The Heroine’s Journey in “Emily in Paris”

Emily in Paris creates an entire utopia for Emily where she, and only she, is allowed to resist conventional ideas of self-improvement and personal betterment, like that pesky myth that hard work results in success.

Emily doesn’t have to listen to her bosses or mentors or get better at her marketing job, which she herself says she’s underqualified for. Emily doesn’t have to speak French, even though everyone tells her that to have a life in Paris means learning the language. Emily doesn’t have to go to bars or parties to find new people to befriend or seduce; friends and lovers find her instead.

Emily is not curious about the new world she lives in. Even though she has rejected all norms and logic about the way things are supposed to work, the universe bends to her will, and everything works out in the end.

Her clients treat her ideas about “social media engagement” as treasured gospel. Her Instagram posts of desserts and cheeseburgers are extremely popular. The men who find her inexplicably intoxicating are all explicably handsome and wealthy.

All this insanity offers a comforting, ironically thrilling dreamland that disregards everything we’ve been told about professional and personal achievement. Instead, Emily in Paris imagines a passive existence rewarded over and over. And given that the real world has so much grief and drama seemingly packed into every hour, the show’s portrait of a land where nothing bad ever happens feels like a much-needed respite.

Emily in Paris is about success without much sacrifice

Emily in Paris

Emily in Paris starts off in Chicago. Emily Cooper (Lily Collins), a young woman of otherwise indeterminate age, works at a marketing firm as a professional with an indeterminate title. She is presented as both very experienced at marketing and very surprised by the way common things, like time zones, work.

But thanks to her mentor Madeline’s surprise pregnancy, Emily’s asked to move to Paris to take Madeline’s new job: Madeline was supposed to be doing something for Savoir, a marketing service for luxury brands that Emily’s Chicago firm has just acquired.

For most humans, the prospect of starting a new job you’re unqualified for in a country where you don’t speak the language would require serious deliberation. You’d likely talk to friends and family and colleagues to get their advice. Weighing these options would take time. There would probably be all kinds of visa and HR issues to work out first, too.

But for Emily, these terrestrial conundrums do not exist.

And so, in a move that makes it seem like she is not actually living real life but is stuck in a simulation, IBS marketing expert Emily goes to Paris what seems like the very next day.

In Paris, Emily’s two main conflicts are figuring out how to count flights of stairs in her apartment building and failing to please Sylvie, her new boss at Savoir. She does neither of these things well. Her neighbor Gabriel, like almost all of the named male characters on the show, is immediately attracted to Emily, seemingly because she cannot count. Sylvie is angry with her because she believes Emily is tarnishing the reputations of Savoir’s brands by making them too “common” for posh French consumers.

Instead of learning French, as she’s advised by both Gabriel and Sylvie, Emily trudges on and forces the people she encounters to adapt to her. She tells Savoir that she’s a hard worker, despite barely attempting to learn the language her clients and boss speak. She doesn’t seem to keep a meetings calendar, despite claiming to be meticulously organized. She also doesn’t have many promotional ideas for her clients besides “making something popular on Instagram.”

At the same time, Emily starts a new Instagram account (handle: emilyinparis), where she posts pictures and boomerangs of herself doing what Parisians consider touristy. She takes selfies from her balcony overlooking the city and fawning over the Eiffel Tower. She also shares very mundane things, like a photo of herself eating a pain au chocolat.

Under any other circumstances, Emily’s lack of curiosity about her new city and job would probably get her fired and annoy her friends and neighbors. But she somehow succeeds at work and at charming Gabriel.

Her Instagram following also grows exponentially, from nothing to the tens of thousands, even though she continues to post clichéd pictures and captions like “cheeseburger in paradise.” While real-life people have to take multiple shots to ensure one great one for Instagram, in Emily’s world, effort isn’t necessary for success.

Emily’s upward and onward trajectory isn’t a traditional career fantasy of slowly mastering and getting better at your job, nor is her seduction of Gabriel a traditionally romantic one save for Gabriel being extremely handsome. Rather, Emily’s story is about living an anxiety-free existence without any negative consequences. And while she lives an intellectually uncurious life, Emily in Paris never punishes her for it, nor do we ever witness Emily reflecting on her possibly embarrassing behavior.

A thing to consider is that while Emily’s life is idle bliss, the people in her orbit are all working really hard. Her best friend Mindy Chen speaks at least three languages, has the singing voice of a pop star, and is left at the end of the season with a so-called dream job of a twice-a-week gig singing at an unnamed drag bar.

Somehow, every time Emily messes up, the universe pats her on the back and assures her that she is worthy of every single one of its riches.

If Emily’s life is supposed to be a millennial woman’s dream come true, then that dream is not built on upward trajectory, money, or the knowledge that she made the world a better place. Rather, it’s a relatively worry-free, intellectually slovenly existence, in which a metropolitan place like Paris is more amusement park than a large, imperfect city.

Considering the current state of events — a pandemic with no clear end in sight and a burgeoning economic collapse, among many other problems — it’s actually a huge relief to watch something that does not care about such depressing things. The only politician who’s mentioned prominently in the show is France’s first lady Brigitte Macron, for instance, and she’s only used as a prop for a joke about vaginas.

Watching Emily in Paris is like drawing a warm bath for my brain cells, an isolated, low-effort form of pleasure. The conflicts never last long enough to actually matter, and even then, they’re low-consequence. As we’re told in the later episodes, getting fired in France rarely actually happens, because there’s too much paperwork attached. There’s never going to be a worst-case scenario for Emily.

If times were different, and the pandemic hadn’t exposed how absolutely miserable life can feel, I’d probably have dropped Emily in Paris in favor of something more insightful, more grounded in reality. But for now, I have watched the full 10 episodes.