Chilly Scenes of Wintour—when the Shadow and the Mother are One


With two boys, twelve and fifteen, I would not have guessed that they’d be interested to go see “September Edition,” a documentary about Anna Wintour and putting together Vouge’s annual cash cow/glamour bible.  But kids keep us guessing, and they keep us on our toes.

The first reason they wanted to see “September Edition” was that they really loved “The Devil Wears Prada.”  It’s not that they care about fashion, it’s more that they were mesmerized by the Anna Wintour character; apparently, beyond Hitler and “Nazi Talk” (see previous post _ ) any mean authority figures really seem to scratch an itch for them.  Maybe it’s some sort of backlash from trying to parent without cruelty, yelling, manipulation and coercion (not saying I always succeed in my Alfie Kohn unconditional parenting, more that when you’re a kid you’re interested in what the bullies are up to—even if you’re glad they’re not necessarily your own parents).  Thus my kids were looking forward to voyeuristically watching the real life Anna Wintour harass and demean people as they ate their popcorn, just like the Meryl Streep meanie did in “Devil wears Prada.”

And the verdict:  Boring!  They both felt that they could tell Anna Wintour was mean, but that we didn’t get to see the real yelling, and all the good stuff that made Meryl Streep interesting in the fictionalized version.  In fact, they felt that Meryl Streep was much better at playing Anna Wintour than Anna Wintour was.  And I have to say that I agree with them.

I have no axe to grind with “fashion,” I like fashion, and designers and creative people (who all come across as nice, obsequious and terrified of Anna Wintour).  I think self-expression with clothes is fun and not just empty or hollow.  However, the idea that fashion is dictated from on high, rather than evolving up from the streets, the arts and  muses and music scenes, from the mixing of cultures and ideas, obscures and lemmingifies or lemmingizes (not “real” words, but you know what I mean) true fashion and self-expression.

As a psychologist, I think that Meryl Streep is a very smart and feeling actor who uses intellect in the service of depth, emotion and realness, and thus she probably came to understand her fashionista/witch character in “Devil wears Prada” from the inside out, and was thus able to make her character’s meanness resonant, believable and dimensional.  The real Anna Wintour, on the other hand, does not appear to have done the work that Meryl Streep did, and thus she is a bit deer-in-the-headlights when it comes to the awkward problem of herself, because she does not appear to actually have a self.  She has a persona—some sunglasses, a Channel suit and a haircut, but this does not a character make.

My kids’ favorite three moments in the documentary all did not have Anna Wintour in them at all:  one was when the cameraman jumped up and down as he was photographed and became part of a Vogue spread; another was the real-life Stanely Tucci character decked to the nines in haute-tennis clothes and clearly sucking at tennis (but he was fun and likeable); and the last one was a super thin super-model in a corset indulging in a beautiful French pastry—the most human and authentic moment in the film.

I blog about this disappointing and underwhelming film (partly as a public service, in case you were thinking to see it), because it illustrates the importance of interiority, of realness and of being someone other people can relate to.  You can be mean sometimes, that’s part of life; but be hollow and hidden from your own undeveloped self at your own peril.

In the end, Wintour, especially at her Long Island estate, made me think of another tragic American icon, Gatsby.  I sense that the reason that the documentary couldn’t be any good was that in order to have access, the filmmaker apparently gave up control.  Anna Wintour comes across not as a goddess of fashion, but as just another “suit” (Channel, Armani, what’s the real difference if no one is inside the suit?)—a great corporate soldier, building and protecting a brand (and her own laughable, albeit intimidating to fashion designers, emperor’s new clothes “power”).

It would be going too far to suggest that Anna Wintour has single-handedly brought us much of anything, but beyond championing things like “texture” and the questionable cause of bringing back  fur, her anti-feminist, “off with her head!” clarion call to insecurity and overspending (not to mention nipping, tucking and fingers down the throat purging) in the service of drumming up dollars, is a dubious achievement that at least would have been more interesting to probe and explore.  Instead, we see endless footage of her deciding which pictures should and should not be in her skinny lady alter-ego: a big fat magazine.  “September Edition” distills down to an infomercial for Anna Wintour and her brand.  This joke may be on me this time, as she gets to stay pretend-fabulous and I’m out $54 and my time.  But just as Gastby does not end well, all this “branding” is so clear to all of us that it cannot help but soon be so 2009 that it just has to be over—like prehistoric beasts mired in a tar pit.  

The saving graces of Anna Wintour and her film (after all, it’s really her project, isn’t it?) are twofold:  Anna’s right-hand contributing editor, Grace, a former model who balances Anna’s sadism and sketchy “personality” with an earthy and vaguely mournful masochism; and Anna’s daughter, a real and lovely young woman who is too kind to be cruel, and yet who has managed to grow up without drinking her mom’s cool-aid.  And the credit for her only apparent genuine success, the raising of a daughter who is likely to make the world better rather then worse, must go, at least in part, to Anna herself. 

Ms. Wintour mentions her father, but not a word about her mother (and that’s unlikely to be due to her mother’s warmth and encouragement); as parents, we all know that our children are the most important thing to get right if we hope for true and lasting happiness.  My suspicion is that Anna Wintour is not a bad egg (although I forget which “Egg,” east or west, is the better one in Gatsby), but as a shrink I think Anna has some work to do once the manic defense of workaholism and self-created drama ebbs away and she must gaze upon that portrait of Dorian Grey somewhere in the attic of her soul—and it’s not the old or the fat that she will see there, but rather an unformed and lost little girl.

So, let’s dedicate today to empathy for all the phony, insecure and lost boys and girls who are currently parading around as nightmare bosses.  I’ve had my nightmare bosses (perhaps fodder for a future post), and from them I learned a lot about finding self-respect and my own compass in life in contrast to their bombastic cruelty and hollow pain.  Here’s to wishing you freedom from oppression (be it inner parents, outer bosses or “experts” of any stripe telling you how to live your life).

Namaste, Bruce

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3 Responses to “Chilly Scenes of Wintour—when the Shadow and the Mother are One”

  1. Laurie Says:

    I have learned from my most horrible boss how to better take care of myself.

  2. anonymous filmmaker Says:

    I saw the film maker (R.J. Cutler) interviewed to promote the film. It was at a conference, and I went as he was the keynote speaker. But when he arrived, I realized he looked familiar, then I realized that I had assiduously called and followed up with his company, whose work I quite admired, in an effort to work there.

    During his interview Mr. Cutler made clear that his deal with Anna Wintour was that he would have control over the movie. The other thing I started to read into the interview was that although Mr. Cutler was charming and funny he did not look at either the interviewer or the audience when he spoke. He made no eye contact. No big deal I suppose, but it stood out to me as both noticeable and indicating that he might have some issues relating to people.

    After the initial crush of people, I waited to introduce myself to him as someone who had been tracking through his staff to come work for him. I was struck by his incredible rudeness. (He said, “Talk to her,” pointed to the woman beside him and turned away from me. I looked at her and she shrugged bewilderedly and said she didn’t work for him.)

    I later chatted with a couple people who HAD worked with him, and both indicated that it was not a happy experience.

    So – perhaps she was his perfect muse.

  3. Mwa Says:

    Did you write that last paragraph just for me? 😉

    I think my first nightmare boss did a lot to accelerate my life’s first great “aha”-moment. My second nightmare boss was so much easier to bear in comparison, because I did not give her the power to destroy me.

    And I just wrote that exact thing about experts on my blog.

    Namaste indeed.

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