3 years later, seeing “Emily in Paris” in a very different light

Photo by Thibault Penin on Unsplash

I wrote a post about the Netflix show “Emily in Paris” back in 2020, when we were still stuck at home and it was the shiny new thing to hate watch. Even though I agreed that it was objectively a very bad show, my post back then actually struck a pretty defensive tone: it was hard to be a new expat, alone in a foreign country where you didn’t know anyone and didn’t speak the language, and it wasn’t that hard to relate to Emily, as unrealistic as that character was.

Three and a half years later, I’ve just watched the latest season of the show, and boy oh boy, have my thoughts changed.

Two notes, before I start:

  1. This post will contain spoilers from the show, but again, it is a terrible show, so not sure how much that matters.
  2. In real life, three years have passed. In the show, less than a year has passed. We know this because Emily’s boss, Madeline, found out she was pregnant at the beginning of season 1, and she doesn’t give birth until mid-season 3. So that’s something to keep in mind.

That said….

Good lord, Emily’s French is so, so bad. It’s honestly embarrassing.

Yes, I know Emily has only been in Paris for about a year at this point in the story. Still: she’s been living in France with French friends, she’s been attending French classes this whole time, and she probably has to touch a decent amount of French in her job, as someone who works with French clients at a French company. So how on earth is her French still so bad?

I’m talking specifically about her French pronunciation. It’s “has never seen or heard French before in her life” level bad. She does not know how to pronounce simple words like très or bien sûr. She doesn’t even know how to pronounce bonjour correctly!

There are so many native French speakers on set. The main cast must also have a French coach, right? How has no one corrected these absurd mispronunciations? The only explanation I can think of is that the showrunners want to perpetuate the “Americans are gauche, bumbling idiots who stick out like a sore thumb in France” stereotype, which is an unfortunate creative decision.

Emily is hardly the only bad French speaker in the show. Her boss Madeline, who is supposed to be “the one who speaks French” (and I think has a degree in French literature?), is equally bad at it. She can’t even pretend to carry a conversation in French with the building concierge.

And then there’s Emily’s best friend and roommate, Mindy. In the last two seasons, I thought Mindy was the worst French speaker on the show. In season 3, she has subtly improved. That said, in season 3, Mindy mentions that she attended Institut Le Rosey, an exclusive private school in Rolle, Switzerland. How is it that she spend her formative years in Suisse romande, as someone from an incredibly wealthy family, yet speaks French so poorly? (And let’s not even get into the fact that they made Mindy Chinese in the show for no valid reason, when the actress is Korean American in real life; her accent when attempting to speak Mandarin is just as bad as her French.)

I will say, pronunciation aside, it is realistic that Emily still cannot hold proper conversations in French and cannot work in French. It’s been a year in the show universe. She is right when she complains that French people “talk too fast”. To the language learner ear, they absolutely do. They swallow the last letter of half the words they say, and for the other half, they will link two words together and pronounce them as one (this is called a liaison). It took me at least two years to get to the point of being able to consistently understand and engage with regular-speed French spoken outside the classroom. Emily is still at the beginning of her French learning journey.

It is totally unrealistic how much English is spoken by French people in the show to accommodate Emily.

I get that the show is done mostly in English to accommodate American audiences. However, it does paint an inaccurate picture of what it’s like to be an American in France or any francophone country.

In the show, you have a French marketing agency full of French people, pitching to a French client, and it’s all done in English for the benefit of one person in the room: Emily, who is, what, an account supervisor at best? There is no way all of these people, including the client, would bend over backwards and speak nothing but English for an hour-long, high-pressure sales pitch just so one low-level employee can understand what’s going on. The only way that would make sense is if she were a VP or Managing Director.

In reality, here’s what happens: the client comes in, they do the small talk in French, they do the pitch in French, the native French speakers lead the presentations and answer the client’s questions. Emily sits in the corner and listens and tries her best to parse what’s going on. She might be tapped to give a small part of the presentation in English, but afterwards, it’s going right back to French again. She does not have a starring role in any of this.

Also, in the show, every French person speaks perfect English. Perfect grammar, too. I’m talking constructions like If I had known, I would have gone. You can tell the French actors are just reciting lines from a script, and often with visible hesitation because the complex sentence structures are tripping them up. The reality is that most French people are not fluent in English. Which is not a criticism or anything to be embarrassed about: they’re in their own country, they don’t need to learn another language.

The show truly became a parody of itself when the chef guy’s grandmother, an elderly French woman from a small town in Normandy, strolled in and started speaking fluent English. What?

Do Americans have grating personalities?

Three years ago, having just moved to Switzerland, I was defensive of Emily’s personality, because I saw some of myself in her. Yeah, she spoke loudly. She was too positive. She was too excitable. So what? It’s called being American!

My own personality has changed immensely in the last three years. Part of that was the pandemic. Part of that was embracing more of a French and Swiss attitude towards life. And part of that was just… when you first move somewhere that’s new and exciting, you think of it as being on a permanent vacation. After a while, reality sinks in. You become used to everything, and you become jaded. For example, I’ve been to so many castles and bridges and cathedrals in Europe that I could go the rest of my life without seeing one again.

If I got a call right now and had to move to Paris or Vienna or Berlin, I don’t know if I’d be jumping up and down. It would be more like, okay, so I have to sort out the moving company, and I have to find someone to take over my lease, and I have to do the paperwork for a residency permit, and I have to find a bank that will accept US citizens, and I have to figure out how health insurance works, etc. At some point, you stop being an American in Europe. You’re just another person in Europe.

So it’s kind of funny seeing Emily still very much in tourist mode, one year in. On Instagram, she’s constantly posting the stereotypical images that first come to mind when you think of Paris: buying pain au chocolat at the boulangerie, hanging out at the Eiffel Tower, sitting at a cafe. She’s still mentally on this extended vacation. Much like her extremely annoying British boyfriend, Alfie, she makes very little effort to fit into the city and the culture — because she’s The Expat. The American. It doesn’t occur to her that maybe she should adapt her approach to working and communication. It’s everyone else that has to accommodate her instead.

So yeah, that’s pretty annoying.

At the end of the day, Emily just needs to chill.

She is constantly talking about work, and it’s exhausting. Even when she’s at a friend’s party, she can’t just relax. She’s trying to get new clients for her agency. And at work, she’s not a team player. She will straight up interrupt Julien’s client presentation to butt in with her own idea, and somehow the client loves it, and there’s no professional repercussion for her?

And when the situation does call for her to stress out, she’s oddly chill about it. In season 3, Emily quits her job. She is now in France with no job and no valid residency permit. And she’s not worried? Anyone who has lived in France can tell you sorting out the residency permit (which has to be renewed every year) is one of the most stressful and exhausting parts of living there. Also, the apartment she lives in is leased by the company that she’s just quit. So how is she not out on the curb?

Sylvie comes to the rescue by offering Emily a job, but this means Sylvie would have to do an insane amount of paperwork to even attempt to justify hiring Emily over a French person as well as all EU candidates (Sylvie even mentions this in the show). First of all, I’m not sure if Sylvie’s tiny startup of an agency is even qualified to hire a third-country national. And second, I am very skeptical that they can prove that this person who doesn’t speak French and has been in France for less than a year is qualified to work at a French agency.

And this whole time, Emily’s just… not stressed out? She even takes a gig moonlighting as a waitress at Gabriel’s restaurant, which is illegal? And she still doesn’t speak French, which causes a customer to accidentally eat something that he’s allergic to, and everyone’s just cool with it? What kind of alternate universe is she living in?

This show is ridiculous.

4 comments

  1. I was wondering if I needed to watch this show. I guess the answer is no! All these things would annoy me too, so much, if I knew about them! I don’t know much about speaking French or living in France, so I’d probably miss a lot of it, but I do find the idea of catering to an American audience so much that they don’t even realize how unrealistic all this is suuuper annoying and indicative of a lot of why we – as an American society – are clueless about life in many other places, and assume the world revolves around us! Thumbs down.

    Like

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