Photo cred: Marie Claire (marieclaire.co.uk)
I love My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Although I’ve never been a film buff and don’t really have a definitive list of my favorite films of all time, I can say without a doubt that My Big Fat Greek Wedding is somewhere near the top of my faves list. I watched it a lot growing up, and can still recite most of the first ten minutes of the movie, as narrated by main character Toula Portokalos. The 2002 film was written by Nia Vardalos, who stars as the aforementioned protagonist, and it is the semi-autobiographical story of how Vardalos met and fell in love with her husband, actor Ian Gomez, who was non-Greek. It is the most successful independent film (and romantic-comedy) of all time despite a quiet debut in the box office.
I love the film endearingly, but even as a child I could see the many ways sexist gender norms were reinforced in the film either subtly or blatantly to create conflict within the plot. These gender cues have only become more apparent to me as I’ve grown older. With the sequel debuting the weekend of March 25 (which I am SUPER excited to see), I wanted to take a look at the original film to analyze in depth how sexist notions were essential in shaping the plot of the film.
The double standards for men and women are made apparent from the very beginning of the film with the first words spoken by Toula and her father, Gus. While driving both of them to work early in the morning, Gus tells Toula that she better get married soon because she’s starting to look “old.” Toula then goes into voiceover, where she tells the audience that her father has been telling her this since she was 15, and that Greek girls are supposed to do three things in life: “Marry Greek boys, make Greek babies, and feed everyone until the day we die.”
While the film is structured around Greekness and framed to chalk up these traditional roles to Greek culture, it is still no different for what is expected of all women. Firstly, women are always expected to remain youthful, and their attractiveness and desirability heavily depends on how young they look. Let us not ignore how older women are erased in Hollywood films and television and forget how Maggie Gyllenhaal at 37 was called “too old” to play the love interest of a 55-year old man. Gus is telling his daughter (his daughter) that the older she gets, the harder it will be to find a husband because she will not be seen as youthful, a la, beautiful. Oh, and did I forget to mention that Toula is only 30 at the start of the film?
Secondly, the roles that Toula describe are typical of the cult of domesticity that has been thrust upon women for generations. True womanhood, as it has been reinforced for years, encompasses getting married to a man, having children for said man, and cooking for the family. Because these are things according to Toula that Greek women are “supposed to do in life,” it is apparent then that women find their worth through these things only. If they cannot fulfill these duties, then they serve no purpose to the family (or in the case of this film, Greek culture).
Toula continues to narrate as members of her family are introduced. Her sister, Athena, is the perfect older sister who married young and became “a Greek baby breeding machine.” Indeed, she has three boys at the beginning of the film and is pregnant with another (that is born in time for Toula’s wedding).She is the ideal woman that Toula is compared to by her parents and family. Toula’s brother Niko is unmarried like her, but is expected to marry a Greek virgin. This of course reinforces the expectation for men to go after chaste and virginal women, as it is assumed they make the most obedient wives. Interestingly, when Gus talks to Toula’s aunt and uncle about her unmarried status, Niko interjects to say that he will make his dad proud and get married soon. Gus scoffs at this, gives his son a kiss on the cheek, and says he has plenty of time to get married. Gus once again makes obvious that he knows that Greek men have all the time in the world to get married because at any point in their lives they have their pick of the litter; for women, their desirability is at stake the longer they wait.
In the midst of her sulking, Toula lays eyes on Ian, who stops into the family restaurant for a bite to eat with his friend before work. At this point, she is “pre-makeover” Toula, so Ian doesn’t exactly take much notice of her. This chance encounter of course sets in motion the romantic plot of the film. After this, Toula breaks down and decides that she wants to truly start her life by going back to school to learn about computers. She presents this idea to her father, and he is none too pleased, asking her whining “Why do you want to leave me?” Toula, exasperated, says she is not leaving him, and asks if he wants her to do something with her life. He responds with what he told her at the beginning of the film (get married, make babies, etc.). Gus storms out of the room, at which point Toula collapses in muffled tears. Her mother, Maria, comes to console her. Maria assures Toula that she will still be able to take control of her life, to which Toula reminds her mother that her father is the head of the house. Maria tells Toula that the man may be the head, but the woman is the neck, “and she can turn the head any way she wants.” While this was used as a way to remind Toula that her mother still holds some clout when it comes to her father, it is still a reminder that there is a clear patriarchal structure to their lives. Women can’t make autonomous decisions without having to either get permission or approval from a man or manipulate him into doing what she wants.
Fast forward a bit. Toula is standing on her own two feet and attending classes and taking initiative in the family businesses. She also decides to be more attentive to her appearance. She ditches her glasses for contacts, starts curling her hair, and puts on some makeup. Her beauty shines through and she finally looks happy. It is only after this, however, that she meets Ian again and they start dating. I go back and forth on whether this is sexist or not. One could say that Toula’s makeover was an act of self-care, and dressing up her appearance was her way of exercising control over her life. I like to believe this is true. However, it can’t be ignored that she only found love after she prettied herself up to look more conventionally attractive. Though her motivations for making herself over had nothing to do with her relationship, I have to wonder if Ian would have seen her beautiful personality if it wasn’t wrapped in a pretty package.
Even more than Ian being non-Greek, the main conflict of the film is Gus’ refusal to accept his daughter’s relationship. While the rest of the family doesn’t take too long to come around (especially after Ian is baptized in the Greek church), the film doesn’t get its happy ending until ultimately Gus gives his blessing to the marriage of Toula and Ian. The film makes this phenomenon Greek-specific, but it is still the case for women of all backgrounds. There is a reason overprotective dads are a thing, why dads walk their daughters down the aisle to “give them away.” Marriage for straight couples, for better or worse, is treated as an exchange of the woman from one man (the father) to another (the husband). The father’s approval of the man that will now “take care of” and “protect” his daughter is crucial because, in line with patriarchy, it affirms to the father that his delicate daughter, a woman, will be guarded from danger. In a sense, the husband takes over for the father.
One of Ian’s first encounters with Gus is when Gus scolds him for not asking permission to date his daughter. Ian questions this, pointing out that Toula is 30 years old (interestingly, not that she is a grown woman who can think for herself). But, Ian indulges Gus, and asks permission to date his daughter, to which Gus says no. While seemingly old-fashioned and presented in this movie as distinctive of Greek culture, the unspoken rule in society remains to be that fathers must shelter their daughters and police their behaviors more than their sons.
One last aspect of the film I’d like to discuss isn’t one of sexism, but possible racism. Nia Vardalos’ husband in real life, Ian Gomez, is half Puerto Rican, but in the film, Ian is white. Not only is he white, but his parents are made to be the whitest of white, WASPiest parents imaginable. I doubt this was the case for the real Ian’s parents, given his Puerto Rican heritage. While I understand the desire for artists to separate their art from their real lives, especially when they are basing their art on the events of their lives, I have to wonder how Nia Vardalos was willing to whitewash her husband’s identity in favor of casting a well-known white actor to play the film version of him. (Note: In 2002, John Corbett — the actor that plays Ian — was mostly known for playing Carrie Bradshaw’s lover Aidan on Sex and the City.) The whitewashing is more obvious when you consider it was the only major change made to Vardalos’ actual story. And I also have to wonder if the real life controversy over Vardalos dating Gomez wasn’t that he was non-Greek, but that he was half Latino.
In the end, though, it was all happy endings. Toula married Ian, their families got along, and they had a baby. And the all the actors got a sequel, after a longer-than-expected period of time. With the news that one of the main characters will come out as gay in the sequel, I have hope that the second film will be more inclusive and socially conscious than the first one. But, through all of its problematic elements, My Big Fat Greek Wedding is a classic story of love, family, and finding yourself. And for that, it’ll always be my fave.