“Emily in Paris” is the show that has everyone asking, “Are French people OK with this?” From “Sex and the City” creator Darren Star, the Netflix series follows marketing upstart Emily Cooper (Lily Collins) after she arrives at her company’s newly acquired Parisian firm to advertise old-world luxuries with a new American perspective. Countless showy outfits and one French class later, Emily finds herself wining and dining with the elites of France, garnering a significant Instagram following while she’s at it.
Much has already been said about the show’s shallow portrayal of French culture. “Emily in Paris” is rife with hedonistic men and catty women, layering stereotypes on top of each other as erratically as Emily layers some of her outfits. Emily herself commits almost every classic tourist blunder known to man: Each time she trips over a false cognate or gets her business hours wrong, American viewers are able to jot down something new in their “Fun Facts about France” journal.
Unsurprisingly, however, “Emily in Paris” is as much about the American identity as it is about the French. Collins is quintessentially American in her role: perky, innovative and high off of unearned confidence. But whereas the European stereotypes are often played up for laughs, Emily’s Midwestern gumption comes off as fairly normal, a point of familiarity for a presumed American audience. In many ways, her life is a testament to the legitimacy of the American dream. Once a modest teen who bought designer bag charms when she couldn’t afford the clothing, Emily soon worms her way into the hearts of every rich designer and hot bachelor in Paris.
For such a vapid show, it’s almost baffling how it manages to present a perfect microcosm of the American corporate ethos. It’s the classic Puritan work ethic mixed with modern girlboss culture — a shiny, beautiful paradox, just like Emily herself. Emily claims to be a notorious workaholic but spends more time taking cute Instagram pictures and eating lavish meals than sitting at a desk. She thrives under strict rules and within hierarchical institutions — evidenced by her “Corporate Commandments,” an unfortunately real phenomenon in American business — but has just enough individualist spark to completely undermine her boss when needed.
With a tense boss-employee relationship in a cutthroat high-end industry, comparisons to “The Devil Wears Prada” are inevitable, likely even welcomed. Emily’s mean-spirited boss Sylvie, played by the gorgeous Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu, has all the makings of a Miranda Priestly, if Miranda had no real power and could only roll her eyes whenever people screwed up. (Emily’s ability to breeze through the office hierarchy, viewers will note, feels like another thinly veiled jibe at the French work ethic.)
Perhaps the bigger lesson that the show pulls from “The Devil Wears Prada” is the importance of visual interest. Like the fashion industry itself, “Emily in Paris” entices with its promise of decadence and wealth. Collins has a habit of lingering in the doorway every time she enters the office, allowing viewers to soak up whatever striking accessories and Disney Channel-chic look she’s settled on for the day.
But whereas similar content creators aim to inspire envy with their displays of unattainable luxury, the show’s can-do attitude makes it seem like “Emily in Paris” is trying to convince its viewers that these luxuries are attainable. After all, Emily herself was just a hapless, hardworking girl with a handful of Instagram followers when she first stepped foot in Paris — never mind that she already had the wardrobe budget of a Hollywood star.
To give the show an ounce of credit, it does occasionally try to tackle questions of class consciousness, mainly through a series of arguments between Gabriel, the down-to-earth Frenchman-next-door, and his wealthy girlfriend Camille. But by and large, “Emily in Paris” remains frustratingly naive. Instead of taking the proper cue from “The Devil Wears Prada” and highlighting the underbelly of corporate hierarchies, “Emily in Paris” seems to suggest that the French, of all people, might stand to learn a thing or two from Emily’s new American perspective. And yes, that new perspective does come with pseudo-dystopian statements such as, “Thou shalt always maintain a positive attitude” and “Thou shalt praise in public and criticize in private.”
It’s hard to fault a show simply for being about rich people with fancy office jobs and lavish lifestyles. It is, however, deliriously easy to fault a show for glorifying them. And that is the greatest sin of “Emily in Paris.” Emily is not just living the American dream, but selling it, too — to the viewer, to her in-show Instagram following and even to her non-American co-workers. She snatches up opportunities with ferocity, whether or not she’s qualified, and encourages us all to do the same.
And hey, maybe the French would be happier if they showed up two hours earlier to work, let their careers consume their lives and wore preppier clothes. Or maybe, “Emily in Paris” should reevaluate its own cultural assumptions and stop pedaling a stagnate version of France that is so ideologically American.
Lauren Sheehan-Clark is the deputy arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].