Last night, the algorithm that had been ruling my life blew up when, against all the rules of data science, I decided to watch “Emily in Paris” on Netflix.
The elevator pitch is an ode to recycling: American girl’s dream of living in picture-postcard Paris meets the reality of culture clash as her can-do American attitude is no match for cynical Parisians and the city’s codified culture.
Been there, watched that…but this latest installment of Aesop’s eternal fable of the reed that bends in the wind and does not break is irresistible. There is something eminently watchable about someone learning to bend. Especially with Paris playing the wind.
Created by Darren Star of Sex and the City fame, the series showcases a hyper-idealized Paris, where nobody takes the metro, everyone has a great apartment, and stilettos are the footwear of choice for cobblestone streets. Dog shit, nasty concierges, bad plumbing, and people blowing smoke in your face are de rigueur. And thankfully, central casting can always be relied upon to provide a downstairs neighbor who’s a sexy chef, ready to whip up omelettes at midnight.
Given that Emily in Paris is not even trying to represent the reality of living in Paris, blowback was inevitable. What a reality show version would look like is already inspiring hilarious memes, starting with ‘Emily takes line 13’ (the most loathsome, crowded and dysfunctional metro line of all). An endless thread could ensue with ‘Emily gets her bike stolen’, ‘Emily gets tear-gassed in a manif’, ‘Emily has to apply for a Carte de Séjour à la Préfecture’. Alas the documentary version will have to wait. Pandemic oblige, it’s escapism we yearn for…
Truth be told, despite the 10 car pile-up of cringe-worthy clichés, many aspects of this story did resonate with my own experience and I found myself binge-watching all 10 episodes until 3 am.
Emily is parachuted into Paris to work for a boutique luxury marketing firm that has just been bought by the company she works for in Chicago. The plot revolves around her trials and tribulations as the American rookie in the Paris office. Emily’s efforts to meet her bitchy boss’ impossible expectations are a carbon copy of “The Devil Wears Prada” – plus cigarette smoke.
But the real star of the series is Instagram. Emily is a social media whiz kid, who uses Instagram likes to launch her career as an influencer in Paris. That the French are portrayed as social media dinosaurs who have yet to wield the power of the hashtag is, of course, nonsense. While the Old World vs New World trope is a little frayed at the edges by now, the cultural divides remain. If, as the oft repeated saying goes, the “Amercians live to work and the French work to live,” then Emily lives to work Instagram, posting compulsory duckface selfies with her morning pain au chocolat.
One of the show’s best moments is a send up of the Influencer phenomenon, living off freebies from brands in exchange for a plug. Emily’s Insta-instinct gains her colleague’s respect when one of her memes (Le vagin n’est pas maculin! posted as a vaginal lubricant promo) is shared by Brigitte Macron. Coup after coup eventually garners the grudging recognition of her bitchy boss.
Played with blasé aplomb by Philippine Leroy Beaulieu, the character of Sylvie Grateau is reminiscent of a generation of French women who refute feminism as a boring kill-joy, relying instead on their feminine wiles to play the game. Turning down yet another one of Emily’s invitations for a “girl’s lunch” with a cold “get out of my office,” she goes on to deliver the most astute appraisal of why striking up a friendship with expats is a waste of time: “You come to Paris. You walk into my office. You don’t even bother to learn the language. You treat the city like it’s your amusement park. And after a year of food, sex, wine and maybe some culture, you’ll go back to where you came from.”
Having worked for 20 years for an international advertising agency with a head office in Chicago, I welcomed a steady stream of Emilys over the years. Each one wanting to live their Paris fantasy fueled by Sancerre, macarons, and Michelin stars. Each one confronting their American professional and political correctness with an office culture with very different boundaries, processes and rules.
Each one, after the inevitable linguistic gaffes, gave up the semblance of learning French. Living in the expat bubble and working on international accounts put a damper on the necessity to do so. However, unlike the office hazing the series depicts, our Emilys were welcomed enthusiastically, and with nary a cold shoulder in sight, swept up into wild after-hour staff parties et plus si affinités.
Like Aesop’s reeds in the wind, they did bend with time. And after their assignments came to an end, I always wondered whether it wasn’t even harder for them to revert back to their old ways upon re-entry to the Chicago office. Hell would have to freeze over before a male colleague would lick spilt champagne off their forearm in public back home. “Sexy or sexist?” as Emily would ask.
Happily, what happens in Paris, stays in Paris…
Lorraine Chesterman Holl is a Canadian freelance writer who has lived in Paris for 27 years. She has an extensive experience in advertising, having worked as a Creative Director for international agency networks, both in Canada and in France.
Lorraine Chesterman Holl @morvan_forever