October 22, 2020 | Arts and Culture
emily in paris
confronting stereotypes, fantasies, and my parisian dream
I vividly remember scrolling through my Instagram feed when I stopped on a photo of Lily Collins striding the cobblestone streets of Paris in a red beret and checkered dress suit. She smiles serenely at the camera, exuding helpless excitement and infatuation with the city. Caught up in the sudden wanderlust provoked by Lily’s effortless Parisian look, I discovered that she was actually filming a new TV series called Emily in Paris.
No one could have been more excited about Emily in Paris than me—Emily. Ever since I caught a glimpse of the dazzling Tour Eiffel seven years ago during a school field trip, living in Paris has been my dream. This fantasy only grew stronger with scenic shots in films like Amélie and breathtaking literary imagery. As I immersed myself in the sonic pleasures of learning the French language in a beginner course freshman year at Brown, I felt as if Paris and I had become so close that I could sense the galeries d’art, magasins, and boulangeries within my reach.
Darren Star’s latest series, Emily in Paris, was promised to be the manifestation of my Parisian dream, as a fictional Emily in her late twenties takes on the city for a professional opportunity. Creator and producer of iconic shows such as “Sex and the City” and “Younger,” Darren Star ventures into exploring the Parisian life of a professional businesswoman. As the “American point of view” in a Parisian marketing firm, Emily must navigate both her workplace and her social life, embracing the City of Light with curiosity and a glass of champagne.
My anticipation for the show only increased with the onset of COVID-19. The pandemic forced airports and borders to close and I couldn’t even go back home, let alone think of planning a trip to France, for the foreseeable future. As I saw my distance from Paris grow wider, I needed a fictional Emily to wander the little alleyways and authentic cafes for me. I hoped to find even a glimmer of my future self in Lily Collins’ character—a way to experience a place through another’s perspective, providing comfort amidst the solitude of quarantine.
When the show finally premiered on October 2, I dropped all my work and opened Netflix. My disappointment was palpable five minutes into the pilot episode. I won’t reiterate the harsh words of critics, but Emily was far from relatable. “You come to Paris and you don’t speak French, that is arrogant…let’s call it the arrogance of ignorance.” These words––coming from Luc, Emily’s French coworker––might be blunt, but they are true. Her comment that the city looks exactly like its portrayal in Ratatouille foreshadows Emily’s two-dimensional, cartoonish experience—she arrives in Paris with a mission to change the local way of working and living without feeling any unease or self-consciousness in her new surroundings. By the end of the first episode, her only ties to Paris are her social media hashtags and her attractive neighbor downstairs.
But as off-putting and disappointing as Emily’s character was, it was even more difficult to relate to Mindy, Emily’s best friend from Shanghai and the only Asian character in the show. A rich girl who escapes to France to avoid her father’s authoritarian parenting, Mindy was another overused “Crazy Rich Asian” caricature that is simply improbable to me, someone who has lived in Shanghai for more than 10 years.
In the show, Mindy is supposed to be fluent in French, English, and Chinese, but as a native speaker, I squirmed hearing her teach Mandarin to the children she nannied. After some research I found that the actress playing Mindy, Ashley Park, is a Korean American who was only briefly trained by a Chinese dialect coach for the show. Aside from her character’s linguistic inconsistencies, Mindy’s stereotypical Asian traits are slapped onto her obnoxiously Americanized attitude and outlook. She yells at her strict father and calls him an “asshole,” a behavior unfathomable to any Chinese person I know. Her character could have been played by a white actor; she even makes some over-generalized remarks about Emily upon their first encounter—“You look…American,” she says.
And Emily embodies the worst stereotypes of an “American.” She walks into the office with Google Translate ready on her phone. “I did Rosetta Stone on the plane but it hasn’t kicked in yet,” she remarks, brushing off her unfamiliarity with the French language. She sees Paris through the trendy hashtags and witty captions on social media, never trying to process or adapt to the surrounding environment.
After barely completing the pilot, I realized that my connection with Emily only rested on the superficiality of sharing a name. I had to take a pause from the show, but I continued thinking about why it bothered me so much. Did I really expect an honest portrayal of an expatriate’s life in Paris? Knowing Star’s previous works, I expected a fantastical, surreal, and Americanized version of Paris before actually watching the show.
But weren’t my own expectations embedded with cliches of the French culture? Part of me had hoped that the show would feature the iconic Haussmannian architecture, chic Parisians lounging outside elegant cafes, and the sound of English being spoken in exotic French accents.
I still remember the night, seven years ago, when a group of friends and I snuck out of our hotel to explore Paris. For a group of 14-year-olds who had never really traveled without our parents, the simple act of buying metro tickets seemed like an adventure; we giggled at our successful escapade and reveled in the sweet Nutella inside the crepes we shared. My impression of Paris was forever tinted with the warm yellow lights beaming from the Eiffel Tower on that cold winter night as we climbed down the iron structure with the entire city beneath us.
I realized that I had been searching for cliches as I cringed at the sight of Emily eating a croissant and making a duckface on the Eiffel Tower. I’d wanted evidence that proved my perceptions were, at least to some degree, accurate representations of the city. Instead, Star’s hyperbolic French, American, and Asian tropes in the show made me confront my own stereotypes of Paris. The parody of France’s cultural landscape reminded me of the mistakes and quick assumptions that I had drawn from my memories of the city.
This semester, I’m taking a course about Paris, and I’ve learned that there is more beneath the city than its glamorous visage—the division between city and suburb, the political controversies surrounding refugee policies, the living trauma hidden in the country’s history—all of which are excluded from the show and my previous understanding.
I did eventually finish the rest of the series in one sitting, no longer holding on to that tenuous attachment to Emily. Without any satisfying answers to my questions about life in Paris, I resolved to go there myself to experience the city’s true nature after the pandemic. What will my version of Emily in Paris be like? Hopefully, there won’t be a need for Google Translate.