Emily In Paris -The Latest Victims of White Saviour Syndrome are the French.
Updated: Jan 30
The third series of Emily in Paris hit Netflix over Christmas, and I hate to admit I watched it. To be fair, part of the reason for that is a desperate need to find stuff the kids can watch with me. They're now at the ages of being too old for the real kiddy/family viewing and in need of more grown-up content. And I am too old and crabby for the really cringy teen series or Animé. Emily in Paris is a light-hearted, fun series where the oooh-la-la parts can be easily skipped over. If you know me at all by now, though, you'll know I can't help but break down stories, and Emily is a particularly problematic one in the sense of cultural gaffs and inauthenticity.
I'm not usually one to go in on a TV series as the central subject for my blog, and you can easily find other TV-centric blogs that will explain the areas where the writers either chose not to properly research (labour laws, FREX) or decided to ignore reality in favour of dramatic licence, or the caricature of Paris and the stereotypical inhabitants it so intentionally paints. What I haven't found anyone talking about in those blogs, so far, in relation to this series is its particular mutation of 'white saviour syndrome', and it's relative to sensitivity reading. Many self-publishers don't have these kinds of readers to hand, or might not be aware of the need for sensitivity reading, so this should go a little way to explaining why it's important. Let's backtrack a moment for a little context on why I mention this saviour syndrome. France has a very diverse population, and there are many nationalities and cultures living here, but it is essentially deemed as a majority white population. So, some people reading this might wonder how a 'white' country/culture could fall victim to such a thing.
There might also be some people wondering what white saviour syndrome is in the first place. Just to clear that up, it's where a white character - or characters - 'fall' into a story situation where the setting is in (or is akin to) a non-white country/culture where the culture is portrayed as more rudimentary or 'behind'. In some instances, even 'tribal' or ex-colonial. The white hero(es) is the only one who can save this culture from some awful fate and show them the 'right' way of doing things. I.E. the default is: White is Right, and everyone else is clueless and needs saving from their faulty approaches.
So, back to where we came in. Emily in Paris is white saviour syndrome on steroids to French culture, except that in this instance the syndrome has been mutated into American saviour syndrome. There does not seem to be one corner of this micro-story-world that is allowed to find its own way to resolution without the interference (i.e. saving) from Emily, the American, with her American thinking, drive and positive attitude (another wholly unfair stereotype), EXCEPT for the French team ejecting the American PR company from their office building. Even in the single instance where it initially appears that one French character Luc uses his own initiative to help Gabriel get a Micheline star for his restaurant it sadly turns out not to be the case. If Emily hadn't told Luc in the first place that it was Gabriel's dream to get a Micheline star, Luc would never have been provoked to act in the first place. I'm sorry - what? It took an American slip of a girl who knows nothing about cuisine (of all types, not just French) to tell a middle-aged French man that a serious French chef, courting the trendiest crowds in Paris, dreams of getting a Micheline star? Of course that's what he aspires to! It's what every chef aspires to. Even outside of France! Luc did not need Emily to point that out to him. It's utterly ridiculous, and renders his character as stupid and unable to think without being told. But it is the absolute epitome of how Emily in Paris treats the French. How on Earth this nation existed for the centuries it has so far, without the aid of America, one can only speculate. And let's not talk about the utterly patronising lavender perfume episode.
I've lived in France for a long time, and - yes - sometimes the French way of doing things doesn't appear to make a great deal of sense, seems terribly unorganised and leaves me scratching my head. I can empathise with some of the cultural conundrums presented in the series as a foreigner living abroad and it does make me chuckle. And yet, it must be acknowledged that the French get there in the end with a much more relaxed attitude than us Anglophones. Order arrives out of chaos. It works. Just in a different way. But the series hammers home time and again that the French know nothing about business or about getting the right results, that the American knows everything and is the only person who can resolve anyone's problems. It makes you wonder what use are any of the other characters, other than as props to Emily the protagonist.
Overall, Emily herself feels like an allegory that everything in the world revolves around America. Gabriel even goes so far as to declare that the French see McDonald's as an expensive treat, or a little luxury.
In their dreams! (Mcdo's, that is).
McDonald's tries to dress itself up as being more elite than it is by fancifying their restaurants and menus, and making it pricey, but believe me, the clientele are pretty much the same as in any other demograph of people in a country who enjoy junk food.
Anyway, let's get back to my main point. Believe it or not, I haven't brought you here just so I can moan about the crass insensitivity of the series writers who are blatantly only interested in bolstering the US ego and viewing figures. It's relative to your writing - your storytelling.
The role of protagonist is to drive the plot not only to conclusion but to resolution. Yes, for the most part, the central nub of storytelling is that, had your protagonist not been thrust into this story world or predicament, the ensuing chain of events would not have been triggered. The protagonist is the one who shoulders the main responsibility of the story. It is for them to find the ultimate resolution to the main story problem. Along the way, they have to work out smaller problems in order to surmount the final one. They will have one character trait about them that enables them to resolve that problem in a way that isn't available to others in the story. Sure. And, at surface level, Emily ticks all those boxes. But she has this magical power that resolves everything from the start while everyone around her is portrayed as next to useless, and this is where this story fails. You can't patronise a whole nation of people for the sake of painting your protagonist as a superpower. That isn't a hero, but a supremacist. And in a time where culture wars are at their height, it seems pretty bloody blinkered. Or outright idiotic.
The supporting cast in your story must be strong enough in their own rights to command the attention and admiration of your readers. Your protagonist should be the strongest light of them all, not the only one flickering a weak current of power against a group of extinguished candles. Why did everyone love Thrones so much? Because of the strength of each character and what they brought to the table in order to combat the ultimate evil by the end. What do Emily's supporting characters bring? Unfortunately, they are not fully enabled human beings in their own right and can only wait around until Emily sets them in motion from the little remote control in her Chanel handbag. Emily in Paris attempts to do what Ugly Betty succeeded in doing. It's a type of story arc - character against society. Society always changes in accordance with the character in these instances. When 'Ugly' (eye-roll) Betty arrived in the fashion world, it was a viper pit. By the end of all the series, Betty hadn't really changed her core self, but everyone else had become a lot nicer - fluffier. The writers of Emily are trying to do the same and set Emily against (French) society, but instead of 'nice' they are trying to make the French less 'stupid' and rigid. In reality, all they've really done is repeatedly insult a nation by utterly patronising it. The ultimate end for this arc to complete is that the French change in accordance to Emily rather than Emily changing in accordance to France. Never. Gonna. Happen. Well, in the real world, at least. They've taken the wrong approach in writing this kind of story arc by picking a culture war of their own making. There's no way out now they've begun because they haven't so far built Emily's own journey of learning from her experiences. She's still the one with all the brightest ideas, work-obsessive, overly enthusiastic, who never stops. And none of these traits are portrayed as flaws that need fixing, but as strengths that can fix everyone else. So, from that standpoint, how could they ever switch it around to make it her who will change? I can't see it. I expect the French will be more and more patronised as the series goes on. If the writers even wake up to this huge gaff they have committed, the swerve they will need to make this far into the story to make good would need to be handled in the deftest way possible, but judging by the series so far, I doubt that is possible. And they seem blissfully happy to continue in this way, anyway. With Betty, the whole point of the character-versus-society arc was for us to ask ourselves if we wouldn't all benefit from being a bit nicer to one another, place more emphasis on the value of relationships over material gain or influence, and how much would it really cost us to do so? In Emily, it seems only to want to dictate the superiority of one culture's values over another culture rather than have us make any serious internal reflections.
If you ever write a character-versus-society story, promise me you'll handle it with much more care and aplomb? Think about who in your story you're trying to change, and why do you feel particularly they must do so - is it relevant to the wider conversation in society, or are you just having a dig at something you have personal beef with or haven't taken the time to properly understand? And this is where sensitivy readers come into the mix. If you get a publishing deal in the traditional sense, your publisher will be the one to provide one if they feel its needed. If you are self-publishing, this is where getting a wide ranging beta reader team can help flag anything that's problematic.
Aside from all this, the third series of Emily in Paris has lost its sparkle. What was a fun glance at another culture through the rose-tinted eyes of a foreigner has flatlined. Literally. The jokes are poor and in short supply, and the characters haven't developed beyond the shallow caricatures they begun as. It's also quite astounding that Emily has such a faithful circle of friends. Considering none of them blanch at how they treat one another when it comes to matters of the heart, I can't imagine why they would hold such loyalty for someone as obviously irritating as Emily while demonstrating such little self-respect for themselves. It just isn't the French way. They don't suffer fools in this way, be sure of that.
So, a bit of a mixed bag this month. yes, I feel a little defensive over my adopted country and the injustice it has suffered from this series, but it does also serve to highlight a wider point about storytelling. So, let me leave by emphasising one point: insensitive content lands in our slush pile regularly. Sometimes it's with an obvious and deliberate angle to denegrate something or someones. Sometimes it's entirely unintentional and is simply mishandled or the subtext entirely missed. It's a good idea to get your work critiqued before sending it out to litmags or publishers. It's not guaranteed to pick up on everthing, but stands a better chance of highlighting problematic elements that might damage your chances of getting published.