Mobility and Morality

December 19, 2006
Posted by Jay Livingston

A standard church sermon warns us against placing too much emphasis on material objects, wealth, and success. Pursuit of these worldly goals imperils not only our souls but our human relationships with family and friends. That’s Sunday. Monday morning, we go back to a life dominated by the very same values -- success and the money and material goods that come with it.

For those who don’t go to church to hear this message, there’s always the movies.

Last weekend, I saw “The Devil Wears Prada,” recently released on DVD. How many times have we seen this story? I was tempted to stop the DVD after the first two minutes and ask my 16-year-old to predict the plot, and I’m sure he could have. I suppose it’s a sign of progress that this story can now be told with women in the main roles and men as pretty faces. But the moral about yielding to the devil is the same, and so are his temptations— career success and the things money can buy.

In “Prada,” a sensible young woman (Anne Hathaway) with a journalism degree, good values, and a working class boyfriend (the good-looking guy from “Entourage” as a chef) gets caught up in the world of high fashion, where appearance counts for everything. That world and its values are personified in the character of her arrogant, demanding boss (Meryl Streep), a fashion editor who apparently dominates the entire fashion industry.

Our good girl, seemingly against her will, winds up getting new hair, new makeup, and clothes, clothes, clothes. She works long hours trying to please her boss and becomes super-competent at her job. Only late in the film does she realize what she has sacrificed: “I turned my back on my friends and family.” And when she tries to blame everything on the external pressures of her work, Streep tells her bluntly, “You chose to get ahead.”

Of course, in the end, she walks out on the fashion world and into the good kind of journalism she was looking for at the beginning of the film.

The conflict between relationships and success is standard stuff in American TV and movies and perhaps in real life as well, though only in the movies do people regularly turn their backs on a successful career. If “Prada” offers anything new, it’s to call into question not just our materialism but even our values on achievement and good old fashioned hard work.

This is not to say that movies show us the underside of all our values. Just a select few like success. Freedom, independence, equality, optimism, rationality, informality — it’s hard to think of a film that portrays these as anything but good.

But at least “Prada” confronts its heroine with a choice. More typically, American movies and TV pretend that you actually can have it both ways. You can be successful without abandoning your roots, you can move up without moving out. “Entourage” is a good example, an urban version of “The Beverly Hillbillies.” The guys remain true to their Queens working-class ways and to one another even when surrounded by Hollywood with all its tension and pretension, and yet they always come out on top.

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