By Ashley Tan
Ruthless, assertive and bossy.
These are adjectives that those who’ve watched Netflix’s Emily in Paris would have used to describe Sylvie at some point.
Known for her sharp-tongued and acerbic remarks, disdainful glares, and chic sense of style that can only bring those of us whose sartorial vocabulary revolves around flip-flops, shorts and ragged sweatpants to complete shame, Sylvie (played by Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu) has been the character in Emily in Paris whom we all — admit it or not — love to hate.
Yet this perspective risks categorizing Sylvie into a strict box where her identity is essentially relegated to “Emily’s mean old boss”. While Sylvie might embody all of the adjectives previously mentioned, she is also very much a complex, three-dimensional character in Emily in Paris who is both misunderstood and overlooked.
If there’s one thing we should acknowledge, it’s that Sylvie is patently self-aware.
While waiting in the lift with Emily (Lily Collins), she explains why she is at peace with being someone else’s mistress; she does not want to have to give someone a hundred percent of herself. To many of us, this sentiment might appear incredulous. After all, aren’t human beings selfish and crave attention from the ones we love most?
However, the fact that Sylvie is able to identify her reason for embracing the “mistress” role so swiftly and unhesitatingly reveals a sense of self-awareness that most of us can’t pretend to have. How many of us can say that we’ve probed deeply within to understand why we love the way we do? Undeniably, it takes a fair amount of introspection to pinpoint rationales underpinning matters of the heart.
But beyond this, Sylvie is also incredibly self-assured.
In the episode “Sexy or Sexist?”, Emily’s scorn for the fragrance advertisement that Antoine planned on rolling out is palpable.
“Did you really not agree with me?” Emily asks Sylvie, “just a little?”
“I don’t take such a simplistic view of men and women,” Sylvie counters. In a separate scene, Sylvie also asserts, “I’m a woman, not a feminist.”
While all of this might appear slightly ironic given the fact that Sylvie displays elements of the archetypical empowered female boss (which is only further supported by her status as a successful female leader in a male-dominated industry), her unruffled and politically incorrect stance towards the advertisement is admittedly refreshing.
In fact, this issue provides an opportunity for us to reflect on ourselves. Why is it that Sylvie rubs us off the wrong way? What is it about her that we find objectionable? Perhaps the answer lies in the notion that it is sometimes difficult for us to accept that other strong, empowered women are justified in holding their own beliefs; even if we may fundamentally disagree with them.
By the same token, Sylvie’s character serves as a vehicle to advance the reality that not everyone has to like us; nor is everyone going to.
While it is understandable why Emily tried to exhaust a variety of means to gain Sylvie’s liking throughout the show, it was also slightly frustrating to watch her refusal to accept that gaining someone’s favor is not the be-all-end-all.
At times, it even appeared as if Emily was simply trying to convince Sylvie to like and respect her for the sake of it. When Sylvie expressed her disapproval for Emily’s lack of effort in learning the French language and her propensity to “treat the city like it [was her] amusement park”, Emily ignored this comment and continued with her overzealous approach without much consideration. Although Emily attended a couple of French classes, her lamentable and Americanised accent persisted throughout the show. The French accent is admittedly difficult to master; but Emily’s accent only appeared to signal a lack of effort to try.
At first glance, Sylvie might not appear to be the most palatable or easily understood character.
However, getting to know Sylvie is like peeling open the layers of a golden onion — it might leave a lingering stench, but perhaps this is also meant to serve as a reminder for us to look within to identify why the smell is unappealing to us in the first place.
On the whole, Emily in Paris might be ridden with tired tropes and inaccurate portrayals of French (and Parisian) culture. But as a character, Sylvie is anything but stereotypical. She is bold, fierce, and unapologetic. Most crucially, she holds a certain je ne sais quoi that creates a compelling sense of mystery; which only serves to keep us second-guessing both her beliefs and our own.
Header: Philippine Leroy-Beaulieu as Sylvie in Emily in Paris (Netflix)