I admire Nia Vardalos both as a writer and as a woman. She is incredibly smart, funny and unafraid to balance female empowerment with vulnerability on paper and on-screen. That is why I left the theater confused and also worried after seeing My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2. She as an author was nowhere to be seen. And the problem is we need her, and what she represents, in more ways that you think.
It’s was no surprise to me that the first film was a sleeper hit (it’s still the highest grossing Romantic Comedy of all time). She managed to portray the eccentricities of her family and heritage with undeniable finesse. Even if shown as loud and narrow minded at times, they were also wise, loving and progressive. Her mom was a smart and supportive matriarch of proud immigrants. Her dad, played beautifully by Michael Constantine, once opposed to her daughter dating a non-Greek, gives a lovely speech at her wedding comparing both his and his new American relatives with Apples and Oranges: “We are different, yes, but we are all fruit!”. She knows her kinfolk is “different” (and who doesn’t?). At the same time there was a sense of love for her background, her family, and also herself in the middle of all the chaos that made the film something very special, important and timeless.
Then comes the sequel. Toula is still married to Ian yet they are “distanced” (which only means that she doesn’t wear make up anymore and they don’t do anything fun because she is too distracted by her relatives). Her teenage daughter is both ashamed of her and her lineage. Her parents and the rest of the clan (with the exception of Andrea Martin‘s Aunt Voula) have become an amalgamation of loud nonsensical stereotypes. There’s none of the wit and charm that every distinctive character brought in the first installment. All references to the Greek culture feel like a joke instead of a celebration. She herself is ashamed of who she is when confronted by neighbors. Only at the end she feels comfortable to invite them into her world, only because she is having a party and being noisy and reckless is actually fun and cool (?). Forget about the apples and oranges. Now is just “them” (without any justification) and everyone else (if they will).
We have a lack of positive multicultural entertainment. It’s just easier to make a caricature of any element that might seem foreign or peculiar to everyone else at the expense of a laugh, but that’s a high cost to pay. To some TV and Film represent the only exposure they have to different cultural backgrounds. Of course humor is an easy (and sometimes necessary) channel to open audiences to new sociocultural experiences, yet it needs to be balanced with other values so it doesn’t become straight mockery, or even shame. It’s easy to fall into the latest one, even with the best of intentions.
That’s why the individuals who portray diverse groups in media have a huge responsibility, and to my relief some of them are doing it right. TV might be the best example of this with shows like Modern Family or Fresh Off The Boat among others, that showcase families of diverse backgrounds under a loving, proud and very entertaining light. Sofia Vergara‘s Gloria is loud and doesn’t speak perfect English, yet she is smart, witty and always speaks her mind. Contance Wu‘s Jessica can be obsessive and imperative, yet she is a kind and supportive mother and wife.
None of the women on MBFGW2 have a spectrum of qualities, neither as representatives of a culture nor as characters, same thing applies to everyone else on it. Vardalos being the first female writer able to reach such a big box office record has it in her to do it better and right, not just for the sake of a sequel, she is capable of so much more. And I have a big, fat problem with that.
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