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Lesson from the Devil: Feel the heat or get stuck in limbo

Original post made by Nancy McGaraghan, Old Palo Alto, on Sep 8, 2006

Every now and then, someone holds up a mirror that reflects a fragment of truth you hadn't seen quite so clearly before. I had just such a moment of truth in the movie, "The Devil Wears Prada."


This was not what I expected from a movie considered so shallow that no self-respecting adult ought to be seen in the ticket line. Nevertheless, there I was looking forward to an evening of escapism and haute couture.


Miranda Priestly, editor of the fashion magazine Runway, is the boss from hell and Andy a wide-eyed young woman and idealistic job seeker. It is set in the world of cutthroat corporate fashion, where skinny women covet each other's drop-dead clothes. It is shallow. It also manages a surprising degree of insight about the cost and rewards of commitment.


"Other people would die for this job. You only deign to work here."


So quips Nigel, Andy's colleague and the real angel in this movie. Nigel is passed over for the promotion of his dreams, but he appreciates the basic fact that he's got a plum of a job. In spite of the dance he has to do with his devil of a boss, he appreciates her talent and prestige.


His job works for him because he loves everything about the industry. He has no highbrow thoughts about answering to a higher calling. This is his calling, so the pain is worth the gain — paltry and infrequent as it is.


Andy is not tuned in to the high fashion beat. She hears her boss's demands and the frenzy of the scene as little more than static — a mere annoyance on the road to her ultimate place the real world.


Nigel dies for the world of fashion, Andy only deigns to work there.


We can snarl at Miranda for her self-serving scheming at others' expense — Nigel is not her only victim. But at least Miranda knows who she is and what she wants. Nigel appears to know that about himself, too.


Some might dismiss this movie as black and white where those who take the final plunge into the jaws of demanding corporate careers wind up selling their souls.


Or one could put horns and a tail on the fickle fashion industry that is in part responsible for epidemic numbers of eating disorders among young women, and the current 2.2 trillion dollars in individual debt in the United States.


But rather than getting caught up in moral ambiguities I find the "die for" versus "deign to" conundrum fascinating. For all of us, the distinction between self-fulfillment and selling out can be subtle. What are the costs of our commitments? Conversely, what is the cost of holding back, riding the fence, or having a half-hearted involvement in a job, relationship, group or other situation?


Andy arrived for her job interview long on talent and ideals, hoping to improve her skills and make connections. That's all well and good, but not enough. Remaining a voyeur will keep her forever at a distance from both the good and bad parts of this job. Without getting her feet wet, she will not learn what the job can teach her about herself and what she values. Without commitment, her job will be little more than a paycheck.


Nigel's comment shines a light on Andy's blind spot. She decides to jump in with both feet, surprising even herself with her cleverness and drive. She hits her stride. She stops eating carbs, the industry no-no, and struts her stuff right past her co-workers.


Then she quits. She comes full circle, becoming not a different person but a new and improved version of herself. And for all her disdain for fashion, she marches into her next job interview dressed to kill — not wearing clothes that belong on someone else, but a look that oozes confidence, and commitment.


Even Miranda is happy. In the final scene when Miranda sees the new and liberated Andy, a faint smile comes across her face — the smile, we're told, on which the fate of the entire fashion world rests. Maybe for all her viciousness Miranda has a heart after all. Like any good mentor, maybe she knew before Andy did that Runway wasn't right for her.


Condescending to do something will probably get the job done, but with lukewarm results. Jumping in with both feet, even if the fire proves to be too hot for comfort, is the only way to really know if the fit is a good one — and appreciate what other people are doing, maybe even on your behalf.


It's easy to stand around sniping, registering disdain for the poor schmucks. Much better — and worth the risk — to jump in and take the heat.

[Published in the Sept. 6 edition of the Palo Alto Weekly.]

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