Hyphenated Greeks in Movies and Television

By: | Post date: August 31, 2009 | Comments: 1 Comment
Posted in categories: Australia, Greece
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An Anon commenter responds to my latest Will Be Offline notice with:

Don’t worry too much, heartless Anglo. :'(

By the way, since you’re an avowed Aussie multiculturalist (and because I *actually know*, rather than “eh know”, nothing about Australia), could we have your opinion on the first piece here:


Anon, you fail to let me know whether you’re a Canado-Anon or a Greco-Anon (although the first line gives me a hint: this is about that .qc business, no? Attain sovereignty, and all objections are removed. Especially by ISO, who restricts two-letter suffixes out to politically sovereign(ish) entities.)

For that, Anonymous Yet Assiduous Reader, you get yourself yet another meandering and self-doubting rant on my identity!

I worry about the lack of structure of these postings in particular: they’re unstructured because they are emotional, more than I expected. But I’ve embarked down this path of querying Quebec and Acadia, it’s fair that I query myself too…

I have occasionally read Dean Kalimniou’s columns (reposted from in the English-language supplement to Neos Kosmos, the local Greek paper). He and I do view the world differently. I may not be linguistically as assimilated as most Greek-Australians, but I am probably more culturally assimilated (not many Greek-Australians hang around in the Humanities, or the government IT sector).

I’ll illustrate my bias with my reaction to one of his recent posts, condemning My Life In Ruins as Orientalist (from Ms Big Fat Greek Wedding):

The vast majority of the audience in my cinema was comprised of diasporans, mostly women. […] They were also the ones that laughed loudest at the racist jokes that portrayed Greeks in the most negative fashions. For some reason, we love to hate ourselves, or rather the people who we represent the place where our parents came from, ever so slightly, and take pleasure in seeing them denigrated. I for one do not. Its time that our compatriot film makers are encouraged not to resort to cheap and tacky racist taunts and scatology when portraying their own kind, in the search for some non-existent approval by the dominant group.

I’m sure My Life In Ruins is dumb in ten different ways before breakfast, and I would probably loathe it, not least for its inane take on a real country with real people in it. And yet… I find the resentment of diasporans against the metropolis entirely understandable and inevitable (and as I’ve hinted, I carry some of it with me). It’s not just “Orientalism”, and that facile word lets you off the hook too easily when it comes to the ambivalence of the second generation towards the metropolis. We’re not seeking non-existent approval by the dominant group. We poke fun at the metropolis because we are *becoming* the dominant group, we are assimilating. We are not Greeks, and Vardalos is not Dean’s compatriot the way he would like her to be. That’s that whole “seeing the world with Australian eyes” thing I go on about.

We are not yet Anglos either, which makes us… interesting. That’s why we care about poking fun at the metropolis, rather than dismissing it as “Wogs begin at Calais”. We are also still Wogs; the Chaos and/or Joie De Vivre of Greece shocks us all the more, because it’s behaviour we find alienating, in a place we were told was home. (The “We” is rhetorical, and I have spent long enough in Greece to know better—though not long enough to feel differently.)

That’s my take, not Dean’s; Dean sees the world more as a Greek (to the extent of dropping words like “monophthalmic” for “one-eyed”), so I don’t see the world the same way as him. But, to the article in question:

I ignored the Olympics, and I found sports events no real solution to the real problems Greece faces—but that’s because I’m an ambivalent semi-outsider, and the Olympics did a world of good for Greek self-confidence. Australian journos did snipe at Greece, because they still buy into the old Orientalist tropes. Part of the reason is that they have access to the local replicas of pre-Western Greece. (That doesn’t excuse it at all, but it did give them more ammunition.) Part of it was defensiveness about Sydney 2000 being The Bestest Olympics Ever. And yes, part of it was because they were pricks.

But Dean’s real contention, essentialist (“inherent?!”), and tub-thumping, and not unlike what you’ll hear in any number of Greek cafés, is that Howard unmasked the Real Australia of racism and intolerance, and that multiculturalism stuff had noone fooled.

All I can say is, there is a racist Australia (which certainly includes Greek-Australians: ask at that café what they think of the Indians, the Vietnamese or the Lebanese); and there is an urbane Australia. The Howard years allowed the multicultural discourse enshrined by the left to be questioned, and brought forth some clumsy moves by the government to assert cultural continuity with Anglo-Australia. (That inane citizenship test where you had to name prominent cricketers.)

But the urbane Australia suffered a set-back; it did not vanish. The new government is not quite going back to the orthodoxy (I’m thinking of Rudd’s latest statements in the Australian History Wars). Even so, you don’t kill cosmopolitanism off that easily, though you might make it an enclave. For my part, I have not been penalised in my professional or personal life for being swarthy. Granted, I’m not that swarthy. But then, in several ways, I’m not as assimilated as I make out to be either; my cultural predilections have been noted by my friends, they have been queried, but they have not been ridiculed. (*That’s* multiculturalism for me.)

And on the other hand, the racist Australia had suffered a set-back; it had not vanished. Yelling “in this country we speak English”, as Dean reports, is an attitude that had not died out in the ’80s, it was just more delegitimated than it was in the ’90s. And there are parts of Melbourne where even the Anglo kindergarten teachers don’t dare say so. I can find plenty of people to ridicule my cultural predilections; I don’t seek them out. I still believe that time is not on the side of those who would reject me; meantime, my friends, Greek or Anglo, are my friends because they don’t reject me.

Dean is right that my story still isn’t on the TV though. Neighbours and Home and Awayare still noxiously whitebread, especially when they try not to be. I tune that out too. Is that blinding myself? Perhaps; but is Neighbours really setting the agenda of Australian identity any more, the way it could 20 years ago?

Neighbours. Hadn’t seen it in a decade. Happened across it a month ago. Sixteen-year old gets pregnant, boyfriend is unsure whether to commit (why you little shit…), they eventually get back together, they refuse to marry become of some inarticulate pseudo-feminist stance filtered through soapie conventions and hormones, then decide to get married spur of the moment without bothering to tell their folks.

I’m unassimilated enough in my value system that I was reaching for things to throw at the telly by this stage. The thing is, the script writers were trying to be inclusive to my socially repressive viewpoints, by having a Korean student as part of the gang voice her misgivings, and that “where she comes from”, family is an important part of weddings.

And the idiot sixteen year old’s idiot sixteen year old blond friend angrily dismissed her for being a stick in the mud, and that was the last you heard of that (until the parents accidentally come across them and look suitably crestfallen, roll credits).

I knew which side the scriptwriter was taking. I growled, and switched the telly off.

(Um… I’ve probably just revealed I would be a bad fit for Quebec—or indeed, for the modern post-industrial world. Thing is, if you have multiculturalism, you will have different views of culture. You don’t get to impose uniformity. You do get to require more respect of difference than I’ve just displayed, I admit. 🙂

Yet things do change. Ethnics were predominantly figures of fun in the ’80s in the media. I was horrified to rewatch Kingswood Country last year: yes it was supposed to be pointing fun at the old lovable racist, and the show was making some effort to subvert bigotry by showing its ridiculousness; but anyone who calls his son-in-law “oy wog” is now so beyond the pale, he’s in Siberia. And even in the ’90s Wog craze, there was still a sense that Ethnics were Abnormal. The Anglo waitress in Acropolis Now was overtly the only Normal Person in the show, and even though I found the outlandish Greek stereotypes recognisable and hilarious, having the Anglo be the reference point bothered me. I think it bothered other people too, because the Anglo waitress soon became a caricature of her own (greenie, socially conscious).

To these instances I can only counter the past season of MasterChef Australia, with its Greek chef making nouveau-Greek fish soup, and its contestants including a Torres Strait islander without comment—who was free to be a lawyer and play golf without being made a curio or a token. I’m not saying it was Kumbaya Rainbow stuff, but it was an Australia more recognisable to me, one in which Anglodom was not the fixed reference point, even if it was still the default.

How could Anglodom be any sort of reference point in a cooking show anyway…

That Greek chef founded the Press Club restaurant a couple of years ago, btw. Which launched Greek Fusion cuisine. (“You will find traditional ingredients alongside modern gastronomic tricks, with culturally conventional recipes revamped for the 21st century palate. “) That, I venture to say, is a diaspora thing right there.

If my diet ever ends, I may even go there one of these nights. (5 kg to go…)

One Comment

  • opoudjis says:

    It occurs to me, Anon, that I haven't *really* answered what I think your underlying question is: Is Multiculturalism alive as an ideology in Australia, and was it ever anything but window-dressing?

    There was pushback from Howard to be sure; he expressly verbalised discomfort with multiculturalism while prime minister. Multiculturalism was demoted in official discourse. But it was not killed off, and it couldn't be: the idea was out there, and had taken root—among the elites, among the migrants, among a lot of Anglo-Celtic Australians as well. How *deeply* it had taken root: that's a fair question. But I think more deeply than Dean seems to think.

    On the flip side (and I do sort of say this in the posting), multiculturalism was never accepted uniformly by everybody in the '80s either, and there is a reason Dean heard disrespectful patter on the radio. Things have been exacerbated, as in many parts of the West, by the debate over the presence of Islam.

    But there is a recognition, on both sides of the debate, that Australia of the 2000's is not Australia of the '50s. Howard wished it was, and some others do. Not everyone.

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