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"Emily in Paris" and the World We Live In

by Yana Aleks about a year ago in review

A review of the Netflix show with a side of observations about the modern world.

Image by: Netflix

Netflix’s new show “Emily in Paris” about a plucky young American who goes to work for a marketing company in the French capital, not knowing a word of the language but armed with her awesome Instagram skills and “fresh perspective”, has certainly stirred up some controversy. In the wake of cancellations of favourite shows such as “GLOW”, many viewers seem to feel they’ve been robbed of something good and given thrash in return. Critics are not exactly charmed, either, and I don’t even want to imagine what the French think about it. (Actually, according to the internet, they seem to be mostly laughing at it in bemusement which, I suppose, is better than the alternative.)

Is this entire show a giant faux pas?

Painting French people as inexcusably rude, inappropriate, sex-obsessed misogynists is indeed a bit much. It’s not that you can’t make fun of certain national traits - the British have practically turned that into an art form - but it would require at least a couple of self-aware French people on the writing team to do it right. Needless to say, I didn’t see any French names on there. Perhaps I missed them?

Anyway, not being French, I could swallow all that, roll my eyes and keep watching. If you ignore the awful stereotyping of an entire culture and the glorifying of the single fish-out-of-water American (gee, we’ve never seen that before, thank heavens the French are at least not a separate race), the show is… not 100% terrible?

Beware of mild spoilers ahead.

"Pardon her French", as the show's poster requests

To dismiss the complaints of some people against Emily, I don’t think you can judge her for not speaking French at the beginning of the series. Her move to Paris is completely unplanned, she takes the place of a French-speaking colleague at the last-minute. She would have had no reason to learn the language beforehand and, once she arrives, she does start taking lessons and attempting to use the words she learns. Moving somewhere like that requires balls that I personally don’t have, so kudos for that. Yeah, maybe she’s just too entitled to imagine things might not work out but, so what? This kind of confidence does often pay off if you can keep it up for long enough - and she does.

I also disagree with the opinion of some critics that she is unlikable - on the contrary, she’s a little too perfect. True, she has a few moments that can be categorised as obnoxious but other than that, she is endlessly friendly, endlessly enthusiastic and does not seem to ever get truly offended, embarrassed or discouraged by anything. (I suspect she just doesn’t use her brain enough for that to happen.) That’s not an unpleasant personality to be around. She’s pretty, wears the kind of clothes many girls dream of (although I have no clue where the heck she gets the money for all that Chanel), clients magically love her and her suggestions always work in terms of achieving a marketing goal, which is, after all, what she’s there for. Having someone like that as a friend or an employee would, I admit, be really helpful, albeit somewhat depressing. You know that she’s not exactly very smart or deep but you also know she doesn’t need to be in order to succeed in the 21st century.

And this, precisely, is what bothered me a lot more than the abundant clichés. There was a subtle sense of doom that came over me with every episode. You see, Emily is everything that I am not and could never be... but that today’s world seems to require of me or, in general, reward. I don’t hate her for it but I do feel rather discouraged by her existence.

Image by: Netflix

Emily vs Andy

Emily’s relationship with her boss and colleagues carries major “The Devil Wears Prada” vibes but in “The Devil Wears Prada” Andy started out truly incompetent and unfit for the job she was required to do. She had to struggle, cry, learn and go through some difficult changes to adapt to her environment, losing certain things on the way. Only after learning to play the game by the rules could she, at the end of the story, leave it all behind with her dignity intact, choosing to stick to more substantial values than glamour and money. She couldn’t just have it all.

By contrast, Emily seems incapable of doing anything wrong from the very beginning. Any mistakes she makes are clearly not supposed to be perceived as such by the audience because they consist entirely of breaking seemingly ridiculous rules of a culture she is unfamiliar with. In other words, she’s not wrong, she’s just being American! The very next moment she comes up with a “brilliant” plan to fix the mess she’s made. The messes themselves are not real messes, they are things it’s unlikely most people would get in trouble for, and the solutions… Oh, boy. Emily’s French co-workers and clients are constantly being dumbed down for the sole purpose of making Emily look good every time she comes up with an idea that’s extremely shallow and mediocre. The sad part is, we have seen things in real life that are even shallower and more mediocre take off, go viral and make loads of money, so…

Perhaps Emily herself realises just how much everything tends to fall in her lap because she is perpetually happy. I mean, PERPETUALLY HAPPY. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like to watch characters mope, I really don’t. I am generally more inclined to appreciate Emily’s optimism than condemn it. But this girl does not seem to experience anything in life as a struggle. When her boss and colleagues are incredibly rude and demeaning, she takes it with a smile and doesn’t seem to be even internally upset - ah, those quirky French people, when will they learn to appreciate social media and the American point of view, right? She loses her boyfriend early in the season but that doesn’t even warrant a tear - good riddance, he’s too boring, unlike literally every Parisian male, all of whom want to have amazing sex with her. Is it a problem for her to find new friends and love interests in this foreign land? Nope, to use a catchphrase from YouTube’s famous “Pitch Meeting” series, it’s “super easy, barely an inconvenience”.

Image by: Netflix

Is this fashion?

One of the plotlines that got me particularly frustrated involves a stuck-up French designer who calls Emily a “basic b--ch” and storms off just because she’s wearing a cheap-looking clip-on Eiffel Tower charm on her bag. This is obviously ridiculous, unfair and snobbish. Emily later retaliates by owning the term and, in a display of diplomacy and business skills, convincing the designer that “basic b--ches” like herself worship his kind and the cheap tokens they wear are really a sign of respect. This, of course, leads to him becoming a client. That’s fine - Emily’s reaction to the situation is correct, she refuses to feel chastised and belittled for her fashion choices but also manages to twist things in a way that wins her company a contract. It’s classic “How to Win Friends and Influence People”. But then my issue comes later when this respected designer of gorgeous dresses begins thinking that he’s no longer relevant because a couple of younger douchebags throw a few publicity stunts that involve his designs. The story culminates in the designer, inspired by Emily, creating a new, “modern” collection to rejuvenate his brand. The collection is… honestly a cheap-looking ugly monstrosity that pretends to be haute couture. But everyone is clapping and cheering so it must be good, right? Yes, fashion is subjective, its job is to sometimes challenge our perceptions of beauty and make a statement. But there is no statement here other than “Look at me, I’ve given up on my talents and thrown some crazy nonsense together to show that I can be hip and appeal to the less sophisticated crowd! Oh, and thank heavens for that American girl!”

Image by: Netflix

In conclusion

I guess I agree with some of the show’s messages - be brave, be confident, own who you are and stay positive. And, to be fair, “light” content that’s made for the masses, be it in media, fashion or anywhere else, is not the root of all evil - it has always existed and will always exist. But it should not exist at the expense of more substantial things. We should not celebrate the desire to convert everything into algorithm-pleasing posts and Instagram followers. I fear that shows like “Emily in Paris” are another sign that this is exactly what’s happening, and that we, as a society, are kind of okay with it. I think Emily has her place but my hope is that we won’t allow things labelled “lifestyle” to take over our entire lives.


Yana Aleks

Fiction writer, reviewer and an incurable chatterbox.

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