By: Pia Araneta
Is being basic synonymous with being white?
Photo by Eugene Dorosh via Pexels
In a Parisian bistro steps away from her new apartment, Emily Cooper sends back a steak undercooked to her liking. After her friend Mindy translates Emily’s disapproval to the waiter, who resists Emily’s “the customer is always right,” attitude, she hopes to educate the chef on better customer service. The chef, turning out to be her attractive downstairs neighbour, Gabriel, suggests she try the steak before he goes back to “burn” it. And after Emily is delightfully surprised by the steak’s tenderness, Gabriel says he knew she’d like it if she just gave it a chance.
Giving things a chance is something Emily (Lily Collins) hardly bothers to do in Netflix’s comedy-drama TV series, Emily in Paris, created by Darren Star. As an American who moved to Paris for a new job at Savoir, a marketing firm that represents luxury brands, opportunities continuously fall into her lap despite her being underqualified and—the issue drilled into each episode—not knowing any French. What is more so problematic, however, is her unwillingness to learn. Emily expects everyone to adapt to her ideas and inabilities, tossing the “When in Rome,” mentality aside and instead, carries an American saviour complex.
Emily, a young marketing consultant, worked in Chicago when her boss, Madeline (Kate Walsh), became pregnant and forfeited her transfer to Savoir, a marketing firm in Paris. Emily as the underling, was sent instead—ignorant and optimistic, she acts as the “American perspective” at the firm and carries her mandate like a true torch of imperialism. The show is shot in every picturesque, tourist destination Paris has to offer, acting as a backdrop for Emily’s millennial dreamworld. The city does not change her, rather, she makes an impact on the city.
French stereotypes are carelessly littered in the series (the French having a disdain for Americans, a lazy work ethic and an aversion for monogamous relationships), Emily encounters each of them with a “poor me” attitude that leaves the viewer wondering if they should be sympathizing and identifying with her character, or more rightfully so, reprimanding her like her boss, Sylvie (Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu). Sylvie, an underwhelming reincarnation of Miranda Priestly played by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, is the only person Emily struggles to win over. She smokes cigarettes for breakfast and sees Emily as the uncultured American.
Paris continues to bend to Emily’s will, however, and she becomes highly sought after by clients that are blown away by her revolutionary ideas, the main (and only one) being a need for more social media engagement (at a marketing firm, crazy, right?). Emily’s Twitter account @emilyinparis, gains more followers with each croissant and selfie uploaded (#EverythingsComingUpRoses), each post somehow going viral despite it being mediocre content. Perhaps, however, like the show, Emily’s posts are catered to a specific demographic that carries exceptional weight as consumers and viewers: the ringarde, as she is referred to in the show, or the “basic.” And that is what she is. Emily, with her bag of charms, her unimaginative hashtags and cutesy ignorance represents the reclamation of all basic bitches in America. On that note, it is easy to consume the show for what it is: a semi-binge-worthy source of entertainment when you need to escape the world of critical thought and judgement. It’s campy, with character tropes that are meant to fit narrowly into their respective boxes, thus Emily being the “American perspective.” Keeping in mind that each trope is intensional, the show only serves to confirm biases and entertain people who look and identify as Emily.
Where the show truly falters—apart from its two-dimensional characters and the American saviour complex—is the way issues are tackled in the series. The show addresses national identity themes and gender inequality issues in a tone-deaf manner that mirrors the problems stemmed from white feminism. Mindy (Ashley Park), one of two characters in the show who isn’t white, only serves as a prop to Emily—not to mention being a scapegoat for racial slurs towards the Chinese. Mindy, a zipper heiress, is the embodiment of Crazy Rich Asians, and tells Emily she gave up her fortune and “predictable” life in China so she could be “free” in Paris. Emily’s admiration for her friend rings like true orientalism.
Sex and the City creator, Star, set out to create the next millennial hit with Emily in Paris, but its success can only go as far as white women carry it. The world Emily lives in actively dismisses the existence of white privilege, carrying on as a martyr for the “basic”—the foundation of basic being American. But hey, c’est la vie.