Emily in Politics: How Netflix’s Portrayal of the American Tourist Impacts the United States’ Image Abroad

SAN FRANCISCO — In the television series “Emily in Paris,” Emily (played by actress Lily Collins) is a fun, upbeat and young American woman who arrives in Paris, ready to explore the city. At first glance, the Netflix show, released in October 2020, sounds like a promising and exciting source of entertainment. However, it quickly received criticism online for its poor storylines, stereotypical messaging and allegedly insensitive content. While the 10-episode show has been criticized across the board, it is also worth exploring the show’s poor reflection of U.S. tourism abroad and how it has, consequently, damaged the United States’ global image.

If that sounds extreme, it might be. After all, the show is first and foremost a fictional romantic comedy, most likely not meant to be taken seriously. Yet it must also be contextualized by a long-held negative perception of American tourists across the world, particularly in Europe. 

“Emily in Paris” is a revealing look at how ethnocentrism manifests in not only the stereotypical American tourist, but in narrative structures within the entertainment industry. Even the premise of the show, where Emily comes to Paris only to offer her much-needed “American” perspective to a French marketing firm, implies that the French marketing firm is in desperate need of this “American” way in order to garner and maintain success.  

French critics lambasted the show for its stereotypical image of Paris, but also how blatantly oblivious the show’s main character Emily is to French cultural norms and practices. Emily comes to Paris not knowing how to speak French and throughout the series, it’s not clear whether she ever fully makes the effort to try. Instead, the show implies that Emily’s ignorance of the culture is a benefit to her experience in Paris. She solves problems, presented as different cultural challenges in the workplace and in her love life, in her own “American” way. 

It is not an exaggeration to say that, in many ways, Emily represents the microcosm of fears about U.S. tourism in European countries and throughout the world. At one point in the show, Emily is eating in a Parisian restaurant with her friend Mindy (played by actress Ashley Park). She is upset that her steak comes out too bloody, and insistently tells the waiter that he needs to send it back to be cooked correctly, despite the waiter telling her that it is cooked the way it is supposed to be. Throughout this conversation, Emily is confrontational and seemingly believes that her way is the best way. 

After demanding the waiter to return the dish for the second time, Emily tells Mindy that she can “educate” the chef on customer service. Mindy is skeptical, asking her if she really thinks she can change the entire French culture just by sending back her steak. 

To French critics, this was only one example of how Emily plays into the image of the stereotypical American tourist who believes she has the capability to transform France and French people for the better. 

The idea that American tourists are disrespectful and deliberately ignorant about cultures outside of their own is not an uncommon sentiment about the United States that is portrayed in entertainment. 

In the film “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga,” for example, Will Ferrell stars as Icelander Lars Erickssong who travels to Scotland for the Eurovision Song Contest. At one point Lars meets a group of American tourists and is irritated at their obnoxious mannerisms. He yells that Europe isn’t their “party town” to come and disrespect. 

In a YouTube video by French content creator Friendly Space Ninja, titled “Emily in Paris: Romanticizing Ignorance,” the channel dissects the many ways “Emily in Paris” promotes ethnocentrism disguised as quirkiness. The video has over 4 million views. Despite Emily’s obnoxious personality, Friendly Space Ninja argues that she is idolized as innovative and modern, while many of the French characters are repeatedly demeaned and infantilized. Emily becomes the “savior” of the company and she is celebrated for it. 

Cultural critic Noah Berlatsky writes it best when he connects the show to greater sentiments of American exceptionalism. 

“The city is an adventure for the guileless American,” he wrote. 

Berlatsky alludes to Paris as less of an actual city and more of a figment of the American imagination, ready for a quintessential American girl like Emily to shape it into existence. In terms of escapism, “Emily in Paris” is an entertaining watch, if only to laugh at Emily’s distinctly “American” antics. What’s more laughable, however, is the idea that American tourists’ entitlement and ignorance make them a benefit to the European countries they visit.

In response to the backlash from French critics, however, “Emily in Paris” producer Darren Star defended the television series against accusations that it was grossly misrepresentative of French culture. 

“The show is a love letter to Paris through the eyes of this American girl who has never been there,” he told the Hollywood Reporter. “The first thing she is seeing is the clichés because it’s from her point of view.”

The fact that “Emily in Paris” is internationally available through Netflix means that its global reach could be an asset. According to the measurement company Nielsen, Netflix users watched more than 676 million minutes of “Emily in Paris” in the first week it was released. If Emily was culturally respectful, took the time to listen to her co-workers’ criticisms of her and actually learned the French language, she might be a more positive representation of American values. 

Such a depiction could be a much-needed step in changing former stereotypes of American tourists and improving international perceptions of American tourism, particularly by boosting the United States’ soft power, or the appeal of its global value and image, abroad. 

In an article for the Carnegie Endowment about Korean television dramas and their potential for South Korea’s cultural image, political science scholar Jenna Gibson connects television shows to greater diplomatic endeavors. She writes that television shows have the power to shape audience perceptions of the country that created those shows. 

“Soft power takes the appeal of soft resources — attractive pop culture fixtures like movie stars and pop icons, tourist attractions, and a welcoming environment for study abroad programs — and combines them to create, and solidify, new long-term changes in how people think about or interact with the country in question,” Gibson writes.

Television shows like “Emily in Paris” reinforce negative global images of the United States by repeating the same stereotypical American tourist trope for global and domestic audiences. It’s a cycle that is further perpetuated by prospective American tourists who take in media and entertainment like “Emily in Paris,” observe Emily solving her problems by being culturally disrespectful, and believe that that is the ideal they should aspire to. 

The tension between the making of “Emily in Paris” and its negative reception reveal the complicated relationship between entertainment and international affairs, where each has an impact on the other. A positive representation of U.S. tourism might just be the necessary image for the United States to project abroad. Unfortunately, “Emily in Paris” fails to contribute in any meaningful way. 

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Valerie Wu

Valerie Wu is a junior at the University of Southern California, where she is pursuing a double major in Narrative Studies and Law, History, and Culture, as well as a minor in Cinematic Arts. At Glimpse she specializes in analyzing global arts/entertainment, cultural diplomacy, and the Asia-Pacific region. Outside of Glimpse, she serves as a resident film critic at the Daily Trojan and previously conceptualized and wrote “Soft Power,” a biweekly column about transnational popular culture in relation to Chinese American identity. Originally from the Bay Area, she enjoys exploring Los Angeles and in particular, eating out at restaurants in the San Gabriel Valley.

wuvaleri@usc.edu