she definitely has a limiting, fat-phobic standard of beauty, but you can’t deny her decades-long hustle to stay on top.
The story is told from Andy’s point of view, so we have a limited understanding of what choices Miranda made in this unfair playing field that led her to become Miranda. When I was a younger, I saw her as a villain. But as an adult, I harbor more understanding and sympathy for the self-assured leader who likes being in power and will operate to hold onto it.
Miranda likes power and rewards it. Andy pretends she’s above it.
There is one moment in which we see Miranda with her guard down after her marriage falls apart while her enemies are circling to oust her. “Is there anything I can do?” Andy asks, awkwardly acknowledging her boss’ vulnerability. “Your job,” Miranda replies firmly. It’s one area Miranda is always on top of, and it’s a job Andy never fully commits herself to do. Instead, she’s always complaining about Miranda to colleagues and failing to own her own professional ambitions.
Take the Paris trip: Miranda makes a business decision to elevate Andy to top assistant and bring her on a trip to the fashion shows in Paris, because Andy came more prepared to an event. Andy wants to reject this promotion, because Emily, Miranda’s original senior assistant, wanted to go to Paris more. Andy only relents when Miranda tells her that if Andy refuses to go, Miranda will see Andy as less dedicated to the job. Which is fair! In Paris, Miranda offers to mentor Andy, because she sees herself in her: “Everybody wants to be us,” Miranda says, including Andy into her world.
After Andy throws her BlackBerry into a Parisian fountain as a rejection and a resignation notice, Miranda still respects Andy enough to give her a positive career reference when asked later. That’s better than most people would do for an employee who burnt a bridge!
Andy is the worst job candidate.
Andy is an example of post-college hubris: Her ambitions are not necessarily backed by her experiences. As a job candidate who openly admits she neither reads Runway nor knows the name of its editor-in-chief, Andy is lucky Miranda takes a chance on her.
Maybe that’s why I now take extra satisfaction when Stanley Tucci’s character, Nigel Kipling, who is Miranda’s right hand and art director at Runway, gives Andy a reality check about how she has spent more time complaining about her boss than taking advantage of the rare position she is in to learn how an executive does business.
After Andy complains that she is not thanked by Miranda for “killing herself trying,” Nigel urges her to quit. When Andy pouts that she doesn’t want to quit, she just wants some credit, Nigel takes her to task about her ego.
“Andy, be serious. You are not trying. You are whining. What is it that you want me to say to you, huh? Do you want me to say, ‘Poor you. Miranda’s picking on you’... She’s just doing her job,” Nigel says, and then calls out how little homework Andy has done to prepare. “You have no idea how many legends have walked these halls. And what’s worse, you don’t care. Because this place, where so many people would die to work, you only deign to work. And you want to know why she doesn’t kiss you on the forehead and give you a gold star on your homework at the end of the day. Wake up.”
Nigel and Emily mistake loyalty for promotability.
Emily and Nigel are cautionary tales about what happens when you spend more time helping someone else’s career than your own. Emily pushes through influenza and broken bones to work for Miranda and is still replaced with Andy when she fails to prepare her boss for an event.
The irony of Nigel schooling Andy at the beginning of the film is that he thinks his long and faithful service to Miranda makes him immune from her ruthless self-preservation. When Miranda finally recommends him as a creative partner in a new enterprise, Nigel calls it “the first time in 18 years I’m going to be able to call the shots in my own life.”
But promises aren’t guarantees, and Miranda ultimately orchestrates the situation so the job goes to one of her rivals. It’s a painful lesson in never trusting an offer of employment until you see it in writing.
Andy’s final job interview is the film’s happy ending. But it shouldn’t be.
A “pay your dues” mindset infects everyone who works at Runway. Under Miranda’s leadership, employees operate under the assumption that success depends on who you know. For Emily and Nigel, they think their proximity to Miranda’s power will help them even when they should definitely be job-hunting. “When the time is right, she’ll pay me back,” Nigel says after losing the job of his dreams because Miranda helped herself instead. Emily explained this culture on the day of Andy’s job interview: “If you work a year for her, you can get a job at any magazine you want.”
Although Andy rejects Miranda’s life, she still is benefiting from Miranda’s word. After quitting Runway, Andy applies for a newspaper job and Miranda gives her the positive reference Andy needs to explain the red flag of her employment gap. Cue the uplifting soundtrack. The final scene is meant to show Andy finally getting a job that aligns with her values, but it also shows that who you know still does matter more than what you know. That’s framed as a positive way to get a job, even though relying on referrals is a job hiring practice that leads to a homogenous workforce and limits opportunities for candidates lacking word-of-mouth networks. Even Andy, who wants to report on labor practices, is not above profiting from this. How Miranda.