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The Devil Wears Prada: Miranda Priestly - A Defense of Perfectionism

Is Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) actually “the devil” in The Devil Wears Prada? Is she wrong in trying to be perfect? Her pursuit of excellence actually makes her a role model for working women, and we can all use a touch of Miranda in our professional lives—that is, of course, if you’re willing to pay the price of perfectionism.

TRANSCRIPT

Miranda Priestly is the perfectionist mindset brought to life in one person. The iconic Editor-in-Chief of Runway (a publication resembling Vogue) knows exactly what she wants and exactly how she wants it. No detail is too small for Miranda. And no excuse is acceptable for failing to meet her high standards.

Emily: “I actually did confirm last night—”

Miranda: “The details of your incompetence do not interest me.” - The Devil Wears Prada

The “devil” in The Devil Wears Prada is supposedly the villain of this story — yet her pursuit of excellence also makes her a role model for working women everywhere. Here’s our take on how channeling Miranda’s perfectionism will make you the consummate professional — if you’re willing to pay the price.

The Pursuit of Excellence

Perfectionism is defined as striving for flawlessness, and being extremely critical when that bar isn’t met.

Miranda: “I saw all the pictures that he sent for that feature on the female paratroopers and they’re all so deeply unattractive.” - The Devil Wears Prada

The image that sticks in most people’s minds is the chaos that ensues before Miranda’s arrival at work. So before we even meet this character, this portrait of how she impacts her environment tells us she runs the tightest of ships, and her expectation of perfection motivates her entire staff to be better than they are.

While everyone is always scrambling and struggling to get things right for Miranda, she herself never appears out of control. She always maintains a precise mental picture of the plan. She also has an encyclopedic knowledge of her industry. Thus the picture that emerges is that Miranda is on a higher level than everyone else, and far from lowering herself to be understood by mere mortals, she demands that others keep up.

Miranda: “I need 10 or 15 skirts from Calvin Klein.”

Andy: “Okay, what kind of skirts do you

Miranda: “Please bore someone else with your questions.” - The Devil Wears Prada

Her first name even comes from the Latin “mirandus,” meaning “wonderful, marvelous, worthy of admiration.”

There are three distinct types of perfectionism:

  1. Self-oriented perfectionism, which means having high standards for yourself and being self-critical when you fall short.
  2. Socially-prescribed perfectionism, which is the feeling that you need to live up to external expectations for validation.
  3. And other-oriented perfectionism, which means expecting perfection from others and being highly judgemental of their performance.

Miranda is a textbook illustration of other-oriented perfectionism — she accepts nothing less than the best from her employees and eviscerates them when they don’t meet that standard.

    Miranda: “It’s just baffling to me. Why is it so impossible to put together a decent run-through? You people have had hours and hours to prepare. It’s just so confusing to me.” - The Devil Wears Prada

    As a boss, she creates an environment where everyone lives in a constant state of terror — but on another level, Miranda’s exacting standards have a very positive effect. We can see the beneficial results of Miranda’s mentorship in the transformation of her assistant, the movie’s protagonist, Andy. Let’s take a minute to look at who Andy is when the movie begins. She’s woefully unprepared for her job interview:

    Miranda: “So you don’t read Runway?”

    Andy: “Uh, no.” - The Devil Wears Prada

    She has no real experience outside of her college newspaper, nor can she find work anywhere else:

    Andy: “Basically, it’s this or Auto Universe.” - The Devil Wears Prada

    And she has a condescending, “holier than thou” attitude about fashion:

    Nigel: “Because this place, where so many people would die to work, you only deign to work.” - The Devil Wears Prada

      We know this young woman is smart and passionate — she’s willing to give up what would be a more secure career path in order to pursue her dream of writing. But she hasn’t really accomplished anything yet when she arrives at Runway. What she learns from Miranda is excellence.

      Andy starts off not understanding the importance of details. This lesson is epitomized in the scene at the run-through, where she doesn’t see any difference between two belts. To Miranda, there is a glaring difference — and to underline her point that details are everything, she picks apart Andy’s outfit, proving to this young woman how an eye for detail is key to unlocking a big-picture understanding of the world.

      Miranda: “That blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs. And it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry, when, in fact… you’re wearing a sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room.” - The Devil Wears Prada

      The other key skill Miranda teaches Andy is resourcefulness. When you have someone standing over you demanding the impossible, you’re forced to find a way to make it happen. Andy surprises herself with what she can accomplish under intense pressure.

      What we keep hearing throughout the movie is that working for Miranda will open any career door:

      Emily: “You work a year for her, and you can get a job at any magazine you want.” - The Devil Wears Prada

      At first, we might think this is because of Runway’s prestige — but we come to realize that it’s even more so about the qualities that working for Miranda instills in you: resilience, a tireless work ethic, and the commitment to go above and beyond. By the end, Andy emerges as a capable professional ready to go after her dream of being a journalist (something she wasn’t equipped for at the beginning). Lauren Weisberger, who wrote the book that The Devil Wears Prada is based on after her stint as an assistant at Vogue, has said that in spite of her struggles there, it was “one of the most valuable times of [her] career” because she got to learn from high-powered people at the top of their game.

      In addition to these valuable skills imparted by Miranda, there’s one key thing that Andy and Miranda have in common from the beginning: self-respect. When Andy starts at Runway, Miranda’s senior assistant is Emily. Emily seems far more suited for this job, as she is fully committed to the work, has a passion for fashion, and worships the ground Miranda walks on. But what she lacks is Andy’s sense of self — Emily would never dare to talk back to Miranda or assert herself in a meaningful way, which is what Andy does. Despite her poor performance at the job interview, Andy refuses to be dismissed, and her faith in herself prompts Miranda to give her a second look.

      Andy: “I’m smart, I learn fast, and I will work very hard.” - The Devil Wears Prada

      The reason Andy’s self-assurance sparks Miranda’s interest is that it reminds her of herself— it’s a key part of her perfectionist identity.

      Villainy of the Working Woman

      Through Miranda, the movie highlights the double standards that working women face in their pursuit of perfection.

      In the book, Weisberger based the Miranda character on her old boss: Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour. But for her performance in the film, Streep went in a different direction by channeling men she knew in Hollywood — starting with Clint Eastwood. Streep explained that Eastwood’s quiet tone of voice requires everyone to “lean in to listen,” thereby making him “the most powerful person in the room.” Meanwhile, she’s said that Mike Nichols, who directed her in movies like Silkwood and Heartburn, inspired Miranda’s biting wit and her ability to be both mean and funny.

      Jocelyn: “They’re showing a lot of florals right now, so I was thinking I could do a shoot—”

      Miranda: “Florals? For spring? Groundbreaking.” - The Devil Wears Prada

      Many women of Miranda’s generation had to develop a hard shell to survive in a male-dominated workplace, and they often had no choice but to emulate men in order to be accepted. Yet even though Miranda’s personality is based on men, the premise of this movie would never work if the character actually were a man — because there’s nothing novel or surprising about a powerful man being demanding and cutthroat as he chases success. In her world, Miranda is well-aware of how she’s perceived — she knows people will judge her harshly for being an exceptionally powerful woman, regardless of what she does.

      Miranda: “Just imagine what they’re going to write about me. ‘The Dragon Lady.’ ‘Career-obsessed.’” - The Devil Wears Prada

      Miranda’s trademark look was inspired by model Carmen Dell’Orefice and French lawyer Christine Lagarde. But she also bears a striking resemblance to another iconic working woman: Cruella de Vil. Cruella and Miranda are both self-assured, career-oriented fashionistas. And the name “Cruella de Vil” — an only loosely camouflaged version of “Cruel Devil” — reminds us of Miranda, too, as she’s openly cruel and is also explicitly called “The Devil” in the film’s title.

      So what underlies the impulse to make this character type the bad guy? Whether explicitly or via subtext, both of these characters are vilified in their societies for not fitting neatly into the role of the self-sacrificing domestic woman. So you could argue that Cruella and Miranda symbolize the “evil” of being a career woman.

      Cruella de Vil: “More good women have been lost to marriage than to war, famine, disease, and disaster. You have talent, darling. Don’t squander it.” - 101 Dalmatians (1996)

      Their other sin is getting older, and expecting to still be treated as relevant.

      Christian: “Jacqueline’s a lot younger than Miranda. She has a fresher take on things.” - The Devil Wears Prada

      The Devil Wears Prada also uses Miranda to explore the problem of work/life balance — another area where women are judged by an unattainable standard. As soon as Andy starts succeeding, her relationship with her boyfriend Nate hits the rocks. One thing that doesn’t hold up so well about this 2006 film is that the story ultimately frames Nate as “right” to object to the demands of his girlfriend’s career.

      Andy: “I wanted to say that you were right about everything.” - The Devil Wears Prada

      A popular take in recent years is that Nate is the true villain of this story for not supporting Andy’s career. Like Nate, Miranda’s husband isn’t happy about coming in second to his partner’s career. Miranda’s commitment to being the best in her field sometimes means radical sacrifices in her personal life — we watch her undergo a painful divorce.

      But in the end, Andy manages to snag the job she wants and keep her man happy, seemingly no longer having to worry about these kinds of trade-offs. In the years since the movie came out in 2006, there’s been a backlash against the overly simplistic and idealistic “having it all” narrative that Andy’s happy ending perpetuates. We might apply this critical eye to Andy’s foreshadowed future at the end of Devil Wears Prada — just because she’s not working for Miranda now, does that mean she’s going to severely limit her work hours to keep her boyfriend happy? And if so, will this really get her to the top of her field as a journalist? The unattainable ideal of “having it all” puts unhealthy pressure on women to excel in both the work and home realms without letting anything slide through the cracks. Ironically, it’s another form of perfectionism.

      When Perfection Becomes Tyranny

      Miranda proves the adage that “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” Ultimately, her perfectionism is both her greatest strength and her fatal flaw.

      A perfectionist’s resting state is dissatisfaction because, in their eyes, things are never exactly right. So perfectionism can be a tyrant making nothing ever feel good enough. Streep even said that embodying Miranda left her in a permanent bad mood on set.

      Meryl Streep: “I think when you’re a taskmaster and very, very disciplined and controlling, that everything is not quite right… all the time.” - Access Hollywood

      Miranda’s staff also suffer due to her perfectionism. Her way of making people feel small and inadequate isn’t a good strategy in the long run — studies have shown that happy employees are actually more productive and that people who feel appreciated and respected by their bosses are more likely to stick around. So ironically, even though Miranda ensures that the work is flawless, she falls far short of perfection as a leader.

      Andy: “I really did everything I could think of—”

      Miranda: “That’s all.” - The Devil Wears Prada

      Miranda’s perfectionism is, at its core, a form of egocentrism. After all, what constitutes “perfection” is subjective— and in this world, perfect is really just whatever Miranda thinks it is.

      Andy: “So because she pursed her lips, he’s gonna change his entire collection?”

      Nigel: “You still don’t get it, do you? Her opinion is the only one that matters.” - The Devil Wears Prada

      Eventually, Andy realizes that she only wants to follow this perfectionist mindset so far. She gets a wake-up call after Miranda betrays Nigel, Andy’s beloved work ally who’s looking forward to an amazing opportunity to leave Runway. He spots his freedom on the horizon:

      Nigel: “This is the first time in 18 years I’m going to be able to call the shots in my own life.” - The Devil Wears Prada

      And this statement is a reminder that working for Miranda requires a complete effacement of your own identity (a point that’s also underlined by everyone calling Andy the wrong name for most of the movie). In the end, Miranda steals this opportunity from Nigel to give it to Jacqueline Follet, in order to prevent Jacqueline from taking her position. Nigel is one of the few people Miranda actually respects and values — so if she’s willing to do this to him, there’s really no one she won’t screw over. Everyone else always comes a distant second to Miranda herself.

      In the aftermath of this betrayal, the words of praise Andy has long desired from Miranda finally come:

      Miranda: “I see a great deal of myself in you.”

      But Andy takes them as an insult:

      Andy: “I couldn’t do what you did to Nigel, Miranda. I couldn’t do something like that.”

      Miranda: “You already did. To Emily.” - The Devil Wears Prada

      She realizes that she has become Miranda — not just in the good ways, but also in the total self-centeredness. At the movie’s table read, Streep changed Miranda’s last line in the car scene from “Everybody wants to be me” to “Everybody wants to be us.” But Andy rejects Miranda’s self-centered, perfectionist, by-any-means-necessary value system.

      In the moment on the red carpet when Miranda realizes her assistant isn’t obediently following behind her, we can see shock subtly register on her face. For once, somebody didn’t want to be her. There might also be a small part of Miranda that’s impressed by Andy here. By separating from her mentor, Andy is following her own star — and that means she’s continuing to be a lot more like Miranda than she even realizes.

      In the end, it’s clear that the ex-boss respects the competent, professional woman her protégé has blossomed into. And when she watches Andy in the final scene, we gather from Miranda’s expression that deep down she’s proud and happy for this next-generation working woman, who made it out of Runway with her humanity and core principles intact.

      She may be her movie’s villain, but Miranda Priestly is an icon — indisputably the best part of Devil Wears Prada — and she achieves the kind of career success most of us can only dream of. Director David Frankel said, “My view was that we should be grateful for excellence. Why do the excellent people have to be nice?” What’s so empowering about Miranda’s character is that her sense of superiority is earned. And what everyone keeps telling Andy is true: it’s a privilege to learn from this incredible woman. So we can learn from her to hold ourselves to lofty standards — even if we don’t achieve perfection, we just might arrive at greatness.