Unpacking the Cliché-Riddled Narrative of ‘Emily in Paris’
When Netflix released a rom-com series about a millennial navigating life in Europe, audiences were captivated and sold on the idea in an instant. It easily made it to the number one spot on the platform but not for reasons one would expect. Behind the picturesque sights and sounds of the City of Lights, the haute couture, charming men, and exquisite French cuisine is a scandalous narrative that has cringeworthy written all over it.
Emily in Paris (2020) captures the life of an ambitious young American at the beginning of her career who was appointed to take a marketing job on behalf of her boss in Paris. This fish out of water story revolves around a foreigner who finds herself in the middle of a society that frowns upon outsiders and shoves it in her face that her revolutionary and avant-garde ideas have no place in a city that values traditions.
Emily’s character at its core is a superficial representation of Gen Xers that is so far-fetched from the reality they’re living in. While they got the technological-savvy aspect of this generation right, a millennial who waltzes into one of the most expensive cities in the world, probably living off of her starting salary, instantly has an apartment overlooking the Eiffel Tower, donning the most stylish designer clothes, and living a picture-perfect adventure abroad seemed like a pure fairytale.
Emily’s character at its core is a superficial representation of Gen Xers that is so far-fetched from the reality they’re living in
But what truly makes this a contemptible narrative is its cringeworthy mockery of French customs and beliefs. Emily moved to Paris with zero knowledge of the country’s native tongue except for the overused basics such as oui and bonjour as well as finding herself in situations committing countless faux pas that are deliberately stereotypical and disrespectful to the culture. The show indeed depicted mostly the luxurious lifestyle of the one percent, ridiculed the laid back and lazy lifestyle of French people, their sexist and retrograde thinking, and even glorified the inconsequential one-night stands, love triangle, and predatory attitude of men towards her.
French critics from the media industry such as RTL, Premiere, and Sens Critique expressed their strong contempt towards the depiction of their people and city, emphasizing that every possible cliché in the book was utilized. On one hand, their attempt to tell a story of an Asian millennial through Mindy Chen’s character and portraying her as a rich kid who moved to Paris and became a nanny to escape the life her parents planned for her was certainly unrepresentative of how most Asians are abroad. Of all the stereotypes they could’ve chosen, I would rather have Mindy’s character have the opposite life of Emily’s; one that is humble, simple, but fulfilling and deserving of the success she strived hard to achieve. Despite their best efforts to humanize Mindy and Emily’s characters, deep down, they are just superficial spoiled kids that your parents warned you to avoid at all costs.
These over-the-top and back-to-back clichés are so over the top that one should simply pardon its intention as comical instead of discriminatory. But because we have far too long deviated from this kind of storytelling, people anticipate to get more substance beneath the surface than to settle for the spectacle, dirty jokes, and cheap humor. I barely couldn’t make it through any episode without cowering, and that’s already being polite.
Emily’s Je Ne Sais Quoi
Award-winning showrunner, Darren Star, is the brain behind our favorite iconic characters of timeless shows such as 90210, Sex and the City, Melrose Place, and Younger. Despite his best efforts to tell an aspirational journey of strong independent women, his well-intentions failed to manifest in Emily’s story.
Emily’s journey could have been more substantial if she didn’t have it too easy in the beginning, if her life was not as glamorous as Audrey Hepburn and as the one she portrays online. If we actually saw the realistic challenges a foreigner would encounter abroad – living in a humble apartment in a quirky area, struggling to pay rent, unable to be clad in the trendiest fashion, not easily turning things around in her favor nor achieving success in a snap, and certainly not smothering and throwing herself at the next boy who shows her the slightest bit of affection — then maybe it deserves the attention and audience that it craves for. But as far as this narrative goes, it only exposes and validates the reality that most white privileged people do have it easier.