“The Pope wears Prada”

The announcement of Benedict XVI’s forthcoming retirement called to mind the “Pope wears Prada” buzz that emerged a few months after Benedict’s papacy began. I first encountered this… shall we call it a “meme”?… in November 2005. I was in Philadelphia, at my first AAR conference, between sessions. I happened to be sitting under a television in the conference center, when CNN ran this report:

JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Never has papal footwear had this kind of scrutiny.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They look fairly pricey and upscale.

MOOS: If, according to a recent best-seller, “The Devil Wears Prada”, why not the pope? (On camera): The pope wears Prada.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Let me see that.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The pope wears Prada. I don’t wear Prada.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, my!

This goes on for a while longer; if you’re curious to read the whole transcript, click here, then scroll about 2/3 of the way down the page.

The meme circulated for three years before the Vatican decided to issue a denial. Meanwhile, coverage included this Wall Street Journal article about companies who gift products to the Pope in hope of increasing the profile of their brand.

What drives (drove?) the popularity of the “Pope wears Prada” meme? It’s clearly meant to trivialize and thus to “take a dig”–but a dig at what? For some, I suspect, Benedict personally; people who dislike his conservatism enjoy making him look like a vain peacock. For others, I imagine, the meme reflects resentment toward the Catholic Church, which could be born of any number of complaints; the point, anyway, is to paint the Church as opulent, materialistic, shallow, hypocritical, warped in its priorities. For still others, poking at Benedict may be a way to poke at “religion” more broadly conceived: imagine Bill Maher or Richard Dawkins snickering about the Pope wearing Prada (or tsking, as the case may be).

I assume we should trace the genealogy of the meme back to Protestant polemics against “popery”–which in turn can be traced back to Catholic criticisms of corruption in the Church, e.g., Dante or Bocaccio.

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