In Defence of Emily in Paris: Calling Un Chat Un Chat
Netflix’s latest original series, Emily in Paris (2020), is what I can only imagine would happen if The Devil Wears Prada (2006) and Mary-Kate and Ashley’s Passport to Paris (1999) had a baguette-wielding, Gen-Z love child. Did I vomit in my mouth a few times? Yes. Was it enjoyable anyway? Absolutely.
From the reaction of television critics and ardent tweeters alike, you would be forgiven for thinking that Netflix had produced a gritty and damning exposé of Parisian culture. ‘What did the French ever do to deserve this?!’ one indignant commentator cried, dubbing the series ‘an exorcism of all of the French clichés the writers could think of, spewed out as if they could not keep them in’ (The Guardian). The reality of this ten-episode comedy-drama is fortunately a lot more ringarde.* Allow me to explain.
Episode One introduces us to the titular Emily, a twentysomething ingénue played by Lily Collins, who leaves Chicago for the first time to work in a Parisian marketing firm. Cue some dizzying footage of an ever-overeager Emily gleefully leaning out of a taxi window, interspersed with twinkly time-lapses of a quintessential Haussmannian skyline, and voilà: our dewy-eyed protagonist arrives at possibly the most spacious studio flat in all of Paris. It is a rite of passage for any ex-pat to pay an arm and a leg for a shithole with just enough room to swing a cat, but lucky for her, Emily’s apartment has enough floor space to do either your daily downward dog or the dirty with your dishy neighbour (or in her case, both).
['I highly recommend this great sci-fi series that I've just discovered: #emilyinparisnetflix, on Netflix.
Paris is clean, there is no graffiti, the chambres de bonne (studio flats) are 60 square metres, not once has the girl been harassed or cat-called in the street; no street vendors...']
Despite the rampant criticism of Emily’s experience in the ville lumière as nothing more than a frivolous fantasy, ‘unrecognisable’ to real Parisians (RTL), this show is generously sprinkled with moments which would be instantly recognisable to any foreigner who has moved to the glittering French capital. From the way Emily’s colleague looks her up and down with unabashed disdain on her first day in the office, to the way the boulangère corrects her French—with a thumb and forefinger pressed together as she enunciates that it is in fact ‘UN pain au chocolat, pas une’—Emily’s clumsy interactions with the natives are, in fact, hella relatable.
This series is perhaps so jarring for its French viewers because it is not really about them. It’s about what it is to live in Paris as a foreigner: to be sloppily kissed on both cheeks by an over-friendly boss holding an unlit cigarette, and to be addressed in rapid, mumbling French by an amused Parisian who knows full well you have absolutely no idea what they are saying. Cliché so it may seem, but Paree is a parody of itself sometimes.
But, with her perma-positivity, her penchant for pouty selfies and her insistence on speaking English loudly and slowly at any French person she meets with classic anglophone arrogance, Emily—dressed head to toe in what looks like Blair Waldorf’s wardrobe—is as much of a cliché as her French counterparts. This duality is absolutely crucial. Emily in Paris’ humour is democratic, not discriminatory: just as it pokes fun at the maladroit American abroad, so too does it parody the Parisians. There’s no malice in it’s mocking, no cattiness in its comic-strip caricatures, no bite in its blagues. What ensues is a cringey culture clash that takes place almost entirely over champagne and canapés. What’s not to like?
Now, don’t get me wrong. Some moments are, to put it bluntly, excruciating. Every time our gushing Emily cast a (stubbornly recurrent) ‘bone soir’ over a coy shoulder, your humble spectator flinched. With each ‘tray good … tray wonderful’, she shuddered. And when Brigitte Macron tweeted about premature vaginal dryness, she was frankly baffled. (No seriously, watch Episode Two).
As a contemporary cultural critique of the influencer era, Emily in Paris falls over its stiletto-clad feet. (In what parallel universe would Emily’s insistence that “To build a brand you must create meaningful social media engagement”, be enough to cause an army of slightly greasy, slightly creepy, Bradley Cooper clones to bow down before her?).
But, all things considered, the worst you can accuse it of is being facile and soft-focus. Emily’s Paris is as shiny as an overpriced postcard bought outside the Louvre: one in which you can exist between approximately four very affluent arrondissements and spend your time sniffing Eau de Maison Lavaux instead of the standard Eau de Métro. Gone is the graffiti and the rubbish, the rough sleepers and the banlieues, replaced by berets, ballets, and balls, populated almost exclusively by a gaggle of conveniently rich and sexy Parisians.
['I feel like this series has been written by my mother, inspired by our telephone conversations where I'd have her believe that I'm living my best life in Paris, when in fact I was at Porte de Choisy with 400 euros of my student grant in my pocket and being followed by two drug addicts.']
Yes, the characters are shallow and superficial and silly. Yes, the plot is pants. But is Emily in Paris pretending to be anything other than precisely what it is? Accusing this innocent rom-com of lacking the acid of social critique is like complaining that Saw (2004) doesn't have a happy ending. It’s the genre, mon petit chou! What did you expect? And despite what That Guy™ in your seminar may have you believe, there is no absolute hierarchy of genres.
So, how about we call a spade a spadeーor a cat a cat as the French would sayーand stop taking ourselves so damn seriously.
Ellie is the team’s very own Hannah Montana, working for the man by day and editing for the Blisterhood by night. Lurking in the comments panel of your article draft are her works of genius, sponsored by Gr*mmarly.com. Though a bona fide angel in the streets, she is a demon of the Google sheets: no column left un-colour-coded, no list left un-alphabetised; Ellie uses her toxically-internalised need to be productive for good, always.