I’ve known a good number of guys over the years who cited The Wolf of Wall Street as their favorite movie of all time, but not because it points out the nastiest aspects of human greed. Instead, they were hooked on the excess and hedonism of Jordan Belfort’s criminal lifestyle and didn’t care too much that the movie (and the real-life story) ended with him divorced, behind bars, and publicly disgraced. I always thought it was hilarious that so many men left the movie with such a skewed message, until I recently logged into Netflix to rewatch an old favorite: The Devil Wears Prada.
When I first saw this film years ago, I was captivated by the glamorous world of fictional editor-in-chief Miranda Priestly, and decided that protagonist Andy Sachs must’ve been an idiot to walk away from the job of a lifetime instead of following in Miranda’s (designer, of course) footsteps. But with fresh eyes – and the maturity of no longer being in my early teens – I’ve come to see this film in a different light entirely. I realize now that instead of being an indulgent fantasy of the fashion world, The Devil Wears Prada is a condemnation of ambition taken too far – just like The Wolf of Wall Street.
Andy Sachs and Jordan Belfort: Two Sides of the Same Coin
In the beginning of both films, Andy and Jordan are similar characters. They’re both fresh college grads who are in committed relationships and optimistic about entering the workforce. Andy wants to be a serious journalist, and Jordan wants to be an honest stockbroker (well, as honest as a stockbroker can be). But as they both garner more professional success, they become increasingly like the characters who represent everything corrupt within their industry (editor Miranda Priestly in Andy’s case, broker Mark Hanna in Jordan’s). Our protagonists’ personas, partners, and values all transform to fit the mold of what the culture around them deems to be “success.”
Won over by the stereotypical Wall Street lifestyle, Jordan juggles financial fraud, prostitutes, and hard drugs on a day-to-day basis. From cocaine to quaaludes, he abuses every substance imaginable to wake up, go to sleep, and get back up again. But according to Jordan, his “absolute favorite” addictive substance isn’t something you can snort or smoke: it’s cold, hard cash. And by his own admission, he doesn’t only love the money because it buys houses and boats but because it also buys the admiration of every other fraudster on Wall Street. But is it really worth it to be honored by people who don’t have much honor themselves?
Andy Sachs starts a job at Runway Magazine as an assistant who doesn’t think very highly of her shallow, borderline abusive boss. But a taste of the perks of Miranda’s lifestyle (the big black cars, expensive clothes, and unrivaled authority), and Andy turns into her faithful apprentice. Her personal relationships deteriorate as she evolves into Miranda 2.0. When Andy confesses to coworker Nigel that she’s struggling to maintain a constructive work-life balance, he says, “Let me know when your whole life goes up in smoke. That means it’s time for a promotion.”
Although the online debate continues to rage on whether Andy’s initial boyfriend Nate was an asset or an obstacle in her life, we can all agree that her short-lived replacement was hardly better. Sleazy, pretentious Christian Thompson fit the classic playboy archetype to a tee and saw Andy as more of a conquest than a person. Similarly, Jordan’s replacement wife Naomi was more enamored with the lifestyle that came with being Mrs. Belfort than she was with Jordan himself. While both characters sat at what might be considered their peaks, they were surrounded by cold cash and even colder people.
Andy’s problem was never that she became more fashionable, and Jordan’s problem was never that he wanted a lucrative career. Instead, their issue was avarice – “excessive or insatiable desire for wealth or gain.” Andy and Jordan are perfect examples of how we can develop greed for something we never initially sought out – front row seats at Fashion Week, a private jet full of prostitutes – because the world tells us to. Surrounded by the women at Runway and the men on Wall Street, Andy and Jordan never stood a chance.
The Morals We Missed
The Wolf of Wall Street ends in a pretty ambiguous way that trusts the viewer to make their own conclusions about Jordan Belfort. Does the large house on Long Island and leisurely yacht sailing look fun? Sure. Does the real-life Jordan continue to generate income via his books and speaking gigs all about his time as a scamming stockbroker? Absolutely. But can we really say that he’s aspirational? Is the shame of elaborately robbing people – and later becoming notorious for it – really a legacy we all want to live with? Do we love Jordan’s “favorite drug” that much?
In the final minutes of The Devil Wears Prada, Andy does what Jordan has never been able to do and completely abandons the persona that Runway thrust onto her. She quits her job, donates her Paris Fashion Week wardrobe to another assistant, and finds less glamorous employment at another publication. During my first run-through of the film, I saw Andy’s reversion back to her old ways through the same lens I thought Miranda would: as a terrible fall from glorious heights.
But interestingly enough, we learn that Miranda doesn’t see it this way. She actually feels a begrudging respect for Andy, who found the strength to do what Miranda never could and develop a sense of self outside her job title. Andy saves herself by leaving Runway when she realizes how corrupt she’s becoming under Miranda’s guidance. Given Andy’s position, how many of us would walk away from the glittering world of couture gowns and rooftop parties without looking back? How many of us would choose our integrity over our prestige?
Years ago, I would’ve screamed at the TV during the climax of The Devil Wears Prada and begged Andy to turn around, get her butt back in that car, and go to the fashion show with Miranda. Today, I feel proud of Andy. Unlike so many of us who’ve watched and loved the movie, she didn’t allow the shiny surface of the industry to blind her to all the rot lurking beneath.
Both The Devil Wears Prada and The Wolf of Wall Street prove that we as audience members find it just as easy to get swept up in these fast, flashy lifestyles as the main characters do before taking a step back and analyzing whether these lifestyles are actually good for us. Too many of us have left these films eager to repeat the same mistakes we’ve been warned against. And these aren’t mistakes that only millionaire stockbrokers and assistants to public figures can make – everyone has to choose between prestige and authenticity at some point. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world where the prestigious route and the honest route are always the same. If we ever find ourselves in the position that Andy Sachs did when she stepped out of that car in Paris, let’s hope that we, too, will have the strength to walk away.