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Of Coconut and Peaches: Five Cultural Truths in Netflix's "Emily in Paris"

Updated: Nov 2, 2020

The first week of October seemed like the perfect one to binge-watch the new Netflix show called Emily in Paris: it's light, colorful, and fun, which is everything the news is not at the end of this extra-challenging year.

Emily in Paris is a show about a young American woman - Emily - who works in marketing in Chicago and who is unexpectedly sent to Paris to work with a French marketing company. Ten minutes into the first episode, Emily is on her way to the city of love with a suitcase full of couture clothes and somewhat false expectations. Right upon arrival, although the city looks as gorgeous as she has imagined it, she is met with rude French people who give her a cold welcome. After that, the ten episodes explore Emily's struggle to fit into a luxurious Parisian social network, but also her success as a creative millennial who knows how to Instagram (side note: clearly, the show was not created by a millennial, but anyways).

But what was supposed to be a light and esthetically pleasing rom-com with no critical assumption was met with the most severe critics. Most French people and the French press hated it, and a good amount of British and American outlets agreed to say that Emily in Paris is a worthless and even offensive show. On social media, the show has become an inexhaustible source of memes. Emily in Paris has universally become a show everyone loves to hate.

But as a French expat who has lived in the USA for the past four years and as a French teacher whose job is to dissect, understand and translate French and American cultures, I find that this show - although unrealistic and white-washed - brings up some valuable topics on a cultural standpoint. I could also write a whole article about the predictable reaction of the French to the show, but for now, I will focus on demonstrating how the show can be relevant to those who lived the experience of moving to a different country and especially to Americans living in Paris. And to avoid writing a whole essay on the matter, I will go over five cultural truths in Emily in Paris.

1. The French care about their language

If there is one thing we learn from the show, it is that fitting in a brand new culture is not easy. When she moves to France, Emily does not speak French and she knows pretty much nothing about the culture she is to integrate into. And the (mis)representations of France she has been fed with while growing up in Indiana (oh la la, la baguette, oui oui, voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?) will often disserve her.

The discrepancy between her expectations and reality comes in the shape of micro-aggressions and awkward misunderstandings.

She doesn't know, for example, that the French care very much about their language, la langue de Molière, and that they will not hesitate to correct her if she butchers it. That is what happens in the scene of the boulangerie (episode 1) when the baker rudely pulls her up on her mistaken use of French genders. If you are a non-francophone person who has traveled to France, you might have been in a similar situation. In a video, Hugo Cotton from Inner French explores (in French) some leads that might explain why the French care so much about correcting mistakes in their language:

Not speaking French is difficult for Emily because the language is intertwined with culture. So when the baker asks "Ce sera tout ?" (Will that be all?), the typical question any baker asks in any French bakery, Emily is drowning in confusion. What looks like a small, meaningless interaction in fact tells a lot about how insidious it can be to feel integrated into the French culture when you don't speak French. As famous British comedian Paul Taylor perfectly demonstrates it, knowing how to behave in a French bakery is a bit of an art:

Overall, the French characters in the show judge Emily harshly for not speaking French, which tells a lot about the French obsession with intégration, the idea that you cannot blend in the culture if you don't adopt every aspect of it - even if most people around you can decently speak your native language.

2. Beware the faux amis

Although the whole Interweb is mad at Emily for not speaking better French, she can be seen taking a few lessons throughout the episodes. But unfortunately, she does not seem to get too much out of it (maybe she should learn with Dr. Anaïs...), and most of her attempts to use the French language fail, as she falls into the typical traps that are the faux amis.

False friends are words that sound and look like words you already know in your native language, but which carry a different meaning. Of course, the most famous faux amis - which are illustrated in Emily in Paris - are the ones that generate awkward and humiliating situations.

In episode 3, the show jumps right into the wild world of faux amis when Emily tells her client that she is "excitée" to work with him. However, as her colleague immediately points it out, this term does not translate a "platonic" enthusiasm but instead takes on a sexual meaning. Most of the time, this adjective translates into aroused (although I think this will change in the next few years, as the English use is more and more influential in the French culture). In the same way, Emily risks ending up with condoms on her toast when she orders "preservative" for breakfast. To learn more (although less embarrassing) faux amis, check out Alexa's video on the subject:

3. Paris'bourgeoisie, or the French Entre-soi.

One of the most virulent critics against the show is that its depiction of Paris does not represent the Parisians'life. I think everyone will agree that it is true, just like everyone agreed, twenty years ago, that Carrie Bradshaw's lifestyle in New York was suspiciously above her means. It appears that American director Darren Star is not focused on offering insightful and realistic visions of two of the most romanticized cities in the world.

So, no: Emily in Paris does not make any room for poverty and triviality in its show. It does not show the sadly very real struggle of homelessness in the French capital, nor does it portray people whose lifestyle doesn't involve a single couture dress. Instead, the show depicts Paris in all its luxury and flamboyance, focusing on the 1% who can drink champagne in a room with a view of the Eiffel tower. That might be because 1) Darren Star likes everything shiny and expensive, and 2) Emily works for a marketing firm specialized in luxury products.

But this world of (white) men acting like they own everything (including women), of riding luxurious cars and wearing expensive clothes does exist. And when you bathe in it, there is a way you can ignore everything that is not money, sex, and croissants. This is what the French call "l'entre-soi" (literally "among oneself"), the (kind of) unconscious creation of a microcosm of people who strive to only mix with those who are similar to them and to exclude anyone else from it. For example, Thomas, the pretentious professor of philosophy, makes fun of Emily when she invites him to see Swan Lake at the Opéra Garnier. Clearly, this entertainment is too mainstream for his sophisticated tastes. Yet, his rejection of popular culture is symptomatic of an intellectual French entre-soi, which consists of only acknowledging those who received the same prestigious education as you and who can identify what is trivial and what is not according to your social group's norms.

This concept might help understand Emily's struggle to fit in and reminds me of Australian author Sarah Turnbull's travel memoir Almost French (2004). In this book, Sarah Turnbull tells how she left her life in Sydney to move to Paris with her French boyfriend and shares her struggle to adapt to the French culture. In one chapter, in particular, she describes the Paris Fashion Week and the fascinating and bizarre world of haute-couture. While attending her first fashion show, she is embarrassed by her outfit, which clashes with everyone else's: "The fashion pack is a private club with its own unspoken rules. It is clear to everyone. I am an intruder", she writes. In a world dominated by the entre-soi, the imposter's syndrome is stronger than ever, and it appears that Emily also experiences some of it in the show. After all, she was born in the Midwest, and she was not raised to know the complicated codes of the Parisian elite, which they noticed immediately.

4. "La plouc": The French judgment of Americans

And the fact that she is an American woman trying to fit in the Parisian high society really matters in the show. From the first episode, her colleagues gladly share their opinion on Americans: they are all fat, probably because of the "disgusting food", they are loud, they work too much, they are ignorant, and they don't know how to appreciate life.

As they pass their stereotypical judgment on her, it looks like French people are simply rude, which, of course, is not (completely) true. However, the French's tendency to feel superior to their American neighbors is not inexistent, and I have witnessed it many times, especially since a certain election in 2016. In this way, the show translates some of the stereotypical views the French have on Americans. Because Emily comes from the USA, and particularly from the midwest, her colleagues quickly give her a nickname, "la plouc", which roughly translates to "the rube" or "the redneck". This name shows what they see as a lack of sophistication and culture on her part. It also highlights the entre-soi at the office, since the nickname refers to her social origin as being inferior and laughable. In general, they do not credit Emily with any brightness, as proven by Sylvie when she tells her: "You're stating the obvious. That's what you're here for". She cannot imagine that an American woman could come up with insightful comments, especially on the work they do at the firm. It looks like the stereotypes of Americans are strong and hard to debunk, and I believe that there is quite some truth in this depiction of the French elite's disdain for Americans. And since this article is getting too long, I might have to write another one on where this sense of superiority comes from (hint: from the representation of Americans in pop culture, and from the French idea of "cultural exception").

5. Communication is key: Of peaches and coconuts

In the end, it all comes down to how different the French and the American cultures are. And if you thought that the two countries shared enough history, or that they are geographically close enough to be similar, you might have to reconsider it. There are a plethora of small cultural differences that one has to experience to understand other people's behaviors. Those will explain why, for example, Sylvie is deeply annoyed by Emily's eternal optimism and enthusiasm, or why Emily is shocked by the level of inappropriateness in her office's work culture. Every single one of these clashes is rooted in significantly different cultural perspectives in one and the other country.

Which finally brings me to my coconut and peaches. In 1992, dutch author Fons Troompenaars wrote about cross-cultural communication, distinguishing "orientations" according to which various cultures are organized (Riding the Waves of Culture). Drawing on his work, American author Erin Meyer used a rather fruity metaphor: Some populations could be compared to peaches when others could be compared to coconuts.

Peaches, first: although they are soft on the outside, they contain a hard pit which is hard to break down once you have easily peeled off the superficial layers. On the other hand, the coconuts are hard on the outside, but once you go past it, they reveal openness and sweetness. According to this metaphor, the Americans are more like peaches, and the French are more like coconuts. It might explain why Emily is struggling so much to break down the thick layers of French culture when the French roll their eyes at the weakness of her edges. When talking about her own experience in France, Erin Meyer tackles issues met by Emily:

"[...] Coming from a peach culture as I do, I was equally taken aback when I came to live in Europe 14 years ago. My friendly smiles and personal comments were greeted with cold formality by the Polish, French, German, or Russian colleagues I was getting to know. I took their stony expressions as signs of arrogance, snobbishness, and even hostility."

What would have been interesting to see in a show like Emily in Paris is how Emily and her colleagues learn from their awkward experiences, and how they get to communicate better.

I would have loved to see her French-speaking skills progressively improve (but that's just a French teacher speaking), and for her French colleagues to get to appreciate her peachy and optimistic personality. Unfortunately, the show doesn't go that far, and at the end of the last episode, we are left with just coconuts and peaches, and no fruit cocktail.

Maybe in season two?

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1 Comment

Fascinating! I had avoided watching “Emily in Paris” partly because the trailer was so over the top and partly because of some of the (very poor) reviews. But having read your article, I’m now eager to see it, through these various cultural lenses. I hope the show is as entertaining and enlightening (even inadvertently) as your article.

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