Not-So La Vie en Rose: “Emily in Paris” and its Unrealistic Depictions of Asian Labor Migration

Written by Rodlyn-Mae Banting

Edited by Jaime Mah

Between her hot chef neighbor, professorial fling, and one night stand with a friend’s younger brother, Emily Cooper (played by Lily Collins)’s French adventures has got its viewers swooning and saying oh là là. But there are many bones to pick with “Emily in Paris,” the rom-com series that climbed Netflix charts after its release last month on the streaming site. 

Created by Darren Star, American critics are calling the show a cheap version of his earlier classic, “Sex and the City.” French critics are equally as appalled by its fetishization of their culture, even going so far as to call it downright embarrassing. While much of the commentary is focused on the unrealistic success that Emily leads as a monolingual American who quickly climbs up the French marketing ladder, her sidekick Mindy Chen (played by Ashley Park) ‘s role as a rich failed-Chinese-popstar-turned-au-pair depicts equally harmful narratives about Asian diasporic experiences.

Illustration by Vivi Hashiguchi
@vivi_hash

From “Gilmore Girls” to “Grey’s Anatomy,” we’re all too familiar with the stereotype of nerdy Asian sidekicks. More recently, American media has also been introduced to the trope of the crazy rich Asian, thanks to the novel-turned-film by the same name. Thus far, Asian and Asian American experiences have been easy to conflate with one another because of their one dimensionality in white dominated media—characters’ ethnicities are all but incidental to who they are, serving only as fodder for white protagonists’ emotional highs and lows. The Asian American character is seen as belonging to a monolith, actors and storylines easily switched out for one another. 

This, perhaps, is why Mindy, a Chinese immigrant, is depicted as a Parisian au pair, an occupation that is most commonly taken up by Filipina migrants within the diaspora. Emily first meets Mindy while on her lunch break at a park, where Mindy is quick to strike up a conversation with. Soon enough, the two become friends, bonded by the camaraderie that is often shared by expats. She takes on the stereotypical role of a secondary character, a splash of color in Emily’s world who provides her with pro-tips on the French culture at large, and more importantly, its men. 

But as the season progresses, viewers learn alongside Emily that Mindy is not your typical au pair who struggles to make ends meet in a country not her own. In fact, she is quite the opposite: she’s the daughter of a Chinese billionaire businessman who wants her to one day inherit the family fortune. Unwilling to go down this path of boring affluence, she escapes to Paris, promising her father that she is going in order to pursue business school (spoiler alert: she doesn’t). 

At first glance, one might view Mindy’s character as strong—brave, even—for turning her back on financial security to pursue more earnest dreams of becoming a singer. Mindy toughs out life as a caregiver and spends long days watching over bratty French kids in exchange for her autonomy, for a chance to live a life that is solely her own. But this very notion of choice is what sets Mindy apart from many women in her position: women of color, many of whom are from countries categorized as the Global South, are often in circumstances so dire that they are left with few alternatives other than to leave their home country and seek work abroad. 

The Philippines in particular is a key player in this global care economy, sending droves of Filipina women into the diaspora each year as domestic workers. With remittances making up over $30 billion of the nation’s annual gross net product (GNP), the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA) is keen on recruiting as many Filipinos abroad, while women are eager for a chance to provide better lives for their families. As Dr. Rhacel Parreñas explains in the 2002 documentary “Chain of Love,” this perfect combination of push and pull factors has bolstered Filipina’s global reputation as the par excellence of domestic work: caring, un-imposing on their employers, and oftentimes, proficient in English.

Despite the dreams of newfound independence and wealth that are sold to them back in the Philippines—the very same independence that Mindy lives out with leisurely lunches at sidewalk cafes and weekends spent partying—Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) in the diaspora face new precarities once they reach their countries of employment across the Middle East, Europe, and North America. At the mercy of their employers and the terms of their work visas, these Filipina workers engage in what Filipina feminst scholar Neferti Tadiar calls “fate-playing,” a system of unique and extreme risks that comes with migration. 

Within the arena of the diaspora, Tadiar argues that Filipina migrants are at the whim of external forces, whether this be their employers, government officials, or migration laws. Exploited for their labor, Filipinas lose autonomy over their bodies, their lives no longer their own. Unlike Mindy who can always call it quits and move back to China where a dearth of financial support is waiting, these Filpina workers have one shot at creating a new destiny for themselves and their families, all while threats of deportation, abuse, and feelings of isolation and loneliness loom in the background.

Much like Black feminist scholar Saidiya Hartman posits that Black slave women were made responsible for the social reproduction of white society, the Filipina domestic worker also shapes white life through the childcare she provides white families. In her article “The Belly of the World: A Note on Black Women’s Labors,” Hartman speaks to the reproductive labor that always seems to befall women of color, an “afterlife of slavery” that upholds the scaffolding of global capitalism today. Women of color, and Black women specifically, are alienated from their own bodies in order to sustain and enhance the lives of others—white others. Their time in the diaspora is not filled with self discovery and endless adventure, but rather, with sacrifice and grit that is endured to support loved ones back home.

While there is merit in departing from stereotypical depictions of Asian characters, there is an insensitivity to the ways in which “Emily in Paris” tackles the subject of migration, devoid of any recognition of the alienation and hardship that comes with it. By carelessly ascribing such a deeply painful and sacrifice-filled narrative to Mindy’s character, Starr and his team undermine the migrant woman’s complicated experiences to fit the frilly and feel-good frame of the show. Once again, American TV has proved its disinterest in genuine and accurate Asian and Asian American representation that exists beyond the furthering of white agendas.

Much like Emily is accused of being a tourist in France, Mindy is a tourist in the life of a domestic worker, one she lives out of spite rather than desperate need. It is one thing for Emily to emulate the free movement and professional mobilization that whiteness grants—that, we are used to. But it is another and more deeply damaging thing for Mindy’s character to embody the woes of superficial “exile,” given the concrete realities that actually drive women into this migration pattern around the globe. Much like the whole of “Emily in Paris,” Mindy’s own stab at fate-playing is an inconsequential pitstop, a coin toss that will always land right side up.

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