Entertainment

'Emily in Paris' Captures the Worst of American White Girls Abroad

Darren Star did this before on 'Sex and the City.' Why is he so obsessed with entitled white women acting grossed out by other cultures?
Alex Zaragoza
Brooklyn, US
October 14, 2020, 8:29pm
Emily in Paris
Credit: Stephanie Branchu/Netflix

It's been far too long since the internet has come together to collectively and obsessively dunk on a piece of pop culture. Think of the fun that was had over the online massacre of Cats. Thankfully Netflix has gifted us with a new dunk darling with Emily in Paris, a series so ridiculous, casually boring, and out of the realm of reality that it makes it the perfect show for this exact type of viewing.

In the series by Sex and the City creator Darren Star, Lily Collins plays the titular character, who works as a social media editor at a fancy luxury marketing firm in Paris. It's a job she's pretty terrible at, but she's plucky, conventionally pretty (read: thin, white, and able-bodied), proudly basic, and has the crazed positivity of a bulging-eyed spin instructor. It's a lot, but the series wants viewers to root for her and believe that her extremely hot French neighbor would risk it all with his beautiful, kind, AND rich girlfriend for a shot at Emily's Midwestern meh (an insult to all the hot, dope Midwesterners out there). Emily in Paris is undoubtedly the spiritual kid sister to Sex and the City, with spunky designer Patricia Field costuming included. While online critics have rightfully clowned on the show, Emily's overall mediocrity, its laughably unrealistic portrayal of Paris and social media, and Emily's failure to just get with both hot-ass Gabriel and hot-ass Camille (It's right there! Everyone just kiss each other!), Emily in Paris gets one thing right: American white women behaving like assholes in foreign countries. This is a familiar trope in Darren Star's canon.

Emily comes to France knowing zero French and to bring "an American perspective" to the marketing firm her company back home in Chicago has acquired. When her boss and colleagues regularly reject her perspective, Emily proves them wrong time and again in a manner that flexes her American know-how compared to what’s depicted as their foreign ignorance and close-mindedness.

She scoffs at what she considers "weird" customs, which include but are not limited to smoking, work-life balance, customer service, how floors are numbered in walk-ups, open marriage, and casual sex. In episode 2, in which Emily goes viral for saying the indefinite article for the word "vagina" should be feminine as opposed to a masculine, per the language's standard (J.K. Rowling must've loved this one), her newfound friend Mindy asks her, "You think you're going to change the entire French culture by sending back a steak?" after she tries to send back her lunch for not being cooked to her specifications. Apparently yes, Emily does think she can change France by being a pushy American with a penchant for charred meat and le transphobique beliefs on the vagina. When she meets a fellow ex-pat, they are excited to eat a cheeseburger at Ralph Lauren's restaurant where employees aren't allowed to speak anything other than English. They giggle gleefully about workers in France being forced to stick to English. It's American imperialism rebranded as endearing.

Star certainly has gotten into the same othering storylines in his past work, specifically on the Sex and the City series and the SATC movies. Let's not forget SATC heroine Carrie Bradshaw spent a Sad Girl Season in Paris, where she struggled as an American girl with a shitty boyfriend away from her friends. He seems to love putting privileged white women with minimal problems in the City of Lights, and in the case of Emily in Paris, it's as though Star decided to take the most rigid character in SATC (Charlotte) and create an entire series around her pushy romps through Paris.

Recall in the first SATC movie, Charlotte refuses to eat any food while the ladies are on Carrie's honeymoon in Mexico out of fear of the icky Mexican food giving her explosive diarrhea, choosing to instead eat endless chocolate pudding packs the entire trip until she ends up shitting her pants after letting a bit of shower water get in her mouth. First of all, hahahahahahahaha. Second of all, that's not the only place where the white gaze and offensive attitudes have reared their ugly head in SATC. Sex and the City 2 was an absolute racist mess with blatant anti-Muslim jokes and Samantha saying the utterly cringe-worthy line, "Lawrence of my labia." Star really doesn't have a high opinion, or actual knowledge, of foreign countries, it would seem, choosing instead to have his white protagonists be outwardly offensive, belittling, or ignorant to other cultures. That’s not to say we can’t be fascinated by or question cultures outside of our own, especially if there are traditions or beliefs that are harmful to marginalized people within it. But while doing that, it’s essential to maintain the awareness that American culture is most definitely not the standard to aspire to—and to mind your own goddamn business sometimes.

While watching Emily in Paris I was reminded of another fish-out-of-water show that, like the Netflix series, I love because it's so bad and devoid of reality: Hart of Dixie. The former CW drama (it ended in 2015) stars Rachel Bilson as Dr. Zoe Hart, a brilliant surgeon from New York who moves to the quirky fictional small town of Bluebell, Alabama. In Bluebell, the problems are inconsequential and fixed through adorable hijinks carried out by the finely dressed ladies and rough-and-tumble Southern boys that call the town home, and the protagonist works in a profession she does not appear to be very skilled at. Zoe has to work hard to earn the town's trust, which doesn't come easily when she turns her nose up at some of their customs and, well, breaks up an engagement. Like with Emily in Paris, it was hard not to love and simultaneously dunk on a show that distorts a place into a Disney-fied version of its true self and creates silly problems for its characters. It's pure escapism and also a chance to laugh at something that has no effect on our real lives, which is so desperately needed in times like these.

But the fish-out-of-water narrative can swerve into questionable and often offensive territory when racist jokes or erasure of the harsh realities faced by marginalized people come into play. In Hart of Dixie, there's an underlying erasure of racism in Alabama (not sure if you've heard but it has a pretty deep and ongoing history of racism), which the series vaguely alludes to under the guise of the football rivalry between the University of Alabama and Auburn University.

Growing up in Mexico, I knew all too well the ways in which Americans often expect the world to cater to their needs, tastes, and conventions. The icked out stares at our food or the way in which a tradition or celebration is referred to as "insane" or "weird" is a way to enforce American whiteness as the standard we should all aspire to, even if we have no interest in doing so. I've been in airports in different countries where I've overheard angry Americans yell about no one speaking English, or at restaurants abroad where they complain about the menu options being "gross-sounding" or, again, "weird," a common term in these situations. Emily seems to not understand that she's in another country that has its own customs and traditions that may be different from what she's used to. Why leave the United States if what you want is everywhere to be just like the United States?

While there's fun to be had watching Miss Emily Cooper bed a teenager (yes, this happens) and hashtag take Paris by more drizzle than storm, it's also a reminder that Americans shouldn't get to dictate the way other cultures work. And that the American white girl gaze is not interesting or cute by today's viewing standards.

Alex Zaragoza is a Senior Staff Writer at VICE. She’s on Twiiter.