Emily in Paris Review

I loved Emily in Paris. As of writing this, I have watched it 3 times - once when it came out, once when I was very depressed and once when I contracted covid. The first time, I enjoyed it on a farcical so-bad-its-good level - laughing at its Spotify ad break soundtrack, stock photo settings, clunky fake advert campaigns and seeming misunderstanding of social media. By the third time, I realised that all those things were actually what made it a perfect TV show. Of course it would use such bland music, fake settings and corny ad copy - it's the tale of a basic bitch white girl advertising exec/influencer. Advertising is bad! Influencers do talk and look like that! Such people are usually boring! 

 

EiP faced criticism for a whitewashed city, a bland protagonist and a lack of meaningful queer characters - criticisms also lodged at its predecessor 90s-2000s female focused ensemble cast shows such as fellow Darren Star creation Sex and the City. Most contemporary shows in the vein of EiP try to fix this problem by bringing in tokenistic characters to voice words written still by predominantly white, cis, het, male writer's rooms. Rather than, god forbid, commissioning a show by a writer from an oppressed group which would centre that group's experiences. This effect is more about selling the liberal fantasy of a diverse (but still comfortably middle-class) friendship group to white straights than it is about offering representation to oppressed peoples. To further this, prescriptive teachable moments about the perceived issues of the day often get weaved artlessly into special episodes. I find this tactic patronising in the extreme. That EiP is so subtly but sneakily different in tone to these algorithmically generated shows is what I found compelling about it. EiP confounded my expectations at every turn - often doubling down on Emily's awfulness and the sickness of capitalism where other shows would offer redemption for both. It exists in the shadow world of these shows.

 

Emily spends most of her time working, unlike her predecessors whose aspirational jobs (columnist, something in fashion, something in a big office with hot people) only serve as set dressing for the real action. Those of us who bemoaned Carrie's one column a week lifestyle have been offered the workaholic Emily. The show highlights a conflict between contemporary work culture and aspirations (Emily) and the hedonism, luxury, extramarital affairs of aspirations past (fantasy Paris, Carrie's New York). EiP accurately pinpoints the influencer as the contemporary incarnation of the columnist, when many columnists today are either holdovers from the 80s or trust fund kids. This gave me a small sick thrill, thinking how many successful journalists, columnists, book deal havers boil over at the thought of being compared to an 'influencer', despite them often serving the same purpose. At least Emily doesn't go on transphobic and racist rants once a week in the name of 'free speech' - she's wholly aware of her position as mere foot soldier of capital. Her 'feminism' is an exploitable resource, and she admits it - unlike certain terfy cis women columnists we could name. Such women perish to imagine themselves as basic, conformist and boring like Emily so adopt a pretense of generalised nastiness which, they tell their hubbies over supper, is 'punk'.

 

There's not much point me trying to pin down exactly what it is that kept me coming back to Emily in Paris, you either like it or you don't. Instead I'm going to think about what the show would've been like had it both tried to do diversity and acknowledged the current trend of 'woke wash' advertising. Such advertising highlights an odd situation where our alleged free press can look, on a shallow surface level, like it lags behind the advertising which funds it on many social issues. Emily thankfully never quite brings Sylvie's luxury ad company to this level - yet. But what if she had?

 

Emily gets waylaid by gilets jaune on her (incredibly short) walk to work. She locks eyes with a handsome protestor and he gives her a yellow hi-vis. Emily, inspired, sprays 'Pierre Cardin' on it. The runway show is a great success! Next, Emily recruits a social media savvy refugee as an intern. He (also hot) tells her about his lack of rights compared to hers as an American expat. She uses his words for a Champagne advert. He disappears after his 2 episode arc. Darren Star does televisual political lesbianism on Emily and she hooks up with her bestie. She bases her vaginal cream advert on the experience. Emily files a sexual harassment claim against the client who sent her underwear a la Ally McBeal and wins, no NDA, no public smear campaign. She gives a great speech about, err, feminism, which is later used for the perfume ad of the company which was run by the harasser.

 

Some of these ideas are plausible, some are not: in another show they would've been used to redeem Emily and by extension her work. It seems to me that Darren Star avoided this tactic because of a growing backlash against such piecemeal inclusion, as well as a seperate but not unrelated backlash to the backlash against Karens, basic bitches etc. perhaps typified by the 'Christian Girl Autumn' saga. To me, it's a savvy choice. Most of the people I saw hate-enjoying and referencing EiP were those who had little to no relation to Emily's experience, while those who had the energy to be that bothered by it had the most in common with her. White cis het professional middle class women are used to being portrayed as at least somewhat interesting, complex and funny: historically acheived through writing by gay guys and the bolstering of a black/poc/gay best friend, now acheived by self-consciously 'messy' white rich lady writers like Phoebe Waller Bridge or Lena Dunham. I wonder if it's this - being portrayed, realistically, as basic - which bothers them more so than the political critiques. To me, it was quite delicious to watch a show where a woman like Emily was so shallow - these are the kind of women who expect sympathy for misgendering me, who see you as a resource to be plundered, all the while wearing the drag of a 'down' 'ally'.

 

At the end of the day Emily in Paris is a piece of fluff entertainment which doesn't particularly warrant such close readings, even this one! Why we would expect any better from a show like this is beyond me. It's fun to hate on something, and it certainly gets more clicks, but that energy could perhaps be better spent by paying closer attention to alternative works made by those marginalised in the industry. The style of Emily in Paris reminded me quite a bit of a web series, of which many exist free to view online made by and starring oppressed peoples. I don't think all of them are great, (except Caleb Giallo which surely has far more lasting cultural impact than Emily could hope for) but they certainly fill an Emily in Paris type hole in my brain.

 

I wouldn't want to be included in Emily's world any more than I would actually be able to get a well paid job at an advertising agency. Trans and POC influencers exist, but they are hardly the majority or the most successful - and many seem far less likely to be able to parlay that skill into a stable job like Emily does. Gender neutral intersectional queer inclusive capitalism is a marketing campaign made by the Emilys of the world, it doesn’t actually exist - yet. It is a diversion tactic to stop us thinking about how class, race and gender really function, how an individual making it in the system does nothing for those who happen to share their identity. 

 

A show which depicts the titular white cis het woman protagonist as someone who scabs on her pregnant boss, undermines her colleagues by taking on extra work, throws inklings about ‘feminism’ under the bus to get ahead and runs a positive spin on excesses of wealth is much more instructive than a show where such processes are clouded by a charming subject or a romantic idea of diversity. As a culture I hope we are beginning to move beyond a simplistic influencers = annoying critique and focus on analysing the influencer economy, with its exploitation and appropriation of radical politics inbuilt, as we would any other. EiP is foremost about the workplace (one of its key plot points is about French labour laws!) and because of this it, perhaps inadvertently, provides an almost materialist analysis of the influencer economy and marketing processes which try to shape our experience of the world. 

 

Ok, I’m reaching but - not that far. In a similar vein, I do allow myself hope that Jacob Tobia's TV show gives us the non binary Emily in Paris we deserve.

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