American Values Go to Paris

October 8, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Emily in Paris,” the new show on Netflix, would seem to be a promo for Paris — the food, the clothes, the architecture, the romance. Yes, all those are on display, But the show, despite its setting or maybe because of it, also comes across as an advertisement for American culture,

The premise is this: twentysomething Emily, though she speaks no French, is sent by her marketing firm to Paris to work with their French affiliate.  The people in the Paris office are dubious about this new addition to their staff. They dismiss her as “la plouc” (translated as “the hick”). They aren’t exactly welcoming. They more or less exclude her, hoping that she will give up, stop bothering them with her ideas, and go back to Chicago.

You know what’s going to happen. Emily, through pluck, determination, and ability, will succeed and win their grudging admiration. The first of what will probably be many such predictable moments comes early — in Episode 2 — setting Emily and her approach to marketing based on social media against the French, who the prefer more traditional milieux. They relegate her to an unglamorous account (Vaga-Jeune, a lubricant for post-menopausal women), and socially they all separately turn down her invitations to lunch, each claiming some other engagement.

Then, as the four of them are at lunch together, they get word that Emily’s Instagram post about Vaga-Jeune, posted barely an hour earlier, has just been reposted by Brigitte Macron.

When the victorious Emily happens by, they now call her over to join them.

It’s only a brief plot line, but it seems designed to demonstrate the superiority of many elements of American culture. It’s not just the triumph of the American embrace of Change, Newness, and Progress. Emily succeeds also because she can’t be bothered with office hierarchy. She does not bother to even show her Instagram idea to her bosses let alone ask for their approval or advice.

There’s also the value on work. As one of her French colleagues observes to her, Americans live to work, the French work to live. So later in the episode, we see Emily, working at her desk while her French colleagues take a long lunch. And a few minutes later, she has her reward — the approval of the France’s first lady and some great publicity for the client.

Even the language of Emily’s culture is superior to French with its gendered nouns. The great success of her Instagram post comes from her pointing out the seeming contradiction of le vagin, a grammatically masculine noun for an anatomically feminine body part. And of course, since this is an American show, the French, from President Macron’s wife on down, are grateful to be shown the error of their linguistic ways.

It’s not hard to imagine how things would go if the French rather than Americans were writing the script. Emily’s ignorance and arrogance would be annoying, not charming and would lead to disaster rather than success. Perhaps French writers would not give her colleagues who understand every word of her rapidly spoken colloquial American English. Perhaps her inability to understand French would cause real problems, not just cute ones. Her Instagram posts, rather than bringing instant success, would commit cultural gaffes that damaged the brand.

But this is a show by created by Americans and for Americans.

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