Meryl Streep makes a speech in The Devil Wears Prada tearing apart the young, naive, recently hired Anne Hathaway for looking down on the fashion industry. In it, she outlines the trail between the presumed department store/bargain bin sweater Hathaway is wearing and the fashion industry decision three years earlier to market the colour “cerulean”. She snootily refers to the way Hathaway assumes she’s just picking up a sweater, and has no idea that the colour was chosen for her by the people in that room and that thousands of jobs and millions of dollars are generated within this industry, so how dare she say it’s not important?
I wasn’t expecting The Devil Wears Prada to be a revolutionary movie, but Hathaway’s character is supposed to be this anti-corporate, idealistic, journalism student type. Not only does she never really question the beauty standards projected by the fashion industry, she misses the much deeper point (to me) that somehow, an industry that makes money has by definition become important.
I know this is corporate culture. What’s bugging me is just how pervasive it is. I was watching this movie with two girls aged nine and ten, and I have no idea how I would begin to unpack the assumptions in there. To be fair, if I were in Anne Hathaway’s place, I would have said “…and you think if you hadn’t picked cerulean, I somehow wouldn’t be wearing any sweater at all, so you’re right, the fact that you did all that has made a huge impact on my life. I’m completely humbled. I’ll be leaving now”. And then it would have been a really short and boring movie.
Money isn’t a means to an end in this speech. It’s not good because you can use it to buy stuff, it’s not important because it improves lives, and it certainly doesn’t matter whether anyone is being hurt by it. Money is important because it’s money. It’s the end, it’s the goal, it’s the definition of important, full stop.
Since I’m generally blessed enough not to know many corporate types, the conversations I don’t quite know how to opt out of are the work-for-work’s sake ones. The ones that tout “hard-working” as a virtue in and of itself, not because it accomplishes anything. My parents do this all the time (sidebar: how did we come to talk about “Protestant” work ethic? They’re Catholic, and damn, are they full of it). I have nothing against the idea of gardening and doing home improvement projects in order to relax, but within the work-for-work’s sake model, it can’t be about relaxing. My relaxing–reading, writing, chatting with friends etc–is not okay because it doesn’t really produce anything.
Simone de Beauvoir writes about the existentialist idea of transcending the base animal state by producing and creating, focusing on how women’s reproductive role has been turned around on them so that they live-to-create rather than create-to-exist. Socially, men create and produce things–or now, eventually, pure money–and accomplish stuff, and this allows them to be beyond the cycles of life and death. She’s writing to a large extent about how women have consistently been prevented from participating in this activity, how ideas about reproduction and reproductive roles have been used to lock women in to position as mere replicators (and I know her ideas have their significant shortcomings), but I’m wondering how much it’s possible to opt out of the entire system.
I’m not advocating laziness and uselessness, and I can’t imagine not wanting to take satisfaction from a sense of accomplishment. But it’s like we’ve substituted the sense of accomplishment for any actual accomplishment. The fact that I’m wearing cerulean instead of indigo because you decided it was in fashion is not the same as actually doing anything, no matter how much somebody paid you to do it.
But then, I’m crazy like that.