Towards the end of Brexit's transition period last year, I took a leap of faith and moved to Paris. A month into it, Netflix premiered Emily in Paris. I didn’t intend to watch the show, but after receiving countless texts from friends dubbing me as "Faye in Paris", I felt somewhat of an obligation to press play. I was convinced that I could dismiss personal comparisons after seeing it, and with season one, I did. But the inaccuracy of Parisian life was pretty entertaining, so I continued with season two, and from a sexed-up perception des français, it left me with a little (ok, a lot) more to say.
Episode three, five minutes in. Emily visits a Moroccan hammam with friend (slash soon-to-be foe) Camille, and the pair are joined by a group of Camille’s friends. The greetings – and entire scene, for that matter – feel instantly removed from the rest of the season, quite simply because all of the French women featured are topless (the first sight of exposure in the show). Now, I know that baring your breasts in a spa isn’t exactly a radical choice, but as the only expat in the room, it’s convenient that Emily decides to vote against it.
She requests a robe upon entry and sits awkwardly in the setting, while her French company nakedly embrace each other and flaunt their chests for all (virtual) viewers to see. So as it seems, the show’s screenwriters are confident in verifying this body ownership as a normal trait of La Parisienne. But if it is normal, then why did the scene leave me – someone who interacts with and relates to real Parisiennes today – feeling nothing more than frustrated?
Why must the first semi-nude scene in the series be of four young women taking a sweaty steam together?
I think it’s because this image, much like others in the show, is an attempt to capture an avant-garde view of Paris for the shock-value of a non-French viewership. But the cost of this particular attempt cuts much deeper. The scene is clearly trying to make an uplifting point on how French women feel free to expose their breasts, but as it was playing out, I couldn’t help but feel like this point was being delivered through a peephole of the male gaze. Why must the first semi-nude scene in the series be of four young women taking a sweaty steam together? Set against sensual lighting (a lot of it is red), there’s an unmistakable underlayer of objectification to this clip. And today, objectification is a real darkness for women who live in the City of Lights.
I didn’t expect this upon arrival, but living in Paris, I’ve been forced to grow an unbelievably thick (and numb) skin to unsolicited harassment from men on the street – whose modern day pleasures come from the delivery of cat-calling, sexually-ridden “compliments”, gratuitous touching and, sometimes, even following. I’ve diverted my route home on more occasions than I’d like to say. Of course, this happens in many cities, but having lived in London for five years before, the difference in its regularity here really caught me off guard. It’s a daily (if not hourly) encounter, and whether those on the receiving end realise it or not, I’ve come to believe that it’s a subconscious contribution to how Parisiennes see – and consequently, express – their bodies.
Every female friend of mine has been subject to this sexually-filtered eye, and when I ask them for advice on it (because this is what we do rather than semi-nakedly bathe in spas together), the response is, to be blunt, grim. “Never confront it,” one says. “Keep your gaze on the road ahead and don’t make eye contact with anyone,” another adds. Are these the same Parisiennes who Darren Star (the male creator of Emily in Paris) envisioned in the somewhat sexual spa scene? If so, there’s a problem. Because it’s all well and good for a French woman to look liberated in a female-only setting, but what does that matter if she’s objectified the second she steps out of it?
When it comes to the freedom of equality, the Camille’s of this world have just as much a way to go as the Emily’s. There’s not an ounce of indication towards this in the topless scene (or show, for that matter) quite simply because it paints Paris from an un-French, un-female and, well, unrealistic point of view.
One of my friends who is equally frustrated with this problem in Paris pointed me in the direction of contemporary feminist writer Lauren Bastide, who published her first book called Présentes last year. In it, Bastide talks about how women have little authority in France’s public space (shown quite literally through the fact that only 6% of streets are named after them). She argues that Paris’ urban spaces are marked by sexual segregation, causing women to see the city as a place of transit rather than a place of territory. Clothed or not, the French woman’s body is the navigator through this voyeuristic space, so it’s hardly as free as Emily in Paris tries to suggest.
Of course, I don’t spend all my daily minutes in Paris walking the streets. I embrace the charm of its classic café culture, most regularly in the Quartier Pigalle. This is the neighbourhood most historically famed for sex shops, erotic theatres and adult clubs, so naturally, it’s the place you would expect to see Emily in Paris’ Parisienne in action. Have I? In a literal sense, no. Girls don’t dance around dive bars with tops off here. They do, however, display a considered – and what some outsiders may say erotically charged – approach to style: head-to-toe black, vinyl shoes, long leather jackets and small harnessed accessories. The latter only comes to light when indoors, however.
While this may not be the quintessential breton-striped, trench-covered, beret-wearing Parisienne that Instagram’s algorithm favours, it’s an honest appearance among some of the female youth scene here: and one that I’ve taken to semi-employ, because it attempts to take ownership of objectification here. It’s a commendable human instinct from Parisiennes, but I will emphasise: their image of sexuality and their ownership of sexuality are not the same thing. And when you watch the topless scene in Emily in Paris, they’re mistakenly implied to go hand in hand.
What baffles me most is that Emily in Paris is directed at a young, female audience: a large majority of whom are pushing for respect, recognition and real freedom on the social stage in 2021.
One thing I know is that in Paris’ public space, they don’t go hand in hand. I doubt this was realised by the show’s writers, because from an American point of view, the French are sexually liberated. Hedonism has operated on Paris’ artistic stage more than anywhere else in the world, and it has lead to the perception of all women here being as liberated as “Sex-Kitten” Brigitte Bardot (even though only one of her 47 films was directed by a woman). Non-French women like Emily, however, are presented as careful, cautious, and conservative.
Just look at Emily’s reaction to Truffaut's Jules et Jim later in the series. Friends tease her to consider the film’s “ménage à trois” in light of her love-tangle with Camille and Gabriel, but Emily prudishly dismisses it. Moi? Non. That’s only for French women, since they’re more free! But the funny thing is, when it comes to the freedom of equality, the Camilles of this world have just as much a way to go as the Emily’s. There’s not an ounce of indication towards this in the topless scene (or show, for that matter) quite simply because it paints Paris from an un-French, un-female and, well, unrealistic point of view. What baffles me most is that Emily in Paris is directed at a young, female audience: a large majority of whom are pushing for respect, recognition and real freedom on the social stage in 2021. So with all due respect, showing four topless women bathing together in a series that’s written around the success of marketing certainly isn’t going to add to their fight. Instead of being ignorant to the lack of freedom for women in France, perhaps writers should consider embedding their realities into season three. Just a thought for Emily’s next Savoir campaign.
Emily in Paris season 2 will air on Netflix on Wednesday, 22nd December.