Thursday, May 03, 2007

'Prada' sends the wrong message to girls

On the surface, I enjoyed “The Devil Wears Prada,” a comedic, but not quite satiric take on the cutthroat fashion world. Meryl Streep’s fast-talking, demanding, fashion magazine editor is played to near perfection. It is a sharp characterization that adds substance to what could’ve been broad caricature. Streep even manages to elicit sympathy for her supposed she-devil.

Emily Blunt as Streep’s acid tongued second hand person also scores laughs, as does Stanley Tucci as a gay fashion expert that works at the magazine. That he doesn’t fall entirely into stereotype is commendable. Anne Hathaway is a likable enough, but an unremarkable lead.

While I admired the work of Streep, Blunt and Tucci, the film left me uneasy, but I shrugged it off until a friend told me she thought the film was anti-feminist and in some regards anti-human.

The film is working within a formula, one usually told with men, but the arc is the same. A cold, cynical, powerful, but charismatic business mogul takes a young protégé under their wing, the newbie begins to change and sacrifice their own identity to succeed, but ultimately sees the error in their ways and sets things right.

This story has been told numerous times, but almost always from the male prospective. Does the fact that the audience doesn’t question the gender switch to the formula show the progress women have made? Typically, in this type of film women are regulated to the one-dimensional role of the sidetracked girlfriend. In the case of “Prada” it is Adrian Garner in the equally flat boyfriend role.

Despite the gender switch, “Prada” doesn’t diverge from its formula and that is the problem. With women in the lead roles, there is more at risk, more of a struggle, but this is largely glossed over.

In the male version of this story, when the guy goes back to his girlfriend after forsaking the soul eating job there’s a sense that he has priorities straight. This is a trite Hollywood ending no matter the gender, but the same develop in “Prada” feels even more so because of its presentation.

Hathaway’s character doesn’t want to work in fashion. She wants to be a serious journalist, and turns down her fashion magazine job in spite of the fact that she is very good at it. That she reverts to her true self and original dream is an admirable message, but as presented in the film it is done for the wrong reasons.

It is only after Hathaway is told she will become like Streep, powerful, but without love, friends or any true family that Hathaway runs back to her boyfriend and to the career in serious journalism, if you can call a job at the New York Post serious journalism.

The heavy implication of this scene is that all women that achieve the level of success that Streep does have lives that are bereft of love and meaningful relationships.

Are there women like Meryl Streep’s character in the real business world? I don’t doubt it, but there must also be examples of women who are successful both professionally and personally. Perhaps if “Prada” had offered a successful woman with a rich personal life as a counterbalance to Streep the ending wouldn’t feel so condescending.

On the flip side, it would’ve been refreshing to see Hathaway not have to go back to her estranged boyfriend. It has been done. At the end of “In Good Company,” a film that follows the same archetype, Topher Grace learns his life lesson, but doesn’t get the girl, in this case Scarlett Johansson. And he’s okay. It is still a happy ending, just not in the traditional sense.

If “Prada” had taken a similar approach it not only would have broken from the conventional ending, but it would have shown that it is possible to be alone and happy and would represent a message of a strong independent woman.

Instead, Streep’s character is unhappy as a successful, independent woman because she always put work before her relationships. This is a fairly timeless message, but once again there is an inference that all successful women are alone and unhappy. It leaves a nasty aftertaste.

That isn’t the most off-putting aspect of the film though. The way “Prada” presents weight is dangerous, especially for a film targeted at the teenage girl demographic. Throughout the film, Hathaway is referred to as fat. The film even says what the “bad” size is.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 90 percent of those who have eating disorders are women between the ages of 12 and 25. There is enough pressure for girls to be thin, there doesn’t need to be an Oscar nominated film telling girls the “good” and “bad” sizes.

Hathaway is an attractive, healthy looking woman that she’d take a role like this is disheartening. She must have been blinded by the opportunity to work with Streep. For that matter, you have to wonder why Streep was involved in the first place. She clearly has having fun in the role, but at what cost?

The film plays Hathaway’s “fatness” off as a joke, but it is hardly funny and the film never addresses the dangers of telling a healthy person they are fat. The consequences are not shown and everything winds up fine.

Is “Prada” an accurate reflection of the fashion world? Would a woman start to conform and lose weight to try to fit in? Sadly, that is probably all too true, but the film isn’t a hard hitting expose. If the tone of the film was more clearly satiric it might have been able to get away with this sort of irresponsibility. “Prada” borders on satirizing the fashion world, but pulls back, plays it soft and instead relies on formula.

Hathaway could’ve been shown finding success at her job without losing weight, maybe it would’ve been dishonest to the reality of that world, but it would’ve been more responsible filmmaking. At the very least, the subject matter should’ve been handled with more sensitivity.

Some might argue it is asking too much of a “light comedy” to be socially conscious, but it wouldn’t have taken much tweaking to the script to make it so. There’s an idea that comedies like “Prada” are harmless fluff that aren’t meant to be taken serious. That’s a dangerous train of thought if the film is sending the wrong message.

Unfortunately, there are numerous reality shows currently showcasing the worlds of modeling, hair styling and fashion that are putting across the same message. There is definitely the sense of needing to conform on all these shows. You do see people sacrificing their true identities. Original thinkers are often tossed aside for not following current trends. What are we telling kids? What are we telling ourselves?

Despite the advances regarding gender roles, films like “Prada” are still perpetuating the same tired ideas regarding the female body. We need to look around, be attentive and not let those feelings of unease slip away. Sometimes dangerous ideas come in the form of Oscar nominated comedies.

1 comment:

Bibil said...

Quite a good analysis. I have been shocked as well by this obsession with sizes, although I get the feeling that the movie is making fun of the "size zero" phenomenon, because all those girls look like they have the same size... Really, I can't tell the difference! And when you think of it, Streep, who is supposed to be the top of the fashion world, isn't a size zero either...
Did Andrea really come back to her boyfriend at the end? I got the feeling that they were just good friends, he was moving to Boston, and she was staying in New York.