Over the last couple of years, streaming services have expanded their offerings of projects based in France. While Netflix’s international team has been licensing content and producing original programming in French for some time, the platform struck gold with Emily in Paris, a sanguine — or almost unbearably saccharine, depending on which side of the Atlantic ocean you ask — series which centres Lily Collins as Emily, a doe-eyed All-American girl eager to bring her Yankee sensibilities to the City of Love. A few months after EIP’s ubiquitous debut came Lupin in January 2021, a thriller series starring Omar Sy and inspired by the beloved character Arsène Lupin of books, comics, cartoon, and film — a master of disguise and thievery, nearly always portrayed as a white man.
While both shows have been runaway hits, they have also been criticised for not having a balanced representation of France, specifically for lacking Black women in any major speaking roles. The reflexive irritation is understandable, as on-screen representation is a common reference point used to reflect the significance of any demographic in the narrative being told. But in French popular media, this glaring omission is actually pretty standard.
In Emily in Paris, which debuted its second season last month with a new Black male lead (Lucien Laviscount as Alfie), Black women are barely seen in the background of the streets of Paris, save for an occasional view in the periphery, tucked away from view, up until a fashion show at Versailles. Even in the halls of the historic palace, the women remain as voiceless ornaments for the garish aesthetic of a queer Black male designer (portrayed by Jeremy O. Harris), using the sheer presence of their bodies and all of their twerking, voguing, and ballroom contortions in such a revered space to make his mark as an outsider in the French fashion establishment. Black femmes were used for nothing but spectacle.
Representation for representation’s sake has a potential of causing harm to the token Black actress cast and does little to dismantle the unspoken French social hierarchy, which is as taboo to discuss as the racial demographics that are masked to obscure it.
Representation is not just a transitive reflection of demographic numbers; it is also one of the strongest reflections of how a director sees their own story and narrative represented in the collective minds of their audiences. The lack of Black women onscreen may be jarring for those who are familiar with some of the more diverse areas of Paris and its surrounding neighbourhoods, such as Chateau Rouge (informally known as the Quartier Africain), the predominantly north African Barbès in the 18th arrondissement, or the infamous banlieues in 93eme — or for those who are used to interacting with nonwhite communities as part of their day-to-day life, in the metro, in the movie theatres, or in schools. But if you know French cinema and how Paris is typically depicted, it does not come as much of a surprise that these communities are erased — historically, France does not have a great reputation for their representation of ethnic minorities in media, with media reports since the 21st century critiquing how nonwhites, on the rare occasions they are on screen, have been othered, and represented as victims and savages.
Emily in Paris creator Darren Star understands this well, defending his choices by explaining, “I’m not sorry for looking at Paris through a glamorous lens… I wanted to do a show that celebrated that part of Paris.” As crass as the statement may be, it is simply an articulation of what we are seeing on screen, which by a combination of casting, writing, and directing may be the most honest subconscious reflection of many white people's interactions with Blackness and Black culture in France, which is largely transactional and otherwise invisible, and why many tourists register surprise at the amount of Black people in Paris when they first arrive. As a result of indoctrination through a combination of corporate and state efforts to represent one image of France on screen, tourists arrive expecting Paris to look like a classic Yves Saint Laurent perfume ad, where whiteness is the expectation and Blackness is essentially nonexistent.
Throughout the better part of the last century, Black America’s artisan class has had a documented love affair with France: Josephine Baker (who was recently the first Black woman ever to be inducted into France’s Panthéon) and Lois Mailou Jones in the 1920s, James Baldwin and Richard Wright in the 40s, legendary Jazz artists such as Dexter Gordon and Bud Powell in the 60s (as well as the recently departed filmmaker Melvin van Peebles) and contemporary thinkers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates in the 21st century. These touchpoints all come together to serve a narrative that positions France as a safe haven for Black people and a respite for the ills of American institutional racism, fostering goodwill and political capital amongst its expatriate community while in the midst of negotiating independence treaties across multiple countries throughout the 60s and 70s as one of the largest colonial empires in the African continent and greater Black diaspora.
This cognitive dissonance would become a calling card for the French; while Paris would come to be known the world over as the ”City of Love” for its picturesque tourist landmarks and romantic views from the River Seine at night, most, if not all, images of France that are propagated within advertising, film and television would be notably white, despite post-colonial immigration patterns from the African continent and Caribbean rapidly increasing in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. This is the main metric we can use to ascertain the growing presence of nonwhite people in France as race and ethnicity are still forbidden to be tracked on the national census (the French philosophy of universalism presents a unique double bind of suppressing the very issue that needs to be discussed). In France, proper citizenship means assimilation into whiteness, or the idea of the nation above the lived experiences of their distinctions.
In Episode 5 of Emily in Paris, newcomer Alfie tells Emily that his biggest gripe with Paris is that it sells you a fantasy, something that just isn’t real. In the context of the series, it serves a tongue in cheek acknowledgement that the show, like many programmes that are centralised in London, Rome, Milan, New York City, and many others, creates an artificial universe that exists outside the practicalities of what makes a metropolis properly function. However, with the French detail layered in, there is the unintentional subtext of how French entertainment history has, both intentionally and unintentionally, removed Black women from the mainstream narrative as a subtle means of asserting its fantastical identity.
Tourists arrive expecting Paris to look like a classic Yves Saint Laurent perfume ad, where whiteness is the expectation and Blackness is essentially nonexistent.
If culture is intended to capture the sociopolitical present, then we would be better served examining our twinges of discomfort with what we are not seeing on the screen as an indication of how the social norms imbued into French identity are defined by assimilation into whiteness as the standard, despite all insistence to the contrary. The package that is sold to international audiences with fond sentimentality at the expense of Black people, and Black women the most, is delegating them even further into the margins as street dealers or housekeepers. This push-and-pull leads to watershed moments like Aissa Maiga at 2018 Cannes, where she led 16 other Black French actresses and walked the red carpet to highlight the disenfranchisement they’d endured in the French TV & Film industry, two weeks after the debut of the collection of essays "Noir n'est pas mon metier" (“Being Black is not my job”). Maiga would double down on her convictions while on the César stage in 2020. "We survived whitewashing, blackface, tons of dealer roles, housekeepers with a Bwana accent, we survived the roles of terrorists, all the roles of hyper-sexualised girls," she said, stunning an audience into a hushed and uncomfortable silence. "But we are not going to leave French cinema alone."
It is for this reason that the invisibility you see onscreen in shows set in France is the most accurate reflection of the Black French reality today — Black women are underbooked and only selected to be typecast. The exceptions happen in roles where they have more control behind the camera and of the story, in which case they usually don't get the institutional support they should. Where there is representation on mainstream programmes, it is rarely the kind that Black French women find favourable, such as Celine Sciamma’s Bande de filles/Girlhood, which was critically lauded as another outstanding work by the famed director, but sharply critiqued by many locals. Take this casting call as an example. In it, young Black French women aged 18-28 are solicited for a week’s worth of work for 105 euros (£95) per day to play prostitutes actively soliciting sex work on the street or trafficking victims in varying states of undress, with additional base rates paid for willingness to be in lingerie or full nudity.
With such paltry rates being offered for Black women to be portrayed as sex trafficking victims, it begs the question: is all representation on camera worth it? When asking for more Black women on a French show, we should be judicious about what we are asking for and who we are asking on behalf of, lest we be complicit in painting Black people onto a milieu that is full of the unseen dangers involved in participating in the show itself, whether it may be terrible pay, colourist casting, limiting and negative characterisations, or merely devoid of the context of the Black world that they interact in on a day to day basis.
As new international shows and films get made and we continue to engage within our diasporas, these conversations about representation will continue. While vocalising blatant discrepancies are important, it is equally critical to vocalise both who we are speaking for and what we are speaking to – Rokhaya Diallo’s documentary Ou Sont Les Noirs ( translated: “Where Are The Black People), for example, not only speaks with Black French actors, directors, casting agents, and comedians about the institutional problems they’ve faced in getting substantial growth in their career but the film itself also faced obstacles getting distribution in French television before landing at French network RMC Story. The inequities in French representation are a deeply-entrenched social failing that will not be repaired by simply casting a Black woman on screen of a Netflix show. Writer Paulette Nardal, who was foundational to France’s Négritude movement, made this point in her 1932 essay, “Awakening of Race Consciousness.” She wrote, “the coloured woman living alone in the metropolis, until the colonial exhibition, have certainly been less favoured than coloured men who are content with a certain easy success.”
In the same vein as Nardal’s observation, Lupin has, of course, been trotted out as an example of positive representation of Black identity in France, with Omar Sy taking a leading role in an otherwise nearly pristine universe, devoid of Black women. Despite being a literal fly in the buttermilk, he is able to operate as a master in disguise, using the ignorance of those around him to the movements of the working class to his advantage. In the show, often “working-class” and “non-white” function as synonyms. Practically, it is unfathomable that Sy’s character would have zero Black women to interact with in his life, even if he was not dating them (both of Lupin’s love interests on the show are white). However, considering the tragic backstory Sy’s character has been given (his father dies in prison after being wrongfully convicted of stealing his employer’s jewellery, leaving him in the foster system), it’s safe to assume that any Black woman character entering the show would not be granted depth or meaningful plotlines beyond traumatic suffering. It is also worth acknowledging that Sy himself endured significant racist pushback in France for daring to enter such a beloved universe once his casting was announced, as Lupin and all associated entities have canonically been perceived as white. Clearly, one Black person in this series was already one Black person too many.
When asking for more Black women on a French show, we should be judicious about what we are asking for and who we are asking on behalf of, lest we be complicit in painting Black people onto a milieu that is full of the unseen dangers.
Despite this, there are ways to support the Black community and their current creative works. On Netflix, please watch Maimouna Doucouré’s feature directorial debut, Cuties, which is a lovely coming of age tale for young Black girls in France that was woefully derailed by American QAnon conspiracies; there are also shows like Mortel, Plan Coeur (The Hookup Plan), Braquers, and the films Tout Simplement Noir (Simply Black, available on international Netflix) and Les Miserables (streaming on Amazon Prime). For those with a competency in French, there are podcasts like Kiffe ta race and A L’Intersection that explore the topics of race, gender, and religion that are ongoing in the country as the community continues to approach the critical apex of dissonance between parlance and practice; and as travel slowly resumes, there are tours you can take for those who are just visiting like Le Paris Noir, to get a proper cultural introduction of the Black legacy in the city.
It is not critical to have Black women featured in Emily in Paris; caucasian directors have consistently been given carte blanche to showcase their romantic version of myopic white adulthood in classic urban locales, from Friends to Sex and the City. The difference, however, is that in American contexts, we have been able to build our own stories in response, from Living Single to Insecure. Advocating for inserting Black women into all popular French narratives without context or indicators as to a show’s sensibilities on race, gender, and how that gaze will be rendered on the screen is a risky game of roulette; will the role have depth or avoid harmful stereotypes? Representation for representation’s sake has a potential of causing harm to the token Black actress cast and does little to dismantle the unspoken French social hierarchy, which is as taboo to discuss as the racial demographics that are masked to obscure it.
Instead, the higher imperative is to create opportunities for Black women to control their own stories, and allow them to set standards to enable them to have viable and healthy careers in French cinema — both in front of and behind the camera. Maybe then it won’t sting as much to watch Lily traipse around her fictional caucasian France, searching for her piece of American sentimentality without a Black face in sight.