Boss from Hell

Prada1I’ve been seeing previews for The Devil Wears Prada, and as much as I’d like to see Meryl Streep sink her teeth into what looks like a pretty over-the-top role, I don’t think we’ll be spending any babysitting mojo on this one. I’ve heard the story (it’s thinly veiled account from a former assistant of Vogue’s Anna Wintour of what it’s like to work for her), but it wasn’t until I saw this clip of the movie that I realized I’d also lived some of the story, as I listened to some people interviewed for the clip describe some of the more outlandish tasks assigned by their previous bosses. And then there’s the flaming hoops you jump through on a regular basis on some jobs.

In Miranda’s universe, two pre-publication copies of the latest Harry Potter book must be flown by private jet to Paris so that her twin daughters can read them before their friends; it’s up to Andrea to make the arrangements on a moment’s notice. Tough, but do-able. More finesse is required when Miranda asks Andrea to hunt down the address of "that antique store in the seventies, the one where I saw the vintage dresser." Of course, Andrea wasn’t with Miranda when she saw the dresser, so she winds up trekking to every antique store — and, just to be safe, every furniture store — between 70th and 80th Street in Manhattan, grilling clerks to find out whether the famous Miranda Priestly had stopped by recently. Three days later, Andrea admits defeat . . . only to have Miranda inform her, impatiently, that she’s just located the store’s business card, the one she thought she’d lost. The address is on East 68th Street.

Miranda requires up to five breakfasts per morning so that whenever she arrives at the office, a hot meal will be waiting; reheating isn’t an option. The other four must be thrown out because her assistants aren’t permitted to eat in her presence. Nor are they permitted to hang their coats next to hers. Nor to request clarifications if her demands are indecipherable: "Cassidy wants one of those nylon bags all the little girls are carrying. Order her one in the medium size and a color she’d like."

There’s a kind of grotesque heroism in this, an obliviousness to the feelings of others that is larger than life — and thus mesmerizing. When Weisberger’s novel succeeds, it succeeds on these terms. No one who reads the book will forget Miranda Priestly.

Just remember, when reading your job description, it’s that "other duties as assigned" clause that makes it all possible.

I haven’t read the book, but the buzz around it and the movie reminds of another book I read around the time this one was published — The Nanny Diaries, another roman-a-clef about working for the wealthy and powerful. At some point in the novel, when the narrator recounted her employer’s latest outrage, I snapped the book shut and exclaimed, "Oh, come on! People like this can’t really exist in the world!" Of course, I knew better, because I’d worked for a few of them, as have plenty of others. If no one who reads the book or sees the movie will forget the "boss from hell" at it’s epicenter, it’s because most of us have worked for one. (Just one, if we’re lucky.)

OK, my own experience wasn’t nearly as bad as that described above. The strangest request I ever got from a manger was to run down and pick up her dry cleaning. Oh, and would I also stop by the drug store and pick up a pregnancy test for her since it was on the way. Those two words, "pregnancy test," took me further into her world than I think even "other duties as assigned" would require. I dropped off the dry cleaning and the test in her office, tossing them on a chair beside the door, without stopping or stepping in lest the next request have something to do with reading the results. I said "Your change is in the bag," over my shoulder as I hurried back to my office and closed the door.

Needless to say, D.C. is full of places where one can encounter bosses to rival the one described in the book and portrayed in the movie; where a fresh-faced young man or woman can find end up working pretty closely (if scheduling meetings, making copies, and sending faxes counts as such) with some pretty powerful people, some of whom have grown pretty used to their power. I’ve heard stories of House members whose approaching footsteps send their staffs scampering in terror, and executive directors whose staffs walk on eggshells most of the time. And they’re some of the most powerful people in Washington.

Granted, there’s often a "cost to the the boss," people who achieve levels of success such that their very names become synonymous with their field of work — or with success itself — usually give up something on their way to the precipice. Because in a lot of fields you have to travel pretty light if you want to reach the top. A degree of humanity, kindness, and even a sense of humor might be the cost of the ticket. And once you get to the top, you can’t dispense it to others if you emptied you account in order to get there, when you didn’t exactly have a surplus of those qualities in the first place.

If if you’re a woman trying to reach the summit, you’ll have to jettison the same things that the guys get rid of, but you’ll be expected to have retained them once you do reach the top. And if will probably count against you if you’re more lacking in the departments of tact, forgiveness, and concern than your male counterparts. After all, if the real-life boss of the book’s author had been a man would there have been a book? Would Meryl Streep be poised to stomp across the screen in stiletto heels, shaking her white mane and striking fear into innocent young hearts with just a raise eyebrow?

But what makes even the anticipation of Prada — a story we all know pretty well already — so delicious is the same thing that made the fall of, say, Martha Stewart (another boss who could reportedly reduce an assistant to tears) such a spectacle. It’s because deep down we don’t really believe that people become bosses from hell because of what they’ve sacrificed. But maybe they behave the way they do just because they can, as one of the perks of power.

After all, the rule of the workplace is that "shit flows downhill," and for every one person at the top of the hill there’s at least two or three of the rest of us at the bottom. Catching it. So, why wouldn’t we get some satisfaction out of seeing a handful or two flung back at one of the occupants up top? Especially if we get popcorn and an aisle seat in the bargain, because once the credits role the rest of us — who don’t work for anyone famous enough to right a book about (that anyone would read) or make a movie about (that anyone would see) — will resume our positions at the bottom of the hill.

About Terrance

Black. Gay. Father. Buddhist. Vegetarian. Liberal.
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