Sunday, June 28, 2009

My Life in the Movies

Back in 2004-ish I wrote a series of articles for a start-up website called The site was intended to bring together a number of relationship "experts" to discuss aspects of, well, relationships. Amidst the psychologists and therapists there was I, talking about being single, dating, and breaking up from a young woman's point of view. My work got a pretty positive reaction even if the website did not reach the heights its team aspired towards. The site, after years of inactivity, has since gone offline and as a result so have my articles. In an effort to keep them online I am going to be reposting them here. After all, this did start off as a blog about singles' issues. Just bear in mind that these articles are a few years old and as such may not reflect some current situations in society, the online world, and my life.

In this particular article, the movie examples I cite are somewhat dated (although still perfectly relevant to the points I am trying to make) and contrary to what I say about myself in the fist line, I have since become a movie buff.

My Life in the Movies

I’m not a movie person, so it was very much against my nature to watch two movies in one week: My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Mambo Italiano.

I’ve been meaning to watch My Big Fat Greek Wedding, for, oh, about two years now – but I just never got around to it. Commitment has always been a problem for me. Plus, after seeing trailer after trailer for it, and from the many comments of other people, I think I had the storyline pretty down pat. And I did. Not only because of the giveaway remarks, but when ethnicity and over-protective parents collide, I think I have the basic plot pretty well down pat.

It was this exact combination that was one of the reasons I delayed seeing the movie for so long. I was afraid that Toula’s overbearing father would remind me too much of my own parents. Coming from a traditional Jewish family, the pressure to marry someone of the same religion is pretty much the same as on her to marry someone Greek. I live that life everyday – I don’t have to see it on the screen, be it big or small. To me, that’s not entertainment – that’s masochism.

While seeing the movie was not as painful an experience as I had anticipated, I did not find My Big Fat Greek Wedding to be particularly funny. Don’t get me wrong – it was a wonderful hour and a half of pure escapist entertainment, which I could measure by the time that flew by with nary a bathroom break – but it also didn’t run particularly deep. It moved along too quickly, the characters were one-dimensional, and frankly, I found Toula’s parents’ turnaround at the end to be contrived. But then again, perhaps that’s just me putting my own baggage into the storyline.

And then, there was Mambo Italiano. Another hour and a half of a similar theme, except this time the family was Italian, and it was a gay couple at the center of the film. This movie was Greek Wedding on steroids – the parents were far more stereotypically smothering and guilt-inflicting than their Greek counterparts. The way the parents bickered with each other, the neurotic relatives, the emphasis on living up to the expectations of others – this resonated with me deeply. My mother always told me that Jews and Italians have a lot in common. We’re both very clean people, with strong family values. She would know – she grew up in a New York Jewish neighborhood, interspersed with Italians.

Both movies deal with breaking traditions, while Mambo Italiano digs far deeper into issues in approximately the same amount of time. I’m not gay, but I could easily relate to Angelo’s desire for his parents to accept him for who he is, while at the same time strive to be “normal” in spite of one’s upbringing (which, of course, was done with the best of intentions on the parents’ part). I laughed more deeply, and cried harder. It made me relive scenes from my childhood. And it was much cheaper than visiting a therapist!

The role of ethnicity in relationships has much to do with our families of origin. If your family did not care about whether or not you dated or married outside of your culture, then odds have it that you didn’t care either. But if preserving ethnic bloodlines, heritage, or simply carrying a deep-seated cultural pride into a romantic relationship was the expectation, the voices of our parents carry on with us, even if we choose partners of a different culture.

Traditions, customs, and even simple things such as how to spend mealtimes and holidays, are all things that need to be negotiated in relationships. Like in Greek Wedding, with marrying someone of a different culture comes the fear of not carrying on those traditions. And in Mambo Italiano, living a different lifestyle altogether is a threat to a cultural dynamic (as Angelo says to the anonymous therapist on the Gay Helpline, there is nothing worse for an Italian than being gay).

For me, being Jewish is an important part of who I am, mainly because it was important to my parents. Even when I at times am not being the model of a nice Jewish girl, I never forget where I come from. Which was not always functional (and still isn’t), and I am quick to poke fun at many of the stereotypical aspects of my parents and peers.

But when the cards are put on the table in a relationship, my Judaism is not negotiable. When a man cannot deal with my desire to join me as I maintain my sometimes tenuous connection to my heritage, I am gone. But to my parents, if a man is not Jewish, he is not acceptable, period -- even if he buys into my lifestyle hook, line, and kosher.

My parents and I are living examples of the changing attitude towards the role of ethnicity in relationships, from one generation to the next. To risk sounding too much like Reb Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof, on the one hand we have the desire to hold on to a part of ourselves, while on the other hand, we seek to separate from our families and forge our own identity. Choosing the “right” partner takes precedence over choosing someone with the same background as ourselves.

Movies like My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Mambo Italiano are becoming the storylines for the lives of more and more people. Who knows? Maybe one day I will be starring in one of my own.

Paula E. Kirman is a writer, editor, and website designer in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Her website is:

No comments: