Andy: “Same Andy, better clothes.”
Nate: “I liked the old clothes.”
At first glance it might seem difficult to find science in a film like The Devil Wears Prada, since it is not in the sci-fi or action genres. But as a physics teacher, I like to think that science is ubiquitous, and I try to show this to my students whenever possible. If I’m right, it should be possible to find some science in any film I examine. Another reason I chose to look at this film is its popularity with young women, who have traditionally been underrepresented in the physical sciences.
The Devil Wears Prada came out in 2006 and stars Anne Hathaway as Andy Sachs, a recent Northwestern graduate trying to make it as a journalist in New York. She is hired to be second assistant to Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep), the editor of a fashion magazine called Runway. Stanley Tucci plays Nigel, the art director for the magazine, and Andy’s mentor. We follow Andy’s transformation from a poorly dressed fashion innocent, to couture-wearing powerhouse, and see her in the end make a decision to (mostly) return to her principles. The messages are mixed in this film, but there are opportunities for physics and biology teachers to connect content to popular culture in unusual ways.
High-heeled shoes are prominent from the promotional poster to the opening credits and throughout the plot. The first change Andy makes to her wardrobe is to discard her chunky wedges and put on a pair Jimmy Choo heels. An understanding of pressure, or force per unit area is key to understanding high heels and the damage they can do to feet and to floors. When Andy changes from wedge to stiletto she doesn’t change the force her feet put on the floor (because she doesn’t change her weight) but she does increase the pressure on the floor because the area of contact becomes much smaller. At the same time, she increases the pressure on her feet dramatically by concentrating her weight on her toes. A quick measurement of two pairs of shoes in my wife’s closet shows that flats can easily have seven times as much area in contact with the floor as heels, and that means the heels put seven times as much pressure on the floor.
A physics or physical science lab on pressure could be built around this issue. Students could bring in a variety of shoes—heels, flats, cleats, boots, and so forth—and compare the area in contact with the floor. The contact area combined with weight enables students to compare the pressure exerted on the floor by the same person wearing two different shoes. Do note that you will need to ask for volunteers willing to reveal their weight to their lab group. Physicists like to compare the pressure under a high heel shoe to that under an elephant’s foot, with possibly surprising results. (See this web page for more.)
It’s not really possible to address high heels in this film without attending to the confusing messages about anorexia presented. At the start, we are encouraged to see Andy as normal, and the skinny fashion divas (Andy calls them “clackers” because of the sound their heels make on the marble floor) as too thin. In conversation with Nigel later, Andy reveals that she is a size 6 and he responds that all the models are size 2 or 0. Later, though, she proudly announces that she is now a size 4, and we are meant to be happy for her. We don’t know how Andy loses the weight, but dangerous diets are depicted throughout the movie.
Andy’s immediate superior, Emily, describes her weight loss plan this way: “Well, I don’t eat anything, and when I feel I’m about to faint, I eat a cube of cheese. I’m just one stomach flu away from my goal weight.” This exchange highlights the dangerous lengths to which some young women go in an effort to lose weight, and the misunderstanding that semi-starvation is the most effective way to drop pounds. Starvation diets trigger the body to conserve energy and get by on less food, and when you start to eat again (as you must, eventually) your body tries to save any extra food as fat. There are certainly many Americans who legitimately need to lose weight, but they are not wearing a size 6. Students need to be encouraged to exercise and eat sensibly to maintain a healthy weight, not to go for the “stomach flu diet.”
Eating disorders trouble young people (both young women and young men) in part because unrealistic bodies are everywhere in the media. Check out Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” films Evolution and Onslaught for dramatic examples and proactive responses. Biology and life science teachers could use these films to spur conversations about body image, nutrition, and even human digestion. The clackers don’t appear to understand nutrition, but your students can learn from their mistakes.
For those physics or physical science teachers covering light and optics, the prominent use of reflections in The Devil Wears Prada provides another golden opportunity. At various points in the film characters look out car windows at passing scenery; we see them inside the car and the reflection of the city in the car window simultaneously. Any time light interacts with a surface, glass for example, some of the light is reflected and some is transmitted. What you can see when you look in or out of a window at night depends on the relative illumination on each side of the piece of glass. If the interior is well lit, and the exterior is dark, people can see in from the outside, but looking out shows only a reflection of the room. On the other hand, a dark interior and light exterior hides the occupants of a car from the paparazzi.
There is always transmission and reflection, we just cannot see the reflection very well if the light coming directly through the glass is more intense than the reflection. When we look in at a lighted room, the light coming out (the transmitted light) is stronger than the reflection. When we look in at a dark room, there isn’t much light coming out, so the reflection is more intense and that is what we see. To make the movie shot work, the lighting designer had to balance the interior lighting and the reflections so that they were close to the same level of intensity. You might also note that some special effects are done using panes of glass that are rendered virtually invisible by minimizing the reflection off the surface.
Science teachers looking to introduce the physics of everyday life into their courses or hoping to reach young people who may be headed toward an eating disorder could make good use of The Devil Wears Prada to spur classroom discussion.
Jacob Clark Blickenstaff is Assistant Professor of Physics and Assistant Director of the Center for Science
and Mathematics Education at the University of Southern Mississippi. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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