Recently, American feminist writer Roxane Gay tweeted: “Because of my mother we are Emily in Paris watching. It’s a cute show.”
Provocation! She couldn’t be serious, barked Twitter – the Netflix series about the adventures of a young American who is seconded to a marketing company in Paris, is full of clichés about Paris and the French. It’s all too beautiful: breathtaking pictures of Paris, haute couture everywhere, beautiful people. Just fantastic food. And only good sex.
Emily’s job is to promote expensive suitcases, restaurants, fashion brands and champagne, she is addicted to social media. When something isn’t posted on Instagram, it hasn’t happened.
Where were the slums, asked the haters, the unaffordable housing, the street garbage, the beggars and the homeless? Where were the traffic jams, the polluted air? And, although it featured a single black and Asian character, where were the French of North African descent? This isn’t France, French critics shouted as the first series streamed. We don’t start work at 11 in the morning at all! If you think life in Paris is like this, exclaimed American expats who could know, you really haven’t got it.
Like Roxane Gay, the audience is not worried: even here in France, despite all the scorn, the second season of Emily in Paris in the top ten most-streamed Netflix shows for weeks. There are two more series to come. A guilty pleasure, fans call their weakness for Emily in Parissomething you should be ashamed of. Understandable, because just about every pleasure these days is permeated with guilt. There is almost always a dark side: we know too much, we are aware. We know who is suffocating our expensive designer clothes, we know our CO2-footprint. We cannot close our eyes to privilege, inequality, lack of representation. With almost everything you do, you wonder whether it is responsible. And whether you can justify it to others.
Pleasure is almost always guilty.
Once when I was having a cocktail with a young artist in Paris in the famous Harry’s Bar, his face immediately darkened when he saw the plastic straw in his glass. He went to return it neatly to the bar.
Not in Emily in Paris.
Why Does Emily in Paris Make People So Mad?, headlined Variety last month. My answer: because it is shamelessly cheerful. The well-known stereotypes about Paris and the French – addicted to romance, luxury and sex, comically convinced of the superiority of their own culture, rigidly clinging to traditions and habits – are not nuanced, but appetizingly enlarged. No action by any character has social consequences. Life itself does not leave deep traces, everything is light and airy. Emily’s biggest problem is that she’s had (fantastic) sex with her best French friend’s wildly attractive boyfriend.
France may be hautainly traditional, but the French have kept their souls, that is the message, their deep-rooted love for pure enjoyment, of food, beauty, love. The French themselves are slightly bizarre, and not at all pragmatic, but they are enviably authentic.
Ironically, it is precisely this authenticity that keeps many French people from sleeping. The cheerful, romantic France image of Emily in Paris is in stark contrast to the endlessly nagging declinism of writers such as Michel Houellebecq and national populists such as presidential candidate Éric Zemmour, the swampy narrative that France, through immigration, Europe and wokisme is losing – or has actually already lost – his soul. The electoral rhetoric on the right – and the left hardly seems to play a role – is obsessed with national decay, threatened identity. Everything in the present contrasts horribly with the glorious past.
And everything is seen as a writing on the wall. When a vandal on January 5 in the basilica of Saint-Denis, where the French kings are buried, smashed some display cases and knocked over three statues (plaster copies of little value), Zemmour tweeted about the perpetrator: “It’s not about only for a plunder of masterpieces of sacred art: he has wounded the hearts of countless who love our civilization. He is barbarism, our nemesis. We are the answer and we will show ourselves irreconcilable.”
Two images of the same country, one from the outside and one from the inside. Two fantasies, one absurdly lighthearted and romantic, the other just dark and evil.
Midway through the second season, Emily must defend her romantic view of Paris against an English boy who finds the city’s image grossly overrated, dog poop everywhere, overpriced restaurants and tourist traps. It’s all fantasy, he says.
Emily doesn’t flinch: “I think it all depends on how you want to look at it.”
It’s a cute show.
This is the first episode of ‘Uit Parijs’, a column in which Bas Heijne writes about France and the world from Paris.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC on the morning of January 14, 2022