Talk of the Town: Emily in Paris

Welcome to Talk of the Town, a series in which Wildchild discusses the best and the worst in pop culture today. We’re kicking things off with “Emily in Paris”, the latest Netflix series that everyone can’t seem to stop talking about. Hate it or love it, one thing’s for sure, all press is good press when it comes to entertainment. 

For those of you who are clueless, “Emily in Paris” is about a young marketing executive in Chicago, Emily Cooper, who gets the opportunity of a lifetime: a chance to go on a year-long sojourn in Paris. Her boss at a French luxury firm, Sylvie, succinctly summarizes the show’s plot in one monologue,“You come to Paris. You walk into my office. You don’t even bother to learn the language. You treat the city like it’s your amusement park. And after a year of food, sex, wine and maybe some culture, you’ll go back to where you came from.”

Joanna: I binge-watched the show over the weekend, and immediately felt the urge to pack my bags and take the next flight out to Paris. Instead, I went out and purchased a packet of overpriced madeleines from my favourite neighbourhood French cafe. I also started wearing perfume again; I too want to wear poetry on my wrists. Talk about influence! Despite the obvious idealization of life in Paris in the series, I was very much charmed by all the cliches that were stitched together. What did you think of the show since you lived there during your study abroad?

Sherryl: Yes, I was in Paris for six months in 2018 and I still miss the entire experience dearly. Just like Emily, I stayed at the top floor, although my apartment may not have been a chambre de bonne since it had multiple rooms. Considering I was drunk when I watched it for the first time, I was impressed that I managed to declare that “Emily in Paris makes me sad” on three different social media accounts. 

Joanna: That’s surprising to hear! Why did the show make you sad? 

Working in Paris

Sherryl: I’ve been trying to find my way back to the city but it’s proven to be harder than I had expected. My master applications were rejected twice and while I’m done trying to further my studies, I certainly still long for an opportunity to work there, even if it is just for a few years.

Joanna: I understand that wistful longing, that desire to live in a place where romance is inscribed on the walls, buildings and architecture. There is also an appreciation for beauty, life, the present and slowing down that comes through in the show as well. I say this despite my reservations that I may be guilty of unwittingly romanticizing Paris. I see it as rather unique to the French way of life, joie de vivre, as the French might say. As they say in the show, “Americans, you live to work. We work to live.” Replace “Americans” with “Singaporeans”, and the first statement would still ring true. Do you think you are ready to pack your bags, uproot your life, and experience what working to live – the French way – will be like? 

Emily’s first day at work

Sherryl: I was listening to Haley Nahman’s podcast episode on Emily in Paris (I know, I never shut up about Haley). In it, she discussed how Emily’s relationship with work is a perfect, albeit unintended, portrayal of workism as Emily has no real personality beyond her job.

Workism is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.

Derek Thompson, The Atlantic 

While I can’t say for sure that workism is not present in the French culture, my pace of life was definitely slower when I was staying in Paris and Strasbourg; I had more time on my hands to pursue interests beyond work. But then again, my occupation was that of a student and since I had no real responsibilities, that may not be a fair judgement of how living in Paris would be like as a working adult.

Joanna: It’s certainly interesting that this show could elucidate such modern lifestyle trends— how work is valorized and placed at the altar of modern civilization. Humans have very much been reduced to mere cogs in the machine (à la Marx) and work, once a means to an end, has become an end in itself. Since you miss the slower pace of French life, why don’t you try applying for a job or become an au pair?

The French Language

Sherryl: I still have reservations because I definitely don’t speak enough French to get by in a professional setting or even to avoid feeling alienated. One of Luc’s lines that stuck with me was, “You came to Paris and you don’t speak French. That’s arrogance.” Unsurprisingly, the show glossed over this problem after the very first episode. While this show was made for an American and international English-speaking audience, the scenes felt unnatural simply because of how the French speak in English to cater to Emily, even in scenes she was absent from. 

Emily with Mindy

Joanna: Even the Mandarin that Mindy, Emily’s friend, spoke was odd. I couldn’t make out what she was saying despite being fluent in Mandarin myself. I’m not sure if I agree with the tweets above though, English has become such a globalized language so it’s not really a “deeply flawed image of the world”. I do agree, however, that the media representation is problematic. 

As for learning French, well, you could always find yourself a nice French beau. French is a Romance language after all, and as the show says, “that’s the best way to learn the language, in bed.” This reminds me of a saying I heard while on my student exchange to Denmark. I was told by my European friends that the best way to learn a new language is to get a “sleeping partner”.

Love & Sex

Sherryl: Emily certainly had multiple “sleeping partners” in this series! While it was refreshing to see a female character who is sexually liberal, it was also a tad annoying to see every white man in her radius tripping over their feet to sleep with her. Camille, the girlfriend of Emily’s main love interest, seemed way more interesting than Emily, though I probably think so because of how bland Emily is. Her fatal flaw is… wanting to support her boyfriend’s career, which is laughable. 


Joanna: Apart from Gabriel, a memorable potential love interest was Thomas, the snobbish professor of semiotics. I actually like that part of the show because they met in Café de Flore, the iconic meeting place of Sartre and Beauvoir. I too once sat outside the cafe, reading Nietzsche, when I took a trip to Paris. Suffice to say, I was absurdly pleased. While the professor tickled my intellectual fancies, I wasn’t sure about the portrayal of him as an uptight academic. 

Sherryl: Ah, the professor, her first dalliance in Paris. Thomas’ line, “If I go home with a girl and she doesn’t have her own books, I cannot make love to her” is a more refined rehash of what John Waters said, “If you go home with somebody, and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ’em!”

Mischaracterization of French Culture

Joanna: Well, I appreciated the random throwaway cultural references like “surrealism” and “flaneur” mentioned by Thomas, which brought me back to a photography class I took in college where we explored the works of Walter Benjamin and Man Ray. They spent a significant amount of time in Paris too. But I wonder if these references were simply included to highlight the juxtaposition between American and French culture, and emphasize the historical consciousness of the French to the detriment of the American. I’m not sure Americans would appreciate this sort of characterization. 

Sherryl: I would perceive these references as a helpful distraction from the fact that the show depicts culture in a superficial way. Funny you should say that, I’m pretty sure the French are the ones who would feel slighted by mischaracterization in this series. In fact, this review by the New York Times captures the French’s reactions and sentiments towards the show. Their disdain is not surprising, given how the French characters are essentially based on tired tropes and stereotypes. 

The American Perspective

Emily’s first meeting with Mindy

Joanna: Bringing a marketing perspective from an American point of view also reveals the show’s bias towards thinking that that is all that matters. If anything, with the rise of the nouveau riche in China, I think the Chinese point of view will up the ante on the show’s relevance today. But then again, perhaps that’s why they brought Mindy in.

Sherryl: Mindy still felt like a token minority-ethnicity character, present only to pepper the dialogue with jokes, given her uninteresting backstory and lack of impact on the plot. Same with Julien, the gay Black character, except he was not even dignified with a backstory. But you’re right, the American perspective is dominant throughout the show. One salient example was Pierre Cadault understanding and making American pop cultural references – “I can’t believe it was Dan” – since it shatters any illusion that he is not a caricature.

Joanna: I agree that it’s presumptuous to assume that your audience would get that reference. Another way of looking at it is through the phenomenon of American globalization— the export of American culture throughout the world, through shows like Gossip Girl, such that an eccentric French designer would even have heard of the show.

The Fashion in Emily in Paris

Sherryl: Just like Gossip Girl, fashion takes centre stage in Emily in Paris. Darren Star and Patricia Field, the producer and costume designer for Sex and the City, respectively, reunite for this show. But viewers had gripes with the outfits worn by Emily, calling them unimaginative and dated. In Haley’s podcast, Harling Ross, the former brand director and stylist at fashion site Man Repeller, drew a comparison between Emily Cooper and Carrie Bradshaw. She said that Carrie’s style was cool because it looked like what a real person would wear and that there was a sense of irony that is absent from Emily’s outfits.

Joanna: With an endless stream of berets and Eiffel Tower prints, I can see where the criticism is coming from. But the show is a cliche from start to finish, anyway. Why not the fashion? I’ll have to admit that Pierre Cadault’s fashion show is a bad imitation of Viktor & Rolf’s Spring/Summer 2019. 

Sherryl: True, but I guess good outfits could have been the show’s saving grace. The thing that irks me the most is how Emily is constantly portrayed as the underdog, the basic bitch with a gauche charm on her bag. But she is undeniably wealthy and almost always dressed in Chanel from head to toe. One particularly astute comment that Harling made was that Emily was dressed like someone who wanted to be photographed at fashion week— I can imagine Emily posting a street style shot on Instagram.

Social Media Fame

Joanna: Ah, so can I. Isn’t it fitting that social media is a big part of Emily’s success in Paris, and in reality, social media has effectively generated buzz about Emily in Paris. Her rise to fame also reminded me of that comment you made in the past talking about how some influencers gain traction by the nature of the city they live in. 

Sherryl: Yes, though not all the attention it has been getting is positive. I’m sure the city plays a significant role but there are more factors that contribute to one’s social media presence— it takes time, energy and finesse to grow a following. It must have been aggravating for those who work in social media to see how easy it was for Emily to become an influencer. Building an engaged audience on social media is not as swift or as easy as it seems, even when the world is your oyster and your Instagram playground is the City of Love. 

Body Image

Joanna: I take issue with the constant snide remarks by her bosses about how fat Americans are, especially when none of the American characters portrayed are fat! In fact, Emily is stick-thin. 

Sherryl: Yes and since Emily is frequently jogging at the beginning of the episodes, this actually runs counter to the perspective that her bosses had of Americans. Perhaps you can check out this article which encapsulates why the show’s portrayal of bodies leaves much to be desired. 

To be clear, there’s absolutely no valid criticism to be made of Lily Collins for being slender or conventionally attractive; there’s nothing inherently wrong with her propensity for toned-midriff-revealing crop tops, and the way her body looks onscreen doesn’t make her an acceptable target of ire, even for those of us who long ago tired of being inundated with the message that being thin is the only real way to earn a story. What is maddening, though, is living in a society where a show like Shrill is the exception, and Emily in Paris is the rule; even in 2020, fat people – who, by the way, make up nearly half of Americans – are still more likely to be invoked in dehumanizing language on shows chronicling thin people’s quirky exploits than they are to be given narratives of their own.

Emma Specter, Vogue Paris

The Male Gaze

Emily with her boss, Sylvie

Joanna: Sylvie had a line that stood out, “Cherie, I’m a woman, not a feminist.” It made me think, are all women necessarily feminists? This pronouncement is certainly thought-provoking, especially since it’s said so self-assuredly at a time where feminism is all the rage and everyone seems to be required to be a feminist as part of a #woke generation. Do women who do not identify as feminists risk betraying their gender? How does society make room for women who aren’t feminists? Will they be accused of setting the feminist project back?

Sherryl: I think the show drops lines about complex issues that they believe are relevant without developing them. While I recognize that this show is meant to be a lighthearted watch, why bring up important issues if you’re not going to address them in a thoughtful manner? Emily problematized the male gaze and tried to engage in a “sexy or sexist” debate but in the end, the answer literally did not matter because it was left for Twitter voters to decide. For a more nuanced take on the male gaze, one would be better off watching I May Destroy You instead. 

Joanna: Viewers have been criticising the show for its unrealistic portrayals of reality. What did you think about that? For me, Emily in Paris is a collection of cliches collated to manufacture fantasy; it’s not meant to be realistic. And it does serve its function of providing respite from the COVID-19 pandemic. This critique speaks to a larger question of how to represent culture without falling prey to essentialism, and I’m not sure there is an ideal way. Any text, film or production once etched in space and time, would necessarily be reductionist simply by its very nature of attempting to capture reality as it is lived. 

Emily at a soirée

Sherryl: It definitely is not fair to critique Emily in Paris for being unrealistic since it’s a show designed for escapism. But the question is if the world that we escape to is even worthy of our time. Anyway, considering how much media coverage and attention the show received through viral memes and commentary, this show is likely to be renewed for a second season — whether we like it or not. 

Images by Carole Bethuel and Stephanie Branchu

Joanna Estella

Too complex to be summed up in a couple of characters

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