Whatever sins were committed in the real-life world of high fashion have been washed away clean by the cinematic sparkle of major motion picture boffo B.O. A-list cred trumps A-hole tyranny. Teflon is the new black! God Bless the Zeitgeist and pass me the Zoloft.
But before we air kiss "The Devil Wears Prada" goodbye consider Meghan Daum's astute observations from her July 1st op-ed piece "Sadists in Stilettoes" in the LA Times.
IN THE MYTHOLOGY of the American work ethic, the story we most love to tell is how we paid our dues. Businessmen and politicians reminisce about their humble beginnings as busboys. Actors go on talk shows and tell the world they once lived in their cars. Journalists like to brag about their days as malaria-ravaged stringers in the Third World or about going undercover as meatpackers to write the prize-winning expose that landed them a cushy gig at Esquire.
But the dirty secret of a lot of our success stories isn't that we were brave or frugal, it's that we withstood a lot of abuse.
.......Getting ahead in business (particularly those less-than-absolutely-necessary businesses that don't involve saving lives, educating our youth or collecting our trash) often requires a hazing ritual that can permanently alter our own humanity. As "Prada" suggests — and as I observed firsthand — we endure professional abuse with the idea that it's temporary, that it will pay off, that we can eventually escape — powerful connections and references in hand — and get on with the serious work we were told we couldn't do until we fetched roughly 12,000 lattes.
But not all dues-paying is created equal. Yes, many of us are eventually rewarded for enduring professional abuse. But, guess what? Quite often the prize isn't the keys to a glorious future but license to become abusers ourselves. Inside almost every Miranda Priestly (except maybe Wintour herself) is an Andy Sachs who remembers her boss telling her she's incompetent and fat. No wonder fashion magazines make us feel so great about ourselves.
This cycle of abuse - where 'hurt people hurt people'- may be sugar coated on today's silver screen (will someone please commission Neil Labute to make "The Devil Wears Prada 2"???) but it is brilliantly articulated in my new favortie movie (now out on DVD!) - the documentary "Flight From Death-The Quest for Immortality". If you really want to know why your devilish Prada-clad boss is abusing you - and why you then go home and abuse your spouse/lover/dog/cat/ferret/own self -watch this movie!! An investigation into the theories of social scientist Ernest Becker, the movie calls mankind on it's basic narcissistic instinct. In a nutshell: We are the only creatures aware of our own mortality. In order to deny the fact we are going to die we pursue status - positions of power which set us aside as 'special' and therefore different from the poor shlubs who can't get into the VIP lounge (and will therefore die an ignoble death) "Mankind's common instinct for reality" said psychologist William James (a major influence on Becker) "has always held the world to be essentially a theater for heroism". So we pursue heroic status because by becoming a "hero" (i.e. President, Emperor, Editrix) we declare our immortality. But for us to be "more than" we must make others "less than' leading to abuses of every kind. Which brings us back to the fashion world.
"Ah yes, the fashion world" Dan Neil wrote in WEST magazine recently. "The gist of Lauren Weisberger's book—which I read while waiting at a red light last week—is that the world of high fashion is full of toxic egomaniacs and money-grubbing, drunk-with-power neurotics raving at their underlings with impossible demands, crushing their spirits and feeding like vampires on their idealistic ambition. No, wait, that's the newspaper business."
Fashion, media, Hollywood, accounting.....whatever 'theater for heroism' you've chosen, the next time you find yourself wanting to kill yourself or your evil Teflon boss make sure to read some Ernest Becker first. Or this book. Or make like Bettie Page and do the danse flambe!
For more on Ernest Becker go here