Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Greek American Character and Ethnic Whiteness in Film

My research on how My Big Fat Greek Wedding constructs Greek ethnicity led me to an unexpected find. It is about a minor Greek character in My Lucky Star (1938), who makes an appearance to illuminate the proper Americanness of the movie's star, Sonja Henie, in the role of a Norwegian immigrant.

Here is the description of the relevant scene by film critic Diane Negra, effectively capturing an instance of internal differentiation within ethnic whiteness at the time. The function of the (unassimilated) Greek character is to construct a normative Americanness, embodied by a northern European American:

“[Sonja] Henie’s stable national status is suggested by a variety of incidents in her films, including several in My Lucky Star. No explanation is provided by the film for why this young Norwegian woman has come to the US. Nevertheless, her role as the good immigrant is stressed in bits of comic business such as a scene in the college sweet shop where Chris and her male companion are aggressively urged to order ice cream with pistachio from a Greek proprietor who pitches the nuts as a product from his homeland, and is nearly apoplectic when they decline, shouting, ‘It’s people like you what’s wrong with this country!’ This minor character’s comic and hysterical assertion of his national interests is meant to contrast with Chris who is unencumbered by such concerns and can ideally pitch American-made women’s clothing” (Off–White Hollywood: American Culture and Ethnic Female Stardom, 2001:99).

For those interested in the representation of Greek Americans in American cinema, there is now a newly created filmography (in progress), available at,

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