Dispatches from the present
Paris is not a very Christmasy city: the lights are recycled year after year and if stores even bother participating, all they do is spray-paint a few holly leaves and a “meilleurs vœux” on their windows. However, what is becoming a Christmas tradition is the new season of the Netflix show Emily in Paris—last year, the second season dropped December 22nd; this year, as billboards around the city advertised, December 21st.
Emily in Paris revolves around the eponymous Emily Cooper, an American who’s been sent to Paris to help manage the transition of her firm’s new ownership of a French marketing agency. Her new workplace finds her gauche and too eager—showing up at work before 9 a.m.—and far too productive by French standards. Yet she lives a rather idyllic life in an apartment in the well-to-do fifth arrondissement, where she happens to be neighbors with a handsome chef, Gabriel. For the whole first season, she doesn’t speak a word of French; in the second, she starts attending class, but is still rather terrible.
It is true the French watch it: on Christmas last year, when I was on a train back to Paris, one French girl had it playing on her phone. Of course, Netflix is extremely dominant here. Today, it is one of the leading ways French people learn about American culture— considering Netflix’s dominance in France’s streaming market, and the fact that most young people don’t bother with network TV. As Netflix has multilingual captions, it is more useful for language learners than YouTube and TikTok, so has contributed strongly to the younger generations’ sounding American in English (before the intense globalization and English-language dominance of the past decade or two, French English-speakers were mainly moneyed, with connections to London and posh British accents).
These past few years, Paris has become more English-friendly. In 2019, when I first visited, I was left to founder about with my Duolingo French. Then, just over a year ago, I moved here on a whim—Paris was next on my list of cities to live in; I was barely able to communicate with bakery staff but capable of very slowly reading haute littérature. The reality is that living here with little or no French is very doable—there’ll be someone with, at least, basic English around—and this growing anglicization is what makes Emily in Paris plausible, even if some of us wish for the days when everyone would refuse to speak English. It is only because France has gotten more accommodating to English speakers that Emily could become friendly (or more) with a string of Parisian men. Even workplaces allow English-speakers—for the French, it’s often easier to speak in English than to struggle to overcome a language barrier; many Parisian workplaces are so multicultural English is now the easiest lingua franca.
Conversations among expats here always revert to the same topics: learning the French language, real estate and visas. It is that Emily has skated by on all three that really angers expats: They have had to blankly say oui to shopkeepers and hope for the best; they almost certainly cannot afford an apartment in the fifth arrondissement, where Emily lives; visa renewal is a black hole of bureaucracy for all of us, whether that’s bending a talent visa to be able to teach for money, or getting the right “show money” documents in order, or making sure you get a job within a year of graduation so that you can stay. In Emily’s world, everything just happens, where all her problems are due to having too many options: Two gorgeous men after her, two good job offers, too many outrageously expensive and loud designer-label clothes that she puts together like a five-year-old who’s obsessed with having every color showing whenever possible.
This season, Emily goes through a (rather minor) visa kerfuffle: no longer supported by her American firm, it is up to her new workplace to fill out the paperwork to hire her, which includes demonstrating why it has been impossible to find anyone else within not just France, but the European Union, who could do the job (and wouldn’t need the visa). She lucks out by landing on “la liste,” a made-up list of up-and-comers in the very real M Le Mag, the style magazine supplement to the highly prestigious Le Monde newspaper (its American equivalent would be T Magazine), and this justifies her hiring. This was good fortune in various other ways: it turns out the journalist in charge of the list is Australian, which, while her boss thinks is some sort of anglophone collusion, has some merit in that French print journalists still view social media with some disdain; that it was physically printed, as the French still very much value hard-copy publications over digitally native media; that Emily never really all that worried about getting the visa in the first place.
Parisians largely view Emily in Paris as a bit of American folly. Besides the cultural practice of taking lunch breaks outside one’s office, not much in the show is relatable to most: they’re not going to galas or gallery openings or luxury-brand activations. When trying to present French-person storylines, even though they are now speaking in French to each other more (though not all the time), the new B-storylines—Emily’s boss Sylvie setting out on her own in business and Gabriel and Camille’s relationship issues—remain very much in the background in a How to Write Sitcoms for Dummies way. The show removes all the gritty realities of Paris—which creator Darren Star also did with New York in Sex and the City and Younger. After protests over the racist murder in the Kurdish cultural center, where a car was overturned, internet users tweeted to ask if Emily was okay.
For those who’ve come with the goal of assimilation (well, as much as one can), Emily in Paris is a kind of anti-guidebook, a TV adaptation of everything we shouldn’t do. Yet, for many of us it is difficult, if nigh on impossible, to not find oneself living in the show. I once passed through the Marché d’Aligre (where Emily shops for produce with Gabriel in the second season, even though he could just order through the restaurant, not to mention the fact they live on the other side of the river); I’ve unintentionally walked through the courtyard that serves as her office’s exterior; I may not have gone to a party on a bateau mouche sponsored by a large jewelry brand, but I went to a private party at the Petit Palais after hours, where almost all the guests were millionaires; last fashion week, I didn’t realize the Valentino show was finishing up when I was meeting a friend for coffee and got caught up in the sea of hot pink. At least I can count myself lucky in not being a woman—in their classic French ribbing way, all my female expat friends have been asked if they’re doing an Emily in Paris thing.
This is the crux of our expat unease with the show: it steals the moments of magic we dreamed about and renders them a cliché. Emily in Paris is hardly the first American show or movie to trade in postcard images of Paris, but even when we happen upon little nuggets of fantasy—like when the Eiffel Tower begins its light show while you cross Pont Neuf or when the bakery salesperson goes to get your regular order without being asked—it is hard not to wonder whether the script we’re living out is our own.