Personal Accounts: Emily in Paris, Judith Butler, and the Nature of Basic “Genius”

Emily in Paris is wonderfully terrible. It is a runaway smash feel-good comedy in none of the ways its creators seem to have intended–which is exactly what makes it so delicious to watch. It is so unselfconsciously bad in an era of self consciously good TV, one might think that is the whole point. 

Most of the tweets I’ve seen about the show center its foul badness. And the show does fail by every measure of contemporary audiences’ critical values. But it really accomplishes its poor taste by executing it unselfconsciously, the core dream of the show.

Emily Cooper is a pale, thin brunette with zesty eyebrows and a sixpack who does marketing work in Chicago. She moves to Paris to help newly-acquired French marketing firm Savoir with their social media, but everyone in Paris hates her because she is ringarde, a basic bitch. Emily changes her Instagram handle to @emilyinparis and skyrockets to influencer fame. 

To anyone with a modicum of current Instagram fluency, @emilyinparis reads as wholly bizarre–“bot-like,” “lowest-common-denominator” content that was “perhaps popular at the dawn of Instagram,” in the words of one Vulture article. Her second post is a boomerang of herself taking the first bite of a croissant with the caption, “Butter + chocolat = <3.” She follows this up with a shot of a muscly statue and, “Chiseled abs.” Then Emily gets a little cheeky: photographing a cheese display and writing beneath, “Paris is for cheese lovers.”

But the way Emily posts her content is even weirder than her lighthearted, literal, and un-photogenic feed. She does so instantaneously, without agonizing over her word usage, how this reference will come off to the guy she wants to see her story. She does not book it to the other side of town because she knows a baby pink wall there that will fit in perfectly with her theme. Emily Cooper is someone who presents herself online as she experiences herself in real life, and that is incoherent for a 2020 audience to watch.

In their book, Giving an Account of Oneself, Judith Butler describes the contradiction of selfhood. We live in constant tension between narrated and exposed being: “exposed,” (borrowing Adriana Cavarero’s terminology) designating in-the-moment, indescribable experience, and “narrated” referring to the stories we tell after-the-fact about our exposed experience.

“So the account of myself that I give in discourse never fully expresses or carries this living self. My words are taken away as I give them, interrupted by the time of a discourse that is not the same as the time of my life. This ‘interruption’ contests the sense of the account’s being grounded in myself alone, since the indifferent structures that enable my living belong to a sociality that exceeds me.”

This is the trick, Butler points out, the living self is necessarily unnarrated, so the moment we speak that experience into narrative–the moment we tell our story, even just internalizing it to ourselves, it becomes a whole other category of self: narrated, rather than exposed, being. Every account of selfhood is a narrated account, which is nothing like the real experience of living. Further, the ways we understand our exposed being as narrated depend on cultural norms with a lifespan far longer than our own. 

If someone asks me to tell them about myself, my story is always going to say more about my context than any actions I have willed into being. What I share about myself so you can understand my difference is actually more revealing of my sameness, and this sameness is equally if not more expressive of who I am.

Spoiler: Emily eventually wins over her snooty Parisian coworkers with inspired social media marketing. Her brilliant campaigns have the same narrative cadence: Emily hits her engagement metrics by parlaying relatable honesty for her brands. Surprised to learn that “vagina” is a masculine noun in French, Emily tweets “The vagina is not male!” and gets a repost hours later from Brigitte Macron. After arguing with a client if a campaign is sexy or sexist, Emily tweets a poll letting their audience decide. 

Emily’s “American perspective” is that brands should be accessible, and this accessibility comes from honesty about the marketing process. Much like Emily’s Instagram account, this faith in the democratizing nature of social media reads as nostalgic for the early days of social media. 

We live so we can tell stories about our experiences, and we tell ourselves stories about our experiences so we can live. Selfhood is always in construction: the conversation between narrated and exposed being. Social media draws attention to this construction on a public, massive scale, so social media usage over time grows collectively more aware of and attenuated to its platform as a profitable technology of self-representation.

I like the Vulture article’s premise. Author Rachel Handler interviews three “Parisian Instagram Fixtures” on @emilyinparis to get their thoughts on its viral viability. All three influencers agree with Handler, it’s basic, basic, basic. 

The three influencers exert varyingly explicit levels of curation over their own profiles. Carin Olsson has a lot of hunter green and beige going on. Monica de La Villardière and Lamia Lagha sneak in recurring pops of color. All three have fewer selfies, more text, and more visual referents (screenshots, movie stills, memes) than @emilyinparis. They respond to current events, share what they are reading, and pose for brand partnerships. 

While the particular tiles of each feed are different, they speak the same aesthetic language. By 2020, we’ve accepted that Instagram cannot narrate exposed being in a satisfying way. But we hold on to Instagram’s capacity to narrate this narration. I cannot glean much about what it’s like to be Monica de La Villardière from a picture of her sitting in a chair with a line from 30 Rock as caption, but I can glean something about Monica’s selfhood from her decision to post this picture with this description, her insistence that this is an account of her selfhood worth publishing. 

And I can understand Monica even more by recognizing this account of selfhood as a shared narrative styling, aka, the most information about Monica this post gives me is not just that she shares this kind of information as an account of herself, but that she is also the kind of person who portrays this kind of information. She tells her narrative like this to express her belonging to this group of people: Parisian influencers. 

Any given person’s social media profile, supposed site of individual expression, is actually a site of collective expression, and this is not a contradiction. The individual self is made legible through its sameness to others.

To perform my own kind of basicness, I return to one of my favorite David Foster Wallace essays, “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart.” The essay investigates why legendary tennis player Tracy Austin had such a fantastic career and produced a drearily cliched autobiography. DFW posits that this inability to self-narrate is actually a rare skill, the flipping of an off-switch that allows total focus on the bodily experience necessary for elite physical performance. Athletes describe their game in cliches because they are not paying narrative attention, they play as an entirely exposed self, at no level of conscious removal from the moment. This, according to DFW, is the very nature of sports genius.

Basic is a slur for the unquestioning, for people who adopt social cliches in earnest, without interrogating these behaviors and aesthetics as enforced norms. The term describes a lack of awareness as to where one stands against social notions of normalcy, which is a full ass diss in a time where the general public is acutely aware of how harmful many social norms are. (Dove launched their Real Beauty campaign in 2004, which is to say, a norm like the beauty standard has been so reviled for so long, massive corporations have had decades to bank off this distaste for their own past representations of normalcy.)

But I want to suggest that basicness is a little like sports genius, in that its seeming lack of awareness–this time not of narrative cliches but of the interplay between these narrative cliches and exposed being–is not proof of a fault-worthy absence, but rather, indicative of an aspirational presence–this time not of physical genius but of some supra-intelligent quality: a faith, in the unity of the conversation between narrated and exposed being, in others’ capacity to understand one’s particular experience despite the slippage of cliched narrative forms. Our stories do not convey exposed being and still, they mean. 

I do not think this faith in conveying one’s self via existing narrative technology is necessarily uncritical of the existing narrative technology–as evidenced by the Parisian influencers, whose feeds exhibit basicness via tropes of self-awareness, especially awareness of the Instagram platform and its gap between their “real life.” The profiles are explicitly aware of the narrative technology, yet they are basic in their faith that Instagram can convey them by displaying their construction of an Instagram self. 

And faith is not a stupid confidence, it is a translated gut instinct. Carin and Monica and Lamia are not stupid for thinking Instagram can convey them in any meaningful way–why can’t it? Of course these accounts of selfhood say nothing about their exposed experience, and of course they tell me so much about who these women are, nonetheless.

Emily’s basicness is her American superpower; what makes the whole city hate then love her. She is basic because she has a bag charm and uses Instagram with fantastic faith in its ability to capture her experience. What looks like unselfconsciousness is actually indicative of a great confidence, that she is capable and worthy of being perceived, not in spite of her cliche bag charm but because of it.

Our accounts of individual selfhood are structured by preexisting cultural narratives, says Butler, but this doesn’t mean these narratives are unchangeable. These narratives often rupture, because our accounts of individual selfhood are as dependent on preexisting cultural norms as they are dependent on recognition of and by an other.

“Sometimes the very unrecognizability of the other brings about a crisis in the norms that govern recognition. If and when, in an effort to confer or to receive a recognition that fails again and again, I call into question the normative horizon within which recognition takes place, this questioning is part of the desire for recognition, a desire that can find no satisfaction, and whose unsatisfiability establishes a critical point of departure for the interrogation of available norms.”

Even though social norms tell us who to recognize as a fellow “I,” when we interact with people who fail this normative definition of “I” in some way and yet, clear as day, they are an “I,” too–we are forced to question these narrative norms we’ve been using to structure selfhood. Even more so, when society recognizes us as other, we must question the entire “normative horizon.” 

It’s an important question, then, if basic intelligence is limited to people whose identities are well-navigated by existing narratives within their lifetime. You can only have faith in relying on cliches that govern your identity framework if that framework exists. 

But this framework always exists in some way. To what extent it exists, or, its visibility as a framework, is part and parcel of this existence. “Basic” is most often levied at pretty white girls because pretty white girls are most visible among American accounts of selfhood, so their reliance on the same narrative cliches is also most visible. 

The sort of basic “genius” I’ve named exists within all existing identity narratives, I believe, even and especially among the newly trailblazed. Because what is more basic than literally following the advice, “Be Yourself!”? Than letting the two heads of being feed and trust that it is all still you in that shifting construction? Then trusting the public with your account of self, mistranslated by whatever dumb narrative technology is in vogue?

What about all of the evil basics? Why praise bad cliches?

First, there is a difference between embracing the way pre existing narratives govern your selfhood and enforcing these narratives on other people. 

Second, I think people follow bad cliches out of the mere unquestioning associated with the term, “basic.” The basic “genius” I am describing here as a faith is always questioned. Faith is supra-intelligent, but as rational creatures, we can only interpret this instinct in rational ways, which means we only understand faith as a painstaking translation process, of reading gut instinct as way forward. “Blind faith” is not faith at all, but uninterpreted advice, usually from an outside force.

As social media’s history has layered with time, basic tropes have become more self-aware, and with this, more self-hating. It’s not just basic anymore to get a pumpkin spice latte, it’s basic to get one and say, “Ugh, I know I’m so basic!” We’re not supposed to behave like our cliches, and when we do, we have to telegraph our self-awareness. 

But the knowledge of the true basic is that uncliched living is a myth. Individuality is not a moral value. We all equally rely on our identity-sustaining cultures’ cliches to recognize ourselves and others. This doesn’t mean we need to live our lives according to these readily available narratives, but it does mean we needn’t hate ourselves for using the ones that feel right to us. This self-hatred, especially performing this self-hatred, is also just a cultural cliche governing our selfhood, and one we must reject.

It’s impossible to watch Emily in Paris or hypothetically scroll through @emilyinparis without thinking, “Who on earth greenlit this?” That’s what makes it so bad–it’s basic and it isn’t even self-conscious or, more importantly, self-hating, for this. This is what makes it comedic, but also aspirational: how does Darren Starr sleep at night? And how do I get that kind of rest?

Because I do not sleep, I watch Emily in Paris, and I laugh so hard I wail.

Sophie Dillon

Sophie Dillon


is still figuring it out.

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