Emily in Paris Has a Representation Problem
The new hit Netflix show is pretty freakin' white—and that's an issue
We’re heading into fall and a dreaded second wave of COVID-19 and that can only mean one thing: lots of time spent inside. And what better way to pass the time than with a frothy new TV show to binge watch? Enter: Emily in Paris. Released on October 2, the Netflix series follows Chicago native Emily Cooper, a marketing exec, as she moves to Paris for a year to help run Savoir, a Parisian marketing agency that her firm has recently acquired. The show is beautifully shot, with Lily Collins and her iconic eyebrows gallivanting around the city of lights in outfits (and questionable chapeaux) a 2020 Carrie Bradshaw would lust over, getting into romantic entanglements with hot Parisian men, racking up thousands of Instagram followers with her awkwardly angled and not that punny selfies and just generally having a picture-perfect time. In our pandemic-filled year, it’s a fun watch and in honour of full transparency, I must admit that I binged the entire season in two sittings, mostly for Emily’s ridiculously hot neighbour, chef Gabriel.
That doesn’t mean that it’s all parfait. While its critical reception has been meh, and its reception by French audiences in particular has been tepid, at best, this new guilty pleasure is easy viewing for audiences. But one thing makes it increasingly difficult to go all in. The show—which was created by producer Darren Star of Sex and the City and Younger fame—has a big representation problem. As in, for a show set in a multicultural and diverse city like Paris, Emily in Paris is pretty white. And in the words of Emily and her *very* limited French vocabulary: that is legit merde. Because whitewashing the series not only feels inauthentic to both the time we’re in and the IRL demographics of our world, but it’s also a missed opportunity to explore real social issues.
It’s Emily’s world—and that world is extremely white
From the moment that audiences are first introduced to Emily Cooper, they’re introduced to her whiteness. From Emily’s baseball-loving (soon-to-be-ex) boyfriend to her boss Madeline Wheeler (played by Kate Walsh), everyone in her orbit is white—there’s no way to sugar coat it. And this doesn’t end once she leaves Chicago. Throughout the season, Emily is surrounded by primarily white co-workers, becomes work buds with an eccentric and famous older designer (who is white), becomes romantically entangled with four separate men (all white) and is vulgarly accosted by a fifth (also just so happens to be white). Oh, and she also is sent lingerie by a client who just so happens to be her boss’s married boyfriend and also happens to be white. Notice a trend?
If Emily in Paris was your actual co-worker you'd start a whole entire anon Instagram account detailing her micro-aggressions
— amil (@amil) October 5, 2020
Which isn’t to say that there are *zero* non-white characters in Emily in Paris—but they leave a lot to be desired
To paint the Netflix series as being completely lacking in racial diversity like shows like Friends or Sex and the City would be unfair. As opposed to some of the most popular sitcoms of the 1990s, Emily in Paris does boast a *very* limited cast of non-white characters and actors, including Emily’s BFF, zipper heiress/aspiring singer/and nanny Mindy Chen (played by Ashley Park), as well as her co-worker Julien (played by Samuel Arnold). And while Park’s Mindy is a delight to watch on screen—she’s funny, has quirky style and loves a good glass of wine—she still falls into the trope that so many characters of colour, especially Black women, do in TV and film; that of a prop to serve the main protagonist, who is usually white and more often than not not that interesting. (See Blake Lively as Serena van der Woodsen and Kristen Stewart as Twilight‘s Bella Swan as examples of non-interesting women who took up more screen time than their characters merited.) And this role can take on different forms. In many cases, women of colour are used as the bestie or hype girl, serving the growth of the white protagonist. In some instances, these women of colour are pitted against white women as an alternative love interest, often used as the character that convinces the main love interest that they’re *actually* in love with said white woman. As Refinery29 Canada writer Kathleen Newman-Bremang wrote in a January 2019 article about TV’s love affair with the mediocre white woman: “Women of colour have to be exceptional just to be included, and they are still overshadowed by lead characters who are presented as stimulating just because they showed up.”
While Emily in Paris’s Mindy isn’t presented as Emily’s romantic rival, there’s no denying that her role is that of a hype girl—someone who pops in throughout the series to boost Emily’s confidence or spirits, offering sage advice over coffee or (more often than not) a morning glass of wine (this is France, after all).
Throughout the series, Mindy serves as a sounding board and guiding light for Emily, encouraging her to act on her very clearly romantic feelings towards her downstairs neighbour Gabriel (played by the insanely hot—and yes, white—Lucas Bravo), educating her on French ways (e.g. you never send food back to the kitchen for being undercooked) and helping her find her footing in this new city. And while the audience does get a small glimpse into Mindy’s world and own desires (after a failed attempt on the American Idol-esque Chinese Popstar, Mindy yearns to be a singer—a tidbit that leads to some cringe moments of public singing, despite Park’s beautiful voice), we’re really not privy to much about her. She fails to become a fully formed character and, like so many women of colour on screen, instead acts as a sort of cheerleader for Emily, encouraging her to experience life in Paris and be a bit naughty from time to time. Park herself summarized her character as such in an October 4 interview with TV Insider, saying of the relationship between Mindy and Emily: “Mindy’s purpose really is to hold up a mirror to everything that’s happening so that Emily has to reflect on things she is having problems with when she’s feeling like she needs support. Emily has a lot of flaws as well and Mindy reflects that back to her a little bit and really shines the perspective of what the audience is feeling at times.” (It’s also worth noting that while Mindy plays a Chinese woman, when Emily meets her Mindy is already quite assimilated to the white Parisian way of life. In addition, what we do learn of Mindy’s backstory seems pretty aligned with tropes about wealthy Chinese people, including when her friends visit from Shanghai for an over-the-top Bachelorette party that seems like it was plucked out of Crazy Rich Asians.)
Compared to Camille (who is, yes, white and played by French actress Camille Razat), Emily’s *other* Parisian friend who also happens to be Gabriel’s girlfriend, Mindy’s character development falls flat. From the moment audiences are introduced to Camille, she’s dynamic and given an interior life that includes conflict between her upbringing and her partner’s. While one could argue that a second season of the show would allow for a character like Mindy to be more fleshed out with her own backstory and nuance, we’ll believe it when we see it. (Also, Glee’s treatment of characters like Marley in Season 5 scarred me forever).
In addition to Mindy, other characters of colour appear on the periphery as both a co-worker, the aforementioned Julien, Emily’s chic and snarky work acquaintance and one half of a duo of French jokester colleagues at Savoir, who serves as a sort of 2020 version of the Sassy Black Friend trope, and the designers of Grey Space, a fictional contemporary streetwear brand that’s in opposition to the haute couture legacy of fashion house Pierre Cadault, a client of Savoir. While the designers of Grey Space are non-white, even their portrayal in the show is questionable. The pair, who are the only two designers of colour featured explicitly on the show, are positioned as anarchists fighting against what’s considered acceptable in French fashion.
A lack of diversity seems to be a theme with Darren Star productions
To be honest, we shouldn’t be that surprised that there seems to be a lack of diverse representation when it comes to Emily’s Parisian adventure—because this unfortunately appears to be a theme when it comes to the work of Darren Star, the show’s creator and producer. Star is well-known as the man who brought iconic TV shows like Sex and the City and Younger to audiences across the globe. Both are well-known and truly decade-defining shows (especially the former), with SATC’s Carrie Bradshaw characterizing both fashion and dating for many people in the late ’90s and early aughts. Younger, released by Star in 2015 and heading into its seventh and final season, is a show about a 40-something woman who lies about her age in order to get back into the publishing industry in New York City. Like Emily in Paris, both SATC and Younger are frothy, frivolous fun. And also like Emily in Paris, both shows are incredibly white, with casts of entirely white leads and few, if any, supporting characters of colour.
On both shows, when non-white characters are introduced, they were either total side characters or characterized kind of offensively. For example, in one episode of Younger, Maggie, lead character Liza’s best friend, dates a Black woman named Donna. The issue? Donna has body hair that Maggie can’t overlook and ultimately dumps her over. As writer Scarlett Harris noted in a 2019 article for Body & Soul: “This is not to mention the issues of grooming and natural hair for women of colour and particularly Black women, but I wouldn’t expect a show with a handful of speaking roles for non-white women across its tenure to be sensitive to such an issue.“
SATC was no better. It’s a series in which micro- (and seriously non-micro-) aggressions towards people of colour were pretty consistent. In Season 3’s “No Ifs, And or Butts,” character Samantha exemplified this fact after getting into an argument with her boyfriend’s sister regarding interracial dating. In this episode, Samantha is dating a Black music executive, Chivon Williams. As FLARE writer Tari Ngangura wrote about this interaction in a June 5, 2018 article about the 20th anniversary of SATC: “Adeena [Chivon’s sister] had a problem with Samantha dating her brother because she was white and by vocalizing her discomfort, Sex and the City made her out to be a raging segregationist. Samantha, Sex and the City’s most (conveniently) liberal character had the final say, bashing Adeena where it would apparently hurt the most. ‘Your okra wasn’t even all that!’ she yelled in the restaurant to the comical shock and horror of everyone present.”
Anyone who isn’t Samantha can probably surmise that her comeback was racial stereotyping at its absolute worst. As Ngangura notes in her piece, as a Black woman, re-watching scenes like this brought about conflicting emotions, as a show she once loved turned into something she loathed.
And while these stereotypes and interactions are damaging enough on their own, what makes these instances so bad—and Emily in Paris’s whitewashing even worse—is the fact that it appears like Star himself has yet to really learn. While actors like Sarah Jessica Parker, who portrayed Bradshaw on SATC, have acknowledged the lack of diversity on the show, with Parker recently saying, “there were no women of colour [in Sex and the City] . . . and there was no substantial conversation about the LGBTQ community,” Star has continued to make TV shows that seemingly centre white women and for the most part, all white characters. Which in 2020—with so many conversations around the importance of representation, race and the barriers in Hollywood that BIPOC actors face—feels like more of a decision than an oversight.
TBQH, the lack of representation in Emily in Paris feels dated
And not only that, but continuing to only feature people that look similar to each other seems out of step with the way that TV and film are going. At this year’s 2020 Emmy awards, there was an uptick in the number of diverse nominees, with 36 actors of colour nominated for their work. At the September 21 awards show, history was made, with the most nominations for Black performers ever, with a record-breaking nine Emmys ultimately going to Black actors. (To be clear, while this is progress, 36 is not that much, and nine is an abysmal number considering the fact that amazing shows like Insecure and Ramy feature almost entirely diverse casts and received none of the major awards they were nominated for. It is progress, however minimal.) And the existence and success of shows like Insecure, despite not being given their due by critics and during awards season, exemplifies something that BIPOC people have know all along—there is a place and desire for representative shows like these in Hollywood.
And not to mention is a missed opportunity
The whitewashing of Emily in Paris not only feels dated by Hollywood standards but also IRL. As Chatelaine editor Radiyah Chowdhury noted in an October 3 tweet thread, the lack of diversity makes the show seem unrealistic and unbelievable. Because France is actually really racially diverse.
wild to me how so many of these white people in paris shows manage to completely avoid the HUGE population of black & brown folks. why is this girl complaining she can’t eat a burger? you know how many burger shops I came across? tho they were mostly halal and owned by sylhetis
— radiyah c. (@radiyahch) October 4, 2020
While a 2001 study by Brookings on Race Policy in France found that the non-European and non-white demographics in the country aren’t on par with that of places like the United States, at least 5% of the population was non-European and non-white, with the country known as “Europe’s first nation of immigrants.” While the country’s ban on the collection of ethnic and racial statistics makes getting an accurate reading of demographics difficult, a 2014 Quartz article noted that the country is home to a growing Black population as well as the continent’s largest populations of Jews and Muslims, making the fact that Emily traipses around Paris *only* bumping into white future love interests and BFFs that much more unbelievable.
And by overlooking the racial diversity in a country like France via the people Emily encounters, the show also misses out on the chance to address issues of racism and racial inequality in a meaningful and authentic way. Since the show premiered, Emily has been criticized for living in an insular world of Americanness, moving to Paris without any knowledge of the French language, appreciation for the culture or understanding of its customs. And in much the same way, the protagonist—and the show—deals with race, by wrapping Collins’ character up in a bubble of near-total whiteness. Except instead of hinting at Emily’s lack of awareness around race, like they do when it comes to her American identity and ignorance about French culture, the show just chooses to have her not engage with race, not to mention her privilege as a white woman abroad, at all.
Emily in Paris is obviously looking at a specific side of Paris, one of romanticism, adventure and honestly unbelievable wealth (how does a marketing exec own that much Chanel?!). Our only questions is why can’t that world include people of colour?