I want to preface my discussion of Darren Star’s fatuous Netflix rom-com series, Emily in Paris, about a plucky luxury marketer from Chicago who comes to Take on the French by saying that it’s O.K. to take a selfie on a bridge in Paris. It’s O.K. to cry a little when you get a perfectly crisped croissant that still has steam inside. It’s O.K. to make out with a greasy-haired, bestubbled stranger on another bridge and ignore his cigarette breath because you will never see him again.
One of the most visited cities in the world offers signifiers and experiences that can be indelible, and so we all feel like we own Paris just a little bit. (Or did you miss it when TV networks across every continent ran live coverage of Notre-Dame on fire?) When you are an American and you live in Paris, as I have since 2006, people back home get excited, and they have questions. You indulge them because you love your friends and family, but you hope that anytime your adopted city pierces the news—as it has so recently for strikes, gilets jaunes, terrorism, burkini dramas, climate accords, and embarrassing political scandals—it will be for something that engenders a productive conversation. Emily in Paris is not that conversation. When the teaser dropped, in September, my fellow expatriate American women and I went into a kind of defensive crouch.
A brief primer on Emily in Paris’s plot: Emily gets a sudden chance to be “the resident American” at a French marketing agency her company has acquired. She throws herself into Parisian clichés with gusto, adorning her handbag with an Eiffel Tower charm, wearing a lot of berets, and getting insulted and Frenchsplained to constantly, and none of this is a problem. (Well, except the Eiffel Tower charm, which sends a Karl Lagerfeld spoof into fits of anger—only to have him learn, at the end of the season, that it’s O.K. to be basic.)
The men all swoon over Emily, despite the fact that she speaks no French and dresses like a lithe, doe-eyed circus clown. (Patricia Field may have worked wonders in the maximalist late 90s and early aughts of New York, the most extroverted city in the world, but her vision does not translate to a town full of cobblestones and socialists.) Through Yankee moxie and radical-for-1998 ideas, such as asking a perfumer to create a custom scent for a boutique hotel and showing an offended French couturier the modern way to do a fashion show, Emily eventually wins them over, helping them to shake off their old-world ways for this strange, profitable new world of influencers. (I’m actually as offended on behalf of the French worlds of luxury and technology as I am for Parisians.)
The men all swoon over Emily, despite the fact that she speaks no French and dresses like a lithe, doe-eyed circus clown.
Emily never breaks a heel, never takes the Metro, and still never manages to learn French. Is it charmant in the face of those intransigent snobs? No, it is deeply unrealistic and vulgar to expect that you can show up to another country with perfect unwillingness to adapt to the surroundings, display a total lack of interest in fitting in, and escape any consequences. Emily is just the Ugly American with better legs. It’s not exactly a recipe for career success.
The Ghosts of the 7ème
There are those Americans who come on a transfer with no plan to stay, who never bother to internalize any of the customs. Unlike Emily, they really don’t break through.
I know plenty of these fancy ghosts, who mostly live in the Seventh Arrondissement, where it’s very hard to find something decent to eat for less than $400. A French ex-boyfriend of mine married one of them, a Pilates instructor with whom he had two children. Now they’re divorced, and she still can’t speak French very well, but she’s stuck here, giving private sessions under the table unless she wants to give up her kids. School meetings are not fun. It’s no way to live.
Emily is just the Ugly American with better legs.
Lindsey Tramuta, who wrote The New Parisienne: The Women & Ideas Shaping Paris, also took umbrage on behalf of the most ethnically diverse city in Europe. “The show is tone deaf and egregiously outdated economically and certainly socially,” she e-mailed. “Some people insist that storylines like these are ‘harmless,’ and meant for pure entertainment, but harmless to whom? To Parisians who see themselves endlessly wrapped in often negative clichés? Or to an audience that apparently doesn’t deserve a compelling depiction of one of the most dynamic and interesting places in the world?” She mentions Paris syndrome, “a transient bout of severe depression suffered primarily by Japanese tourists who visit the capital and realize how little it corresponds to the fantasy. Pop culture has made billions ensuring that Paris remains synonymous with old world marvels, squashing the very many ways it is special today, and erasing the population that makes it special too.”
The show’s first season ends on a very open note, leading one to believe that Emily isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. If that’s the case, we hope she plans to invest in a pair of Converse and eat couscous. And when it comes time to compose actual e-mails to her colleagues, our digital native could benefit from Mon Coach Bescherelle, the French grammar bible gone tantalizingly high-tech. They offer package deals for employees of French companies, who actually do really like it if their team speaks the language. God, that’s so French!
Alexandra Marshall is a Paris-based Writer at Large for Air Mail