Emily in Paris is an American comedy-drama created by Darren Starr that premiered on Netflix in the second half of 2020 and is perhaps one of the most controversial tv series of the last few years. With its much-criticized stereotypical portrayal of French people and its claim of being a love letter to Paris, the show certainly offers much to talk about. Emily in Paris centres around Emily Cooper (Lily Collins), a twenty-something American marketing executive who moves to Paris to work at Savoir, which is acquired by her American company in Chicago at the beginning of the series.
Firstly, much of the show’s criticism is centred around its stereotypical portrayal of French people. Most French characters on the show are portrayed as rude towards Emily and not willing to accommodate the fact that she does not speak French, despite working and living in Paris. This is something present and recurrent from the very first episode, where Emily shows up to her new office in Paris and barely any of her French colleagues actually speak to her; rather, they are shown as only talking between themselves in French, actively and purposively excluding Emily. Most notably, Patricia (Claude Perron), one of the employees at Savoir – a character that disappeared after the first couple of episodes – runs away both times Emily addresses her in English, which is quickly followed by the explanation that Patricia doesn’t speak French.
We can, then, understand the disapproval of the show coming from French people. But if you thought that exaggerating French stereotypes would be as bad as Emily in Paris gets, you would be wrong. In fact, season two of the show introduces a new character Petra (Daria Panchencko), a Ukrainian woman who goes to French class with Emily, and a set of stereotypes with her. The only notable scene in which Petra is in – before disappearing from the show as characters who are essentially useless to Emily’s plot and only used for these comedy gigs based on stereotypes seem to have a tendency to do – is when her and Emily meet after class and go shopping together. The two can’t really communicate as neither of them speaks French, Petra doesn’t speak English and Emily unsurprisingly doesn’t speak Ukrainian. As they visit a very expensive shop, Petra shoplifts and forces a shocked Emily to run away from the shop with her without paying for the clothes they are trying on. Emily then tells Petra she can’t just steal and brings the clothes back and supposevely pays for them.
These incidents may be ascribed to just comic relief. However, the continuous repetition of these stereotypes and caricatures is enough to show us that it goes far beyond just making a joke. The case of Petra, in particular, is offensive and unacceptable, as the Ukrainian minister of culture himself said in a statement, as it depicts the classical stereotype of Ukrainian people not being able to speak another language but their own – which ironically is what Emily does too, except that she is seemingly justified because she is American – and stealing. This is particularly harmful given that it is a stereotype that is still very much present in people’s minds when thinking about Ukrainians, or more generally people from Eastern Europe, and arguably part of the reason why many Easter Europeans have been, and unfortunately still are to some extent, treated as second-class citizens in “western” European countries such as Spain, Ireland, and France itself.
Darren Starr continues to defend the series in the face of all the criticism and backlash that followed both seasons, claiming that the show is nothing more than a love letter to Paris. However, many have pointed out that the show does not actually portray the real Paris: many French have expressed disappointment at seeing the city reduced to nothing more than a postcard version of itself, one that seems to have been envisioned by someone who has never actually been to Paris. Despite the random positioning of famous landmark which seem to be placed in this fictional Paris for Emily to walk by regardless of the geographical placement in the real Paris, the most pressing issue is perhaps the fact that Emily in Paris only shows the glamourous side of Paris, very conveniently forgetting that the reality of the city is much more complex, diverse, and arguably characterised by political, economical and social divide and upheaval, all of which is completely erased in the show.
More specifically, the lack of diversity is extremely evident and widely criticized. Except for a number of characters that can be counted on one hand, the characters in the show are overwhelmingly white. This would be an issue in of itself but it is even more disconcerting for a show that is set in one of the most diverse cities in Europe. The real Paris, although perhaps less glamorous, is made up of diverse people, of diverse ethnicities and backgrounds rather than just white rich people, as the show Paris seems to portray. There is no possible explanation for the lack of diversity: despite the fact that it would depict the actual reality of Paris, would a diverse ensemble of characters not have been a much more interesting choice for a show like Emily in Paris?
However, there are some positive things even to a show as highly criticized and problematic as Emily in Paris. The show was filmed on location in Paris which was undoubtedly beneficial for the French economy. Furthermore, Emily in Paris employed French actors for all the French roles as well as almost entirely French crew behind the scenes, even though the decision-making are stillstrictly reserved for American white creatives. The show also portrays conversations between French characters when Emily is not present in their native language rather than having them unrealistically speak English between each other to cater it to an English-speaking audience. Those of us who do not speak French have to read the subtitles in our chosen language for certain part of the show, thus staying true to the reality of the show and its characters.
Despite the widespread criticism, Emily in Paris has been actually successful. If we considers numbers alone, it was one of the most watched shows on Netflix when it came out and is still popular on the platform. In fact, Emily in Paris has been renewed for two more season: we can only hope the creators learn from the criticism directed towards the show and implement consequent changes to reflect a more organic picture of Paris. I personally strongly believe that the show would be way funnier if its comedy did not play exclusive on old – and frankly rather insulting – caricatures and would benefit actually including French writers or producers in the creative team.
Want to write for us?!
Thank you, fellow fangirl!
Your message has been sent and We'll contact you shortly. :)