Stockholm Syndrome and The Devil Wears Prada, Part 3

At one point in the story, the stress of the job causes Andy and Nate to break up. Specifically, it causes Nate to break up with Andy, when in the middle of an argument, she gets a phone call from Miranda, which he doesn’t want her to take. Shaking, crying and apologizing, she tells him she has to take it. He says “You know, in case you were wondering – the person whose calls you always take? That’s the relationship you’re in. I hope you two are very happy together.”

A couple months ago, my sister and I talked a lot about abuse on the blog we share. I posted some meandering thoughts, based on my experiences, on how to be supportive when someone you love is being abused. It’s a difficult question, because while you want to get them out, sometimes pressuring them too hard can actually put them in more danger. The last thing you want to do is give them an ultimatum, to threaten to remove support from them if they don’t leave their abuser right now, because the fact is that if the victim hasn’t left yet, a probable factor is that they don’t feel they safely can yet. It’s unfair to demand that they leave if you can’t provide a safe place for them to escape to. Even if you can, that’s an option to be offered gently, without force or coercion or expectations of compliance that they can’t fulfill. They have enough of that in their lives. If you can’t provide that, you can still help simply by being patient and kind to them, giving them a part of their life where they aren’t abused, and responding to their stories of abuse with affirmation that they don’t deserve to be treated like that. Be a person with whom the Stockholm Syndrome rules don’t have to apply, where abuse can be acknowledged without all the defenses against it being torn down.

Being the patient and gently loving ally of an abused person is difficult, both because of the delicate balances and the lack of guidance available for people in that role. So keep in mind that I acknowledge that when I say this; Andy’s friends and especially her boyfriend are a perfect example of what not to do.

When Andy first starts working, her time with her friends is her time to vent about Miranda. They all laugh things off together, and for a while this seems to give her some relief. That doesn’t last. Things are too bad for a simple vent session to fix. This is when her style of dress begins to change, and I start really disliking her boyfriend, Nate.

The change of clothes is part of her Stockholm Syndrome, but it’s not really hurting anyone. It’s not accompanied by vanity or meanness and real change of character. She just dresses differently. Nate hates it, and just as the Runway girls put down her old style, he puts down her new. Now, he doesn’t do this to anything like the degree that they do. He just states that he doesn’t like it. For the record, he doesn’t have to like it. It’s awesome that he liked Andy back before she was stylish. However, he is close enough to the situation to understand that Andy is doing this because she is being picked on and needs a way to connect with her coworkers. Furthermore, as the film goes on, her interest becomes more genuine. After she leaves Runway, she finds a happy medium between her old style and new; more casual but still stylish.

Nate’s saying he doesn’t like her clothes makes her feel like she has to defend her quite reasonable actions. It makes her feel like he isn’t on her side. A better reaction than “I don’t get this, I don’t like your clothes, I liked the old clothes better” would be something that includes an affirmation that he will love her whatever she wears. If I were in her situation, I would really need to hear that, and it would be a valuable reminder to me that those people who are only nice to me when I look like them aren’t my real friends.

In fact, his reaction is fairly shallow. We associate fashion with shallowness, and so its tempting to see his reaction as loving the “real Andy,” but the thing about real love is it totally transcends outward appearance. Rejecting someone for not being unfashionable or alternative enough is just as superficial as rejecting somebody for not knowing what Sephora sells.

The other primary complaint that Nate has is that she’s never around. She used to have lots of time for him and her other friends, and now she rarely does. This is a more valid concern, but he seems to forget the fact that Andy has no control over this. Andy will be fired if she doesn’t do everything Miranda demands, and Miranda makes demands that keep her up past midnight, interrupt the lunches she’s legally entitled to, take away days off at the last minute, etc. That’s not Andy’s fault.

Nate pressures her to quit at times, but I never see him address the valid reason she has for sticking with it. They share an apartment in New York, which given everything I know about New York, they couldn’t afford it on just his salary. He never brings up a kindly rich uncle who can cover her half of the rent if she quits. He never suggests making budget cuts that would allow them to make it together. He never addresses her fear of losing her dreams for their future. And yet, he’s shocked that she always takes her boss’s calls.

While the way her coworkers treat her is much worse than how Nate and her friends treat her, I find the latter less forgivable. As I explained in my last post, I think her coworkers are all dealing with some variety of Stockholm Syndrome. Her friends and Nate are far enough from the situation to think clearly, but close enough to see and hear stories that should clue them in to how bad things are. Even if they don’t attach the word “abusive” to it, they should recognize it as unhealthy and coercive.

And yet, this is a part of the story that I also find very realistic. Victims of abuse often doubt their own feelings because those around them don’t use the label “abuse,” but the lack of that label can happen for many reasons. One of them is a preconceived notion about what abuse looks like. It varies from person to person but it is usually a variation a low class male hitting his wife while wearing soiled jeans and an undershirt, but abuse isn’t about hitting. It’s about a pattern of behavior that systematically tears down another human being.

Psychological abuse is often considered somehow less serious than physical abuse, but it is equally abusive, and many experts even consider that it to be more damaging. Personally, I think all abuse is psychological; every other category just describes the efficiency of the delivery mechanism. Physical abuse is harder to hide and thus easier to recognize and get other people take seriously. Verbal abuse is less obvious, and when abuse isn’t recognized it’s often internalized, leading victims to believe they deserved to be neglected, insulted and mistreated.

Miranda isn’t hitting Andy or her other employees, but she is creating an environment where they all feel like shit. She makes it the norm for her employees to neglect their health, personal lives and autonomy just to survive. At one point Andy says that if Miranda was a woman, nobody would call her anything but good at her job. I think she’s got that exactly backwards. Miranda is a white upper class woman who uses her words to destroy rather than her fists. That takes her so far beyond what we normally expect an abuser to look like that she is effectively camouflaged, and even though everyone knows what she does nobody takes it all that seriously.

This ties back to my original series about Beauty and the Beast and my whole motivation for writing this series. You can’t deal with a problem if you can’t even recognize it. If you try to judge people by their appearance instead of their actions, you end up following Gaston’s mob to the Beast’s castle, and ignoring the real devil because she’s wearing Prada.

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