Friday, April 1, 2011

Rewinding My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Zooming on its Insights

I have lost count how many times I have watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding (herein Wedding). Since 2002, the year of its release, I have been showing it without fail in my class on Greek America. I also watch the film often on my own to further reflect on how to best present it to my students. This is a story after all that brought Greek ethnicity to the center of national attention, and for that alone it deserves careful attention.

The Portokaloses and the Millers made many of us laugh. But can this light romantic comedy tell us anything of importance about Greek America? Does this blockbuster matter to us, and if so, in what way? To start this discussion I would like to outline my approach to the film as a teaching resource.

Wedding works well as a launching-point for reflection on various aspects of immigrant culture. It successfully dramatizes, for instance, the tendency to display distrust toward outsiders and acceptance toward insiders. Gus, for instance, throws a tantrum over Ian's status as a xenos (stranger/foreigner), using his foreignness to oppose inter-ethnic marriage. How could he possibly trust a stranger as a prospective son-in-law when he knows next to nothing about this person? In contrast, recall the overwhelming affection that the ethnic family showers upon Ian after his baptism. The Millers are now “family” (dhikoi mas), who warrant acceptance and sharing of intimate information. Aunt Voula has so much to explain, so much to disclose, including the story about her unformed twin.

The tension between collectivism (conformity to cultural norms) and individual freedom often comes up in class discussion. Clearly, the film satirizes the immigrant patriarch's insistence that his daughter conform to traditionalist gender roles. It further illustrates the power of collectivism in several instances, when for example it features the group's incredulous reaction to Ian's professed vegetarianism.

If collectivism limits individual preference, the script celebrates those individuals who challenge the group’s norms. It values Toula’s initiative to break away from traditionalism. And it relishes Nick’s aspiration to move beyond the immigrant valuing of business in order to pursue art.

The film keeps a distance, however, from American society’s tendency to exalt choice. Instead, it promotes the idea of social life as negotiation between social pressures and individual freedoms. Individuals often resort to compromise as the most advantageous strategy to fulfill personal interests and simultaneously maintain the cohesiveness of family. Ian is paradigmatic in this regard, a super nice guy. To safeguard his love and salvage a measure of harmony within the ethnic family, he converts to Greek Orthodoxy. He further promotes family coherence by persuading his beloved not to elope. Ironically, it is the xenos who defends obligation to the ethnic family.

Along these lines, the film restores the authority of parents to determine the place of ethnicity in the lives of their children. In the concluding scene, Toula emphatically admonishes her daughter. There will be no restraints regarding whom she marries, she promises, but not attending Greek language school is not an option.

This raises an important issue, the selective retention of ethnicity. Unlike village culture, where individuals experience great pressure to conform to tradition, in modernity individuals actively reflect on the status quo, including the ways of their parents. I invite students to think about what it means to act upon tradition. Which aspects of ethnicity does one wish to retain, which to discard, and why? Which facets of ethnicity appear compelling, which behaviors offend, whom, and why? The article “Education of Greek Americans for a Pluralist Society,” by Harry Triandis, provides a context for class discussion.

In teaching the course I carefully address the misconceptions that the film may generate. I take seriously the misgivings of those Greek American commentators who protest the negative portrayal of Greek immigrants in the film or criticize its superficiality.

Films of course do not mirror all of reality. They do, however, powerfully shape conceptions about the issues they portray. A story that turned mainstream, Wedding introduces Greek ethnicity to hundreds of thousands of Americans, shaping public views and sentiments toward Greek Americans. This is why Aliki Efstathiou bitterly complaints about the film’s portrayal of the Greeks as “vulgar, a group of imbeciles, and as ignorant, uneducated louts.” Noted film critic Dan Georgakas enters the discussion from a different angle, taking issue with the anachronistic portrayal of Greek ethnicity. “The Greek Americans offered in the film” are “at best fifty years out of date,” he rightly notes. The “utter banality” of the film offends him. Neither can one ignore the film’s reception in Greece where the often-evoked term “kitsch Vardalos” captures the disdain of many critics.

These are credible reservations, serving as a reminder that the film neglects to address the complexity of the group. Its story is not a true portrayal of Greek America even though some families may recognize aspects of their own lives in the screen. Moreover, its tight adherence to the conventions of the romantic comedy (boy meets girl; boy and girl face obstacles to their romantic union; boy and girl overcome obstacles to find true love in marriage) strips it of any originality.

But I also take an alternative route in teaching the film. Instead of asking what is true and what is false in the script, I encourage students to probe its significance: What is the purpose of portraying certain groups in specific ways? Why for example are immigrants caricatured? Why is it that the Millers are ridiculed in their WASPy ways? What does the contrast between the unruly Portokaloses and the uptight Millers accomplish? What is it that the film promotes?

Clearly, the film denigrates immigrants and WASPs alike. The former are depicted as traditionalists, patriarchal, crude, close-minded. The latter, in the figure of the elderly Millers, are seen as reserved, formal and rigid. In this way the film promotes a particular ideal, namely acculturated ethnicity as the cultural model for America. It is Toula who primarily exemplifies this ideal. She defies patriarchal tradition to assert herself as a confident modern woman but she still connects with ethnicity. Acculturated ethnics represent the golden mean between excessively traditionalist immigrants and excessively formal WASPs.

Students are quick to recognize the main point of the film, namely that ethnicity matters. Ian finds a meaningful sense of community in it, windex at hand and all. Ethnicity offers a valuable sense of belonging that counterbalances the void he experiences in life. The Millers overcome their inhibitions and join the ethnic dance, both literally and figuratively.

This is the age of ethnicity, the film loudly proclaims. It is not alone in this pronouncement. It is now an established fact that hyphenated Americans enjoy great cultural visibility in festivals, parades, documentaries, and museums. The importance of ethnic roots has become a national pastime. There is no stigma for American ethnics of European descent, who intermarry in record numbers. And the film itself enjoys a kind of celebrity in education curricula. Lesson plans for teaching Wedding to students at various levels are all over the internet.

If Greek America enjoys cultural cache, the question comes up inevitably: How to best tap this historical opportunity to further Greek America's resonance in the U.S.? Is there anything in the film that could help us think about this challenge? I believe so. But this exploration will require yet another essay.

Yiorgos Anagnostou

Originally published in the National Herald online (03/31/11) under the title, "Greek America 101: My Big Fat Greek Wedding's Lessons"

** For additional analysis see,

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