Editor's note: This month, Zimbio writers and editors are digging deep and exploring the unpopular opinions we feel most passionately about. We've explored why not everything Netflix touches turns to gold, and Steve Harrington's ideal fate, Ferris Bueller's questionable antics, Danny Tanner poor parenting, and now Miranda Priestly.
"Alright everyone, gird your loins!" Stanley Tucci's Nigel yells to a room of disgruntled employees at the beginning of The Devil Wears Prada.
Like clockwork, everyone panics and scrambles to get things in order: an assistant prepares a glass of room-temperature seltzer water, implying that whoever it's meant for is very particular about her beverages; workers remove any trace of clutter from meeting rooms; someone hurriedly slathers on another coat of lipstick; an employee speedily tosses the snack she's munching on into the trash bin, and another removes her comfy sandals and slips her feet into a set of beautiful (yet painful) Dolce and Gabbana pumps.
Moments later, the madness is explained and we find out why everyone is running around like headless chickens. A well-dressed woman clutching a book and a limited-edition Prada bag steps daintily out of a car and glides toward a building like it's her castle. She walks through a crowd as if she's Moses parting the Red Sea, with every person in sight almost leaping out of her trajectory. Security lets her in without identification, and when she enters the elevator, a woman evacuates the cab.
When the camera finally pans to this legend's face, she's wearing a stern look — the expression of someone out for blood. This woman is Miranda Priestly, and we're meant to believe she is the devil who wears Prada. Except for the the very important fact that she really isn't this movie's villain — she's a protagonist disguised as a villain. We're just conditioned to see women like Miranda as monsters. In other words, if you think Miranda is the antagonist of this iconic film, you've been watching it wrong.
The acclaimed film The Devil Wears Prada tells the story of Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway), a recent college graduate who dreams of becoming a journalist. When she has trouble nabbing a newsroom job in bustling New York City, she finds herself embroiled in the fashion industry, which she has no interest in. Miraculously, she's hired by the inimitable Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), a living legend whose reputation precedes her.
Priestly is known as a cold, heartless yet talented thought leader who holds the fashion industry in the palm of her hand. In one of the film's most revealing scenes, a designer prepares an exclusive showcase for her ahead of fashion week. With just the purse of her lips, Priestly expresses disapproval in his designs, leaving the artist with no choice but to scrap his entire collection. That's how powerful she is. Only Miranda's opinion matters.
It's easy to paint Miranda as a villain because she's not nice, and in our culture, "nice" women are comfortable. "Nice" doesn't affect your life (or anything, for that matter) too much, and it certainly doesn't inspire you to leave your elevator when it struts in (there's a reason men ask women to "smile," however ill-advised). Miranda's distinct lack of "nice" is threatening — a fact that's especially evident in the way she treats Andy. She has little interest in the girl's personal life — a common workplace nicety — and expects Andy to be at her beck and call every second of the day. Miranda doesn't bother to learn Andy's name until a few months into her job. When Andy fails to book her a flight to Miami during a typhoon, she tests her by threatening to fire her unless she secures a copy of an unpublished Harry Potter manuscript. She's a tough cookie.
When you focus on all these hyper-efficient, not-so-nice habits, it's easy to consider Miranda a ruthless editor and a horror to work with, but there's a simple explanation for her behavior: She's doing her job. The hard truth is that Miranda wouldn't be such a prominent figure in the cutthroat fashion industry if her tactics — managerial and otherwise — didn't work. Miranda Priestly is not a bitch, nor is she the villain in Andy's life. If anything, the villains of the story are Andy's boyfriend, Nate — who doesn't show an ounce of support while she struggles to keep up in an industry designed to bring her down — and her asshole friends, who have no problem receiving fancy gifts from her yet mock her the minute she gets ambitious.
Miranda is a boss who takes no shit and doesn't apologize, but that doesn't make her the bad guy.
In one UK survey, the majority of 3000 respondents said they prefer male over female bosses because women are "hormonal," unreasonable, and easily stressed when juggling their home and work lives. So let's hit the nail on the head: If Miranda's character was male, viewers would likely be more accepting of her attitude. In the workplace, female leaders are expected to be sympathetic, as if it's one gender's unique responsibility to consider everyone else's personal well-being. Men, on the other hand, are perceived as power players. They're praised for being "straight shooters" and no one bats an eyelash when they're short, insensitive, or harsh. Miranda is a career-focused woman with an appetite for excellence, and the way she exerts authority is similar to the way many men behave in traditional corporate settings. It's unfair to call her a bitch because she leaned in before leaning in was a thing.
In DWP, Andy is presented as the protagonist, but at second glance, she does nothing but whine. She deigns to work at one of the biggest magazines in the world because she's not interested in the work, so she often falls short of Miranda's expectations.
At one point, Miranda calls Andy out on her clear lack of appreciation for a position others would kill for.
"I always hire the same girl. Stylish. Slender, of course. Worships the magazine. But so often they turn out to be ... disappointing. And stupid. So you, with that impressive resume and the big speech about your so-called work ethic, I thought you would be different," she states. "I said to myself, go ahead, take a chance, hire the smart, fat girl. I had hope. My God. I live on it. Anyway, you ended up disappointing me more than them. More than any of the other silly girls."
In truth, the reason she's extra hard on Andy is that she wants her to be the best. She wants her to appreciate the chance she's been given and respect the influence fashion has on the world.
Is it so bad to expect your employees to cherish their jobs? No. Not really. As a matter of fact, that's a quality you find in a protagonist — someone who holds themselves to a higher standard, strives for more, and pushes others to be their best selves.
In 2016, 10 years after the film hit theaters, Streep revealed that part of the reason she accepted the role was that it allowed her to portray an unconventional boss. She said people like Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour (the character Miranda is partially based on) are (perhaps unrealistically) expected to come across as "nice" and sweet, and it's always interested her.
"The book was written about Anna Wintour from the point of view of someone who worked for her. It’s a version of her, not necessarily accurate or whatever, a piece of fun fiction, 'chick lit.'" she told IndieWire. "Embedded in it… is what the perceived deficits are of women in a leadership position. Chief among them is to expect women to be endlessly empathetic, a sense of employees’ discomfiture that she doesn’t give a shit, all the things that they would not ask of a male boss."
She continued: "I’ve thought a lot about these issues of empathy, what you have to do if you’re a pediatric brain surgeon. You put aside the fact of the enormity of the task you are about to embark on, lifting the edge up of the child’s skull. With certain professions, you put aside your feeling gene, your tendency to feel the other’s pain, in order to be efficient and get the day’s work done. A certain amount of work has to be achieved during the day, you want a direct order and follow through on that order. There’s that expectation that hurts women more in leadership than it does men. I’ve seen that in so many different places."
Don't be frightened of tough women. They may not fit our stereotypical model of the ideal female leader, but that doesn't mean they should be branded as "villains."