Emily in Paris is a sinister study of the American Dream

The hit Netflix show captures an all-too convenient life of luxury for a Chicago-born expat. But beneath its cutesy surface, what does it really say?

by Nathan Ma
12 October 2020, 12:57pm

Image via Netflix

It’s hard to discern who the villain is in Emily In Paris. Netflix’s new series, which seems to be the only thing anybody is talking about right now, follows the titular character -- midwestern millennial marketeer, played by Lily Collins -- as she navigates the French capital as a new-found social media influencer. The show unfolds like a pre-pandemic fairytale: Emily gets a trans-Atlantic promotion after her supervisor’s unexpected pregnancy grounds her in Chicago, leaving Emily to act as an ambassador to the boutique Parisian marketing agency that her American employer purchased. Upon arrival, Emily becomes an accidental influencer, charming thousands with photos of croissants and other fruits of her lost-in-translation side quests. She turns heads in gaudy outfits, but no one bats an eyelash because Emily has the chirpy optimism of an American customer service representative with the blind confidence of someone who has never had to work in customer service.

Created by Darren Star of Sex and the City and Beverly Hills 90210 fame, the dramedy retools Star’s penchant for suspending disbelief. (“It’s like Sex and the City if Carrie Bradshaw got the fantasy expat life she deserved,” wrote one critic for The Cut.) Emily lives a charmed life with a work permit and a gorgeous flat and the affection of plenty of men with full heads of hair. It’s fantastical, but that’s the point: as Star told the New York Times, “I wanted to showcase Paris in a really wonderful way that would encourage people to fall in love with the city in a way that I have”.

Which isn’t to say that Emily In Paris is without friction: old meets new in cultural clashes as Emily -- an ambassador for American-centric marketing and prudish sensibilities that stands in for the United States at large -- tries to reinvigorate French campaign strategies with an irreverent social media-first angle that challenges the history, tradition and legacy within classic Parisian fashion houses and champagne vineyards.

But the central tension in the story is that lack of a clear villain: is it the oppressive, patriarchal rules that govern our American ingenue’s new life? Or is it Emily, the advocate for the cultural hegemony of the US, and the one rooting it deeper and deeper into western European small businesses? Is it Sylvie, the fashionable agency leader who butts heads with Emily — the Miranda Priestly to Emily’s Andy Sachs? Or is the concept of natural blondes, who only exist in the series to cause romantic indiscretions in what is meant to be the most romantic city in the world?

Emily is a liberal US feminist -- she was definitely “With Her” in 2016. She dismisses female nudity in advertising as a liability and recoils when men are tasked with filling her coupé over dinner. She curries favour with her pushy but perky can-do attitude, but stumbles over landmines of love and lust that seem ever-present in the City of Light. A growing cast of sympathetic do-gooders rise like cream to the top to help her navigate the language, the bureaucracy, and France’s out-of-date plumbing. And, much to critics’ chagrin, her Francophone welcoming committee falls for her schtick.

Writing for gal-dem, Christelle Murhula argues that the (white) American in Paris is a tired trope, and one that glosses over the city’s diversity and multiculturalism as well as its grit, and the contemporary strife that exists outside of Emily’s workplace drama: where is the grime on the street, or the fast-food restaurants or even just the many faces of global diasporas? Gilets jaunes protestors are conspicuously absent in the series, and the only reference to electoral politics on either side of the Atlantic comes before the title slide in the pilot, when Emily’s supervisor cites Macron as proof that Parisian men love an older woman. Christelle writes: “Paris is a city of love, fashion and haute cuisine, but it’s also so much more. So why can’t all of this be represented in storylines set in Paris? We need to question why this “romantic”, white-washed version of Paris is the one we keep coming back to”.

Murhula also acknowledges the inherent limitations of Emily In Paris -- primarily, that it’s a work of fiction. The question then becomes, “Whose fiction?” From within the framework of Emily In Paris as a story about its creator’s own time in Paris, spent mumbling through greetings and fumbling with Euro coins at cafes, it becomes clear that Emily In Paris is not just a fantasy of the American in Europe, but also the American as a mythic figure, and the baggage that this narrative carries with it.

Emily is, for all intents and purposes, an All-American girl: she’s sparky, white and endowed with the responsibility of the #GirlBoss generation. The driving narrative behind Emily In Paris isn’t a story of a young millennial discovering herself among the cobblestone streets of one of the world’s most romanticised cities; it’s that Emily, who seems to know little about marketing or mergers and acquisitions, is struggling to keep her job.

Which is to say that Emily In Paris is a vision of the American dream of expatriation: the lofty aspirations of proving oneself through hard-work and determination. As the battleground of the US election draws closer, it’s hard to drown out the drones of “I’m leaving!” from US citizens disenchanted by the failed promises of their country. But when it comes to the baggage of the American abroad, we expect others around us to help carry the weight.

I, an American abroad, spoke with a group of writers in Berlin from England, from Egypt, and from Panama recently. The latter two told me there was a perverse joy they felt in watching the States fall: our impact -- fiscally, culturally, politically -- had shaped their own upbringings, and while they felt a pang of empathy while considering the ongoing collapse of our government, there was also a sense of schadenfreude because, frankly, we had it coming. The English writer agreed, adding that she imagined that we were in similar positions: as the imperial powers that raised us and placed us in a position to even think about romanticising Europe -- a land where borders are becoming increasingly violent and deadly -- there’s a limited well of self-pitying that we can draw from before we, too, expect those around us to split the emotional bill.

It’s from this well that Star draws from. We’ve seen ample evidence that the pillars of the American Dream have fallen, including class mobility, the meritocracy, and our reputation in general. With Emily In Paris, Star expands the American Dream, pushing it past national borders to recolonise the European continent.

The show is, in this way, almost perfect. To many Americans, Emily's success is a celebration of how we’re right, and that those who resist us are petulant pedants. To everyone else, however, it reveals the often unspoken truth: when it comes to Americans abroad, we are our own worst enemy.

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