Cheating, croissants, couture: Young Parisians revile cliché-packed 'Emily in Paris'

“It was worse than cliché, it felt like it was Americans mocking French people,” one young French woman said. “I don’t understand their vision of Paris.” 

The series plays on perceived tensions between American and French lifestyles.Max Butterworth / NBC News

Cheating, croissants, couture  — while “Emily in Paris” has transfixed young female American viewers, it is reviled by many of the real-life residents of the city it milks for laughs. 

In Netflix’s most popular comedy series of 2020, viewers were transported away from the grim reality of the coronavirus pandemic to a glossy, stylish and frankly unrealistic version of the City of Light. The second season of the hit series by Darren Star, who was behind "Sex in the City," also plays on perceived tensions between American and French lifestyles, and swiftly became a top 10 on the streaming service after it dropped in December.

The fantastical depiction of Paris and those who live, work and love there is in line with "Sex In the City" celebrating New York, presenting the French capital as a dreamscape complete with characters wearing over-the-top outfits, handsome Gallic men and a deluxe sleeper train to Saint-Tropez.

In one scene, a character quips that Americans live to work and the French work to live. Carole Bethuel / Netflix

It is this unrealistic portrayal of their city and the stereotypical, and sometimes unflattering, depiction of the French that so irks some young Parisian women and those living in surrounding suburbs, many of whom have railed against the show. The series follows Emily Cooper (Lily Collins), a 20-something marketing executive from Chicago as she navigates life in the French capital. 

“It was worse than cliché, it felt like it was Americans mocking French people,” said Julie Seguin, 27, who didn’t finish the first season and said she had no plans to watch the second. “I don’t understand their vision of Paris.” 

While the new season reached the Netflix Top 10 even in France — Seguin is not alone. 

Young women who spoke to NBC News said they didn’t recognize their city or their lives in the series, where characters are wealthy, many barely work, men are obsessed with sex and people have passionate but fraught affairs — caricatures that do not match reality for most Parisians, they said. 

The lack of diversity and limited exploration of different Parisian neighborhoods shown in the series also vexed viewers. 

“Paris is not just about the Louvre, Saint Germain and the Tuileries gardens,” said Alexandra Milhat, a 32-year-old Parisian, listing the world-renowned museum, one of Paris’ most ornate parks and a wealthy neighborhood on Paris’ Left Bank that feature in the show. “Paris has very diverse neighborhoods with different cultures.” 

One irritant raised by viewers is that Emily is portrayed as a know-it-all who schools the French.Stephanie Branchu / Netflix

The vast majority of those depicted in the show were white people, she said, with the exception of a few “token” characters. In the series, Emily’s best friend in the city is Asian, and her coworker is Black. In the second season, the creators cast Lucien Laviscount, a British actor of color, as a love interest.

“Even when she walks down the street, there’s not one Arab, Black or Asian person in the background, it’s only white people,” Milhat said. “To me, this is not Paris.”

Paris is indeed a multicultural city, but the extent of its diversity is difficult to quantify because France largely prohibits the government from counting people by race or ethnicity. 

Many of the more than a dozen young women who spoke about "Emily in Paris" believed the show should have moved away from the dated French stereotypes. Stop with the depictions of work-shy French, several said. 

Americans are also a target in the show. One character accuses Emily of arrogance in coming to Paris for work when she does not speak French. Carole Bethuel / Netflix

In one early episode, Emily turns up to work at 8.30 a.m. only to find that her office opens at 10.30 a.m. Her colleagues are often shown having leisurely breaks accompanied by wine. 

Milhat said that while those in France may not have the same working schedules as Americans and have longer holidays and paid leave, French people work long hours. 

“I’ve never started working at 11 a.m., unless it was a late shift ending at 11 p.m.,” she said. 

Another irritant: Emily as a know-it-all who schools the French. 

“She’s always presented as the messiah. It’s very stereotypical American saviorism,” said Julia Perraud, 27, who grew up in Paris’ suburbs and now works in communications. 

Netflix declined to comment on the story. 

The series also irked some viewers for its portrayal of a Ukrainian character, Petra, in the second season. Ukrainian Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko described the depiction of the character, who is seen shoplifting in the show, as “offensive.”

But Americans are also a target. In one scene, Emily’s colleague Luc accuses her of arrogance in coming to Paris for work when she does not speak French. 

“More ignorant than arrogant,” she says. 

“Well, let’s call it the arrogance of ignorance,” he responds. 

Not everyone disliked the show.

Fiona Schmidt, a feminist journalist and author, said she didn’t expect "Emily in Paris" to be anything other than what it was: “Light entertainment that has no other pretension than being entertaining and light.”  

While the show did not reflect the Paris she knew, Schmidt added that it was fiction and not a documentary. Besides, she said, the fantasy was likely part of the reason for the success of the series. 

“The vision of Paris is totally unrealistic, but the real Paris isn’t very entertaining at the moment and we have a great desire for entertainment right now,” she said. 

Beyond the coronavirus pandemic, Paris has been scarred by terrorist attacks and been the scene of mass protests over a tax, racism and police brutality in recent years. In some areas of the city, asylum-seekers and migrants sleep rough in makeshift camps.  

The show shows none of this and is instead packed with stunning and typically Parisian vistas, cloudless days, glitzy evenings and boat rides along the Seine.  

“You don’t watch these TV shows to see a news report,” said Fanny Garcia, 29, a social worker in Paris who also liked the show. “You watch these to escape, it’s positive, you laugh, you see the beautiful side of Paris.” 

But Paloma Clément Picos, an independent journalist who writes on cinema and television, said she felt sorry for anyone who visited Paris for the first time after watching "Emily in Paris." 

“Darren Star created a Paris that doesn’t exist, and us Parisians are going to be the ones who get blamed for not matching expectations.”

The show features stunning and typically Parisian views. Stephanie Branchu / Netflix

For Jennifer Padjemi, a French sociocultural journalist and author, erasing the diversity of Paris is something American television and cinema often does as they tend to portray a “fantasy” version of the city —  the Paris of Hausmann buildings and expensive shops.  

“It’s a form of reality that’s real to the American community, which is very present in the capital but which is very closed, they stay together,” she said. 

From Ernest Hemingway to Woody Allen, Paris has long held an intoxicating place in the American imagination, and "Emily in Paris" is just the latest attempt to capture its spirit. The series plays on perceived tensions between American and French lifestyles, with Luc in one scene quipping that Americans live to work and the French work to live.

Padjemi said perhaps the show is better understood as a depiction of the life of an expat navigating a different city, rather than a show about the daily life of Parisians. 

“Why should we expect a TV show led by an American who’s completely disconnected from the capital and has an idealized vision of it to represent Paris?” she asked.