Emily in Paris and Toxic Work Culture in America

by: Amanda ReCupido

Photo courtesy: Emily Branchu/NETFLIX, Modified by The Conjuncture

I stopped watching season two of Emily in Paris after the first few episodes. “It’s dumb,” I told friends. After all, hadn’t we all eye rolled our way through the first season as Lily Collins fell in love and wore a beret and made cringe jokes about Lou Malnati’s pizza? Wasn’t it just fluff we could ignore? Watching this young woman eat oysters in Saint-Tropez made me irrationally angry. I had the same reaction watching her best friend Mindy (Ashley Park) give elaborate street performances. People were dying! Didn’t they have anything better to do? “I’m not convinced any of these people should have jobs,” my husband joked.

My therapist will tell you that when you experience anger, it usually means there’s something brewing beneath the surface that’s been activated. Why did I feel this way about Emily? She was a fictional character living her lush, carefree life. Didn’t we need this escapism as we huddled in our homes for yet another pandemic winter? In my boredom, I picked up the series again. And then it hit me…

Emily in Paris is a manifesto about toxic American work culture, disguised in couture.

Hear me out.

In season one, Emily’s cultural differences are played for laughs. Silly Emily, arriving for work EARLY! Not enjoying long lunches! Talking about business at parties! She quickly adapts to the culture, her growth signaled by the embrace of this more balanced lifestyle in which work and play (and love) find harmony, and becomes embraced by her colleagues because of it. In season two, she dedicates herself more to this immersion by not only taking French classes but by taking them seriously. Emily has learned she can adapt and has room to improve - and that this isn’t a weakness. As the show constantly reminds us, she’s 29 years old. Surely no one is fully formed and unchangeable at that age. Some of my best years full of messy, expansive growth have happened in my 30s. Who would we all be if we considered ourselves done as people as soon as we entered the workforce - as individuals, as a culture, as a country?

By contrast, Emily’s American boss Madeline (Kate Walsh) travels to Paris while incredibly pregnant (like, inadvisably so) and begins making all the same missteps Emily first did. But whereas Emily’s mistakes were at least well-intentioned, Madeline wastes no time steamrolling the agency to bend to her American ways. That includes botching her French, getting to work before anyone else and disrespectfully sitting in Sylvie’s chair, and ignoring admonitions to not talk shop at a party and instead insult a long-term client without a thought to the nuances of the relationship. Madeline’s mistake is that she does not recognize the change that has taken place in Emily, and reveals that she finds the agency’s workers replaceable - a relief, actually, to find younger, cheaper, more malleable workers she can mold to her standards.

Haven’t we all worked at a company that treated workers this way? The 40-hour work week that labor organizers fought so hard for nearly 100 years ago is now seen as the minimum for success. We still live by the unwritten rules of “in early, out late” or “butts in seats” in a work culture where visibility is often valued more than efficiency, so that the move to remote work has only bred mistrust as companies installed spyware to monitor employee productivity. Our time is analyzed to the minute, our worth measured by our output numbers. And yet, we are told how we are “like family” and encouraged to bring our “whole selves” to work…unless, of course, the company needs to make tough decisions, or you need to ask for an inconvenient accommodation. How many companies shared well-meaning “self-care tips” in the pandemic that pushed the burden of systemic failures onto individuals? If you can’t handle doing the work of two people for the same amount of pay with less resources during a massive collective trauma - well, have you tried taking a 15-minute walk midday?

Much ink has been spilled about the Great Resignation (and, full disclosure, I am one such opt-out individual), but with that comes privilege, and the fact is when your health insurance - in a global medical state of emergency - is reliant on your employment, well, you’re not as likely to revolt. Which makes it heroic that an historic number of labor strikes emerged all over the country as many died in the assembly line of duty while their coworkers were told, in essence, to keep the pace.

We are clinging to a way of working that is no longer working for us.

This disconnect of business-as-usual while the world continues to fall apart (and the rush back to a normal that no longer exists) has only amplified an existing culture of overwork, Sisyphean striving and burn out beyond recognition. At least pre-pandemic, we could dull ourselves with after-work and weekend activities and tell each other things weren’t so bad. We could gaslight ourselves into believing one day we might rise on that corporate ladder, have enough money to finally have it all, or at least enough so we could take a week off to travel to somewhere like Paris without the guilt of leaving our team members in a lurch.

The result in Emily’s world (spoilers) is a Mad Men-esque cliffhanger coup at season’s end. In France, or, outside America in general, integrity and independence aren’t just talking points on a company mission sheet. In a country that claims to love small business, success in America usually depends on being bought by a larger company - one that eats up and absorbs culture like Pac-Man until only the conglomerate remains - a business with lobbying power, that can avoid taxes, donate heavily to campaigns, and has the political clout to fight against policies that don’t serve its corporate interests. Often, paradoxically, at the expense of the small businesses and working class they purport to revere.

Meanwhile, our politicians are worried about being outpaced by China. In American Factory (2019), Chinese owners view American workers as lazy in contrast to the Chinese workers who practically live their entire lives at work, even marrying their coworkers at a work function. That’s not the future for America. Or at least, it shouldn’t be the one we want, regardless of whether that means flatter or even lower sales. We’ve seen in these past two years who gets richer when the economy is doing well and who is left out. Who is deemed essential when we need something, then unskilled when they dare ask for a fair piece of the pie. What does it even mean to have a strong economy just because stocks are high when the number of people needing emergency services has only increased?

Capitalism demands an endless cycle of products and purchasing. Destruction in order to make and sell you something, whether you need it or not, whether it’s good for our Earth or not. Exponential growth is unsustainable. Eventually, something has to give. Oftentimes, that collateral damage comes in the form of people and time we can never get back, no matter how much our bank accounts grow.

Emily in Paris asks the question: What is life for? Work, sure. And work that you love, that you’re good at, that gives you meaning, that contributes to our greater society. But it’s also for enjoyment. For savoring food. Spending time with friends. Making art. Banging that British guy in your French class. To have enough money to be comfortable (hello, UBI and a living wage) so that you don’t need to juggle four different side hustles just to make ends meet.

And if you can spend the weekend flitting off to Saint-Tropez to take selfies in a ridiculous hat? Well, that’s just icing on the deliciously flaky croissant.

About the writer
Amanda ReCupido’s writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Forbes, Booklist, and on stages in and around Chicago. Follow her on Twitter @amandarecupido.


SUBMISSION by Perla Kantarjian“With the ancestral, almost seraphic brass
incense censer he brings out on the days he feels sentimental, he draws a gentle cross atop my head. “Asdvadz hedet ella bab,” he says softly. May god be with you when you leave. Which leaving is he speaking of?” (Read More)


SUBMISSION by Perla Kantarjian “you see, in Armenian, when someone looks at you too much, your friend will say: ge tchapveyirgor—
you were being measured” (Read More)


SUBMISSION by Anna Nguyen“This idea is in direct contrast to the abstraction of an autonomous science as a mythical global force where it freely travels. After all, science precedes the scientist. The noun (science) becomes an actor, the actor (the scientist) becomes passive. Discovery and its magic are underscored, obscuring colonialism or what the anthropologist Shiv Visvanathan calls genocide or political vivisection” (Read More)


SUBMISSION by Amanda ReCupido“Capitalism demands an endless cycle of products and purchasing. Destruction in order to make and sell you something, whether you need it or not, whether it’s good for our Earth or not. Exponential growth is unsustainable.” (Read More)