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In the latest season of the show “Emily in Paris” (stay with me), the perennially inappropriate French character Luc, played by Bruno Gouery, brings up the sexual escapades of Anaïs Nin in the city. The French-born author, who enjoyed little recognition during her actual literary career, is something of an internet sensation, her quotes often etched into those cheesy Hallmark-esque affirmations that you come across on earnest, motivational social-media accounts.
It’s not the sort of reference you’d ordinarily expect in a show that is widely seen as a vapid and indulgent meme. The show, for the uninitiated, portrays the American Emily (played by Lily Collins), who moves to Paris to work for a marketing and PR firm despite not knowing any French, perpetually living as a Parisian tourist, with often disastrous fashion choices and even more disastrous love Venn diagrams rather than triangles.
It’s trivial to find examples on social media and from the critics of mainstream media outlets bashing “Emily in Paris,” often for good reasons: the shallowness of some of the characters, the cliched will-they-won’t-they love stories, the absurdity of the basic premise. Although I submit that entirely too many of the critics of the show appear to be especially well-versed in intricate plot details or have particularly strong opinions about characters like Gabriel, Emily’s main love interest, or Alfie, her other love interest, and other characters — a signal that they either secretly enjoy it as a guilty pleasure or like to hate-watch it — the hate-watchers in my opinion are simply deluding themselves and are actually part of the guilty-pleasure-watchers group.
The Anaïs Nin reference and the fact that mentioning the show almost always generates a divisive reaction in my circles compelled me to come out as an enjoyer of the show — primarily as entertaining, solipsistic television, but also because its creators are so clearly in on the joke and because its critics are often prone to embodying the cliches that they so despise.
We are indoctrinated very early on in the show about the superiority of French sensibilities over American capitalistic mindsets. In the first season, when Emily shows up early on her first day of work and the rest of the staff start their day at 10 a.m., and when she commits the grave sin of talking business during a party, her co-worker Luc tells her that the difference between them is that “we work to live; you live to work.” Nobody embodies this edict more than Madeline, Emily’s mentor and boss from the marketing agency’s parent company in Chicago. Madeline is an affable but buffoonish character who arrives in Paris heavily pregnant, fires all the French staff in a French PR agency, and continues to work right up until her delivery, after which the baby becomes an inconvenience that drives her back home to the U.S. She embodies the ignorance and hubris of corporate culture, but her personal exuberance also embodies that other side of American capitalism that Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook once described as “moving fast and breaking things,” with all the promise and catastrophe that this conception of business brings with it.
Madeline had to lose, because French worldliness is superior to American materialism, and so she does, when Emily decides to abandon her and work for Sylvie Grateau (played by Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu), the French former head of the agency, who was fired by Madeline. Redemption, per the low stakes of the show’s world and overarching drama, is abandoning Americanness and embracing Frenchness. In the latest season, the least likable character is the only French persona with an American capitalist sensibility, who dates Emily’s roommate and has the temerity to try to make money off his company’s acquisition of a venerated French fashion brand.
This sense that the French have figured things out of course permeates every Parisian tourist’s fantasy of eating croissants and sipping cafe au lait in French street cafes while wearing haute couture, strolling along the Seine during lunch breaks, dropping by a live music show on the weekend and eating baguettes and cheese in the park during an open-air cinema showing while exploring having an affair. All of which happen in the show.
But the pretentiousness of this aesthetic, which both detractors and enjoyers of the show want in their future Paris vacation, also has its counterpart. Emily convinces the fictional patriarch of a French fashion brand to embrace garish “ringard” in one of his campaigns. She also helps launch a low-quality champagne brand dubbed “Champere” featuring the buffoonish scion of the house that produces it.
Emily straddles the space between these two aesthetics. She pretends to the French way of life but is also unambiguously American. During an Instagram live-feed while she’s touring French landmarks, she points out the Notre Dame cathedral, and then notes that some of her American followers probably pronounce it “Noter Daym,” with no judgment expressed.
Many detractors of the show say they hate it because it’s too stereotypical of the American touristy experience in Paris with all its cliches and made-for-Instagram moments. Yet the show is self-aware of this argument and deliberately dresses Emily in garish, awful fashion choices, and her status as a social media influencer snapping photos for her Instagram followers is a big part of her career. But the other side of this is that her lifestyle and fashion choices themselves show originality as she continues to live in Paris, and although she is naive she remains one of the more empathetic characters in the show.
Many American shows are set in exotic foreign locations and many — to be fair — do unintentionally presuppose the superiority of one or the other way of life. But “Emily in Paris” appears to be in on the joke.
The result is that the show’s detractors often find themselves looking down on the supposedly vapid American star of the show, embodying the French snobbishness about many of the things the show deems superior to American sensibility.
Perhaps I’m giving the show too much credit, but it is this fundamental irony that makes me think it’s all one big, elaborate inside joke, laughing with and at us and our obsession with how other cultures do things better, whether it’s how the French dress and take three-month summer holidays, the Scandinavian hygge craze, or our obsessions with yoga and kombucha.
Or perhaps this is a long-winded justification for binging “Emily in Paris.”
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