Hate-watch or guilty pleasure? The stereotyped nightmare of Emily in Paris

Hate-watch or guilty pleasure? The stereotyped nightmare of Emily in Paris

Yes it’s ridiculous, and yes, it’s addictive – but do we love to hate the Lily Collins vehicle… or hate that we love it?

By now, we’ve all seen the relentless roasting of Netflix’s Emily in Paris, which means, I assume, that most of us have seen the show too. I’ll admit, Emily in Paris wasn’t even on my radar until I started reading the endless listicles about how ridiculous it was. So I tuned in, “just out of curiosity”.

I proceeded to binge-watch the whole first season in a single day. If by some remote chance you live under a rock and have missed this cultural moment, a brief synopsis: the titular Emily is a young marketing ingenue sent to Paris to work for her Chicago company’s recently acquired French marketing agency. Along the way she gets into various professional and personal high jinks whilst wearing a truly inexplicable amount of Chanel (seriously Emily, how do you afford it? How?). I told myself it was a hate-watch; within minutes I could see exactly why it was being so joyfully mocked all over the internet. 

Every scene looks like a living postcard

Aesthetically, Emily in Paris is like a fever dream of every single cliched idea you’ve ever had about the French capital. Nothing but gorgeous architecture, stunning views, impossibly chic citizens, buttery pastries and ‘golden hour’ lighting at every minute of the day. Emily exists in a Paris with no cheap chain supermarkets, no crammed metro, and certainly no homelessness.

Despite Paris being one of the most ethnically diverse cities in Europe, Emily also lives in a Paris almost exclusively populated by white folks. As Christelle Murhula, herself a Black women living in Paris, points out: the only PoC in Emily in Paris are a privileged Asian American woman, and Emily’s colleague Julien. His identity as a Black gay man and role as comic relief, providing nothing more than advice and acerbic quips, simply smacks of tokenism.

Then there are les parisiennes. Each one a caricature; they’re depicted as cynical, chain-smoking snobs who are either rakish, philandering and inappropriate if they’re men or bitchy, self-serving anti-feminists if they’re women.

Lastly, of course, we come to Emily herself. Oh, Emily. She’s just so easy to hate. She tries far too hard at literally everything except, ironically, learning French (for which, even more irritatingly, she is praised after learning ‘comment ça va?’ by the end of the series. Really Emily? It took you ten episodes to learn that?). Her refusal to stand up to her vitriolic boss, though I assume intended to depict her plucky, American optimism and can-do attitude, makes her appear utterly oblivious at best, and at worst like a spineless doormat with no self-respect.

She exhibits an oxymoronic combination of wide-eyed prudishness and reckless sexual abandon, throwing herself into ill-advised flings and one-night stands without hesitation. She clutches her pearls at the thought of her boss having an affair with a married man, but just a few episodes later makes out with her friend’s boyfriend and sleeps with a seventeen year old! Oh yeah, that – there’s an entire episode which revolves around a plot line whereby Emily is taken on a very nice weekend away to Champagne with a view to courting some business, and whilst there gets drunk and takes advantage of the vineyard-owner’s underage son. It’s played off as a hilarious faux pas; but it just rings distasteful.

There’s also a liberal, though subtle, dose of good old-fashioned American pride woven throughout, which isn’t uncommon in US movies and TV shows but certainly grates on UK audiences (for example, Emily’s aforementioned relentlessly chipper attitude and ready, snow-white smile). Where the French are all portrayed as miserable self-loathing nicotine addicts, Emily eagerly professes her love for work and “sense of accomplishment”; she’s even happy after stepping in dog sh*t. She’s been sent to the French office to give an ‘American perspective’, and, lo and behold, becomes the darling of the company, seducing top brands with her marketing savvy.

Given all of the above, it’s obvious why Emily in Paris is such an easy target for mockery and memes. But whether you’re hate-watching or not; you’re still watching. Emily in Paris has been consistently in Netflix’s Top 10 since it was released on the streaming service in October.

So, what exactly is the point of watching something just to hate on it?

It’s not a new concept. I guarantee we’re all guilty of occasionally ‘hate-stalking’ people on Instagram; scrolling through their feed making snide comments, maybe DMing a post to a friend to make fun of. But why do we do it? It’s not kind, it’s not progressive – but it is human to elevate one’s own self esteem by belittling others.

It takes a lot of energy and effort to truly work on being positive, confident and self-affirming on a daily basis; some days, it’s just easier to swipe at some low-hanging fruit. After a year as emotionally draining as this one, I’ll shamefully admit it’s cathartic to feel superior (even if it is to a fictional social media manager).

In this sense, Emily in Paris could almost be considered a public service. Generous, really, that Netflix would deliver unto us essentially a 10-episode punching bag. It has been a year of anxiety, uncertainty and unrest, and it sure feels satisfying to take some of those repressed feelings out on such an easy target. While Lily Collins – who I actually find extremely likeable – has expressed dismay at the unanimous criticism of her show, it was still a huge commercial success, so we needn’t feel too bad for her. From this perspective, it feels like a victimless crime to throw some barbs at a show that in the current climate feels almost offensively frivolous.

Are we actually all just… jealous?

Maybe it’s the frivolity that’s rubbing viewers up the wrong way. Emily is free to indulge in her vacuous pursuits – but we aren’t. Is a hate-stalk/scroll/watch just a by-product of jealousy? It’s far easier to indulge in the mean-spirited joy of mocking Emily’s unrealistic ability to perpetually land on her feet than it is to confess that we’d trade places with her in a heartbeat. We’re wearing face-masks to Tesco and worrying about job security while Emily – and, by proxy, Lily Collins – ignorantly trots around Paris in couture, totally unconcerned by money, consuming nothing but baked goods and wine and licking every attractive man she comes across.

I however, suggest we trade in our jealousy for gratification, and transform Emily in Paris from ‘hate-watch’ to ‘guilty pleasure’. Despite Emily’s blandness, Collins herself is cute and genuine; and undeniably, every episode is just sumptuous to look at. Patricia Field’s masterful, if somewhat contrived, styling against the backdrop of Paris’s most picturesque spots and a cast comprised exclusively of the beautiful and stylish is an intoxicating aesthetic . It might make me a ringarde b*tch, but I’m not above switching off my brain for five hours and just enjoying the spectacle of what is basically a Vogue shoot come to life on the Parisian streets. At face value, programmes like this are little more than kid’s TV for adults – just look at the pretty colours and the lovely outfits. I suspect that this might be why many of us are saying we’re ‘hate-watching’. It’s far less embarrassing than admitting we actually enjoyed something so utterly vapid.

Evidently, a show we love to hate (or hate to love) does have value. Similar to dangling a string for a cat: here, release your vitriol on this completely inconsequential object. It’s not like seething over real-world issues – there’s no undercurrent of panic. Raging at something meaningless, without consequences, is like howling at the moon: a release. That probably wasn’t the aim, making the show, but don’t feel too bad Lily – we’ll all still be back for season two.

Image courtesy of Ruthdrawsthings