Dostoevsky’s famous 1880 novel, The Brothers Karamozov, contains a story so evocative that it often stands alone in literary anthologies. Called “The Grand Inquisitor” and recounted by Ivan Karamozov, the story focuses on a leader of the Spanish Inquisition, the Grand Inquisitor, who informs Jesus that the way of the cross, with its death to self, is inappropriate for the masses. Instead, the Inquisitor argues, what people want from religion—and need—is precisely what institutional Christianity can provide: “miracle, mystery, and authority.” Ivan’s story, based on a dream, helps illuminate the dream-work of two radically different films that competed for box office dominance this summer: Superman Returns and The Devil Wears Prada.
Like The Brothers Karamozov, Superman Returns is filled with explicit Christian imagery. Unlike The Brothers Karamozov, however, Superman Returns is exceedingly heavy-handed. The film begins with a womb-like container crashing to earth from the heavens. The incarnate Superman inside is welcomed by Mrs. Kent, who raised him as her own son. His god-like powers disguised in Clark Kent attire, Superman falls subject to the attacks of an earthly Devil, whose name, Lex Luther, should give Protestants pause. After submitting to a Luther-led buffeting and scourging, Superman saves humanity by risking death, willingly lifting a kryptonite-laced landmass—like our sins—to heaven, sending the mass into orbit around the earth. Weakened, however, by its oozing kryptonite—a stand-in for the debilities that all flesh is heir to—Superman falls back to earth in a cruciform pose. And, of course, he eventually rises again to continue the work established by his father from the heavens, who tells him “I have sent them you, my only son.”
In a book titled The Gospel According to the World’s Greatest Superhero, Steve Skelton asserts that parallels between Superman and Jesus date back almost as far as the comic book character’s beginnings in 1938. However, as others have noted, the originators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, were Jewish, as is Bryan Singer, the director of the current movie. The film’s heavy-handed Christ imagery, it would seem, aims for the wallet, not the soul. In fact, the film even throws in a little taste of the best-selling DaVinci Code, Superman having sired a son who will carry his incarnated powers on to future generations. The Christianity in Superman Returns, then, harmonizes with that proffered by Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor. Dazzling crowds with miracle, mystery, and authority, the film’s eponymous hero saves people from evil without expecting anything in return.
Released almost simultaneously with Superman Returns, The Devil Wears Prada, also set in New York City, gives us superwoman. Based on a semi-autobiographical novel by someone who worked for the head of Vogue magazine, the film stars a marvelously supercilious Meryl Streep as the outrageously autocratic head of Runway magazine. Named Miranda Priestly, which roughly translates to “priest-like wonderment,” the Runway superwoman embodies miracle, mystery, and authority—dressed in Prada, Channel, and Dior. Like a Grand Inquisitor, Priestly keeps her minions at the magazine scurrying to fulfill her most outlandish and disdainfully-delivered requests. And the minions, though quite aware of Priestly’s dehumanizing contempt, gladly deny their humanity in order to feel connected to the transformative miracles of stylish clothes, the mystery of fashion’s cultural power, and the authority of Priestly, who with a single nod of the head can make or break a designer’s career.
Entering this devilish scenario is recent college graduate Andrea, called Andy, played by the wide-eyed ingénue of The Princess Diaries, Anne Hathaway. Though hoping to make her way as a serious journalist, Andy accepts the job as Priestly’s menial Girl-Friday—not to mention all other days and nights of the week—because she needs the money and also hopes the job might lead to contacts in the publishing industry. As she enters Runway’s corporate headquarters the first time, however, Andy is buffeted with disdainful glances and scathing comments from Priestly and her subordinate clones. Repeatedly commenting on Andy’s off-the-rack frumpy clothes and the unbearably “fat” size-six body underneath them, these fashion inquisitors slowly begin to style Andy’s sense of self.
As Andy starts dressing in high-end haute couture, we get more than generic capitulation to peer-pressure. We get, instead, a film that illustrates the theory of Michel Foucault. Asserting that knowledge is molded by “discourse,” Foucault sees the “self” as fashioned by powers embedded in and disseminated through language. Even choices that feel entirely autonomous and authentically independent are constructed by discourse, leading to what Foucault calls “the death of the self.” One could say that, for Foucault, the devil—like Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor—wears discourse.
The Devil Wears Prada gestures toward Foucault’s “death of the self” in several ways. Not deigning to learn Andy’s name, Priestly simply calls her Emily, the name of her former “second” and now “first” assistant. When she enters the office, Priestly literally dumps a different designer coat and handbag each day on Andy’s desk, making demands without making eye-contact. In a marvelous montage of multiple dump-accompanied demands, we see that Andy, like her desk, becomes buried in haut couture, fashioning her life, both literally and metaphorically, according to Priestly’s standards. After all, as Priestly arrogantly pontificates during one of their first encounters, even Andy’s unflattering cerulean blue acrylic sweater was ultimately determined by haute couture. Having been flaunted on Parisian runways years earlier, cerulean finally trickled down to the masses who shop at Kmart. Andy’s choice of color was not her own.
Andy nevertheless assumes that she individually has chosen to wear Prada, telling her friends that Priestly’s ensuing approval will advance her career toward more “authentic” vocational goals. As Andy slowly alienates these more low-brow friends, however, we see that her desire to “get ahead” in her career is itself embedded in American discourse. Indeed, the very language of “getting ahead” fashions the American sense of self. “Success”—and dressing for it—has become the miracle, mystery, and authority of our culture.
Even Priestly, the Grand Inquisitor of the fashion industry, has no “self.” Defining her life by the discourse of success, she neither gives nor receives love from her children, her husband, her employees, or her colleagues. And when Andy realizes that she is headed for the same fate—loved by the masses from afar but loveless up close—she turns her back on the discourse of American success. We see her quite literally turn her back to Priestly in a visual emblem of conversion, “with turning,” at which point she throws away the cell-phone by which Priestly’s language controls her. Foucault would call her defiance an act of “micro-politics.” The film’s title signals a more ancient authority. Andy has renounced the world, the flesh, and the devil.
The Devil Wears Prada does not self-consciously deliver a Christian message the way Superman Returns tries to. But, ironically, when placed side by side, The Devil exposes the Christ of Superman to be merely the Grand Inquisitor in haut couture.
Crystal Downing is Professor of English and Film Studies at Messiah College.