“A million girls would kill for this job.”
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.
“You are chained to that desk.”
She cares about nothing more than pleasing her boss.
“Now we have to make sure that they all think she knows
exactly who they are. And I've been studying for weeks.”
On one level she’s a product of the fashion industry,
embodying its most toxic, destructive standards.
“I’m one stomach flu away from my goal weight.”
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.
“Where have you been?”
[Laughing] “What, all night?”
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
“We have medium-speed Wi-Fi, draft beer on tap--”
“Okay, what? Girl, I hope I get to work here!”
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.
“Thank god it’s Friday, right?.”
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“I'm gonna work until I'm 100
and then cut back to four days a week.
Oh, God. I'm already so bored thinking about that one day off.”
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.
“This is gonna be so much fun! All-night work! All-night work!”
Often they’re in a high-powered, high-stakes career, and their
exhilarating job is framed as the ultimate adrenaline rush.
“That was such a high. l don't know why anybody does drugs.”
The darker interpretation of the workaholic character
is someone fueled by cutthroat personal ambition,
“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”
or who’s using their job to fill a deeper emotional void.
“She's a workaholic.
Works frantically to avoid dealing with her weird
mix of lack of self-worth and narcissism.
I really like her.”
Almost universally, the workaholic
character neglects their personal life.
“Hey, don't you people ever sleep?”
Don't any of you have husbands, wives and
When you’re responsible for serious matters, or even people’s lives,
it’s easy to justify your job taking precedence over everything else.
“This is the most important thing l'll ever do, Jenny.
l have to do it well.”
“lt's not more important than your marriage.”
“lt is more important than my marriage right now.”
But because they spend all their time at the office,
the workaholic struggles to maintain relationships.
“You can get me a date for tonight.
Actually, make that three dates.
Who knows when I'm gonna get another night off?”
Work is their mistress -- the lover who always comes first.
“Why don't you not go to work tomorrow? Take the day off.”
“Me not work?”
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 Bellows Feeding Machine will eliminate the lunch hour,
increase your production, and decrease your overhead.”
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
“Christmas is just like any other day when you work in a newsroom --
You know what I mean?”
“You gotta work on Christmas.”
“I've gotta work on Christmas?”
The 90s was the slacker era.
“That's funny, because I haven't seen you working for a while.
A long while.”
During this stable, prosperous decade in America, onscreen
characters seemed less interested in work than ever.
“I don't think my boss likes me either.”
“I don't think mine likes me either.”
“Maybe it's a universal thing.”
“Or maybe it’s because you're all hanging around
here at 11:30 on a Wednesday.”
Meanwhile at the movie theater, a narrative emerged of men
rebelling against their deadening,
soul-crushing office jobs.
“I don’t like my job and I don’t think I’m going to go anymore.”
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.”
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.”
“Google was just a little startup like we are.
And when they started bringing in chefs and masseuses,
we thought, ‘They're nuts!’”
“And now they're worth over $400 billion."
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,
“Miranda didn't want it, so--”
“No, no, no, no, no. This bag is, like, $1,900.
I cannot take this from you.”
but in the long run, wouldn’t more vacation time or
higher pay be worth a lot more?
“We get emails from you at your office at 2:00 a.m.
Your pay is terrible.”
According to Griffith, mainstream culture
has been shaped by companies like WeWork with, quote,
“its brand of performative workaholism.”
"with WeWork you should expect a space to
make a life not just a living"
Our culture has created a kind of glamour around
“Kirsten keeps a cot in her office.
Rick keeps a Tempur-Pedic cot in his office.
It’s like the Tesla of cots.”
In 2006, Emily was already
completely sold on performative workaholism.
“I love my job, I love my job. I love my job.”
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?
“I already have my dream job.”
“You're a corporate research analyst!”
“Oh, you're right. My job sucks.”
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.”
Across movies and TV, we can see three basic
“working girl” character types, though they tend
to have some overlap:
One, 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”
"I'm working here in the newsroom.
Associate producer. Can you believe that?"
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.
“Miss Olsen, you are now a junior copywriter."
"Is this really happening?”
Viewers can see themselves in the working everywoman character.
"No lunch. I got speech class."
"What do you need speech class for you talk fine.”
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.
[Singing] “You’re gonna make it after all.”
Two, 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.
“Just because you have no semblance of a life
outside of this office, you think that you can
treat all of us like your own personal slaves.”
In fact, we could read this trope as a cultural
backlash to the young everywoman.
“This woman is my secretary.”
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.
“She rifled through my desk, found my
memo outlining a Trask radio acquisition and has
been passing it off as her idea."
"It was my idea.”
The career woman is essentially the female
version of the workaholic absentee father who doesn’t
spend time with his family.
“Peter, you're missing it.”
“Alright. I want a meeting, tomorrow a.m.”
“Dad, my game! You promised.”
And she often has to learn to step back from her career
and make room for romantic love.
"I've got a big day."
"You've always got a big day. Even on the weekends,
you have a big day. You can't let this job be your life.”
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.
"I'm going to kick some ass, and remind them that I'm fierce.”
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.”
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.
"You can't afford me.”
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.
"And with that, Ms. Miranda Hobbes Esquire, a.k.a. ‘just me’
bought herself her first apartment and promptly
took herself out for a drink.”
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
“Well, look, you gotta start somewhere, right?”
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.”
and Emily is going for category three:
the utterly fabulous existence of
the high-powered glamour workaholic.
“I get to go with her to Paris for Fashion Week in the fall.
I get to wear couture.
I go to all the shows and all the parties.
I meet all of the designers.
Except that, to the outside viewer,
Emily’s life hardly appears that great.
“Remember, you and I have totally different jobs.
I mean, you get coffee and you run errands
yet I am in charge of her schedule,
her appointments and her expenses.”
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.”
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.
“A woman. That that's a minus.”
“Well, of course it's a fucking minus! I didn’t make the world.”
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.
“He offered it to me. To be next."
"Because I thought that it was something that we wanted for me.”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
“I get 20 minutes for lunch, and you get 15.”
Worshiping at the altar of work turns the ‘boss’
figure into a kind of deity.
“She saved me, she saved Huck,
she saved Quinn, she saved you.”
“Boar on the floor!” “I really I feel”
“Get down! Boar on the floor.”
[Oinking noises] [Laughing]
[Screaming] “I got it!”
There’s perhaps no better encapsulation of the boss-god
than Emily’s worship of Miranda Priestly as an almost mythical,
“She’s the editor in chief of Runway--not to mention a legend.”
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.”
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.
“I hope you know that this is a very difficult job,
for which you are totally wrong.
And if you mess up, my head is on the chopping block.”
Emily is a model of what not to do in your career.
“You may never ask Miranda anything.”
It’s one thing to work all the time because
you genuinely love what you do.
“You're off work, Cristina. Go enjoy your day.”
“No, I'll enjoy my day if I can help retrieve a heart, I promise.”
But Emily never actually seems happy at Runway.
“So until she decides that you are not a total psycho,
I get the lovely task of waiting around for the Book.”
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,
“You look so thin.”
“Do I?” “Yeah.”
“Oh it’s for Paris, well I’m on this new diet,
it’s very effective. Well, I don't eat anything.
And then when I feel like I'm about to faint,
I eat a cube of cheese.”
and comes to the office even when she’s terribly sick.
“How's the cold doing?”
“Like death warmed up.”
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.
“What took you so long? I have to pee!”
“What? You haven't peed since I left?”
“No, I haven't. I've been manning
the desk, haven't I? I'm bursting.”
She’s internalized the negativity that
permeates Runway’s workplace culture.
“It's just Miranda wanted some scarves from Hermes.
And she did tell me yesterday, but I forgot like an idiot.”
And Emily is well on her way to a problem facing many in
the overstretched millennial workforce:
Buzzfeed’s Anne Helen Petersen named millennials
the burnout generation.
"You deserve paid work."
"I can't get paid work. I just graduated from
Cornell with a business degree. That's the worst Ivy.”
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.
“Andrea, Miranda decided to kill the autumn jacket story
for September and she is pulling up the Sedona
shoot from October.
You need to come into the office right this second
and pick up her coffee order on the way.”
The romance around work strategically glosses over
the fact that being a workaholic isn't
a choice for most of us.
“To jobs that pay the rent.” “Yes.”
“To jobs that pay the rent.”
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.”
“He's in here every night at 9:00. Every morning at 8:00.”
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.
“Oh, my God. I just can't remember what his name is.
I just saw his name this morning on the list It's--Oh, I know this.”
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.”
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
“I need the best possible team with me.
That no longer includes Emily.”
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.
“You have some very large shoes to fill.
I hope you know that.”
Employees need to have boundaries,
but Emily doesn’t have Andy’s instinct to question
conventions that seem ridiculous and downright cruel.
“One time an assistant left the desk because
she sliced her hand open with a letter opener and
Miranda missed Lagerfeld just before he boarded
a 17-hour flight to Australia. She now works at TV Guide.”
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.”
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.
“I'm smart, I learn fast, and I will work very hard.”
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.
“I mean, I have no idea why Miranda hired her.”
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.
“I refuse to be sick.
I'm wearing Valentino, for crying out loud.”
She’s so fixated on what’s required of her
that she’s willing to efface her identity.
“You do not talk to anyone. Do not look at anyone.
This is of the utmost Importance, you
must be invisible. Do you understand?”
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.
“I love my job, I love my job.
I love my job, I love my job,
I love my job.”
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