Emily Is Still in Paris. Why Are We Still Watching?
Here is one inviolable rule that I have learned governs American screens: If ever I see a young woman standing before a mirror holding a pair of scissors, it is almost always a harbinger of some unspeakable doom. Whether in comedy or in horror, this image is cinematic shorthand for when the writers want us to know that whatever this woman’s inner torment may have been in that moment, it won, obliterating her sanity and driving her to this act of assured self-destruction.
That is how we find the titular heroine of “Emily in Paris,” in the third season’s premiere: still in Paris, standing before a mirror in the middle of the night, muttering to herself before snipping off a jagged, uneven chunk of hair across her forehead. She has been jolted awake from a nightmare in which she saw herself forced to confront her deepest fear: having to make a decision on her own.
This is an existential crisis for Emily Cooper, who, before her French sojourn, was happily shilling tag lines for I.B.S. drugs in Chicago. As laid out in the series’s first season, by way of a mystifying fluke, Emily finds herself at a luxury marketing firm in Paris, going in place of her pregnant boss. (In this universe, we are to assume that this enormous company has only two employees and that corporations simply love to give unasked-for promotions to junior underlings.) She is there in Paris to provide an “American point of view,” despite not possessing much of one, beyond lovingly declaring that “the entire city looks like ‘Ratatouille.’” By the end of the first two seasons, she has conducted sanitized love affairs with a rotating cast of forgettable men and embodied a portrait of American middle-managerial insufferability specifically calculated to drive her Parisian co-workers and watchers of the show equally apoplectic.
The show’s second season ends on a low-stakes cliffhanger that kept unwilling “Emily in Paris” hostages like me (I cannot in all honesty call us “fans”) on begrudging tenterhooks for a year: Will Emily choose the safety of a big corporation and stick with Madeline, her mentor from Chicago, an ur-girlboss of corporate marketing who is obnoxiously secure in her American basicness and a cartoonish portrait of who Emily might become two decades from now? Or will she defect and join the marketing coup being staged by Sylvie, the abrasive yet terrifyingly magnetic Frenchwoman whose approval Emily has spent the past two seasons trying to win with an almost-feral desperation?
For the pugnaciously good-humored Emily, whose sole defining characteristic so far has been her geniality (even being called an “illiterate sociopath” by her former friend barely made a dent in her sunniness), this outer turbulence has forced her to exhibit signs of an inner life for the first time in the show’s run. For once, Emily is visibly shaken. And in the time-honored tradition of one-dimensional screen heroines who came before her, Emily has commenced yet another season-long course of causing unintentional catastrophes with the only act of intention seen from her so far: the guillotining of her own bangs.
When the first season of “Emily in Paris” debuted on Netflix in October 2020, it was widely mocked and near-universally reviled in both nations for an abundance of reasons. There was the literalism of its construct. (There is truly nothing more to it than here is Emily, who is in Paris.) There was the egregiously loud costuming. (What sort of corporate culture in France allows for bucket hats to be worn at an office, and why is Emily in possession of so many of them?) Then there were the characters, a buffoonish assemblage of dated stereotypes that managed to offend both the Americans and the French.
But despite its utter frictionlessness or perhaps because of it, the compulsively hate-watchable show became a phenomenon.
I began watching this show out of the crudest form of identitarian loyalty, because I harbor an unshakable sympathy for any youngish woman (even fictional; even if she wears bucket hats) whose profession (like mine) requires using the word “social” as a noun with a straight face. Far be it from me to demand interiority from rom-com ingénues experiencing character development for the first time, but watching Emily utter marketing argot like “corporate commandments” and breezily brush off every cruel joke about her dimwittedness left me wondering: Does this show want me to laugh at Emily for the particular brand of sincere, millennial smarm she represents? Or am I meant to cheer at her (very American) refusal to change, no matter what her travails in Paris put her through?
In both literature and cinema, Paris has long been the milieu in which to place a certain class of mordantly restless, cosmopolitan and upwardly mobile white American woman, who finds herself in the city (often fruitlessly) chasing things her homeland has denied her: a renewed sense of self after heartbreak; liberation (both sexual and intellectual); sometimes adventure; occasionally adultery. Paris harbored Edith Wharton’s Countess Olenska when the insipid society gentleman she fell in love with hadn’t the spine or the stomach to claim their life together. In her memoir, “My Life in France,” Julia Child recalls arriving in Paris still a “rather loud and unserious Californian,” and how it was the city, along with her beloved husband, Paul, that molded her into the woman the world got to know. Paris was where Carrie Bradshaw, perpetually in love with the idea of love, finally realized that maybe all it did was make her more miserable. Emily Cooper, however, is not one of these women. To say she is chasing anything (except perhaps a steady stream of head pats of approval from her bosses) would be ascribing too much agency, with which even her creators have not dignified her.
In 1919, when Wharton, herself an expatriate in Paris, wrote that “compared with the women of France, the average American woman is still in the kindergarten,” she might as well have been talking about Emily, whose stock-in-trade is a unique brand of empty infantilism. Nowhere is this more evident than in the way the millennial Emily Cooper seems engineered from a boomer’s nightmare of what young people today are like: indolent, addicted to their phones and obsessed with being rewarded for doing the bare minimum. The show’s architects have endowed her with what has come to be known as her generation’s worst trait: a compulsive devotion to online oversharing and the cult of manufactured relatability. But what sets Emily apart is that beneath the Bambi-like visage and the sweet ebullience lies a stark void of nothingness.
The Chekhov’s Bangs incident turns out to have only the most minor payoff later on, when for once, Emily makes a life-altering choice that of course fosters zero introspection. For a show that managed to make even the complexity and angst of infidelity as saccharine as the pain au chocolat that Emily posts on Instagram with the caption “butter+chocolate = 💓,” watching her give herself what her friend calls “trauma bangs” was about as abrupt an upping of the stakes in the Emilyverse as can be. But for those of us who’ve continued to watch, we do it despite our bewilderment — like Emily butchering her hair — even though we know it’s a mess.
Iva Dixit is a staff editor for the magazine. She last wrote a Letter of Recommendation about raw onions.
Source photographs: Stéphanie Branchu/Netflix