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9 October 2020

How the girlboss ruined the romcom

Netflix's new series Emily In Paris wants to be a progressive chick flick, but its unquestioning embrace of capitalism kills any warmth.

By Emily Bootle

One of Emily Cooper’s most significant missteps occurs a few minutes into episode three of Darren Star’s new Netflix escapist extravaganza Emily in Paris. She arrives at her new Paris office one morning to find her new colleague Luc furious about a document she’s sent him. He reads it out, outraged. “Thou shalt always maintain a positive attitude. Thou shalt always be on time. Thou shalt praise in public and criticise in private.” It’s a set of “Corporate Commandments”. Her colleagues are incensed, but she remains characteristically nonplussed. “It’s about all of us sharing a global vision,” she concludes, her red beret arranged perfectly on her glossy brown hair, white smile glinting. 

It’s a comic scene, relying on a caricature of the French for humour: in Paris, life is about pleasure, not work. But what is remarkable is that there is no such caricature of Emily’s “Corporate Commandments”. Not hammy enough to constitute a proper joke, they are simply seamlessly integrated into the narrative device, unquestioned and unparodied.

Emily in Paris has attracted loathing and praise in almost equal measure for being mindless, high-budget, low-stakes fluff. It has an outrageously good-looking female lead, expensive clothes, montages of pre-pandemic Paris and love interests with exotic accents. It’s Euro-porn, with a millennial American shtick: the title of the show is Emily’s Instagram handle, and watching it is very much like stepping inside an Instagram feed.

Well-groomed, professionally successful Emily (Lily Collins) is sent to Paris from Chicago by her company, to bring a US perspective to a luxury French marketing firm. Her all-American, go-getting, straightforward personality, and frequent faux pas – she is quickly told by her boss that she “has no mystery, [is] very obvious” and barely speaks a word of French – is juxtaposed with chic, miserable Parisians. Emily develops her accelerating social media presence and gets out of marketing scrapes as her colleagues slowly adjust to her irritating presence and pointedly smoke cigarettes.

As is to be expected from the creator of Sex and the City (SATC), it’s a slick delivery of rom-com tropes, referring directly to SATC in Emily’s extravagant Carrie Bradshaw-esque outfits – which, in a generous reading, are a little ironic – and a scene at the Plaza Athénée hotel. Romantic comedies often thrive on a backdrop of affluence, and, of course, necessarily exist within capitalism. But where financial comfort is usually a narrative technique – sweeping aside mundane problems like rent or work schedules to focus on a blossoming fairytale romance – Emily in Paris is both implausible and tediously obsessed with work, the story unquestioningly swallowing corporate agendas. The show takes place in a stale, sterile atmosphere of generalised “aspiration” that lacks warmth, surprise and charm. All that’s at stake is Emily’s success as a generic “girlboss” figure: her ability to please her clients with viral hashtags or bold advertising campaigns, in a world where the ultimate catastrophe is brand reputational damage.

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Sex and the City was defined by materialism and privilege, yet at the time of release it was pioneering in depicting onscreen the inner lives of women. In hindsight, the show seems an imperfect and unprogressive depiction of New York City life: its cast is overwhelmingly white; it’s insensitive to LGBTQ issues. But despite this and its excessive displays of luxury – Carrie popping yet another pair of Manolo Blahniks on her credit card, the girls going for brunch daily and Mr Big being chauffeured around Manhattan in his Mercedes – SATC is about relationships, and within its somewhat limited framework is sensitive to their complexities. The show lured us in with wealth and luxury – but we fell in love with the characters. Emily in Paris seems to do the opposite: it plays on our desire for romantic escapism and personal growth to get us watching a show about money.

[see also: Paul Mazursky’s 1978 romcom An Unmarried Woman captures the thrill of reinvention]

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The world of work –  in particular, women at work –  is undeniably an important theme in chick flicks. In the early 2000s, the genre boomed as the perfect platform to tell the story of modern women having (or rather getting) it all, ie the dream job and the dream man. There is often an additional mitigating circumstance to overcome. In The Devil Wears Prada (a film which featured another Emily desperate to make it in Paris), Anne Hathaway’s Andy attempts to win over the high-maintenance editor of “Runway” magazine despite having no fashion knowledge (a workplace relationship mirrored in Emily in Paris). In How to Lose a Guy In 10 Days, Kate Hudson’s character (also, implausibly, named Andie) tries to prove herself on a dating column assignment so that her boss will let her write about “politics!” In the Noughties TV series Ugly Betty, Betty has to prove she can fit in at a fashion magazine despite not meeting conventional beauty standards. In all these examples (and in 13 Going On 30 and The Bold Type), the workplace in question is a glossy women’s magazine. This makes for the perfect romcom setting partly for all its props: bitchy fashion types, hard-to-please editors, an abundance of expensive clothes and invitations to glamorous parties; a thin, white, beautiful protagonist hoping to prove themselves creatively.

[see also: In lockdown, I’m craving romcoms – and 2003’s Down With Love is a pure sugar high]

At first, Emily in Paris seems to conform to this model: Emily is certainly white, thin and beautiful, and, depending on your view of caption-writing’s status as an art, arguably creative too. We are encouraged to think she’s the marketing star of her generation as she spontaneously comes up with dazzling slogans and groundbreaking campaign ideas (before she even gets to Paris she smells the perfume she’s trying to flog and says it’s “like wearing poetry”), using her millennial knowledge of social media and general “woman up” attitude to get everyone talking. (When, as a punishment, she is tasked with marketing vaginal medication, rather than luxury perfume, she discovers that the French for “vagina” uses the masculine definite article, posts about it, and is subsequently retweeted for her searing feminist indictment of French culture by Brigitte Macron.) The crucial difference is that, far from advancing her own character arc, Emily’s creativity simply makes more money for other people. It’s hard to feel moved by the breezy victories of somebody whose sole purpose in life is to aid multi-million dollar corporations capitalising on empowerment feminism.

Though these outward displays of competence are presumably supposed to contribute to some notion of Emily being a girlboss, the nature of her job means she is constantly minimising herself at work for the sake of the brand – and always very gladly. After a tiff with her boss in which she is forced to delete her popular Instagram account, she is ultimately allowed to restore it, but only to personally promote a client’s product. She comes up with one of her best ideas by insisting that “it doesn’t matter what I think” – of course, it’s about what the customer thinks. At her most impassioned, she explains the male gaze to a famous French perfumer, but only because “I want to protect your brand!” In overcoming her own people-pleasing complex, she has a corporate epiphany: “Is it more important to increase brand visibility or be liked?”

Emily in Paris might seem to be more progressive than its earlier counterparts by framing Emily’s romantic escapades as B-plots, but it reduces the narrative arc to one of hollow corporate success, with little room for human emotion. Where before the workplace was an “empowering” backdrop or ultimatum (Sex and the City explored the love lives of four satisfied “career women”; The Devil Wears Prada pitted a career against a happy relationship), here it is the centre of everything, without being fully interrogated. Early Noughties chick flicks were arguably deeply sexist in their often judgemental portrayal of women’s jobs as a distraction from relationships with men. But Emily in Paris has moved too far in the opposite direction, painting a portrait of a superficially “empowered” woman who is so settled and sorted that she has no inner life to speak of; she merely lives for the exquisite satisfaction of “brand visibility”.

The early 2000s boom in chick flicks presented another variation on the fish-out-of-water-at-a-glossy-magazine type; in a way, its opposite – the underestimated intelligent woman: seen in everything from Legally Blonde to Erin Brockovich, with their upbeat dissections of workplace sexism. Emily in Paris also borrows from this trope: she is treated as unsophisticated by her colleagues; her love of her job is juxtaposed with a clichéd portrayal of French hedonism. But while pink fluffy Elle Woods clashes with her boring, lawyerly contemporaries in Legally Blonde – and, in the magazine trope, charismatic Andie Anderson makes plain the vacuous nature of her colleagues — here the two opposing entities are not Emily and work, but Emily and Paris. The lack of satirisation or dissection of systemic workplace dynamics in a show that hinges on those dynamics is not only humourless but depressing: are we simply supposed to take all this marketing jargon seriously?

[see also: Why David Fincher’s slick thriller Gone Girl is also one of the great romcoms]

What underlies 1990s and 2000s romantic comedy is an urge to justify women’s multiplicity: it championed the once-quirky, clearly flawed depiction of the sexy and smart modern woman. Emily in Paris is a contemporary pastiche of its predecessors, and it is clearly very pleased with its portrayal of a confident, ambitious woman at work who isn’t overly preoccupied with her love life (mainly because every man she meets falls at her feet). Perhaps, in a way, this is progressive. But in presenting us with such an insubstantial character with no inner conflict, no complex emotions, and only a surface-level connection with other people, alongside its unthinking embrace of an industry that epitomises customer-first consumerism, the whole show feels hollow and bleak. Romcoms are, of course, fantasies, but their charm is that they’re also about people. Unfortunately, Emily in Paris is just about brands.