Psyche in New York: The Devil Wears Prada Updates the Myth
Croft, Janet Brennan, Mythlore
THE PSYCHE AND CUPID STORY IS A CENTRAL MYTH of female maturation, usually read as a metaphor for the soul reaching its full growth through the transforming power of love. But there are, if one looks closely, two stories intertwined in this myth. The most obvious, the familiar "Eros plot," concerns Psyche's relationship with her family and her lover, Eros/Cupid. The usually less-emphasized "Psyche plot," on the other hand, is about her relationship with her lover's mother Aphrodite/Venus. (1) At its core, this underlying Psyche plot-perhaps, as some interpretations suggest, a much older remnant of ancient matriarchal rites of initiation--is the story of a younger woman's passage into adulthood through the accomplishment of symbolic tasks assigned by a powerful older woman. This authoritative female figure may even appear to be an enemy, at least at times, but actually mentors and guides her growth into full participation in society. As Valerie Estelle Frankel points out in her study of the mentor element in the heroine's journey, "[a]s a teacher of independence, the evil stepmother [or her equivalent] is essential to the story" (38).
When the Psyche plot is foregrounded in a work, the positive aspects of it can speak to the great hunger of young women for a same-sex mentor. Women "particularly need female mentors who can model the greater diversity in women's lives today" and to help them "develop [their] own definition of success" (Schlegel). A relationship with a female mentor can fulfill important "psychosocial needs" and provide "engaged and authentic emotional support" (Spencer and Liang 109). Fortunately for younger women, "More than half of Gen Y women have been mentored by a woman, up from only 34% of Baby Boomers" (Williams). Yet this improvement is not necessarily reflected in popular media; a recent thread on the women's news discussion site Jezebel asks the pertinent question: "Where Are All the Female Mentor Characters?" As the columnist points out, "In all of the films, shows, and books I can think of, the woman's mentor is normally a male, either gay or a potential love-interest. If a woman happens to give the heroine some mentoring, it's limited to certain advice-giving incidents, which are often questionable and sometimes destructive." Commenters list numerous examples of both positive and negative female mentors, but far more are from books than from mainstream movies or television. And in these examples, women seem to mentor men positively more often than other women, and for the most part, the same-sex mentoring relationship is indeed limited: a part of the broader story, not the focus of it.
The 2006 movie The Devil Wears Prada, adapted for the screen by Aline Brosh McKenna, directed by David Frankel, and starring Meryl Streep, is a very rare example of a popular film where female mentoring is at the center of the story. The book on which the movie is based is a roman a clef about author Lauren Weisberger's stint as assistant to Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue. It is a self-indulgent and self-centered litany of the humiliating and impossible tasks she was commanded to do, interesting chiefly as an exercise in name-dropping. The central character learns nothing from her experiences and exhibits no character growth throughout the novel; one reviewer accurately calls it "tiresomely self-entitled" (Valby) and Kate Betts, who similarly worked for Wintour early in her career, says "[Weisberger] had a ringside seat at one of the great editorial franchises [but] seems to have understood almost nothing" (Betts). The list of hard-earned "skills" the narrator sarcastically reels off near the end of the novel are actually, if she could look at them with a bit more perspective, useful accomplishments indeed; whose professional life wouldn't be improved by learning "how to complete just about any challenge in under an hour because the phrase [...] 'that's not possible' was simply not an option" (326)? …