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My Big Fat Greek Wedding
Our film columnist Thomas Wartenberg ponders the pitfalls of cross-cultural coupling as he watches this season’s romantic comedy hit My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding is the latest in a genre I call the ‘unlikely couple’ film. Unlikely couple films feature romantic couples whose composition transgresses some social norm. Interracial couples in particular, at least within most American contexts and, I assume, British ones as well, have faced opposition and disapproval. Although this has changed within some social contexts in recent years, there are still strong presumptions that it is better to marry within one’s own social group. Unlikely couple films use the romance of their transgressive couples to critically interrogate such social norms.
In My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the norm against cross-group marriage exists within the Greek-American community in Chicago and is a form of separatism: Only Greeks are suitable as spouses for other Greeks. This gentle and somewhat sentimental film explores the ways in which this norm, reflecting a broader, self-imposed cultural isolation of Greeks in America, limits the lives of the children of the firstgeneration immigrants.
The film focuses on the life of Toula Portokalos (Nia Vardalos, who also wrote the screenplay), a thirty-year-old woman who lives at home with her parents and works in their restaurant. As the film begins, we hear her father, Gus (Michael Constantine), tell her that she is beginning to look old and that she really needs to marry. As we see her hostessing in the Portokalos’ restaurant, Dancing Zorbas, Toula conveys a sense of desperation at how her life is unfolding – or not, as it seems to her.
College offers a way out of the stultifying expectations that Toula finds all around her. The only problem is that her father doesn’t believe that his daughter needs anything more than a good Greek husband. As in many unlikely couple films, fathers represent the voice of society, as they attempt to enforce norms upon their resistant children. Mothers, however, are cut from a different cloth, recognizing the desires that make their kids go against ways that the parental generation had taken for granted. Here, Toula’s mother, Maria (Laine Kazan), understands her daughter’s aspirations and agrees to intercede with Gus. One of the film’s contentions is that it is the women that really control the destiny of their families, despite the fathers’ sense of themselves as patriarchal powers. To Gus’ claim that he is the head of the family, and thus ought to be consulted about any decisions before they are made, Maria claims to be the neck, which can turn the head any way it wants. And, indeed, she is able to make Gus think that he has come up with solutions for Toula that are really anything but his own. In this way, the film gives us an interesting take on the power dynamics within immigrant families.
The real crisis of the film occurs when Toula falls in love with Ian Miller (John Corbett), a high school English teacher who is a WASP. Although the two are clearly very much in love, when the Portokalos family discovers what is transpiring a major crisis ensues. Gus cannot accept the fact that his daughter is dating, and later engaged to, a man who is not Greek.
Ever since Romeo and Juliet, cross-group romances have been seen to have potentially devastating effects on the lovers and their clans. My Big Fat Greek Wedding deals with this drama in a light-hearted and even somewhat maudling manner, but it does keep making the point that it is the fulfillment of the children of the immigrants that is important, not the maintenance of the way of life of the parental generation, something that Gus and his relatives sometimes don’t see. For them, fulfillment requires remaining true to the mores they have set up in their adopted land, making it hard for them to understand that, for their children, fulfillment may require violating those very norms.
That this is the message of the film is emphasized by a sub-plot involving Nick (Louis Mandylor), Toula’s younger brother. Aside from practical jokes with Ian as their butt, Nick enjoys drawing. We see him repeatedly showing his father new designs he has made for the restaurant’s menu. Gus pays no attention to his son, not realizing that this is an important aspect of Nick’s life. When he sees how Toula has created a life for herself on her own terms, Nick decides to follow her lead and enroll in the local college to take art courses. He, too, has to violate his father’s sense of what is appropriate in order to create a life for himself in which he will be able to feel fulfillment.
Many of the funniest scenes in this light-hearted, yet socially engaged comedy showcase the differences between Ian’s WASP family and Toula’s Greek one. Employing the usual cultural stereotypes of WASPs as closed off and restrained, and of Greeks as expressive and out-going, the film shows the difficulties the two parental generations have in accepting that their children are becoming part of a family so different from their own. As they struggle to connect with each other, the parents show the real differences in the ways of life of the Greek immigrants and the Chicago WASPs.
Most unlikely couple films dealing with this issue are critical of the parental generation for constraining the lives of their children by demanding of them a fidelity to a way of life that has no meaning to them. My Big Fat Greek Wedding is unique in that it portrays Toula as discovering that she cannot completely abandon her family and its way of life despite her love for Ian. Luckily for her, Ian is himself completely pliable and agrees to do whatever it takes to get Toula’s family to accept him and their love. So even as the film criticizes Gus for demanding obedience from Toula rather than supporting her quest for fulfillment on her own terms, it does not require that the young lovers break with the stultifying atmosphere of the Greek-American community, for it acknowledges that Toula is a product of that community and needs to remain tied to it. The only question is how to integrate Ian into it.
Thus, My Big Fat Greek Wedding takes a very different tack from films like Mississippi Masala. That film required its cross-group couple to escape the constraining context of Greenwood, Mississippi, in order to find their own happiness. My Big Fat Greek Wedding raises many of the same issues, but does so in a less confrontational and judgmental way, allowing Gus’ extended family to make room for their WASP son-in-law. While many may object that this blunts the critical perspective of the film, its great popularity attests to the fact that many find this an uplifting film with a positive message they enjoy: With good will, differences between social groups can be bridged and individual fulfillment found in America. This is a vision of America that is all too rare in film today and on the front pages of our papers. Let us hope that it is one that can achieve more prominence in the years to come.
© Thomas E. Wartenberg 2003
Thomas Wartenberg is the author of Unlikely Couples: Movie Romance as Social Criticism (Westview) and co-editor of Philosophy and Film (Routledge). He teaches philosophy and film studies at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.