The Karen Abroad: Flawed American Exceptionalism And The Use Of Regressive Stereotypes As Shown In Emily In Paris

Written by Luke Barnes

This will be a slightly different post to the ones I normally write. I want to write this as more of an in-depth look at what I think is a major issue within entertainment. American Exceptionalism abroad. Of course I am using the lens of Netflix’s Emily In Paris, a show about an American woman, played by Lilly Collins, who goes to France for a fashion job and the series charts her life there. I am not the first to make these points or come to these conclusions, but Emily In Paris is the embodiment of the faux idea of American Exceptionalism, the examples I give can also be referenced in hundreds of other shows and movies as well.

Upon the end of the show’s first season Emily In Paris got a lot of criticism for some of the issues I am going to bring up, the show then tried to address and change this in the second season which has just aired, but rather than actually fix things it seems like the show has just doubled down on all the things people hate and has flipped the audience off in the process.

To get to my first example from the show, when Emily first arrives in Paris she decides that everything her French co-workers have done is wrong and that only her American way can save the company. One can draw some comparisons to a white saviour narrative arc here however here it is not about race but nationality, this is the American saviour. Of course the natives, The French, are resistance to Emily’s American brilliance but of course she is shown to be right and they are all shown to be incompetent. This backs up the outdated world view that nowhere is as successful or as creative as America and that no company can achieve true success without an American’s help, which is widely insulting, but also embodies American Exceptionalism.

Secondly, Emily makes no effort to learn French or to respect local traditions or customs, this is somewhat remedied  in season two as they make a big point out of showing her trying to learn French. However, even in this capitulation the show is two faced. In the beginning the narrative suggests that Emily doesn’t need to learn French as those around her need to come to her and need to speak English, as by not they are being rude even though it is not an English speaking country. This furthers the entitled air of the show. With the second season having her learning French it is the bare minimum yet the show wants us to worship Emily and revere her for doing it, this shouldn’t be encouraged this should just be a standard, but no, in the world of Emily In Paris if a character doesn’t capitulate to Emily, thereby to America, they are in the wrong.

My final example and perhaps what some might call my smoking gun is the show’s use of stereotypes for the French and later Ukrainian characters. Many America shows carry with them somewhat of a xenophobia perspective, this idea of the American characters being normal and everyone outside of their country being off, bad, or somehow lesser to them. Nowhere is this better shown then in the use of stereotyping, you might see this when American shows portray the Irish as alcoholics, the English as having bad teeth or in the case of Emily In Paris the French as being rude, philanders who can’t keep to Emily’s own moral values. Many French critics have called out this show for its depiction of French people and French culture, as it has been highlighted as damaging and unenlightened. The way the show portrays French people is done as a means to lessen them in the eyes of an American audience, here we have Emily just trying to be nice and the mean foreigner is ignoring her.

Moreover, don’t even get me started on how the show tries to sexually shame the French people by showing them as constantly sleeping around, which of course karen Emily judges, only to later show highly questionable sexual behaviour herself. She sleeps with a minor and the show brushes it off as a joke and even has it be recurring. The hypocrisy is not lost.

In the second season the show changes it target after being called out too much for its depiction of the French and goes after Ukrainian’s, creating a new character who is a walking cliché shown as being a thief and terrified of being deported; if I were Ukrainian I would find that highly insulting. However, you see dear reader that it doesn’t matter where the foreign character is from they have to be brought low so that Emily and by default America can feel good about itself, because at the end of the day that is what American Exceptionalism, as flawed as it is, is all about. A vain effort to ignore all of the systematic issues of their own country by projecting themselves as the best people on the planet, with everyone else left as a stereotype.

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