Why Is the American Girl in Paris Always White?

Emily, Audrey, Carrie, Andy ... you get the picture.

Only White Girls Go to Paris
Photo: Kelly Chiello/InStyle.com/Getty Images, Netflix

I can’t tell you at what point my fascination with Paris began. On the surface, it didn’t make much sense. As the child of working class Mexican and Filipino immigrants growing up in Nebraska, I had no discernible connection to France. The grandeur and opulence of its capital city didn’t feel designed for someone like me, but I gravitated toward it anyway.

For years, I collected Eiffel Tower paraphernalia from the discount bins at home décor shops. In college, I minored in film studies just so that I could take an entire class on French New Wave. Eventually, the Amélie soundtrack became the score for my own life’s movie. During my stint as a barista, I frequently fantasized about working in a quaint little café in Montmartre. It was a lofty, overly romanticized dream, and if we’re being honest here, hardly an uncommon one.

The “American girl in Paris” is one of the most widely used tropes in existence. And we’re talking about it a lot these days, mostly thanks to Emily in Paris, the latest Chanel-filled creation from the Darren Star universe that’s already given us a new Internet Boyfriend and a cascade of memes mocking Emily’s cringe-y American-ness (but more on that later).

The Netflix dramedy came into our lives seemingly at the most perfect moment, when most Americans are relegated to their homes — our passports rendered virtually valueless due to the Trump administration’s disastrous handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Since we cannot hop on a plane to Paris, let alone anywhere for that matter, the show offers a suitable consolation prize in the form of vibrant Patricia Field costuming set against the eternally magical landscape of the French capital.

Being the Francophile I am, I devoured each episode and watched the entire series in two days. In true Star fashion, it was a glossy, relatively charming production that had me Googling “how to buy an apartment in Paris.” While it was a perfectly fine show, especially for These Dark Times, I grew frustrated as the series progressed because I’d seen this story play out many times over. We all have.

For starters, there’s virtually every Audrey Hepburn movie in existence. Interestingly enough, Hepburn’s first big break came from her portrayal of the Parisian heroine Gigi on Broadway in 1951. It’s not surprising that in episode six of Emily in Paris, Emily channels Audrey’s character in Funny Face during the scene at the Palais Garnier, where the 1957 movie was filmed.

But there are plenty of 21st century examples to cite as well. Take, for instance, Sex and the City (also produced by Star). In the series finale, aptly titled “An American Girl in Paris,” Carrie makes the transatlantic move with her cosmopolitan artiste boyfriend, only to realize the City of Light isn’t quite what she thought it would be.

Andy in The Devil Wears Prada has a similar fish-out-of-water epiphany, going so far as to toss her phone into the fountain at the Place de La Concorde and ditch her boss at Paris Fashion Week. All that just to return to New York to an unsupportive ex and rude friends. C’est la vie, I guess.

And who amongst us can forget Lauren in The Hills? While she’ll forever go down in reality TV history as “the girl who didn’t go to Paris,” she did, in fact, go to Paris. That’s right, she got not one but two chances to live out her French fantasies while interning at Teen Vogue. And remember, she managed to ruin a couture gown that was on loan by leaving her curling iron on it — quelle horreur.

What I take issue with is not so much that these examples often depict the worst of the American girl in Paris cliché — namely that we are impulsive, naïve, and self-involved — it’s that only one version of the quintessential American girl is permitted to discover Paris through wide eyes: the white girl. And I, an American girl who is not white but who loves Paris just as much as Emily or Audrey or Carrie or Andy or Lauren, would appreciate a little representation, too.

Once I began traveling to Paris myself, I was most struck by the cultural diversity, which is often overlooked or downright erased in most American representations of the city. Emily in Paris does an OK job of addressing this; Emily’s first friend, Mindy, is a Chinese expat, and one of her new French coworkers, Julien, is a snooty-but-endearing Black man. Still, with each episode Emily’s distinctly white American-ness becomes more unbearable. Not because her wacky Anglo antics are cringeworthy (which they are), but because the entire premise of her character is simply passé.

Only White Girls Go to Paris

After decades of one-dimensional, white-washed portrayals of what it’s like to be an American girl in Paris, it’s time for the genre to evolve. Where are the stories about brown and Black American girls in Paris? I can tell you that it’s a more layered, more complex experience for us.

I’ve traveled to Paris numerous times, dating back to my first trip as a study abroad student in 2008 all the way up to my wedding there last year. My experiences in the city and of navigating the French-American divide are both surprisingly similar to my white counterparts and definitely different at the same time.

Like Emily, I, too, have been read for filth by a blindingly stylish French woman upon entering a room and daring to utter French words with my hard American Rs. Once, I purchased a piece of art I saw hanging in the window of a boutique. “J’adore,” I remarked, pointing to the framed print. The clerk feigned a smile and rattled off something in French. I immediately panicked, laughed nervously, and muttered, “Désolé, je suis américaine.” To which she responded, “I know.”

I still feel daggers stabbing my arteries every time I think about it.

But unlike Emily, I’ve experienced casual racism in Paris, like being followed and eyed in fancy ateliers and restaurants because not only do I have the audacity to be American, I also have to carry the weight of what my skin color communicates to the world. That’s true no matter where I go or travel, but in Paris it feels particularly potent because of that stereotype.

And it’s all the more complicated by the fact that I’m a first-generation American who’s already so disconnected from what it even means to be American in the first place. It’s almost as if I’m not American in America, but in Paris, I am hyper-American. Yet because I’m not white, sometimes I am not afforded a degree of privilege in certain spaces and situations.

It’s all quite messy and multidimensional, and that’s precisely my point. Part of what makes Paris so magical is that the more you discover about it, the more you reveal and unearth about yourself. It’s the kind of place that can illuminate the entire picture. And the world is more than ready for a new vantage point.

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