Yesterday evening I watched 'The Devil ...

First published 2nd May 2012

Yesterday evening I watched 'The Devil wears Prada' - yes, I know I'm a long way behind the rest of the world but I didn't think it would be a film I would enjoy. I was wrong. What an interesting thought piece about leadership and modern culture / ethics. (Although I did think the ending was a bit weak - see below).

But a few reflections on the film. Firstly, what an amazing model of leadership portrayed by Meryl Streep - I wondered if this film does for women's leadership what 'Wall Street' did for male leadership in the 1980's. Streep plays Miranda not as a big voiced, commanding presence but as a deceptively quiet and gentle voice which didn't at all disguise the razor-sharp intelligence and command of the central character. One of her favourite lines is a somewhat plaintive 'I don't understand why you find it so hard to....' which instantly gets everyone scurrying around to do what she wants.

The character Andy starts by wanting to reject all that Streep's character stands for but very soon becomes as slavish to her power as everyone else. Charisma is a huge issue in leadership, that power that some people have to command loyalty, respect, even love from their people. I've worked for a few people who have it and its pull is irresistable.

And it isn't, as far as I can tell, a skill which can be learnt or practised - if you have it, you have it and the only question then becomes - what are you going to do with it? And how do you keep yourself safe from the damaging effects it can have on the rest of your personality - if everyone falls in love with you, how do you prevent your ego from distorting, how do you stop yourself from believing that you are incapable of being wrong?

The second reflection was on how easily we can fall into the trap of dismissing out of hand industries or ways of life which we deem 'frivolous' or not worthy of our interest. There is a section in the film where Miranda devastatingly destroys Andy's self-righteous view that fashion doesn't matter and that she is immune to its whims. It made me stop and think about how often I am dismissive of the consumer culture in which we live without really looking at it and accepting its power over my life.

Finally, we are left with the big question about the impact that work has on us, questions about what motivates us and where we find importance. This was the bit which I felt was a cop out in the film. In the end, Andy chooses the 'ordinary' (but beautiful!) boyfriend and a job in 'proper' journalism over the life she is shaping in the fashion world. What's good about this is that she takes ownership of her life and makes the kind of decision to free herself from what she believes is killing her soul that I wish more people had the courage to make. But I do think the film-makers went back to the old stereotypical value judgements which they had done such a good job of questioning earlier on to make that point.

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