One day before France lost the World Cup, I visited Manhattan’s “Little Paris,” a one-block-long neighborhood on Centre Street that seems to have been invented in the past couple of years by a handful of France-adjacent businesses. Along a corridor housing a French bakery, a French language school, and a Beaux-Arts luxury apartment building that used to be the headquarters of the NYPD, crowds of people milled in long lines. The density of bodies reminded me of photos I’d been seeing all week of bars and squares in Paris or Marseille, except that almost everyone here was a woman, and everybody was acting pretty orderly. We were gathered not for football nationalism reasons but because this past Saturday was the final day of a three-day-long pop-up event called Emily in Little Paris, a brand activation for Emily in Paris, Netflix’s television show about a girl named Emily who lives in Paris.
Briefly: Emily is a waifish American in her twenties who works for a Chicago-based marketing company. At the beginning of the show—which premiered in late 2020, right around the time people started using the word “cheugy”—she has a beefy boyfriend and loves the Cubs. She doesn’t speak French, but due to some plot contrivances her company sends her to live in Paris for a year, to work alongside a boutique French marketing agency they’ve acquired. Even though Emily’s new French colleagues find her impossibly vulgar and American, her millennial provincialism furnishes her with the know-how to cook up extravagant marketing strategies for the firm’s old-world clients, and in every episode she brings Instagram virality to champagne brands and luxury fashion houses, like a chirpy Don Draper. Meanwhile, outside of work, she pursues a social media identity of her own, documenting herself eating pastries and stomping imperially around the city with an iPhone as large and flashy as a Haussmann boulevard.
When Emily in Paris debuted, people I knew seemed split about how to read and evaluate it. On one hand, it was plainly one of the most insipid pieces of television ever devised. Emily is unbelievably small-minded and vacant: she refuses to learn French or even smoke a cigarette, splits up her best friends’ relationship despite lacking any grown-up sex appeal, and doesn’t know how to wash a cast iron pan. Her wardrobe is tacky in an almost otherworldly way, consisting mostly of loud garments adorned with the Eiffel Tower, in case the viewer has forgotten where Emily in Paris takes place. And she’s simply enraptured by social media, approaching every morning jog, afternoon croissant, and sunset over the Seine as an opportunity for a selfie. If the show has a narrative arc at all, it’s Emily’s rising Instagram follower count, the numbers of which flash onscreen throughout each episode like the timestamp in 24. As TV goes, it’s a premise so mind-numbing and attention-repelling that some critics started calling the show “ambient television.”
On the other hand: doesn’t all this frivolity make Emily in Paris a kind of apotheosis of the televisual medium? Its mise en scene, garishly bright and with depths of field large enough to capture even the most petite baguette-shaped earring, takes the aesthetics of post-prestige streaming TV and dials them up to 11. The show affords epistemological priority to Emily by focusing on her enchanting romantic dramas, sure, but it also lingers on sequences where French people berate her for being corny and basic, suggesting a degree of cultural self-awareness even where it threatens to alienate viewers who might see themselves in the protagonist. Even Emily’s dutiful, dead-eyed preoccupation with virality and marketing analytics mirrors Netflix’s obsession with its own growth. It is as if TV finally looked at itself and made the hollow conditions of its own reception an active plot point, the way novels in the ’60s started to incorporate literary critics as characters. There is, in other words, a generous reading of Emily in Paris, which was after all created by Darren Star, who made Sex and the City and presumably knows his way around TV: it’s possible that the show is a withering work of media criticism.
I’m afraid, however, that I didn’t initially read it that way. A humiliating personal fact: two years ago, when the first season of Emily in Paris came out, I watched it and had the closest thing I’ve ever had to a breakdown. It was the antisocial first winter of the pandemic, and I was, at the time, not doing much with my days besides working a job that involved handling digital advertising for this magazine. I had a lot of shame about this job, which more and more struck me as mindless work for a radically unserious person. We would publish an article about the threat of far-right nationalism, or a review of a book about surveillance capitalism, and then I would turn the piece into a Facebook ad. Was “marketing,” even for a good cause, fundamentally slimy, hypocritical, and beholden to capital’s most powerful and destructive digital actors? Was I?
Emily in Paris spectacularly confirmed my suspicions. Watching it at the well-meaning suggestion of a friend, who thought I might be amused by its outrageous portrayal of millennial women, I felt almost violently interpellated. Emily, everyone agreed, was catastrophically dumb, hooked to her phone, skilled at the non-art of digital branding and nothing else. Her savviness in marketing was enabled by an inner emptiness that left her sublimely incurious about life’s loftier realms. In one episode, she meets a semiotics professor at a café, who tells her (prompting, of course, a marketing epiphany) that “when two things are next to each other, you’re forced to compare them.” The viewer is supposed to apply the statement to Emily and the semiotician: he’s cool where she’s ringarde, he’s got a Barthes paperback where she’s got that huge honking phone. But right there on my computer, the two things that were next to each other were the Netflix tab and the Facebook Ads Manager tab. Was my work for n+1 any different from Emily’s work for Savoir? Was I, in fact, any different from her? The more I watched, the more real despair I felt, identification striking me like a French laundry truck. Emily and I were the same age, same demographic profile. Like her, I speak no French and don’t know the third arrondissement from the twelfth. And I thought about Instagram ads all day, too.
The Emily in Little Paris event seemed to promise, if not liberté, at least some degree of sororité: here was a place where everyone was Emily. I don’t know if I’ve ever been to a “pop-up event” before—the term has always reminded me of erections, and I don’t like lines—but, as an indulgent friend and I approached the mass of people grouped on Centre Street, I intuitively understood the gist of the thing: the attendee is prompted to live life like Emily. Like the show, the pop-up begins with international travel: heading toward Little Paris from Chinatown, the EiLP-goer is handed a “passport” by one of several attendants in navy Netflix-branded puffy jackets—which, in combination with the travel documents and the lines, carried a strong suggestion of TSA. (I chatted with one of the attendants for a while, who told me that he doesn’t actually work for Netflix—he’s an employee of a third-party events management company that specializes in “brand ambassadoring.” Then he told me I’d just missed a visit from Star himself!) The passports were realistically passport-ish, with that distinct shiny–toothy texture, and included a sort of bingo card where you could get stamps at the various stations—called “Experiences”—that stretched along the block, between Netflix-branded trucks.
Each Experience offered a glimpse at Parisian life, or at least Emily’s version of it. My passport instructed me to take “Emily-inspired selfies” and “in true Emily fashion, eat the whole crepe” at the free crepe station; the “Emily & Mindy Bench” photo op was a pretty persuasive facsimile of the spot in the Palais-Royal Garden where Emily and her friend sit together and silently look at their phones. Even the grammatical structure of the pop-up’s name suggested a kind of transitive Emilification of everybody. Who’s in Little Paris? Emily is! But so are you—and thus you are Emily.
It was not hard, either, to discern a powerful strain of Emily-ness among the attendees. The lines for each Experience teemed with white women (“where are the fruity men?” my friend whispered), a sort of surprising percentage of whom were wearing berets. One person was trotting around a poodle, who was also wearing a beret, and every so often I’d glimpse a cluster of beret-clad little kids—Emilys Junior. Wandering around the event’s periphery, I asked a few visitors what they liked about the show. One woman told me she liked the scenery. Another—an Australian—told me that she’d lived in Paris before and found the show “authentic.” “I mean, I didn’t do the things Emily did,” she amended. “But today I am!”
What exactly did it mean to do the things Emily does? Mostly it seemed to involve consuming complimentary food and drink. I was sincerely impressed by how much free stuff there was. In addition to the free crepe Experience, there was free hot cocoa, free floral bouquets, and even, if you signed up quickly enough, free tickets to watch the Season 3 premiere at Netflix’s aptly named Paris Theater uptown. It reminded me of college, where student groups would lure people in with pizza or muffins. And just like college, there were classes—you could take a free French lesson!
But Little Paris is in fact in America, where not very much is free, and after examining my new passport I learned the catch. You could only get a hot chocolate or a glass of champagne or a free “gift-wrapping session” at the Catbird Holiday Market if you took a photograph at one of the designated selfie spots Netflix had set up—the Emily and Mindy Bench, a branded archway—and tagged the streaming platform on Instagram. This was, I realized, why these things are called what they are: I was witnessing passive consumers get “activated.”
Determined to at least learn some free French, my friend and I made our way toward Coucou, a French language school and cultural center on the second story of a building a few storefronts down from Maman Bakery, and by far the pop-up’s least swarmed Experience. I kind of liked the vibe in Coucou: there’s a big library, and a kitchen with free snacks that you didn’t even have to debase yourself to eat. (I got a seltzer, flavored in one of the few French words every American knows—pamplemousse.) A French conversation group was convening in one corner to discuss Edith Piaf. In the kitchen area, I talked to two cool and friendly women, also sipping seltzers, who seemed to have a normal and healthy relationship to Emily in Paris. They were from Argentina, where they said the show is very popular. “It’s silly,” one of them told me mildly. “It’s not very smart. But people like it for that. And it’s cute to watch something set in France.”
I pointed out that it was a contentious weekend for French-Argentinian relations. The two women looked at each other sheepishly. “We shouldn’t even be here,” one of them said.
Eventually we were ushered into a small room for our free “fifteen-minute French lesson,” which turned out to be a kind of ritual guessing game about French pronunciation. At the front of the room, an unflaggingly jolly instructor (thirties, mustached) greeted us from behind a desk. A TV screen hung above him, on which was displayed a Wheel of Fortune–style wheel, with a different travel-themed French word on each wedge. Onscreen, the digital wheel spun until the smiling man pressed a button to select a random word. The phrase “une occasion” appeared on the screen. “Now try to say it!” he instructed, encouragingly. We’d received no guidelines for French pronunciation.
“On oh-kay-shen,” said a person seated in the first of two rows.
“Very good!” he beamed. My companion and I looked at each other in alarm.
“Oon ock-ah-see-ohn,” said another.
“Wonderful, wonderful, yes,” said the smiling man evenly.
My friend, who speaks pretty good French, went next. When she pulled out a perfect pronunciation, the instructor was neither more nor less encouraging toward her than he was toward anyone else.
My heart genuinely pounded when he looked at me, aglow with avuncular warmth. I was wretchedly hungover. I filled my mouth with air. “Ounh ah-caus-ioh,” I tried, doing my best to imitate my friend’s graceful way of tiptoeing around those Ns.
I must have sounded ludicrous, because even the “oh-kay-shen” lady turned around to sneer at me.
As the delighted instructor spun the wheel again (“un avion”), I had a powerful, almost psychedelic sensation of reality and television collapsing. I was myself, experiencing the same basic lifelong structures of abjection and shame I’d felt during my winter of Emily in Paris–induced gloom. But I was also—much more “actively” than I’d ever been when I was so worked up about TV—Emily, mispronouncing basic French, aware of my excessive Americanness, being laughed at by people in berets. The people in the berets were of course also Emily, but the Netflix guys downstairs were Emily, too, and so were the people behind the scenes who had put the whole thing together and orchestrated the French bakery chain tie-in and built the audience of New York–based Netflix-subscribed middle-income women who would be served the Instagram ad that had, I remembered dizzily, alerted me to the existence of Emily in Little Paris in the first place. The whole thing seemed, suddenly, like the kind of thing Emily herself would have come up with: overthought, hokey, but somehow also genius—a piece of experiential marketing for a television show about experiential marketing. Had Emily in Little Paris mimicked the tone and texture of the show too well? Surely brand activation events weren’t supposed to double as alienation events, but this one clearly was, and not just for me: “We have to leave,” my friend whispered after yet another depraved round of French pronunciation guessing. We stood up and filed out, as the TV-wheel spun above us.