Television

It’s Even More Painful to Watch Emily in Paris in France

I’ve spent years unlearning my American narcissism. The least Netflix’s heroine could do is try.

Lily Collins in a still from Emily in Paris wearing a red beret.
Lily Collins in Emily in Paris. Netflix

As an American living in France who’s dealt with the loneliness and frustration of moving to a new country, I was really looking forward to bingeing Netflix’s new hit Emily in Paris. The show focuses way too much on rich white pretty people, but given that it’s a Darren Star series, that’s not exactly shocking, and if it had made good on the promise to juxtapose two cultures and encourage Americans to see how they are viewed by the rest of the world, I could’ve looked past all of that. Instead, Emily reinforces caricatures of both Americans and French, minus any self-analysis, depth, or personal change on the part of our heroine. The show exemplifies how Hollywood, much like Emily, is too steeped in its own narcissism to allow for any self-reflection—even when the French hold up a mirror. It’s easy enough to take an American out of the U.S. and plop her in another country. The real challenge is taking the American out of an American, wherever they are. Emily in Paris suffers from a bad case of what one might call the American gaze—the utter inability to see another country or culture without using our assumed superiority as the lens through which it’s understood.

Facing my own American narcissism has been the most challenging part of moving abroad, and it’s something I’m still unlearning. Like Emily, I came here with Amélie as a reference for French culture, also knowing nothing about Normandy other than what I was taught in school: that it was where Americans saved the world from Nazis. I’ve been lectured about needing to be more thoughtful of my surroundings and adapt to them rather than the other way around. Emily’s co-worker asks her the first day why she’s shouting in a meeting. My French husband still has to remind me, even years after moving to France, that I’m using my outdoor voice unnecessarily. “Is talking competitive in America too?” he asked.

Like Emily’s, my Instagram used to be full of photos of myself, my friends, and strangers. After getting called out by my French buddies, I toned it way down. In general, the French value their privacy on social media far more than most Americans do. Emily’s boss criticizes her several times for being “accessible to everyone” and having “no mystery,” but this goes right over the burgeoning influencer’s head. Finally, her boss orders her to delete her account, which creates an existential crisis for Emily. “I don’t even know who I am without Emily in Paris!” she says, as if this shell of a public figure is as deep as she gets. Emily can’t imagine a world in which privacy is highly valued, even though she’s living in that world and is lectured about it repeatedly. France actually has some of the world’s strictest privacy laws, meaning Emily could get in trouble for using people’s images without their consent—probably something a would-be social media personality should know about the country she’s “influencing.”

In a sense, it’s not really Americans’ fault we’re so self-centered. We’ve been told our entire lives that America is the best country in the world (as opposed to the 28th!) and that ours is the best way of doing things. It is, however, our responsibility to reexamine the belief that America is the default by which all other cultures are measured, especially Emily’s white, hypercapitalistic, puritanical version of America. But Emily never does, because the closest her character comes to self-examination is taking selfies.

Emily in Paris is centered mostly on its heroine’s job—and how very American it is for work to be the No. 1 priority! This bubbly twentysomething with oddly unshakable self-confidence moves to Paris to help a French firm up its game on social media, since, as she puts it, “Americans invented it.” Emily has a few smoking hot French lovers and makes some friends along the way, but most of her life is about work, an arrangement she sees zero problem with. It’s taken me years of living in France to break the habit of working at least one weekend day, and I still feel ridiculously guilty if I’m not being “productive” all the time. My husband constantly reminds me of how toxic this American mentality is, especially when I project it on him. “But you’re not doing anything,” I’ll say sometimes when he’s just relaxing. “Yeah, that’s the point!” he has to remind me—even on our honeymoon. In theory, I agree with him, which is one reason I moved here. But in practice, it’s so much harder to just enjoy life instead of constantly striving for success. When a French co-worker calls Emily out on tying her self-worth and happiness to work, money, and success, she says, “Maybe that’s a little arrogant.”

One of the more pronounced ways Emily’s ugly Americanness shows itself is in her insistence on speaking English, and only English—so much so that she doesn’t even learn the French words for “Do you speak English?” Instead she goes around shouting in English at strangers as if they’re the idiots for not understanding her. There’s even a scene where Emily dines at a restaurant with a Southern woman, both of them delighted that this place doesn’t so much as allow French to be spoken. The nerve!

On some level, I can relate to this gross laziness. Who wouldn’t rather fall back on their native tongue and leave the mental gymnastics to others? A long weekend at my non-Anglophone in-laws’ leaves my brain fried like an egg in an anti-drug commercial. Americans often interpret French people’s insistence on speaking their own language as a function of nationalism, arrogance, or rudeness. But it’s not that French people are unwilling to speak English. It’s more that they’re deeply insecure about it, and also don’t see why they should have to do all the work when you’re the visitor. We’re the rude ones. If Emily made the tiniest soupcon of effort, she would have been liked much more (which is all she wanted!). Instead, she just dismisses French people as difficult, and decides that Paris just doesn’t like her.

Along with her linguistic chauvinism, Emily brings over her puritanical ideas around sex, assuming she’s morally superior to her boss and all the other married French people who are having affairs, despite the fact that she’s never been married herself or been in an open relationship. One of the things I found hardest to come to terms with about my Americanism was my internalized slut-shaming, coming from a culture colonized by the most backassward religious freaks in Europe. Fortunately, I managed to shed shame-based ideas around sex long before landing here. In fact, I’ve slept around way more than any of my French friends or partners. Emily, however, is still stuck in ideas about monogamy and perfect pairings derived less from American life than American movies. Emily’s boss calls her out on the idea that “the knight on a white horse is going to come and save you from everything.” Emily—trying, to her brief credit, to translate her analogy into French terms—explains she’s not someone who can “share” a crepe. “I want the whole crepe.”

Normally I’m harder on American films and TV than my French husband is. He’s a French actor turned writer who not only studied American-style filmmaking but finds it far superior to the French approach, so it’s rare for him to hate American shows (even terrible ones!). But Emily in Paris truly pissed him off—not just because its version of France is grossly inaccurate, but because it’s used as a straw man to prop up ideas about American superiority. Every country is guilty of falling back on simplistic notions about other countries, but he’s confident France would never make a show this tone-deaf: “Unlike Americans, French people, and most people in general, are aware another point of view even exists.”

The first time I realized how much I needed to deal with my American narcissism was in a shower with a former French boyfriend, who insisted on holding the showerhead. “In America, we just stand under it, hands-free, like this,” I explained. He looked at me with loving indulgence, “Chérie, the whole world knows how Americans take showers. We watch your movies all the time.” My French husband knows more about my culture than I’ll probably ever know about his, and he’s never even been to the U.S. Like Emily, I come from a country that imports little to no foreign culture—other than the stuff we steal, rebrand, then claim as our own. (I thought Inspector Gadget was a strictly American show until I caught my husband singing a very different song.) Or when we do import a French film, like Cuties, American senators try to cancel Netflix and accuse its brilliant director of making kiddie porn. And yet we shamelessly blast our violent red, white, and blue content—TV shows, movies, apps, porn, music, you name it—at the world, so much that they have to make laws to protect themselves from the relentless onslaught.

While I appreciate the attempt Emily in Paris makes toward grappling with the struggles of moving to France—especially getting used to the complaining and the subtleties of “the French no”—Emily never questions her way of doing things and even gets rewarded for not caring to. She easily makes friends, has guys vying for her, and shows up her boss. After all, part of being American is having the power to not acknowledge your narrowness of mind. I’d love to see a show that truly deprograms the American gaze, one whose characters follow the advice the French keep giving Emily, to talk less and listen more. Until then, I’ll be over here trying my best not to yell indoors or judge my husband for doing absolutely nothing on his day off.