Why do we enjoy watching shows like Emily in Paris and Bridgerton?
In late 2020, Netflix delivered us two irredeemably bad, inexplicably successful shows: Emily in Paris and Bridgerton. With their bizarre costume choices, meandering plots, and painfully dull protagonists, these shows were poised to becoming critic fodder. But then something strange happened... we, as a public, decided to redeem them.
If you look up Emily in Paris and Bridgerton online, you most likely find yourself scrolling through a string of thinkpieces with the same overarching sentiments.
Some call these shows satire, others call them guilty pleasures, but the most recurring line of all is... they’re escapism.
Lauren Bravo of Glamour Magazine writes, “the main gift Emily in Paris offers is the one we most need right now, and that’s an escapist fantasy.” In an interview with BBC, Bridgerton writer Joy Mitchell says, “It's this fun, steamy, romantic show that happened to come out at a time where a lot of people were stuck at home—it struck a chord and is the right show at the right time.”
She’s right, people are stuck at home. And we ate shows like Emily in Paris and Bridgerton up faster than you can say “Harlequin romance.” But whatever fun I was expecting to have while watching them was consistently supplanted by an itching sensation that the writers assumed I was dumb.
Both Emily in Paris and Bridgerton present us with a white woman protagonist whom the writers want us to like, but they do everything in their power to make them unlikeable. Neither woman learns from her myriad flaws.
Emily’s American arrogance is treated as a strength in both her professional and social life. Daphne commits marital rape against her husband, and it’s framed as a righteous act—one that she is later rewarded for.
These characters lack any idiosyncrasy that would make them interesting, and any conflict that would make them relatable, yet every male character that crosses their paths seem to fall head over heels for them.
The shows’ attempts at subversion are better-suited to the 1990s.
“Perfume commercials are objectifying!”
“Just because I’m a woman doesn’t mean I shouldn’t be able to choose who to marry!”
And their half-baked attempts at social or political inquiry are mired in the many ways the shows bungle actual, current social issues.
Emily in Paris has been slated as a marginally worse offender in this arena. The show shocked people with its brash willingness to whittle every being that walks into its frame down to a buffoonish stereotype. Many have attempted to write this off as satire, as if we’re supposed to be laughing at Emily. But the show’s clumsiness at passing a critical eye on the character instead encourages the audience to laugh with her.
Bridgerton has emerged largely unscathed when it comes to these issues due to its apparent color-blind casting, as many critics have praised it for offering a fresh take on the Regency era. However, it’s revealed to us in the fourth episode that the casting isn’t color-blind at all—in fact, it’s deliberate.
In a scene between the Duke and Lady Danbury, it’s revealed that people of color occupy their roles as the landed gentry and nobility for the sole reason that the king married a Black queen. The show makes no effort to explain why, if the queen has only been in power for a couple of decades, Black people have maintained this status for multiple generations. Nor does it explain why other POC occupy roles in the court. Rather, it leaves us to flounder in our confusion, asking us to simply turn our brains off and enjoy the pretty costumes and harlequin smut. It appears that the Shondaland writers simply took an outmoded book series and shoehorned BIPOC into them without much thought beyond that.
Meanwhile, as Emily ascends the ranks of the marketing world despite her ineptitudes, and the Black characters of Bridgerton ascend the ranks of the aristocracy thanks to the big heart of one white man, the shows happily languish in their neoliberal fantasies.
These are not worlds where the intricacies of social systems dictate our lives—they’re fairytales where individuals have the power to end and begin societies with the might of basic human emotion. Pandemics and political unrest abound, so we don’t want to enter a universe where systemic inequalities are the reasons for our problems.
Why would we want to face the painful realities of our time when we can quietly slip into the ether of our streaming services? It’s escapism! People shouldn’t have to feel bad about wanting to escape! But this instinct to run away into the open arms of our media isn’t a new idea.
For decades, the television and film industries have set us a sail on journeys to realities far from our own. We’ve traversed to Mordor with Frodo, tried on our wise guy shoes with Henry, and lived out our fantasies of disposable income in Manhattan with Carrie. None of this is new, and we don’t need thinkpieces (like this one) to tell us it is.
The point is that whatever alternate reality it’s set in, good media will always reflect unspoken truths about the world around us. Lord of the Rings takes us to Middle-earth, but it also weaves a complex allegory about the everlasting trauma of war. Goodfellas takes us on a cocaine-fueled ride, but it also reveals the senselessness of life in a (previously glamourized) organized crime syndicate. And Sex and the City, despite its fantastical depiction of New York where buying Manolos is as easy as buying a pack of cigs from the nearby bodega, still poses illuminating questions about sex and womanhood.
No one should feel bad for enjoying silly shows, but to write off the flaws of poorly conceived and executed media as mere “escapism” is to undermine our own intelligence. By waving away valid criticism, we let writers, directors, producers, and streaming giants know that they can get away with the bare minimum.
And we deserve better than that.
Honestly, my bewilderment at the success of Emily in Paris and Bridgerton has left me to consider whether I should be putting my money into streaming services at all.
Or maybe I’ll just switch to Crave.
Let us know what you think in the comments.