Monday, October 23, 2006

The Devil Wears Prada (and wants us to have a career with a Corporation)**

** original post updated at the request of readers so as not to "spoil" the movie for those who had not yet seen it but wanted to.(apologies, earlier disappointed readers!)

The other evening I was "dragged" by my better half to see a film I viewed as "girlie". This was "The Devil Wears Prada", starring Meryl Streep as the ultimate boss from hell.

Anne Hathaway starred as an idealistic graduate looking for a way into journalism through the fashion magazine, Meryl Streep's character edited.

"Meeting the Boss from Hell........."

Streep was hard, she was cynical but above all she was successful at what she did.
She lead through a combination of fear but also some inspiration to her dedicated employees. Her most dedicated was the unbelievably camp "Nigel" played by Stanley Tucci.

Nigel, expert on all fashion houses from Chanel to Jimmy Choo and sporting an outsized ring with a red stone the size of a small tomato, was born to work at the magazine. It has been his life's ambition and one he achieved.

"The mildly camp....Nigel"

In contrast Andie (Andrea) had no real interest in fashion and was honestly not too bothered about the fact she had a job with "Runway" magazine. She did however possess one key trait- determination. This was her strength that became a weakness.

Despite being completely unsuited to working life at the magazine and initially despising her co-workers for their myopic out-look on life, she was determined not to be forced out. Eventually she realises the only way she will survive at Runway is to appear more like those at the magazine.

Appealing to camp Nigel's humanity, she gets a makeover and miraculously (this is a Hollywood film!) her fortunes begin to change. She slowly wins respect (or at least gets less abuse) from the fearsome boss, Miranda Priestly.

However Andie's new found success comes at a price. Her long hours at the magazine and her obvious changes in attitude undermine her long term friendships and her relationship with her boyfriend.

She is driven to succeed at her job and begins to fail at her life.

When things are getting near rock-bottom on her home front she confides in Nigel "My personal life is hanging by a thread. That’s all."

Nigel has obviously seen it all before and offers scant comfort – "Well, join the club. And that’s what happens when you start doing well at work, darling. Let me know when your whole life goes up in smoke. That means it’s time for a promotion."

This was the key message of the film for me. Fashion was incidental to the overall message. It provided a glamorous backdrop to a film that could have been about anyone making career choices.

It is the dilemma between choosing a corporate career in the hope that it will give you a better life and choosing a life while you still have the chance. (These comments are largely aimed at corporate careers and not more altruistic jobs or work in general!!!)

Of course for a happy (or deluded) few there is no conflict. For Nigel there is no life but fashion. His career is his life and exactly what he wanted in life. Nigel may face a big crisis when it comes to retirement but aside from that there is no problem.

Another minority group have absolutely no interest in a career, do a job to pay the bills and nothing more and live their life spending as much time doing what they enjoy, which is not their work. These people can be found in many places but are more obvious as someone who appears "over-educated" for the job they do e.g. the taxi driver who listens to radio 4, the man at the Post Office with a huge knowledge of politics. In some cases they can get more upscale jobs generally only using a small portion of their energy and intelligence to meet the demands of their employers.

However that is to blurr the edges with the majority who do feel the conflict and have not resolved it. On one hand they see the benefits of a career (basically money if they are being in an honest mood) but the demands of a career do not fit nicely with their main interests (whether it simply be friends and family or something more distinctive from painting to mountaineering). These people are often trying to do a career to pay for their "real" interests. The irony of the situation (and one I share) is that they spend the majority of their time (and certainly energy) doing something that is not their main interest. Their main interest is fitted in on tired evenings or hectic weekends, before going off to their "career" again.

The saddest sub-group are those who do a career they don't really like but this in turn squeezes out all their time and energy so they cannot do anything that really interests them. This is one of the ironies of modern life as if only they could quit the career, they would immediately be happier even allowing for the loss of income.

This was the situation Andie found herself although her determination to succeed blinded her to the fact she didn't really like it. Andie fell far from her initial ideals, split from her long standing boyfriend and upset her friends.

However something stayed alive in Andie that ultimately made her uncomfortable with her career choice. What she does a result of that discomfort, that conflict becomes one of the key plots of the movie, so I shall not spoil that for other potential viewers :-)

The film raised a few thoughts and memories from my time pursuing a "career" although I have never called it that myself.

First when I trained with a global firm of Accountants, I remember a severe partner got sprayed with champagne at an office "away day". A more diligent friend said of the champagne sprayer "That's one career going up in flames". Even then I thought to myself "Is that really a problem for him or more for those who of us who are left?"

In another situation, a "widower" of the firm, I worked (i.e. the husband of a girl who worked at the Accountancy Firm) at the end of yet another "pay day drinks" in a well known Kent town commented wryly to me "Of course I think you've all lost your identity as I always compare this firm to "the Borg" in Star Trek. It sucks out all your goodness and knowledge and uses it for its own purposes". I knew very little about Star Trek but I can confirm that "the Borg" is a overriding collective body that subsumes individuals into the collective.

From more educated sources I gather that the moto of the Borg is "Resistance is futile — you will be assimilated." Sometimes within the collective an "individual" is referred to darkly as "the one who is many". This has been noted to have biblical echoes of the demon possessed man who approaches Jesus "My name is Legion, and we are many". The overall theme is that the individual is erased in favour of the collective. This is viewed as a bad thing from the Bible to Star Trek. Yet that is the basis that many corporations have to operate. There has to be a "corporate identity". People must feel they are "part of" the corporation. Their loyalty is to the corporation and they must share the "corporate values". Most importantly their time and energy must be given to the Corporation. Their friends, family and interests are not intended targets but rather inevitable "collateral damage" if a career is to truly "succeed".

Hence the notion of the Borg is quite appropriate.

A final note in relation to Corporate life and jobs that are not inspiring. My brother often tells a tale of his University Chaplain who was frustrated at the continual trail of people studying interesting and unusual subjects but opting for a career with a well known accounting firm. Disappointed at this he said "There's a whole world out there and what do they do ? Join Coopers and Lybrand !"

So the Devil may wear Prada but I believe that he really wants you opt for a career with a Corporation. That is the easiest way that all your energy, potential and creativity can be used up in a largely futile way. What better way to put a smile on the Devil's face by devoting your life to an organisation that is of little interest and only exists due to the legal fiction of "incorporation".

"Andie" awoke to this situation and made her choices. To find out her choices you will need to see the movie ! However to me today, one thing is clear, I'm still sitting in my office writing about it :-)

"Queen Borg- "I can promise you a good career here"


SimonHolyHoses said...

The thought of a "career" career strikes me as being about as unpleasant as licking brass, which is an appropriate enough simile.

Luis said...

Simon- you are about right ! And the simile is indeed very appropriate :-)