Emily in Paris seems to be just what the doctor ordered to survive our collective quarantine. The Netflix series, which premiered in October, is escapism, pure and simple. Our heroine, Emily Cooper, wears heels while walking on cobblestones à la Taylor Swift’s “Cardigan.” She carries Chanel bags and wears the designer in practically every scene. She lives in an apartment overlooking the Eiffel Tower. At a time when most of us are confined to our homes, this idealistic vision of life abroad is not just aspirational, it’s practically impossible.
Times are tough. Why not indulge in a little “American in Paris” fantasy?
Granted, that fantasy has stepped on quite a few toes. The show has received its fair share of criticism for its French and American stereotypes. The French are portrayed as judgmental and aloof, while Emily is entirely oblivious to the local language and customs. It certainly is not a flattering picture of either culture.
But Emily in Paris does not exist to convey reality, but to distract from it. I am not going to criticize Netflix for giving us a break from the negative news cycle and letting us indulge in lighter fare. The problem is not that Emily in Paris is unrealistic. The real issue is the show’s mixed messaging on female empowerment.
An uneven take on female empowerment
In addition to being colorful and carefree, Emily in Paris wants to signal its sympathy for feminism. Yet it settles for small “victories” while ignoring big problems.
Take our main character. Emily is the quintessential #GirlBoss. She tells us repeatedly how much she loves her work, and she does not hesitate to mix business with pleasure when she invites a (cute) client to an art show with her friends. She is highly competent at her job; her boss resents her for personal, not professional, reasons. Not to mention that she has a side hustle as an up-and-coming influencer.
(On a side note, I think the writers were trying to recreate a simpler time on Instagram: The Cubs win the World Series in a late episode, which would place the show in 2016. Emily’s organic following of her adventures in Paris is reminiscent of the early days of influencer Caroline Calloway, who leveraged her picturesque surroundings at the University of Cambridge to build a brand for herself. Caroline’s brand took a hit when it was revealed that her roommate was the unpaid genius behind her signature captions, and the less flattering details of her personal life hit the tabloids. Emily’s online fame, however, comes with virtually no consequences, except a slap on the wrist from her boss for giving free publicity to a brand that is not their client.)
Is there anything wrong with having a millennial female lead that fits this stereotype? Not necessarily. However, Emily in Paris ends up replicating the problems with this limited view of women’s empowerment. For example, the only reason Emily is sent to Paris is because her former boss becomes pregnant in the opening scene. That boss disappears within the first five minutes of the show, neatly cutting her—and her child—out of the narrative. What does women’s empowerment look like for women who are starting a family? Emily in Paris does not say.
Gendered nouns are a big deal—but sexual harassment isn’t?
The issue is bigger than a blind spot for mothers. Early on in the series, Emily creates a stir on social media when she expresses her indignation that the French noun for a female reproductive organ is masculine. (Emily, still ignorant of the French language, fails to realize that all nouns in Romance languages are gendered, often arbitrarily.) Her American take gains national attention in France, increasing her company’s visibility in the process. But Emily overlooks much more serious obstacles to women’s equality in her own workplace—especially sexual harassment.
In one episode, Emily takes a #MeToo-inspired stand when she objects to a campaign built around men envisioning a woman naked. After watching a rough cut of a client’s commercial featuring an undressed model drifting past men on a bridge while they stare at her, Emily asks the client: “Whose dream is it anyway—the men or the woman’s?” In the next scene, she elaborates: “The men are objectifying her. The men have the power.” Even though Emily’s boss and their client are dismissive of her discomfort, Emily ends up being right: the company takes a Twitter poll, “sexy or sexist?” and the winner is clear. Empowerment is in, objectification is out.
However, Emily is less outspoken when it comes to sexual misconduct in her own office, which the show seems to brush off as non-issues, because c’est Paris. When a client sends her lingerie as a gift, she acknowledges it is a “problem,” which has made her uncomfortable. No one in Emily’s life takes this discomfort very seriously. Her friend Mindy even tells her to send the client—and his gifts—her way. The show later portrays the gift as a symbol of Emily’s growing self-confidence. When her co-workers draw images of male genitalia at her desk, Emily is initially taken aback. But instead of calling out the gesture for what it is—sexual harassment—she responds in kind by sending them an erotic cake.
Things take a darker turn when Emily (unknowingly) sleeps with an underage teenager. Her horror is played off as a joke. When the boy’s mother sits down for a private conversation with Emily, she only wants to know whether her son is a good lover—and whether Emily can help her vineyard unload their surplus of grapes with a creative campaign. Once again, Emily’s discomfort is played off as prudishness, and the show chooses to make fun rather than take her feelings seriously.
The show brushes of these sexual indiscretions as hang-ups Americans should let go of, while glamorizing the more sexually permissive French culture. The French are portrayed as so enamored with love, they are willing to let slide any kind of sexual indiscretion—even if it involves harassment or underage sex. Meanwhile, our American hero is written off as puritanical for being shocked by the untoward. Although the show sides with Emily when she calls out sexism in marketing, it sides against her when it comes to the sexism in Emily’s everyday life. Those stereotypes are not just offensive in and of themselves, they are enlisted to effect something even worse: undermining respect for Emily’s boundaries.
Treating exploitation and disrespect as jokes
The #MeToo movement was supposed to shine a spotlight on all the ways that women are put in compromising and exploitative positions while going about their daily lives. Emily in Paris plays off that danger and discomfort as a joke, as something that no longer threatens us if we own it. The show models a clear and unhealthy pattern. When we make fun of women for being uncomfortable with unwelcome sexual advances, women start pretending to be comfortable. They are “respected” for their lack of “prudishness”—which is actually quite disrespectful. The message sent is that if we could only learn to take the inappropriate less seriously, then we could focus on real empowerment . . . like reclaiming gendered French nouns.
The problem with Emily in Paris is not its light-hearted tone, its lavish costuming, or even its inaccurate depiction of Parisian life. The problem is that women deserve to be treated with respect, yes, even in the context of “guilty pleasure” television. Downplaying sexual harassment and non-consensual sex while criticizing the sexualization of women in media is not just a meaningless, silly script. It is more sinister than that. Adding toxic scripts to an aspirational French storyline is like adding a dose of poison to your cafe latte. If women can’t expect respectful treatment in a frothy, fun show like Emily in Paris, it leaves us with an even grimmer picture for real life.