There’s more to Paris than a cliché filmset

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A term coined in the 1980s by Japanese psychiatrist Dr Hiroaki Ota, ‘Paris Syndrome’ is said to affect up to 20 Japanese tourists a year. What’s ‘Paris Syndrome’, I hear you ask? It is a physical reaction to the disappointment some tourists face on arriving in Paris – a disappointment so violent that it can induce anything from hallucinations to outright vomiting. The only cure is to leave the French capital and never return.

I imagine that there may be a wave of ‘Paris Syndrome’ across the English-speaking world after the release of Darren Starr’s latest rom-com series on Netflix, Emily in Paris. Lily Collins’ Chicago-born Emily takes on a job in Paris last-minute and the series follows her supposedly witty and charming faux pas’, which include not speaking French, knowing very little to nothing about French culture and expecting to succeed in her work and social life solely through being either cute, American, or both.

It has attracted widespread criticism for its stereotypical view of French and Parisienne society. The women are snobby, rude and effortlessly stylish and the men are constantly flirty to the extent of sexual obsession. Paris is reduced to a series of landmarks, museums and cafes, with a population that seems to be over 99 per cent white.

Television series have a long and storied history of entrenching stereotypes which are damaging to the people or places they represent

Having said this, I must admit that I find most of these criticisms to be frankly ridiculous. It’s a Darren Starr rom-com, not a Michael Moore exposé into the dark realities of life in the French capital. That’s the same Darren Starr who wrote Sex and the City, which last time I checked was not famed for its realistic and fair depiction of New York. The show views Paris through Emily’s laughably limited and rose-tinted American lens. She believes all her problems can be solved with a flutter of the eyelids and a can-do attitude. To anyone with an ounce of critical reasoning ability, she’s left looking just as bad as her French counterparts – ignorant to their culture, naïve to her own ignorance and fundamentally boring. There’s even her nanny friend, Mindy (Ashley Park), on hand to throw in constant stereotypes about life in China.

The problematic part of Emily in Paris is the whitewashing of a city known for its refreshing diversity. Only one character of French origin is from a BAME background and in the scenes where the Parisienne public are depicted, there is normally a sea of white faces. I was lucky enough to be in Paris two weeks ago and this really could not be further from the reality of Paris – a truly cohesive mixture of ethnic backgrounds and cultural stories.

As is often seen, reductive stereotypes in popular television can have a cutting effect on the people or place its portraying. Realistically, this whitewashing of Paris is more lazy writing and ignorance from Starr than genuine racial malice. It is also unlikely to have any lasting cultural effect on people’s view of Paris or its diversity – it is a show that is almost impossible to take seriously.

Hari Kondabolu’s The Problem with Apu highlighted the genuinely detrimental effect The Simpsons character Apu had on his life and upbringing, alongside many other Southern Asian comics and actors. Hank Azaria, who recently stepped down from voicing the Indian shopkeeper Apu, has regularly admitted that the character was made as a total stereotype of Indian and Pakistani immigrants to America. Of course, a lot of characters in The Simpsons are stereotypical – but as Kondabolu points out it is the isolation of Apu as one of the only popular representations of that culture which made it so damaging. Comics like Kondabolu, as well as writers and actors like Mindy Kaling, have expanded this representation very recently, but the reductive stereotype shown through Apu damaged the up bringings of an entire generation of Indian and Pakistani immigrants to the US.

Reductive stereotyping has a damaging effect on the generations who grow up watching these films

Whilst even Alison Bechdel herself admits to not listening to it, the Bechdel Test highlights some obvious reductive stereotypes of women across film and television. The Bechdel Test looks at whether a film has two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man and a shocking number of classic and great films fail it. More than anything, it highlights the perceived vapidity and male obsession of some women in Western society, especially by male writers. Avatar and The Social Network are two recent box office hits to fail the Bechdel Test. This subtle yet obviously reductive stereotyping of women across a huge amount of films has a damaging effect on society’s perception of women and the generations who grow up watching these films.

Oscar Wilde famously wrote that, “when good Americans die, they go to Paris.” If cliché is a heavenly crime, then Darren Starr can forget the dream of an eternity by the Seine. However, whilst the writing of Emily in Paris could be considered offensively lacklustre, it lacks the substance or realism to be considered a genuine depiction of Parisienne life and as a result, offensive to the French populace. It’s Emily’s hyper-romanticised dreamworld, a world viewed with such blissful naivety and hope that in the big, bad world of 2020, it’s a real tonic. 

By the time Collins ends the first series outside a quaint café, beret clad, to the tune of Edith Piaf’s ‘Non, Je ne regrette rien’, it’s abundantly clear that this is not a show taking itself seriously. Television series have a long and storied history of entrenching stereotypes which are damaging to the people or places they represent, but Emily in Paris is simply not worth adding to this tradition.

Image: Anthony DELANOIX via Unsplash.

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