In “Emily in Paris,” Being Thin and White Is a Path to Success

Lily Collins as Emily in Emily in Paris (Photo credit: Netflix)

When Netflix announced Emily in Paris, we were excited. With Lily Collins as the lead and Sex and the City’s Darren Star as the creator, it was sure to be a series that would have an impact. We’re also just suckers for any stories about women in media, and were huge fans of The Bold Type (until it’s unfortunate demise as yet another series that refuses to make any real statement). Despite the problematic nature of both Sex and the City and The Bold Type, we were hopeful that the comparisons to both meant that Emily in Paris would cover ground that they didn’t quite get to. Emily, who works in marketing, gains the chance of a lifetime when her coworker finds out she’s pregnant and chooses to give up a job at a firm in Paris, which passes the opportunity to Emily. How would Emily in Paris navigate power and privilege while maintaining the fun, energizing dialogue, and relatable plot points of similar series? What would it add to the conversation about how it’s very much possible to make a show that’s as enjoyable as it’s inclusive and aware?

Unfortunately, the answer to that question is largely nothing. As Emily, Collins traipses through Paris in a way that feels more applicable to an early 2000s Gossip Girl knockoff than a riveting 2020 series with a female lead. She’s endlessly optimistic. She can do no wrong, and much of that amounts to her own privilege as a straight, thin, white woman who seems to have an endless amount of money and resources at her disposal. She’s thriving, but of course she is. Sadly for us all, there is nothing groundbreaking about the series, and it’s not even funny or exciting enough to hold our attention in spite of it. We discussed the Netflix disappointment, from its fatphobic early episodes to the lackluster impact of a thin white woman failing upwards.

What was your initial impression of Emily in Paris based on the trailer and promo?

Rachel Charlene Lewis, senior editor: I was really excited for Emily in Paris. I really enjoy shows led by women where there is some massive change that takes place in episode one, and, right from the start, we know that this is going to be Emily’s big adventure. She’s not at home in Chicago anymore, working with her friends and moving forward in her relationship with her long-term boyfriend. She’s setting off anew, and we’re guaranteed messiness and drama and humor. Or we should have been.

Evette Dionne, editor-in-chief: I’m right there with you, Rachel. I was deeply excited about Emily in Paris because I thought it would fill the void left by The Bold Type’s season recently ending and Younger not returning for a new season this summer. I’m such a big fan of TV shows about women attempting to navigate the pitfalls of the media industry in big cities like New York and Paris. We get romance, friendship, killer wardrobes—all the elements of a good rom-com—and situations that feel familiar to me. I’m still an avid Sex & the City watcher, so of course Emily in Paris was right up my alley. I also wanted to watch a show without the high stakes of a drama. No matter what Emily encountered, I knew she’d be able to get out of it within 30 minutes. Those kinds of shows have been appealing to me during this pandemic.

Upon your first watch, how did you feel about the series?

RCL: This was honestly one of the most disappointing shows I’ve watched. These days, I watch a ton of television, and most of it can at least make me laugh, no matter how run-of-the-mill it is. Even Keeping Up With the Kardashians, which I swore I’d never watch, has been a balm during this extremely rough last six months. Kourtney is funny! Kim is dramatic! There’s something to it. In Emily, I found literally nothing to hold my attention. The supposedly sexy Parisian men offer her bland, chaste kisses; she makes choices that make zero sense and come out of seemingly nowhere; her friendship feels forced and like the instant coffee of television BFFs. I’m sad I hated it this much.

ED: Disappointed isn’t even the word! Rachel, I’ve also been watching a lot of television too—Sister, Sister; Girlfriends; Catfish; and Filthy Rich have been keeping me company recently—and I wanted to add Emily in Paris to that rotation. Instead, I choked down all 10 episodes in a single afternoon and I cringed through most of them. Let’s start here: Who willingly moves to a country other than their own without speaking the language? That’s a kind of arrogance that didn’t translate well onscreen. I also kept thinking that the show would’ve been so much more interesting if it followed Emily’s boss to Paris instead of her. We’ve had more than enough shows about young, white women following their dreams; making a woman in her 40s the center of the show, instead of sidelining her with an unexpected pregnancy, could’ve given the show the oomph it needs. Emily is also a really basic character to me, without much dimension or interiority. Rom-com setups already tend to be formulaic, and there just wasn’t enough depth to this show to keep me hooked.

Some people have compared Emily in Paris to The Devil Wears Prada. In the words of Miranda Priestly, is the former groundbreaking enough to warrant the comparison?

ED: Absolutely not. The Devil Wears Prada is a classic; Emily in Paris isn’t even a bootleg version of that iconic movie. Though the show tries to turn its head honcho, Sylvie (Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu), into a Miranda Priestly–esque figure, it falls flat because Emily is so drab in comparison and really wants to impose her Americanness (for example, she only speaks English) on everyone she comes into contact with. Sylvie isn’t an angel, of course: She’s having sex with one of their married clients and she’s pretty unfriendly, but we never learn much about her life outside of work. In contrast, we learn too much about Emily, and unfortunately, a lot of what she experiences isn’t interesting or engaging. It also isn’t presented in a way that made me feel invested in what happens to Emily in the way I’m invested in what happens to the protagonists on The Bold Type.

RCL: Not even close. Though The Devil Wears Prada is still a film filled with white people, it did feel groundbreaking and refreshing in its willingness to complicate what it means to be a woman who is passionate about her career while also struggling to maintain romantic relationships. This wouldn’t be a unique premise today, but it was a question that was explored quietly throughout the movie while much of our attention was on the fashion and the adventure and, of course, the competitive nature of the protagonists. In Emily in Paris, there are no stakes. She dumps her boyfriend, no problem. She falls for different men over and over again—which is fine, but has zero impact on her sense of self or even how she feels about Paris. She is, somehow, always fine at work, even when it’s clear that many of her senior colleagues cannot stand her. She happily jumps from episode to episode, which makes for an extremely boring show.

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The show wants us to be impressed with Emily’s romantic relationships: She is, after all, in the city of romance. Does the show move the needle at all in terms of how women maintain power in romance?

RCL: For me, this was one of the most annoying things about the series. We’re meant to be impressed by Emily’s “independent woman” status. In the vein of Bridget Jones’s Diary, Emily is clearly supposed to be relatable in her romantic ineptitude, but instead she’s simply irritating. She hooks up with random men she meets at work events and elsewhere in Paris, and each one is vile in his own way: One is in a relationship; another is a massive snob who judges her for wanting to see what he deems unimpressive plays and shows; another is a literal 17-year-old she assumes is older due to her lack of fluency in French. We’re meant to root for Emily, but she learns so little from each relationship that it’s impossible to do so. In one scene, she uses her wand vibrator and shorts out the power to surrounding neighborhoods, which might have felt new or bold in 2002; in 2020, it’s hardly outside of the norm of the way that women’s sexuality is presented onscreen. In another, she tells off a man who doesn’t think she’s smart enough for him. Again, a fair plot point in 2002. In 2020, it feels obvious.

ED: I could care less about her romantic relationships. I was much more interested in Sylvie’s romantic entanglement with Antoine (William Abadie), which we didn’t see a lot of outside of their interactions in Emily’s presence. From the beginning, it was clear that Emily would end up with her neighbor, so there wasn’t any real narrative tension there, especially since they kissed midway through the season and were still in close proximity once she learned that she and his girlfriend are friends. And all of the other men she encounters are jerks. I was also deeply bothered by Emily sleeping with a 17-year-old boy and then telling his mom that he’s a good lover. I know this encounter is supposed to show that the French are less rigid than Americans—having urinals on public streets also implies this—but having sex with a teenager and then basically brushing it off felt both uncomfortable and unnecessary.

Emily is able to become an influencer almost immediately after moving to Paris, and it’s something that boosts her credibility at work. She’s able to land clients solely off of the persona she’s developed for herself. Does this illustrate a woman getting it done or just prove that thin, white girls can stumble into success?

RCL: I want to root for women onscreen. In thinking about Sex and the City and The Bold Type—even though I hardly loved Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), let alone Jane (Katie Stevens)—I could find a reason to connect with them. We got enough of their backstories and their relationships with the people and the world around them that I could root for these women, even when they said things that I personally found harmful and close-minded. But, since we hardly get any background on or emotional insight into Emily, it was all too easy to see her as yet another boring privileged girl who never really has to learn a lesson.

ED: I wasn’t too bothered by Emily becoming an overnight influencer. If anything, it felt like one of the most authentic parts of the series: I’ve seen many ordinary white girls garner large followings in short amounts of time, especially when they’re showcasing their lives in cities that people the world over are infatuated with. Of course, Emily has an advantage because she works in marketing and social media is a significant part of her job, but she also acknowledges that and uses her newfound popularity for the benefit of her company. That also feels true to the moment we’re in.

Lily Collins as Emily, left, and Samuel Arnold as Luke in Emily in Paris (Photo credit: Netflix)

Emily and every single one of her love interests are white. The only “pops” of color we see are from her Black coworker Julian (Samuel Arnold), and her Asian best friend Mindy Chen (Ashley Park). How did you feel about this?

RCL: The lack of diversity in this series was galling. Netflix presents itself as a pioneer in representation, but we got hardly any background or development for Julian. Mindy has comparatively more screen time, and we get a sense of her dreams and what she wants for herself, but I just didn’t buy that she’d have any interest in Emily—who sees a confused girl on the sidewalk and rushes over to befriend them? If the show offered more of an impetus for their friendship, I could have been more into it. But it felt nothing, say, The Bold Type, where women connect in a deep, undeniable way.

ED: Honestly, I wish Darren Star and Netflix had gone all in on a fully white cast, because none of the people of color are fleshed out in ways that make sense. We never see Julian outside of work; Mindy only exists to make Emily more comfortable in Paris and accidentally give her marketing tips. If anything, Emily’s best relationships are with Gabriel (Lucas Bravo) and Camille (Camille Razat), who are both white, and we see those relationships evolve over the course of the series. I’m not fond of forced inclusion for the sake of saying “We’re diverse.” Either commit to creating fully realized characters from marginalized communities or keep it the way it has always been, but don’t give us pops of color to ward off complaints. It’s so obvious, and it’s boring.

If we get a second season of Emily in Paris, what do you want to see happen?

ED: I hope there’s a Season 2, because the show has so much potential. I would hope that the showrunner works with the writer’s room to give Emily a little more edge. Right now, she’s very bland, but she could become a more well-rounded character. It would also be interesting for the show to follow Sylvie just a little more and flesh out the other characters who make the show more interesting. Can we get some more Mindy, please? Will we ever see her visit her parents in China to see their dynamic up close?

RCL: I would love to see the camera swing away from Emily and focus on pretty much anyone else. The stakes are so much higher for her coworkers and Mindy does have a huge, impossible dream for herself. This feels like a New Girl situation where the protagonist just isn’t interesting enough to carry the show—but if it’s willing to zoom out and realize the other characters at hand, it could become something so much better.

Editor’s Note: The phrase “falling upwards” has been replaced with “failing upwards.” (10/09/2020 2:02 p.m. PST)

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Rachel Charlene Lewis, who has light brown skin and dark brown curly hair, wears a white button up and gold jewelry and gold glasses.
by Rachel Charlene Lewis
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Rachel Charlene Lewis is the Senior Editor at Bitch. She has written about culture, identity, and the internet for publications including i-D, Teen Vogue, Refinery29, Greatist, Glamour, Autostraddle, Ravishly, SELF, StyleCaster, The Frisky (RIP), The Mary Sue, and elsewhere. Her literary work, reviews, and interviews have been published in Catapult, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Normal School, Publisher’s Weekly, The Offing, and in several other magazines. She is on Twitter and Instagram, always.

by Evette Dionne
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Evette Dionne is Bitch Media’s editor-in-chief. She’s all about Beyoncé, Black women, and dope TV shows and books. You can follow her on Twitter.