Susanna Liu

Probably due to a very successful publicity strategy, “Emily in Paris” was in the “hit list” long before it actually aired.

Behind the script is Darren Star who is known for his infamous show and later movie “Sex and the City.” The show’s costume designer, Patricia Field, is also a well-known mastermind who designed all the iconic clothing in “Sex and the City” as well as “The Devil Wears Prada,” for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Costume Design. Considering these big names and a dreamy city like Paris, the expectations were very high for the show when the news about its release first came out. We were all expecting a modern day blend of Blair Waldorf and Carrie Bradshaw — a powerful woman with an attitude and killer fashion choices. Emily on the other hand, had quite an attitude but in a controversial manner.

Paris has always been a city that I dreamed about living in. The long standing history behind the city in combination with style, delicacy and culture fascinated my inner “main character.” Romanticizing about wandering around the old streets, I was more than ready to go on a plane, find a cramped old apartment of an old lady and explore the hidden gems of the city. I would eat wonderful French croissants (read in an American French accent) every morning, sit on a blanket in front of the Eiffel Tower, watch the busy city in a rainy evening au Cafe de Flore and live my dream European life. Of course, because I am not a travel blogger or anything of the sort, I settled with Paris episodes of “Gossip Girl,” “Amelie,” “Julie & Julia” and arbitrary plannings for summer vacations in Paris.

This is why a show about a 21st-century young woman instantly deciding to leave her home to work in a marketing firm in Paris sounded like an exciting getaway after a stressful week of midterms. I would be able to learn about the French culture, see what it is like to actually live in Paris and have a visual reset with sceneries from the city and on-point fashion choices. Though it was a feel-good getaway, I was surprised how wrong the French culture was represented.

The show starts when Emily’s boss who has a master’s in French learns that she is pregnant, and decides not to take the job she has been offered in a Parisian marketing firm that her American firm partners with. Of course, out of everyone else in the company, managers decide to offer the job to Emily, who has no experience in the French language if we don’t count bonjour and trés. Though I was skeptical of how this “not at all reasonable” intro would turn out, I tolerated it because, well, maybe they were just unable to find a reason to send an American to Paris. We are in times of COVID; everyone’s idea of reasons to leave the country has been a little shaky.

Emily is “responsible for bringing the American perspective” to the Parisian marketing firm Savoir as well as giving advice on how to navigate social media platforms to reach more diverse audiences. Practically, the idea is a nontraditional but highly sensible one. It flourishes collaboration between different cultural values so that companies can reach broader customers and make higher profits. If Emily were to reflect the American perceptions of beauty and fashion while acknowledging the reflections of those in the French culture, a mutualistic exchange could be achieved through her work in the firm. However, even though she is the embodiment of a smiling friendly face in sight, she turns out to be a total critique of the French culture, including its people, in a very negative way. After a few episodes, it starts to feel like the “American perspective” that she is supposed to bring is the right one while the French one needed to be changed and polished.

Originally, there is so much to unpack in such a rich culture — the people, gastronomy, social practices, language, style and arts. Rather than capturing the hidden nuances of French culture, the show falls short on providing an insider’s portrayal of the French way of life. It stays at a superficial level, displaying only the cliches and distorting some of the cultural practices about a country and city of so much more.

The power struggle between her boss, Sylvie and Emily reflects French people as rude and somewhat bullies. Sylvie publicly belittles and criticizes Emily and her colleagues openly start to call Emily “la plock,” which translates to “the hick” in the firm. As an insult to the French understanding of romance, one of Savoir’s married clients has an affair with Sylvie and later, that same client sends Emily lingerie as a gesture. And all the French men Emily meets somehow fall in love with her.

All these cliches misrepresent and trivialize the French culture, their ideas on love, romance and etiquette. While the French is “ridiculously” (see Ridicule in NY Times) displayed, Emily runs around with a cute Chanel jacket trying to solve all problems and Americanize Savoir. 

Speaking of Chanel, any film or series that has a part of it set in Paris is somehow obliged to make impeccable clothing choices and integrate fashion into its content. Emily in Paris takes an interesting approach to this and creates a different sub-story. The famous fashion designer in the show, Pierre Cadeau, is challenged and mocked by a new luxury streetwear brand, Grey Space, for being closed to innovation and change. This dynamic serves as a fine portrayal of style distinctions in European and American societies.

Even though this difference is not a significant part of the show, it is one of the few smartest choices of the writer analyzing the idea behind fashion in both cultures. American fashion highlights comfortable clothing without much attention on material or fabric quality. It is based more on practicality and trendiness. In contrast the European style is more concerned with materials, colors, timelessness and simplicity.

This contrast is sort of hinted through Emily and Sylvie. While Emily wears lots of luxury brands in Paris, she lacks in style and sensibility. She wears maybe 10 Chanel pieces throughout the show with an early 2000s styling. While it definitely does not make sense visually, there is also no way a junior marketing assistant can earn enough to afford all the designer pieces Emily wears. Sylvie (remember the boss) has more of a delicate and consistent look with some 21st century styling details. She is timeless and elegant while Emily feels like she is lost trying to achieve a chic but comfortable look.

At the finale of the show, Pierre Cadeau is inspired by Emily and he makes a debut with a new and trendy line to fight off the young designers who degrade him. Emily plans this debut in the venue of Grey Space, and, as a fashion enthusiast, I was more than ready to see something this thoughtful to finally pop up in the show. To my surprise, the line was a complete replica of Victor and Rolf’s 2019 Spring/Summer slogan dresses. This hugely overshadowed the evolving idea of fashion and style in French culture. If they were going with such a nuanced idea, the least they could do was to produce original pieces and shake off the fashion world just as “Sex and the City” did.

In all seriousness, “Emily in Paris” was far from “Sex and the City” — not only for its chaotic fashion choices but in general. “Sex and the City” managed to make a deep and detailed analysis of American society, relationships, feelings and gender dynamics. After such a thoughtful commentary, “Emily in Paris” falls below many of our expectations.

Coming to the U.S. from Turkey approximately a month ago, I am still experiencing the infamous culture shock, so I know what moving to a different country really feels like. Even though I came here all alone and handled any possible problem you might think of on my own, I wasn’t as dramatic as Emily when it came to cultural differences. After seeing Emily judging her coworkers about their behavior towards her, even I — just an avid admirer of the French culture — felt kind of insulted.

For me, the issue revolves outside of Emily as a character. In her essence, she is relatable and fun and has arrived at Paris with an excitement and positivity that I would probably also have. Her culture sometimes understandably clashes with the French but the script problematically handles this cultural conflict. It puts Emily in a know-it-all persona who makes immoral decisions and judgements about nearly everything French. It is like Emily in Wonderland gone wrong. The character and the story has so much potential for a refined display of a cultural exchange but she is stuck in the rabbit hole, unable to move deep enough to the fantasy world.

Dilge Buksur | dilge.buksur@yale.edu