It’s very convenient source material for a successful romantic comedy: the proverbial European immigrants clashing with their second-generation offspring who are much more plugged into US society than any of them ever plan to be. Mississippi Masala takes this type of premise and dramatizes it. My Big Fat Greek Wedding takes it and pokes serious fun at it. To the casual observer, most of the Greek caricatures in this film remind one of those more commonly associated with Italian-Americans, perhaps Hollywood’s favorite immigrant stereotype. And rightly so, since the eccentric, family-obsessed, food-crazed, and (perhaps most importantly) loud subculture of these Greek-Americans hardly looks any different from the general southern European prototype. There are many assumptions in My Big Fat Greek Wedding about ethnicity, culture, and identity that go completely unquestioned and that appeal directly to the viewer’s preconceptions about such issues.
The film identifies the viewer with Toula, the female protagonist at the narrative’s center. She’s highly self-conscious about her upbringing and heritage. She sets herself apart from the rest of her family, even as she is utterly enveloped in the day-to-day operations of the family business, lives with her parents, and has no outlet into the rest of the world until she gains special permission from the family patriarch (via the matriarch) to take computer classes at a community college. Some of her first words in the film are, “I have no life.” This sets her apart from the rest of the family, for whom family is life. Just to make sure we get the point, Toula wanders into a back alley behind the family restaurant during a moment of chaos, as the camera isolates her from the rest of the world and amplifies her inner sense of solitude. She’s the ugly duckling that, we know from the formula, is bound to find her inner swan once the right guy comes along. She’s okay with her family heritage, in all its weirdness (and certainly, while the film at some level celebrates the Greek-American subculture, it also sets it apart as decidedly “other”), but she’s detached from it and views herself as a more “normal” American woman who wants to live a more “normal” life. That the American-ness of her identity is presented as normal isn’t necessarily unfair, since the film positions itself on her side, and it’s geared toward a predominantly typical “American” audience.
Something a little funny is afoot, however, when it comes to assumptions about what connotes Greek-ness. The film takes for granted that what it says is “Greek” really is Greek, whatever that even means. Go to Greece, of course, or any other country, and you’ll have a plethora of notions flying around as to what it really is to be “Greek” or what have you. For that matter, no one in the United States wants to be pinned down as simply “American” or “East Coast” or “West Coast,” etc. In the context of immigration and expatriation, notions of ethnic identity and essentialism are never more subjectively decided nor more objectively confused. By leaving the “homeland,” a nationalist apparently acquires the unique right to dictate what is truly “Greek”-ness, or anything else. Perhaps further still, it’s the second generation, the person who has never visited Greece and (in Toula’s case) does not want to go, who is most to be trusted regarding what it is to be Greek. Presumably, her own liminal identity, half immigrant through her parents and half native by means of her own American birth, gives her the true perspective by existing between worlds and thereby knowing each world and their relationship with one another.
It’s also interesting how every aspect of Toula’s family’s life is completely centered around ethnicity. Whether it’s the food, the naming of their children, the family businesses (a Greek restaurant and a travel agency specializing in trips to Greece), the mates their children choose to marry, or even their religion, literally everything in their life bends the knee to the a priori assumption that Greek-ness supersedes the rest. This is done, of course, to comedic effect, and quite effectively indeed. Part of the reason it works, however, is because built into ethnic stereotypes about European immigrants is the caricature that all immigrants care about is their ethnic heritage. This is enough of a commonplace that the film can rely on the audience’s acceptance of the premise and even find it kind of endearing. A potential problem with this kind of premise, however, is that it reduces immigrant subcultures to a single dimension, painting a picture of them as myopic and monolithic. The film makes an effort to avoid this by making Toula’s family ultimately accepting of the non-Greek husband, even to the point of having her father give a speech that embraces not only differences between the two families but also similarities. The epilogue, however, falls back into the films earlier mode of caricature. It’s six years later, and we discover that the house Toula’s parents bought them is next door to theirs. Toula and Ian’s young daughter is compelled (by the grandparents, it would seem) to go to Greek school rather than Brownies. We see that the giant Greek flag that had covered the family’s garage door is now a mural in-progress of a Greek landscape being painted by Toula’s artistic brother, whose abilities had been poo-pooed by his dad earlier in the film. So in the end, the gestures that the family makes to prioritize their children above their ethnic heritage come with strings attached tightly to the ethnic heritage. It may not be that they value ethnicity above family, exactly, but that they are incapable of separating the two. The only way they eventually accept Ian into the family is when he is baptized into the Greek Orthodox church, a gesture that is clearly devoid of religious sincerity on both Ian’s part and the Greek family. But in this way, both Ian and Toula’s family share an understanding that what they do for their family is more important than religion or anything else.
On a rather unrelated note, perhaps, is the refreshing aspect of the film that not only engages the viewer primarily with Toula, a woman, but positions the viewer in a place of female desire for a man. The man is not feminized, but he is presented as an object of erotic desire. He has long hair, making him (fittingly) Adonis-like. On more than one occasion, Toula’s female relatives swoon over his physical appearance, which is tall and muscular. He’s presented as intelligent (an adept school teacher) but never more intelligent than Toula. It’s a relative rarity for popular Hollywood films (although, granted, this was an “independent” film) to permit primary erotic desire to emanate from the woman for a truly manly man. Typically when this occurs, the man is feminized and almost indistinguishable from a stereotypical woman – see the Twilight books/movies. As a female university prof once said about Jane Campion’s film In The Cut, it’s refreshing when films acknowledge the presence of female viewers who insist on their own autonomy while also having a palpable desire for a real man. While My Big Fat Greek Wedding is probably nowhere near as complex as the themes investigated in Campion’s film, it may stand as a popular exception to the rule.