“Lauren didn’t go to Paris. She’s always going to be known as the girl who didn’t go to Paris.” So declared Teen Vogue’s West Coast Director Lisa Love about Lauren Conrad on The Hills. And while Lauren was and is known for many other things, there’s no doubt her decision to choose a boy over a trip to Paris is an inextricable part of her legacy.
It all went down on season one of The Hills. After many episodes of angst about Lauren’s relationship with Jason Wahler, as well as her ups and downs as an intern at Teen Vogue, Lauren turns down the experience of a lifetime – a work trip to Paris – in order to spend summer at a beach house with Jason. She chooses him over her career.
It’s a plot point that shocked a lot of viewers – who would turn down PARIS for JASON?!!? But it weirdly wasn’t a rare storytelling device in the ’90s and ’00s. In Season 1 of Dawsons’ Creek, Joey has the opportunity of spending a year in Paris – but she chooses not to go when she has the chance to be with Dawson instead. At the end of Friends, Rachel is about to move to Paris, but gets off the plane to be with Ross once and for all.
It’s always Paris. And the girls never go.
Paris exists in our collective consciousness as this cultural beacon. In these stories, it represents independence, creativity, personal fulfillment, career success, fun, adventure, freedom – so many good things. And yet time and again, girls give all of that up because they love a boy.
It’s an insidious message, suggesting that in order to be in a relationship those things need to be sacrificed. And that the boys/men in question are worth sacrificing these things for. Which they never, ever are.
The kicker of Lauren Conrad’s storyline is that come season two, episode one of The Hills, we learn that actually her dream summer was anything but – and she and Jason have already broken up. She sacrificed Paris and everything it symbolised for nothing but heartache and regret.
On Dawson’s Creek, Joey quickly gets frustrated and feels stifled in her relationship with Dawson, wanting to explore her art and subsequently becoming drawn to Jack, who encourages her creativity and independence. We don’t know how well Rachel’s decision to stay with Ross turned out, because the show ended – but given their history, and his toxic-as-hell behaviour towards her, there’s a very good chance it wasn’t the right choice.
The key problem with the Paris vs relationship dichotomy is that a toxic relationship is basically a given: because if the boy – or man – in question was someone worthy of sacrificing things for, well then the sacrifice wouldn’t even need to be made in the first place.
A healthy relationship means not giving up independence, or creative or personal fulfilment, or any of the things Paris represents. Sure, long distance relationships are hard – but in Lauren’s case at least, her trip was going to be short, while Joey’s also wasn’t forever. And Ross, a whole grown adult? Never once considered moving to Paris with Rachel, or finding another way to make it work. Like the others, she had to adjust her plans to fit him – a move that is never reciprocated.
Emily in Paris, the 2020 breakout hit on Netflix, at long last turns this trope on its head, with Emily ditching her deadbeat boyfriend to live her best life in Paris. The irony here is that Emily in Paris has pretty terrible writing and is by no means progressive. Still, it does offer hope that we’ve made some progress, at least – that now the girl can and does choose Paris when the other option is a mediocre man.
Here’s hoping that one day there won’t even need to be a choice – that Paris, and the freedom it symbolises, won’t be mutually exclusive with a healthy homegrown relationship.
This is an opinion piece written by Jenna Guillaume, an entertainment journalist and author of YA rom-coms What I Like About Me and You Were Made For Me. Follow her at @jennaguillaume.
The new season of The Hills: New Beginnings airs on Thursdays at 8:30pm on MTV Australia (channel 122 On Foxtel and 104 on Fetch). Don't have Foxtel or Fetch? No sweat, you can download a season 2 pass for access to every new episode as it drops on Google Play and Apple TV.