Term Paper, 2016, 22 Pages
2. American Ethnic Relations: From Melting Pot to Salad Bowl
3. Film Analysis
3.1 Portraying Greek Immigrant Culture - The Portokalos’
3.2 Delineating Whiteness - The Millers
3.3 Cross-Cultural Encounters - Reversal of Original Power Relations
3.4 Connecting Two Different Worlds
3.4.1 Toula Portokalos - Constructing the Ethnic Heroine
3.4.2 Ian Miller - Deconstructing Male Whiteness
3.5 The Wedding - A Celebration of Cross-Ethnic Understanding
Depictions of ethnic characters as well as interethnic relations mark an integral part in American cinema and „constitute a rich and varied tapestry woven by several generations of moviemakers responding to the world around them“ (Friedman 32). Such filmic portrayals of ethnic subjects and cultures highlight both “the profound impact on ethnic people on American society” (Friedman 32) as well as American society’s perception of ethnic particularity within its midst. There are, however, divergent positions regarding the commercial cinema’s treatment of ethnic groups and their cultural heritage. On the one hand, many Hollywood movies deploy filmic representations of ethnic people in order to “superimpose Americanness as a self-ascripting category whose value orientation totally dominates any primordial ethnic conditions” (Friedman 22). Correspondingly, these films aim at stressing cultural uniformity and dominant cultural ideals. Hence, value orientations become not ethnically but rather ideologically defined (Friedman 22). In this sense, American mainstream cinema often oversimplifies the experience of American ethnics by, for instance, mirroring long-held prejudices or deploying stereotypical exaggeration, be it of European or other cultural descent (Anagnostou 139). On the other hand, it is important to note that there are also films that aim at exploring the ‘immigrant other’ as well as the intricacies of the hyphenated lives of ethnic groups by comparing it to the “culturally dominant/ self” (Anagnostou 139). In this regard, much attention is paid on ethnic characters and their cultural heritage as well as on intergroup relations. Taking the above mentioned different positions into account, these films “either implicitly or explicitly show how ethnic groups affect American life and how American life influences its ethnic citizens” (Friedman 32).
One filmic example focusing on ethnic inquiry is presented by the Hollywood blockbuster My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), a film that might at first glance be simply overlooked as a typical romantic comedy. Yet at second glance, it becomes clear that this film does in fact highlight issues of cultural otherness as well as cross-ethnic relations. Particularly, great emphasis is on American ethnics of Greek heritage and their relation to the ‘culturally dominant’, the White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs) of British descent.
This paper aims at exploring the filmic deployment of White and Greek ethnicity in specific contexts. The central questions discussed in this paper are: How are Whiteness and Greekness depicted in My Big Fat Greek Wedding? More importantly, which essential message does the film convey? For this purpose, the paper will first of all take a closer look at American ethnic relations from a historical perspective in order to establish important references to the following film analysis.
In a second step, the paper will plunge into the analysis of My Big Fat Greek Wedding as such. In this regard, it initially explores how Greekness and Whiteness and their relation as a cultural clash are portrayed in the film. Subsequently, it will examine how these two divergent worlds are connected by analyzing the two main characters Toula Portokalos and Ian Miller. Thereafter, the result of connecting the White American and the Greek American culture is investigated by analyzing the wedding. Finally, the paper concludes by summarizing the main findings and giving a brief outlook. It should, however, be mentioned that this paper solely examines how social structures of American ethnic relations are represented in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. To be more precise, it exclusively refers to the filmic level and does not aim at generalizing the main findings concerning American society as a whole.
“Throughout its history, the United States has been inhabited by a variety of interacting racial or ethnic groups” (Frederickson 633). As the United States of America has always been a nation of different nations - a society composed of various ethnic and religious subcommunities - diversity can be regarded as “a hallmark of the American experience” (Kivisto 2). Even long before the American nation officially came into being, “the continent served as a magnet for settlers from Europe and as the final destination for African victims of the slave trade” (Kivisto 2). Looking at the entire span of American history, it becomes clear that a very influential and durable conception of relations among American racial or ethnic groups has been hierarchical. More precisely, at the very beginning of US history, American society was characterized by a white dominant group of Protestant Anglo-Saxon ancestry, which today is also known as the group of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs), and by several other subordinate ethnic groups being regarded as physically, intellectually and morally inferior to the dominant group (Khleif 54). This dominant group of old Anglo-Saxon descent, which considered itself the founder of America’s society, claimed “rights and privileges not to be fully shared with outsiders or ‘others’, who have been characterized as unfit or unready for equal rights and full citizenship” (Frederickson 634). This hierarchical model of American ethnic relations has its deepest roots and most enduring consequences in the enslavement of blacks during the colonial period as well as in the conquest of the Indians (Frederickson 634).
After the United States of America had received independence from Britain through the Declaration of Independence in 1776, a common national identity had to be constructed in order to define American nationhood. Since the US is and has always been a nation with high immigration rates, a model of society was developed in order to reduce ethnic diversity and to establish a single and stable American culture “of European and especially English origin to which minorities were expected to conform as the price of admission to full and equal participation in the society and polity of the United States” (Frederickson 635).
Central to the debate regarding immigration and to the construction of a single national American character was the issue of assimilation. If ethnic people living in the US maintain their cultural heritage and if they convey it to the next generation what in return would then happen to the American culture? The ideal of an American melting pot in which diverse people of different descent are melded, blended and mixed with other people in order to establish a new single American race was initially “expressed in the work of French immigrant de Crèvecoeur” (Henderson 132). In his Letters from an American Farmer (1782), composed shortly after the American nation achieved independence of the British Crown, he envisions America “becoming a nation comprised of a completely new race that would eventually affect changes to the world through its labor force and its subsequent posterity” (Gloor 29). From a metaphorical perspective, the melting pot theory, also referred to as ‘cultural assimilation’, implies that “the ingredients in the pot (people of different cultures and religions) are combined so as to lose their discrete identities and yield a final product of uniform consistency and flavor, which is quite different from the original inputs” (Gloor 29). Specifically, in the late nineteenth and in the early twentieth centuries the melting pot dogma in terms of a one-way assimilation according to Anglo-Saxon conformity became “the dominant way in which Americans thought about the relationships of the many ethnic groups in the country to one another and their bearing on national unity” (Kivisto 24). By the time between 1890 and 1920 when over 20 million immigrants, especially of southeastern European descent, arrived in the United States, mass immigration caused new concerns about the quality of the American stock (Frederickson 634). Because Americans feared that American culture, which was seen as a product of western European and particularly British influence, would be ultimately damaged by mass immigration, they established so-called Americanization campaigns in order to eradicate “all vestiges of the new arrivals’ cultural heritage” (Kivisto 26). Although the metaphor’s meaning might have suggested that a new mixture of race would evolve, taking equality as the professed goal, a more predominant interpretation was that non-Anglo-Saxon practices and customs would simply vanish, making the dominant group’s culture the original one (Henderson 134). As far as naturalization is concerned, from 1907 to 1920, “over one million people gained citizenship under the racially restrictive naturalization laws” (Lopez 1). More importantly, applicants, who aimed at gaining full citizenship had to possess certain ‘white person prerequisites’ in order to become fully accepted by American society. In brief, the courts’ task was to explain the basis on which they drew “the boundaries of Whiteness” (Lopez 2) by law, whether, for instance, an applicant’s petition was to be measured by national origin, skin color or cultural practices.
Yet the melting pot ideal “was not universally accepted” (Kivisto 26). Unlike coercive assimilation policies adhering to Anglo-Saxon conformity, which aimed at obliterating ethnic diversity, proponents of cultural pluralism celebrated differences among ethnic groups, especially with the advent of the Civil Rights era (Frederickson 638). The 1960s, “which brought significant Civil Rights’ legislation in order to improve the lifes of racial minorities, caused changes in immigration policies that ultimately “embraced a more pluralistic conception of American identity” (Henderson 137). This era, which influenced ethnic consciousness, especially black consciousness, can be regarded as the beginning of a complete reorientation of American civic life, since Black demands for ethnic recognition also helped legitimize the claims of other ethnic groups such as immigrants of European descent (Friedman 12). After decades of conforming to the Anglo-Saxon standard, “descendants of earlier European immigrants quit the melting pot. Italianness, Jewishness, Greekness, and Irishness had become badges of pride, not shame” (Jacobson 2). By definition, this phenomenon of an increasing ethnic pride in America during the 1960s and 1970s is also known as the ‘ethnic revival’. According to the celebration of immigrant heritage, “ethnic traces and trappings that had been lost, forgotten, or forcibly cast off by prior generations in their rush to Americanize were now rediscovered and embraced by a younger generation who had known nothing but American culture” (Jacobson 3). A very striking event within the period of the ethnic awaking was John F. Kennedy’s return to Ireland, his original homeland, in the summer of 1963. Even before his visit to Ireland, “Kennedy had earlier defined the United States as a ‘nation of immigrants’, the title of his slim 1958 volume on the contributions of diverse ethnic groups to American life” (Jacobson 13). By symbolism, the president’s return to his homeland can be regarded as an early landmark of a profound reorientation of American civic life (Jacobson 16). Significantly, the ethnic revival phenomenon of the 1960s and 1970s was not only restricted to the private sphere. Rather, the roots trip can be considered a national or institutional phenomenon. Universities, publishers, research foundations, scholarly organizations such as ‘the Irish American Foundation (1963)’ or ‘the American Italian Historical Association (1966)’as well as federal granting agencies were also involved in order to promote the idea of celebrating ethnic heritage and practices (Jacobson 42).
Taking the above stated overview of the ethnic revival era into account, it becomes obvious that the melting pot idea “came under attack after 1960” (Kivisto 27). A number of alternatives were offered in its place in order to conceptualize American civic life. These include, for instance, the image of a mosaic, “in which the individual pieces of colored tiles are placed in various relationships to other tiles to produce and integrated whole based on maintaining distinctiveness” (Kivisto 27). However, images from the kitchen increased currency in recent years and are seen to be the most popular, “perhaps because food remains one of the most important artifacts of ethnic and racial groups.” (Kivisto 28) Besides the characterizations of America as an ethnic stew or a soup, the salad bowl metaphor seems to be the most popular food analogy. According to the salad bowl paradigm, “the ingredients are encouraged to retain their cultural identities, thus retaining their ‘integrity of flavor’ while contributing to a tasty and nutritious salad” (Gloor 29). Whereas the melting pot theory totally ignores the issue of ethnic particularity and rather pursues the ideal of a one-people nation of Anglo-Saxon conformity, the salad bowl metaphor portrays America as a nation in which different ethnic groups maintain their cultural identities. Although the salad bowl metaphor highlights the issue of cultural diversity, it, however, “fails to address the reality and the consequences of intermarriage, which is an extremely important contemporary phenomenon” (Kivisto 28).
To this day, American society is coined by the complexity of its heterogeneous population, which in fact is far away from the melting pot theory. Although the myth of a one- people nation had been dominating for decades, ethnic diversity has always existed. According to Glazer and Moynihan, “the point about the melting pot […] is that it did not happen” (v).
Delineating Greekness and Whiteness in My Big Fat Greek Wedding: Cultural Boundaries and Encounters Even though the love story of the ethnic heroine Toula Portokalos and the male hero Ian Miller, a typical American, constitute the film’s main topic, the depiction of two completely different cultures and their encounters present a core issue as well. On the one hand, My Big Fat Greek Wedding focuses on the representation of the typical American upper-middle-class as well as on corresponding WASP-coded practices. On the other hand, however, the film pays considerable attention to the depiction of the ‘immigrant other’: the ethnic group of Greek heritage. As the film provides various scenes in which both cultures are represented in a very stereotypical way, it makes sense to analyze the two divergent worlds according to different existing cultural categories in order to finally recognize cultural differences. The cultural of work of stereotypes is well-known in terms of defining certain populations concerning “absolute attributes” (Anagnostou 148). In this regard, the paper respects cultural categories that are directly visible such as food or living space as well as categories that are not directly visible like cultural attitudes, norms or family ideals. Based on selected cultural categories and scenes, the aim of the following three subchapters is to examine the development of the filmic representation of Greekness with emphasis on the Portokalos’ and Whiteness with regard to the Millers. First of all, the two cultures are to be examined separately, while in a second step the paper analyzes how Greekness and Whiteness clash during their first encounter. Finally the delineation of Greekness and Whiteness will be examined with respect to the wedding.
From a WASP point of view, the audience gets already confronted with immigrant foreignness within the first 12 minutes of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. More precisely, the whole Portokalos family, including members of the extended family and their Greek lifestyle, is in the broadest sense presented within the first few minutes. The depiction of the Portokalos’ or rather the portrayal of Greekness in the film is often represented in a very stereotypical way. In several scences the depiction of Greekness is even overloaded and exaggerated by stereotypical descriptions.
It immediately becomes clear that the Greek family lives in Chicago and owns a Greek restaurant, which is called ‘Dancing Zorba’s’. According to Kourvetaris, Greek restaurants seem to be a first-generation phenomenon, indicating that Gus and Maria Portokalos represent the family’s first generation who immigrated to the United States (253). The fact that the family owns a restaurant offering Greek food is the first depiction of Greekness in a stereotypical way. At the time during the first quarter of the twentieth century many southeastern European immigrants came to the US in order to “pursue service-oriented and ‘middleman’ occupations by becoming restaurant owners” (Kouvetaris 253), ice cream and candy store operators, grocers or tavern operators.
Besides the typical depiction of Greekness concerning the family’s profession, another stereotypical attribute is seen in the representation of the family’s living space. The family lives in a normal middle-class Chicago neighborhood, a typical American suburb. Whereas the surrounding housings almost look the same according to the typical American housing style, the houseof the Portokalos family totally differs from the American ideal. It looks like a replica of the Pantheon with Greek statutes in the yard and a Greek flag at the garage door (see Fig. 1). Indeed, the portrayal of the house is characterized by hyperbole. Thus, it pays great emphasis on the ‘culturally other’ and highlights the ethnic pride of the Greek family. Fig. 1: The Portokalos‘ House (00:04:42 min.)
This ethnic pride is also revealed as far as Greek education and language is concerned. While the white schoolgirls of non-Greek descent are allowed to go to Brownies, a typical American school, the offspring of the Portokalos’ also has to go to a Greek school in which typical values and norms of the Greek society and culture are conveyed. Furthermore, ethnic particularity and ethnic pride are also revealed regarding language. While the second generation of the Partokalos’ speaks English without any accent, the first generation, however, retains a Greek accent. Moreover, Gus Portokalos, who considers himself the head of the family, claims that the root of every English word is Greek as the following citation shows: “Kimono, Kimono, Kimono. Ah. Kimono is come from the Greek word Cheimonas, which is mean winter. What do you wear in the winter to stay warm? A robe! So there you go!” (My Big Fat Greek Wedding 0:05:35-0:06:00). Shortly after this scene, ethnic pride is even reinforced when Gus Portokalos calls his daughter’s attention by saying: “Toula! You should be proud to be Greek!” (My Big Fat Greek Wedding 0:06:15-0:06:19).
Regarding the representation of Greek family ideals, the film initially conveys the impression that the Greek family structure is patriarchal, in which women are responsible for the private sphere whereas men communicate within the public sphere. This notion is already revealed due to Toula’s very first statement in the film as the following extract shows: “Nice Greek girls are supposed to do three things in life: marry Greek boys, make Greek babies and feed everyone until the day we die” (My Big Fat Greek Wedding 0:01:58-0:02:06). Likewise, Toula’s description of her brother’s life follows the patriarchal family ideal as well: “My brother has two jobs: to cook and to marry a Greek virgin” (My Big Fat Greek Wedding 0:08:01). It therefore seems as if the film conveys a clear distribution of social roles. For instance, Toula’s mother and sister are both mothers of three children and care for the whole family. According to Gus Portokalos, who aims to be an authoritative patriarch, they correspond to the Greek family ideal and convey important values. However, the film does not convey the impression that Greek women or rather Maria Portokalos and her oldest daughter are unhappy with their family role. Rather, they seem to be proud of their Greek heritage and to care for their family.
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