Tag Archives: The devil wears prada

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.

Stockholm Syndrome and The Devil Wears Prada, Part 2

Part 1 here

Trigger warning; discussion of abuse continues

Also I absolutely can’t make the points I’m making without spoiling the crap out of the end, so beware.

In the movie, Andy is repeatedly described as “losing her soul.” Most fans of the movie who I have talked to have accepted that interpretation, but I’ve also known of a few who disagree.  It’s actually quite difficult to name things Andy does that are truly wrong. There is nothing wrong with either developing an interest in fashion, or trying to well at a difficult, demanding job. Stealing an unpublished manuscript is a crime, but given how huge Harry Potter is and that the twins would most likely get their own hardcover copy when the real one comes out, along with tons of merchandise, it is a victimless crime. She feels somewhat attracted to a cute writer who flirts with her, while she’s dating somebody else, but nothing happens until she and her boyfriend split up. In fact, there is only one situation where Andy does anything I can even begin to consider wrong, and its done under extreme coercion.

At one point, Andy’s coworker Emily is sick. Unlike any reasonable boss in the world, Miranda does not send Emily home. In fact, Emily is supposed to accompany Miranda to a gala, where her primary duty will be to remind Miranda of the names of each and every guest. See, Miranda doesn’t want to have to deal with the embarrassment and awkwardness of “sorry, I forgot your name,” but neither does she want to go to the trouble of learning who her own guests are. Instead Emily has to not only work but work late into the night, while she is coughing and sneezing and clinging to tissues like they’re life preservers, or perhaps a talisman of protection against people like Miranda. That’s bad but not as bad as it gets. Miranda tells Andy that even though she had the night off, she has to come to the gala as a backup for Emily. Andy has to spend the rest of the afternoon learning as many names and faces as she can. But you know, sending Emily home entirely and making do with just Andy would be unthinkable.

It's like having Huginn and Muninn, except they are telling me things that I'm perfectly capable of figuring out myself, and one of them should be home.
It’s like Huginn and Muninn, except they are telling me things I’m fully capable of learning myself, and one of them should be home.

During the night, Emily makes one mistake, and Andy covers for her. Miranda’s response is to kick Emily off of fashion week in Paris, in favor of Andy.

This is a big deal because, like everyone else, Emily hates working for Miranda. She experiences daily humiliations, terrifyingly high expectations and verbal abuse. Emily puts up with it because fashion genuinely is her dream. The week in Paris, for Emily, makes all the shit she deals with worth it. Think of how Hogwarts gave Harry the ability to deal with the Dursleys all summer, and imagine that Hogwarts only lasted a week. That’s Paris for Emily.

Miranda makes it clear that if Andy turns down the Paris job, she will get that whole “fired with an incendiary reference” thing that everyone is so scared of.

This whole dialog hinges on a weird contradiction. On the one hand, Miranda claims this isn’t a personal vendetta against Emily, nor is it a way to maintain her image as terrifying and capricious, and thus motivate everyone to continue working themselves to death. Oh no, this is because it is just so important to Miranda that she have the best people on her Paris team, and Andy, not Emily, is the best. And yet, while Andy is so much better than Emily that she is indispensable on the Paris trip, she is not also so much better that it would be stupid to fire her over turning down one opportunity. Its impossible to know what exactly Miranda’s game here is, but whatever it is, my mean-spirited bullshit meter is flashing red.

Andy accepts the job, even though it breaks Emily’s heart, and doing so clearly hurts Andy as well. For the record, coercing somebody into doing something abusive for you is also abuse. Andy is being made an accomplice here, but she is also being victimized. However, character after character holds Andy responsible for what happens, including Miranda.

In a beautiful ironic twist, though, it’s Miranda’s insistence that Andy had a choice that breaks the spell. Andy suddenly decides this career path is no longer worth it, if the price is becoming somebody like Miranda. She ditches her abuser in the middle of the Paris, and everybody in the audience cheers.

As so often happens after abuse, all the worst predictions about what would happen if Andy leaves do not come true. Andy finds a job with a small newspaper, doing the kind of work she wanted to do in the first place, with people who seem to be, you know, reasonable and decent human beings.

This leaves the audience with an interesting question. Was Andy really being corrupted? The movie wants to say yes, but I’m inclined to say no. She’s a victim in this situation, and she consistently tries to do the right thing. Still, within that incorrect characterization of Andy’s situation is a point that I think has some truth to it.

There are two different reactions given to Andy’s character arc. One is “you are changing, right now, for the worse.” This reaction comes from Emily, who gives her a rant that is primarily understandable rage and venting, but also from her friends. I’ll get into that reaction in the third and final piece of this series. The other one is that she is nice, that she hasn’t done anything wrong, but that she is on a path that will inevitably turn her into somebody she doesn’t want to be. The first person who gives her this perspective is the cute writer. The second is Miranda herself, in the dialog that convinces Andy to ditch the job.

There is something interesting going on in the culture of people who work with Miranda. Everybody gives in to her. Everybody treats her behavior as normal, defends her as a woman whose abusive treatment of her employees is the reason she is so powerful, and even idolizes her. In short, there is not a person there who does not demonstrate some Stockholm-y behaviors. Sometimes, this translates into mimicking Miranda’s behaviors. As I said last time, when Andy starts work everyone brutally mocks her size and her clothing. Emily, the character we feel so bad for when she misses out on Paris, is the primary perpetrator.

"I'm going to hate you on sight because that distracts me from the misery of my own existence, ok?"
“I’m going to hate you on sight because that distracts me from the misery of my own existence, ok?”

This is called identification with the aggressor, where mimicking an abuser’s behavior makes the victim feel more powerful and relieves anxiety. All this makes it even easier for Andy to get sucked into that mindset. No doubt every year newbies come to Runway, passionate about fashion and hopeful about their futures, only to have their spirits crushed, whether they stay or leave.

Even characters who are nicer than Emily still reinforce the abuse in smaller ways. For example Nigel, who is the one who befriends Andy and actually helps her fit in, also gives speeches justifying the importance of the work they do and belittling Andy’s complaints.

In this scene he is defending Miranda. By the end of the movie Miranda will have ruined his life.
In this scene he is defending Miranda. By the end of the movie Miranda will have ruined his life.

This is something I have also observed in both of the verbally abusive environments I’ve experienced (one directly, one from the sidelines). It isn’t just about what the main abuser does. It’s also about what the people around them do. It’s about the fellow victims who don’t want to believe they are victims, so they gaslight anyone who dares suggest that something twisted might be going on. It’s about the justifications that get passed around. It’s about the creation of a myth that “everyone who would put us down just doesn’t get how wonderful we are.”

As I mentioned in the previous piece, Miranda regularly violates laws and basic ethics with her employees. So why isn’t she facing any lawsuits? I’m sure part of it is that people are scared. No doubt her lawyers are the best money can buy. Still, there isn’t even a mention of anybody trying, even as they complain about her and share stories that would make any competent HR department weep. They could pool their resources on a lawsuit, and also dump documentation of past abuses on the press. Miranda is powerful, but so is public outrage, and the employees at Runway could do some serious damage. But they aren’t going to do that, because they don’t see her as their abuser.

Individually, everyone is only trying to survive a terrible environment. Collectively, they have created an environment where the abuse of everybody else is enabled. Is that corruption?

I think that’s the wrong question. Wrong here meaning “unlikely to actually help people get out of abuse.” Because, see, stigmatizing people who are in abusive situations does not help them get out at all. It only makes them more afraid to seek help. On the other hand, I don’t think ignoring the role their choices make helps either. People are more likely to take control of their lives if their ability to make choices is affirmed, just as Andy leaves Miranda when Miranda emphasizes to Andy that she is making choices to get ahead. But going back to the original hand, pretending that anybody with sufficient force of will can break free of their situation without any consequences… that’s a fantasy.

I think there are two right questions. The first is “how can we better teach each other to recognize abusive situations?” The second is “how can people outside the situation offer support to people who are being abused?” I’ll talk about both of those in my final piece, which should be up shortly.

Stockholm Syndrome and The Devil Wears Prada, Part 1

Trigger warning; emotional and verbal abuse

When I finished my two posts on how Beauty and the Beast doesn’t portray Stockholm Syndrome, I felt proud of the work, but also worried. I do think it’s valuable to talk about what things like Stockholm Syndrome don’t look like. Slapping that label on Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and laughing about it encourages ignorance and flippancy towards a real problem. However, the piece felt incomplete without a contrasting post illustrating what Stockholm Syndrome does look like.

Then I realized one of my favorite movies, The Devil Wears Prada, was perfect. In the first place, it hits all of the elements of real life Stockholm Syndrome that Beauty and the Beast doesn’t. Second, it’s a natural companion because while Beauty and the Beast is the story everybody blindly points to as Stockholm Syndrome, The Devil Wears Prada is a case where, although I think my case is fairly solid, I don’t think anybody else has thought to apply that label to it. Third, it was a great excuse to watch the movie again.

Just as a refresher, while the common understanding of Stockholm Syndrome is “person gets kidnapped and then falls for their captor,” it doesn’t require literal captivity. It can exist any time one person has power and the other can’t escape it, or believes they can’t. When the person in power becomes abusive, the victim tries to cooperate and bond with the abuser as an act of self-preservation. While this can seem illogical to an outsider, but when you’re in the situation it can seem like, or even actually be, the only way to mitigate the damage. As this cooperation goes on, cognitive dissonance sets in. The victim can begin to actually see the abuser in a positive light and become genuinely attached. Those feelings don’t have to be romantic; any type of attachment counts.

Spoilers ahead, as I explain how this applies to The Devil Wears Prada.

The protagonist is Andrea Sachs, Andy to her friends, a young, idealistic aspiring journalist. She gets offered a job as an assistant at Runway, a fashion magazine, and takes it despite lacking any interest in fashion. It’s the only job offer she has. Her boss, Miranda Priestley, turns out to be terrifying. She mocks Andy’s clothes, calls her fat, and publicly belittles her every mistake while failing to provide any constructive feedback. On top of this her expectations are absurdly high. One of the first things Andy learns on the job is that the phone must always be answered, never allowed to go to voicemail. Once, a secretary sliced her hand open and was away from the desk because she trying to stop the bleeding. A call was missed. The secretary was fired.

When Miranda is only being a belittling, capricious perfectionist who makes Andy work past midnight, it’s a good day. On a bad day, she might give Andy a task that is physically impossible. In one scene Andy must find an airplane that will fly Miranda out of Florida during a hurricane, and is punished for failing. In Miranda’s world, you fail to meet an unreasonable expectation, your only hope is to fulfill some other unreasonable expectation, to prove that no, you can totally live in her unreasonable world. The alternative is losing your job, and being fired by Miranda burns your reputation throughout the world of fashion.

Succeeding usually doesn’t go much better. You don’t get fired, but you don’t get thanked either. You just get hit with another unreasonable demand tomorrow. People will often carry out her tasks only to discover she has changed her mind behind your back, and not only wants something else but is shocked that you didn’t read her mind. This is a psychological abuse tactic known as moving the goalposts. You can’t win, because even when you do well, the expectations change.

On top of dealing with that, Andy’s absurd hours mean she has little time for her friends outside work. She becomes increasingly isolated from her support group, while everyone at work picks on her. Even the nicest character calls her “six” a reference to her weight in a world where anything over four is fat. Unwilling to give up, Andy tries to fit in. She learns about fashion and changes her look.

Andy Before
Andy Before
Andy After
Andy After

She makes herself see Miranda’s demanding nature as a challenge and an opportunity, and takes pride in the tasks she can pull off. She even takes some time to enjoy the perks of the job; hobnobbing with the rich and famous, getting free samples of insanely expensive clothing and accessories, and… no, actually that’s it. But it’s something, and she enjoys it.

In the end, she gets to know Miranda better. As she starts recognizing subtle signs of Miranda’s approval, she even starts liking Miranda and defending her actions. When Miranda’s job becomes threatened, Andy fights to save it.

So now that I’ve given you the pieces, let me assemble them. Why is this Stockholm Syndrome, and Beauty and the Beast not?

Number one, Andy feels trapped. On paper, Belle is the character who is Beast’s prisoner, while Andy voluntarily took a job that she can quit any time. Under the surface, though, their situations are reversed. Belle ran away from the Beast the moment she felt threatened. Later on she returns voluntarily, and the Beast learns to control his temper, knowing that if he doesn’t he risks driving her away again. Andy, on the other hand, was low on options when she took the job. She repeatedly says she has to stay at least a year, because anything else would make her resume look poor. Furthermore, it is made explicit that if Miranda doesn’t like you, she doesn’t just have the power to fire you. She has contacts throughout publishing, and can write you the kind of reference that will blacklist you from every decent job in the business. Belle is the prisoner who can leave any time she wants to. Andy is the employee who has to stay.

Number two, Miranda uses her power over Andy abusively. She deliberately tears her employees down and bullies them into doing anything she asks, including acts that could get them arrested (in one scene Andy must steal an unpublished Harry Potter manuscript). The Beast is also bad, initially, but after Belle stands up to him, he changes. This is a dangerous point to make, because there are millions of people out there staying with their abuser because they believe some magical change will happen. However, there is a difference between Beast and those abusers. The abusers say they will change, then go back to their old behaviors, then say they will change, then go back, then say they will change, then go back. Beast just changes. You can discuss how realistic or common this is, and whether that might set up unrealistic hopes, and those are all valid questions, but it doesn’t change the fact that by the time Belle falls in love with him, he really isn’t acting like the Beast she met. We don’t see him go on the attack or lose his temper after the sequence where Belle runs away and returns. We do see him being kind to her.

In fact, a lot can be learned by contrasting the kindnesses Beast shows to the ones that Andy comes to think she sees in Miranda. In Stockholm Syndrome, as the victim tries to cooperate with their abuser, incredibly small gestures can be viewed as kindness. A momentary smile can make the victim feel like the special person who get to see this poor, broken individual’s good side. In the movie, Miranda deliberately calls Andy by the wrong name for nearly half the running time. It’s not a mistake; she is a sharp, detail oriented woman. Clearly she was capable of keeping remembering the name of one of her two personal secretaries. When she finally calls Andy “Andrea,” its a profound moment of her affirming that Andy has done well enough to earn her respect. It is also what is technically known as seriously fucked up.

No, no, people have to earn basic human interaction from me.
No, no, people have to earn basic human interaction from me.

The Beast isn’t a “small kindnesses” guy. He does big things. He spends time with her, getting to know her in a way the people in her village never did. He gives her his library because she loves books and he wants to see her happier. When she misses her father, he uses his magic to find him, and when they learn he needs help, Beast tells her to go to him, and that she does not need to come back. While I maintain that in spirit, she was never his prisoner, in that scene he formally releases her from her promise.

This is not to say that abusers can’t put on dramatic shows of affection, like the Beast’s gift of the library. The person who throws a romantic dinner one evening and beats their partner bloody the next is a definite Thing That Happens. However, abusers are fundamentally selfish and generally will not choose their partners needs over their own. If they did, they probably would be choosing “my partner’s need to not experience physical and/or psychological harm” over “my desire to hurt them.” When the Beast chooses to send Belle away, he thinks this means she will never return and he will be a monster forever. He has every reason not to do that. He does it anyway, preferring his pain to hers. This shows that his character arc from cruel to kind is authentic.

All of that leads me to the third element of Stockholm Syndrome; the victim attempts to bond with the abuser to mitigate damage. In contrast with Beauty and the Beast, where the Beast changes his behavior to bond with Belle, Andy changes how she acts and thinks in order to impress, and therefore survive, Miranda. She even tries to downplay how Miranda acts. In the long run, telling yourself that something awful really wasn’t that bad is unhealthy. It can become a beautiful fantasy that traps you in an ugly reality. In the short run, though, it can get you through the day.

This leads Andy directly to the fourth element of Stockholm Syndrome. Her behavior leads to actual attachment to Miranda, as demonstrated by the times she defends Miranda’s actions to others. This truth is that most abusers, being humans, have at least a glimmer of a good side, or at least a Freudian excuse. For people who are motivated to see their abusers as good people, this can be a smokescreen for a bigger truth; a good side and a sob story do not a good person make. Repeated acts of abuse are not erased because they are committed by a person who pets a puppy once in a while.

If you’ve watched the movie, you know of an element of the story that I haven’t touched on yet. Andy’s descent into the world of fashion is characterized by several characters as Andy “losing her soul.” So am I saying that Stockholm Syndrome victims are going over to the dark side? No, for the record, I don’t think that, but I think that raises some more complicated questions. So complicated, in fact, I will have to cover them in another post, so stay tuned. And thank you, very much, for reading this far.