Thank God it's... a workday? Emily Charlton (Emily Blunt) was resident workaholic of The Devil Wears Prada -- and the forerunner of today's #TGIM culture. In this video, we're taking a deep look at the history of workaholics on screen and the roots of today's religion of work.
The Devil Wears Prada - Emily and a History of Workaholics
Emily Charlton of The Devil Wears Prada is the textbook image of the workaholic. She lives at the office, and expects others to do the same. She cares about nothing more than pleasing her boss. On one level she’s a product of the fashion industry, embodying its most toxic, destructive standards. But back in 2006, she also reflected a more general trend that we’ve seen explode in the years since the movie. Modern American culture has a love affair with working yourself to the bone. Emily encapsulates the valor and virtue we attach to constantly being busy and overstretched. And her story reveals the dark side of living to work -- Emily’s devotion to her job literally starves her and nearly kills her. You might say Emily’s cautionary tale prefigured today’s #ThankGodIt’sMonday culture. So to better understand the Emilys of our times, we’re taking a deep look at the history of workaholism in cinema and TV, and asking whether it's possible to survive the rat race with your sense of self in tact.
The Birth of the Workaholic
The term “workaholism” dates back to 1971, when it was coined to describe: “the compulsion or the uncontrollable need to work incessantly.” Onscreen workaholics cover a range of personalities, but they follow some common patterns. The positive view of the workaholic is someone driven by pure passion. Often they’re in a high-powered, high-stakes career, and their exhilarating job is framed as the ultimate adrenaline rush. The darker interpretation of the workaholic character is someone fueled by cutthroat personal ambition,
“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” - Gordon Gekko in Wall Street
or who’s using their job to fill a deeper emotional void. Almost universally, the workaholic character neglects their personal life. When you’re responsible for serious matters, or even people’s lives, it’s easy to justify your job taking precedence over everything else. But because they spend all their time at the office, the workaholic struggles to maintain relationships. Work is their mistress -- the lover who always comes first.
We can see the origins of today’s work culture in the second industrial revolution, from about 1870 to 1914. With urbanization and the rise of factories, for the first time people had to organize their workday around hours of work completed rather than sunlight. This led to the question of how long a workday should be, and the danger of exploiting workers through excessive hours. Labor unions campaigned for an 8-hour workday, which evolved into what we today call a 9-to-5 job.
Early 20th-century cinema classics like Metropolis and Modern Times, reflected fears about industrialization’s effects on society and alluded to the risk of turning human beings into uniform cogs in a machine. The second half of the 20th-century saw the birth of the workplace sitcom. The Guardian’s Charles Bramesco argues that “from the 70s through the tail end of the 90s, the sitcom’s predominant attitude toward the hassles of work was begrudging acceptance.”
The 90s was the slacker era. During this stable, prosperous decade in America, onscreen characters seemed less interested in work than ever. Meanwhile at the movie theater, a narrative emerged of men rebelling against their deadening, soul-crushing office jobs. These 90s films captured a resentment over being made a cog in the corporate machine, so you could see them as a spiritual update to those early 20th century films about the drudgery of factory work. Fast-forward to now and you’re more likely to see people performing their love of work.
"To do what you love, that is just doing what you feel fulfilled by and what drives you.” - Songe Laron from WeWork
So what happened? In short: the tech industry. New York Times writer Erin Griffith argues that today’s work culture comes from the fact that, starting around the new millennium, tech companies began offering “perks meant to help companies attract the best talent and keep employees at their desks longer.”
We can see this practice at play in The Devil Wears Prada, too. Sure, Andy gets to go to Paris fashion week, raid the Runway closet, and take home whatever expensive products her boss doesn’t want for herself, but in the long run, wouldn’t more vacation time or higher pay be worth a lot more?
According to Griffith, mainstream culture has been shaped by companies like WeWork with, quote, “its brand of performative workaholism.” Our culture has created a kind of glamour around working constantly. In 2006, Emily was already completely sold on performative workaholism.
“I love my job, I love my job. I love my job.” - Emily Charlton in The Devil Wears Prada
She’s brainwashing herself into believing she loves her job, in order to make it through another punishing day, and that raises the question: if our modern world is full of Emilys, how many of us are doing the same?
The Workaholic Woman
To really understand how Emily builds on the onscreen workaholic trope, we can’t overlook that she’s a working woman -- a subset of the workaholic character, who has her own complicated history.
“Sometimes I get concerned about being a career woman. I get to thinking my job is too important to me.” - Mary Richards in The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Across movies and TV, we can see three basic “working girl” character types, though they tend to have some overlap:
The spunky, working everywoman. This character type was most famously embodied by Mary Tyler Moore. Bramesco argues that, “for Mary...simply existing as a 30-year-old single woman in a competitive and male-dominated workplace counted as a win.”
In an era where many women still did not work outside the home, there was a sense of victory in being able to have a career of your own. Viewers can see themselves in the working everywoman character. We usually meet her at the beginning of her working life, which helps us connect to her emotionally and feel her ups and downs as our own. She inspires us by representing work as a source of empowerment.
The career woman as cautionary tale. Unlike with the everywoman, we’re often introduced to this character when she’s well into her career and her commitment to her job is no longer framed in such a flattering light. In fact, we could read this trope as a cultural backlash to the young everywoman. This is highlighted in Working Girl, where Tess, a clear example of our first character type, discovers that career woman, Katherine, is a jaded villain trying to pass off Tess’ idea as her own. The career woman is essentially the female version of the workaholic absentee father who doesn’t spend time with his family. And she often has to learn to step back from her career and make room for romantic love. This set-up makes her a fixture of rom-coms. And three, the boss superwoman. This high-powered woman is killing it at her job, and her drive is portrayed as part of what makes her fabulous.
This character type took off in the 2000s and is a staple of Shonda Rhimes shows. It may even borrow from real life, as Rhimes’ success has made her into an aspirational figure much like the women she creates, and she’s spoken positively about being a workaholic.
“I work a lot, very hard, and I love it. When I am hard at work, when I am deep in it, there is no other feeling. It is hitting every high note. It is running a marathon. It is being Beyoncé.” - Shonda Rhimes TED Talk
In part, this character’s fabulosity comes from the fact that she makes her own money, which puts her in total control of her own life. The ladies of Sex and the City prefigured this character type because the show explored the power of financial independence and not needing to rely on a man for economic support. Interestingly, the three main female characters of Devil Wears Prada seem to fit neatly into these categories -- Andy is the spunky working girl we root for and Miranda is the cautionary tale who represents the danger of sacrificing your personal life for a career,
“Just imagine what they're gonna write about me. The Dragon Lady, career-obsessed.” Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada
and Emily is going for category three: the utterly fabulous existence of the high-powered glamour workaholic. Except that, to the outside viewer, Emily’s life hardly appears that great. In Emily’s eyes, Miranda belongs in superwoman category three, but the movie places her firmly in villainous category two.
“You chose to get ahead. You want this life, those choices are necessary.” - Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada
Emily is so enthralled by the myth of Miranda that she looks right past this, and that leaves her aspiring towards an empty ideal.
This reflects our contemporary lives, too. We may be in an era where powerful, hard-working women are lionized onscreen, but society itself is not set up to reward female workaholics. Even if a woman is doing extremely well in her career, there’s still discomfort around her success. Many heterosexual couples are unwilling to reveal when a woman is the breadwinner. And Aliya Hamid Rao writes for The Atlantic that “the more economically dependent men are on their wives, the less housework they do...In other words, women’s success in the workplace is penalized at home.”
So it’s clear that our world has a long way to go before category three, the working superwoman, becomes more than a fiction.
The Religion of Work
Emily’s devotion to her work rivals religiosity. Our modern day obsession with work can be traced back to the Calvinist branch of Protestantism. Sociologist Max Weber wrote that because Calvinists believed in predestination, they sought to be successful in order to prove they were part of “the elect” destined to go to heaven. Today it’s not hard to see how the Calvinist idea of a “calling” has evolved into people seeing their careers as representing their life’s purpose.
“I devote myself completely to my job. It's what I do. It's all I am.” Becky in Morning Glory
In a modern spin on the Protestant Work Ethic, some have argued that work has now effectively replaced religion as the arena where Americans seek meaning in our modern lives.
“A lot of people have essentially turned to work to find the very things they used to seek from traditional religions: transcendence, meaning, community, self-actualization, a totalizing purpose in life.” - Derek Thompson for The Atlantic
We may be using nonstop work or busy-ness to fill a deeper existential void as Tim Kreider writes, “obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.” Worshiping at the altar of work turns the ‘boss’ figure into a kind of deity. There’s perhaps no better encapsulation of the boss-god than Emily’s worship of Miranda Priestly as an almost mythical, superhuman being.
“She’s the editor in chief of Runway--not to mention a legend.” - Emily Charlton in The Devil Wears Prada
Many people turn to religion to make sense of the world. But work wasn’t designed to do such a thing -- as Derek Thompson writes in The Atlantic, “The modern labor force evolved to serve the needs of consumers and capitalists, not to satisfy tens of millions of people seeking transcendence at the office.” Thus, the root of the problem is that we’re told to look for profound meaning in our work in the first place.
“And the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.” - Steve Jobs 2005 Standford Commencement Address
On the surface this may seem like good advice -- ⅓ of your life is spent at work, so ideally that time should be devoted to something you care about and enjoy. But the constant pressure to love your job sets people up to feel crushed when it doesn’t unlock a deep sense of fulfillment. So just like Emily, from time to time, many of us could stand to be reminded that a job is just a job.
Don’t Be Like Emily
Emily is a model of what not to do in your career. It’s one thing to work all the time because you genuinely love what you do. But Emily never actually seems happy at Runway. During her time there, she sacrifices her sense of self, and self-respect, for the job. Under the pressure of her industry, she goes on starvation diets, and comes to the office even when she’s terribly sick. She gets hit by a car because she’s so distracted running an errand for Miranda, showing how her commitment to work is literally putting her life at risk. And if she continues on this road, like many an addict, she will kill herself. This disregard for her own well-being suggests that Emily doesn’t really value herself. She’s internalized the negativity that permeates Runway’s workplace culture. And Emily is well on her way to a problem facing many in the overstretched millennial workforce: burnout.
Buzzfeed’s Anne Helen Petersen named millennials the burnout generation. Thompson argues that this is due to a combination of student debt, entering the workforce post-recession, and the way social media has heightened the pressure to present an image of success to one’s peers. Meanwhile, instant communication has made it so there is no clear work/life divide anymore. The romance around work strategically glosses over the fact that being a workaholic isn't a choice for most of us. Our country’s policies essentially force people to work a lot. We get little vacation time, new parents aren’t guaranteed paid leave, our healthcare system makes many people reliant on their jobs for insurance, and even getting welfare assistance usually requires proof of employment. And a study by the Washington Center for Equitable Growth found that because people’s output can’t always be measured in a concrete way, companies tend to “unconsciously use working hours and ‘facetime’ as a way to estimate their employees’ productivity and commitment to their jobs.”
But in the long-run, workaholism doesn’t serve employers well either.People who are overworked are less productive and more likely to make mistakes. Even if you don’t care if the rest of your life falls apart, you still shouldn’t be like Emily because her non-stop-work style doesn’t help her get ahead. How does Miranda show her appreciation for the way Emily is killing herself for this job?
“Details of your incompetence do not interest me.” - Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada
She’s been at Runway longer than Andy, but the new girl with no experience overtakes her in less than a year to become Miranda’s preferred assistant. After Miranda betrays Emily by choosing Andy to accompany her to Paris, Emily still returns to work for this person who clearly does not value her. By the end, Andy is pursuing her real dream of being a journalist, while Emily hasn’t moved forward an inch. Employees need to have boundaries, but Emily doesn’t have Andy’s instinct to question conventions that seem ridiculous and downright cruel. At a certain point if you want your superiors’ respect, you need to assert yourself.
“You're never going to get that corner office until you start treating Don as an equal.” - Bobbie Barrett in Mad Men
As we discussed in our Miranda video, Andy’s show of self-respect is what earns her a second look from Miranda in the first place. Meanwhile Emily’s haughtiness towards Andy reveals that she isn’t able to see past appearances to the deeper qualities that an employer might value, like having a unique voice and take on the world. Career excellence requires other qualities in addition to devotion and long hours. Emily plays too much by the rules, she doesn’t invest in other areas of her life, she loses her joy, and most importantly, she doesn’t put herself before the job. She’s so fixated on what’s required of her that she’s willing to efface her identity. This makes her a good assistant, as that’s a role that requires supporting someone else’s career, but workaholism alone will not make you the next Miranda Priestly.