Emily in Paris, Why is Your Travel Experience So White?
Updated: Jan 15
Love it or hate it, we have all heard of Netflix’s latest release “Emily in Paris” starred by British-American actress Lily Collins and created by Darren Star, the mastermind behind “Sex in the City.” I first got notice of the show after my Twitter feed got filled with mixed reviews about it. From dreamy to shitty, everyone seemed really divided for different reasons. The bad reviews were really bad and included a lack of character development and an overtly excessive number of cliches. Yet, my main concern was that once again, Netflix was giving us a white upper-middle class protagonist showing us the world through their privileged eyes.
The 10-episode season follows the expat life of Emily, a 20-something Chicago marketing executive who moves to Paris to work at a prestigious advertising firm. Despite a severe cultural clash between her and her French coworkers, throughout the show, Emily meets great friends (and lovers) who help her transition into her new life.
Emily is an entitled white American who makes little effort to learn the language and expects everyone to adapt to her. After all, she was sent by her marketing firm in Chicago to bring a fresh American perspective to the Parisian firm. By the end of the first season, she hasn’t evolved in any way and instead, it feels like everyone else just learned to deal with her. But her freedom to use Paris as her amusement park and get away with her cultural impertinence is rooted in her white American privilege.
I had the chance to be “Emily in Paris” back in 2014, when I went to spend a month in France to improve my language skills and then in 2018, when I returned for a short trip. I will never claim to know everything about France and French culture just from spending some time there as a student-tourist. Yet, I think that my experiences in the country are valid enough to talk about a show starring a foreigner, just like, me who spent a limited amount of time in France. Although most French people I interacted with were very polite, I had some instances where nonsensical and stereotypical comments about latinos were launched at me whenever I would tell them I was Peruvian. And it’s not only my experience. For many other tourists of color, especially black travelers, going abroad can be so challenging that several travel groups have created special resources to help their communities stay safe while discovering a new culture. Yes, sure, Emily had to deal with some bad comments about Americans, but those things never put her in danger or got her treated as a second-class tourist.
If you watched “Emily in Paris,” you can probably agree with me and almost all of Twitter that Mindy, a Chinese business-heiress-turned-nanny and Emily’s first friend in France, was a way more interesting character than Emily herself. Mindy’s struggle to claim her independence from her millionaire dad and leave a business empire in China to start a new life in Paris is the kind of brave and compelling stories I would love to hear more about. Netflix could have used this show as an opportunity to explore the unique experiences of a non-white person moving abroad but of course, it didn’t. After all, as Star said in an interview with the New York Times, the show was based on his own experience living in Paris (as a white American man, let’s remember that) so he tried to present the city in a manner that would encourage people to fall in love with it in the way he had.
Maybe that explains the absolute lack of diversity in the show’s representation of the French capital. “Everybody in this show is incredibly rich, there are not that many black characters, there’re absolutely no Arabs that make up a considerable proportion of the French population,” said Cambridge professor of French and Francophone history Arthur Asseraf in an interview with France 24. “This fits in the way that Americans represent France on screen, where it’s represented as an overwhelmingly white and middle-class country.” I absolutely agree, Arthur. What surprised me the most when I visited Paris was how diverse it was, because I too had been sold a white-washed version of the city through movies and the media.
So this is my final comment for Netflix and everyone else thinking of creating a show or film about traveling: we want a travel show protagonist who isn’t white, who isn’t the expression of all cliches of what it means to explore a new culture, who isn’t a static character showing no personal growth after their travel experience. We want new stories.