The Unbearable Banality of Emily in Paris

It’s not just the berets and baguettes that make Emily in Paris insufferable. The candy-coated promise of American success is laid on thick in Darren Star’s worst show yet for Netflix.

Lily Collins as Emily in Emily in Paris. (Stephanie Branchu / Netflix)

What would the world look like if there were no more losers and everyone was just winning all the time? Darren Star, the creator of Beverly Hills, 90210 and Sex and the City, has given us his answer with his new Netflix series Emily in Paris. The characters in this latest show — more stereotypes than living beings — are depicted as swinging from one success to another, none more so than the eponymous protagonist: Emily (Lily Collins) is a millennial ingénue sent to Paris to provide an American marketing perspective to a French agency catering to luxury brands and teach them how to use Instagram. She leaves her hometown of Chicago, including her successful boyfriend (who probably played college football), to become the charming Midwesterner in a charming Parisian loft apartment who now markets perfumes instead of pharmaceuticals.

Upon arrival, the French real estate agent makes an advance that Emily — not speaking any French — initially doesn’t understand. When the penny finally drops, and as his gestures become more obtrusive, her refusal moves from polite to annoyed. This conflict — crossing language, culture, and sexuality — is repeatedly played out in ever-new variations over the course of the remaining nine episodes: she meets a good-looking Frenchman with whom she almost goes home until he whispers in her ear: “I love American pussy.” This goes too far for the initially prudish Emily. Later she goes out with a semiotics professor who proves to her that French men really have sex all night long. The relationship falls apart during a trip to the opera when he remarks that Swan Lake is simpleminded and for tourists. She gives him the middle finger with the words, “Thomas, since you’re a professor of signs, I’m sure you won’t have any trouble recognizing this one.” “That’s more of a gesture,” he replies.

Emily in Paris ranked among the daily top ten on Netflix, yet in the flurry of media reviews and commentary, there has been remarkably little interrogation of the show’s appeal among audiences. Instead of asking why the show is so popular, the central point of contention has been whether the depiction of French culture is realistic or whether it simply reproduces meaningless clichés. On the one hand, you will find countless blog entries by Americans describing how they identify with Emily’s experience in Paris (one blogger even suspects that she is the unacknowledged model for Emily’s role, showing as proof a photo from last year in which she wears — just like the protagonist — a red beret in front of the Eiffel Tower). On the other hand, and well-represented in the French press, reviews have complained about the show’s many clichés: misogyny is not such a big issue, Parisians do not take multi-hour lunch breaks, and not everyone wears haute couture to the office. The Anglophone press has voiced strong opposition to Emily’s character traits, her being selfish and immoral: How dare she simply make out with her best friend’s boyfriend?

But over and above the cultural conflict that Emily in Paris advertises as its main theme, it is really just a show about winners winning, over and over again. Emily herself is the best example. With her Instagram posts (selfie with a croissant and the signature “butter+chocolate=💓” caption) she quickly becomes an influencer. No matter what “challenge” she faces, her disarming smile, her ingenuity, and her optimism magically open the door to her success. Even when she is fired just before the season finale, it doesn’t take her three minutes to get her job back (thanks to the bureaucratic labor laws in France, as her colleagues explain to her).

Emily, it seems, cannot lose — a plot device that is of fundamental importance to the show, and helps Star to perpetuate the fiction of the American middle class. A positive attitude, a good work ethic, and decent family values seem to be enough to guarantee (American) success. Emily herself comes from the white Chicago suburbs, well sheltered from the rough southern part of the city: “Every day was the same,” she confesses at one point to Mathieu Cadault (Charles Martins), the grandson of star designer Pierre Cadault: “Ugh, God, you must think I’m so boring,” and for the first time Emily shows something like insecurity under Patricia Field’s costumes. The grandson, located somewhere in between bohemia and aristocracy, responds: “Oh, I’m not bored at all. Are you?”

But, of course, Emily is boring. Her character is supposed to incarnate a “basic bitch,” as she self-identifies at one point. Her getting up again and again with the same verve, solving problems and winning back customers with the same simple smile, is just as predictable and assimilated as the story itself. At the same time, however, Mathieu tells us that it is precisely this predictability of success that makes the charm of Emily in Paris. When everything around you whoops crisis, defeat, and precariousness, who wouldn’t want to take refuge in such a story?

Emily in Paris is by no means the only cultural product attempt to compensate for the permanent crisis we are living through by rigidly insisting on the narrative of middle-class success. Another example is Sofia Coppola’s latest film, On the Rocks. Laura, a successful young author sitting at her huge writing desk in her huge SoHo loft, suddenly starts imagining that her equally successful tech entrepreneur husband is cheating on her. In addition, her rich father, played by Bill Murray, convinces her that all men are the same and cannot live monogamously. The evidence piles up until both characters and the audience reach the consensus that Laura is being cheated on. The expected surprise in the end is that Laura only fabricated all this: her husband is faithful, he loves her, and everything is fine. The ensuing quarrel with her father is quickly resolved, and she writes her second book. The problem is not only that Coppola manages to make even Murray look dull and inauthentic. The resulting portrait of an upper-middle class that has to hallucinate its problems for want of any real ones is ultimately suffocating in its own boredom.

Another touch point in the “winners” genre and an implicit reference point for Star is Troop Beverly Hills (1989), an initial flop that went on to achieve cult status during the Clinton years. Shelley Long plays a rich housewife who is left by her husband for a younger woman. All alone and bored in her mansion, she decides to give her existence new meaning by establishing the first girl scout group in Beverly Hills. Dressed in iconic costume design by Theadora Van Runkle, the girls set themselves the ambitious goal of winning the annual Jamboree. Despite the hostility by the children from the poorer parts of the city (they make fun of their tailor-made uniforms, among other things), the girls keep their eyes on the prize thanks to the generous support of their dictator and billionaire parents. In the final competition, things get messy: the archenemies cheat, and the now disciplined girls from Beverly Hills win. Moreover, Long’s character reunites with her husband. Just in time for the fall of the Berlin Wall, the triumph of liberalism, and the supposed end of history, Troop Beverly Hills anticipated the tautological narrative of watching winners win.

But where class antagonism is still visible in satirical form in Troop Beverly Hills, here Star manages to make it disappear entirely. To do so, he borrows a move from the so-called culture wars of the 1990s, transfiguring the struggle over material inequality into a conflict over cultural values — and suddenly there are no more losers, or rather, they are simply not talked about anymore.

What Emily in Paris promises — and just in time for the Biden victory — is a world without losers, and with it a withdrawal from reality. It promises a retreat into the fiction of a classless world where the lush fruits of globalization are forever available to be reaped, and where we can all march from one success to the next — a comfort compensating for the daily experiences of precarity, insecurity, and austerity, prophesized as supposedly inevitable.

Instead of ignoring the realities of our world, as the shows asks us, however, we must read it as a symptom of liberalism’s failure to deliver its promised lands. This also means that there is ample space for finding new ways of telling the conflict between the ones who win and the ones who lose.