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Norms, Vulnerabilities, Paradoxes:
Greeks and MTV

The controversy surrounding Growing Up Greek (2014), a reality show produced by the American cable and satellite television channel MTV, raises issues of boundaries, power, normativity, and vulnerability in the making of ethnicity. The show's portrayal of Greek America raises the issues at stake when an ethnic group engages in a social struggle to safeguard its norms. The collective mobilization, ultimately effective, to cancel the show and remove it from the airwaves, as well as the advocacy that arose in defense of the show, is indicative of a larger power struggle to constitute the public representation of Greek America. Growing Up Greek, its critics, and its supporters respectively constructed conflicting boundaries of ethnicity, and the controversy manifested in a series of ideological paradoxes and clashes. While protesting the MTV show as symbolic violence, Greek America itself exercises its own violence on its internal and external Others via the narrative of model ethnicity, revealing through this irony a pressing need to reconfigure Greek America's dominant identity narrative.

In December 2014, MTV released a promotional trailer of an upcoming reality show featuring Greek American youth and families in Tarpon Springs, Florida, prompting not only a wave of discussions but also a heated controversy. Organizations and grassroots initiatives criticized the show, entitled Growing Up Greek, for caricaturing the Greeks as undereducated, disorderly, and oversexed buffoons. There was outrage, taking the network to task for ethnic misrepresentation. In the ethnic media and in various commentaries, voices proclaimed that the cast did not deserve to call themselves Greek. But there appeared also a counterperspective, one of support, even if on a (perhaps) smaller scale. A sector of the Greek American public embraced the show for its entertainment value, even defending it as a true representation of local Greek American [End Page 155] subculture. Advocates lauded MTV for making visible certain aspects of what they saw as real ethnicity, which dominant narratives of identity often hide from public view. The conflicting reception surrounding MTV's "Greeks" raises important questions about ethnicity, its representation, its politics, and the contradictions inherent within—a discussion that proves as valuable to the cultural critic as does the content of the show itself.

The question of how to define "Greek" takes center stage in the controversy. Who may or may not count as Greek in the United States? Such focus serves as a reminder that to make ethnicity is to make boundaries of inclusion and exclusion. In other words, it entails designations of who qualifies as an insider and who is cast as an outsider to a collective. But who decides? Who authorizes belonging? We know that marking membership is always specific historically, therefore in constant flux. It is well known that definitions of ethnicity shift from generation to generation. Concomitant to the idea that ethnicity is boundary making, ethnicity is also the product of power struggles among competing definitions. Various constituencies within an ethnic com-munity—elites, the working class, artists, academics, the disenfranchised—vie to assert their own understanding of identity. The outcome of this struggle crystallizes the dominant interpretation as the norm. And the application of the norms—in policies, cultural expressions, social practices—displaces, even silences, alternative perspectives. Individuals who consent to an ethnicity's normalizing discourses are conferred access to privileges, including power and, consequently, a measure of protection from vulnerability. Conversely, and because of the unequal distribution of power, those who oppose the norm inevitably open themselves up to a range of risks, including vulnerability.1

In this article, I examine how the controversy surrounding Growing Up Greek (2014) construes Greek America by bringing into conversation issues of boundaries, power, normativity, and vulnerability. I reflect on the issues at stake when a particular ethnicity, or any other ethnic group, engages in a social struggle to safeguard its norms, and I identify the repercussions implicit when the power of the norm disciplines nonnormativity. I examine both the collective mobilization, which was ultimately effective, to cancel the show and remove it from the airwaves, as well as the advocacy that arose in defense of Growing Up Greek. I trace the ways in which the actual show, its critics, and its supporters respectively construct ethnicity, identify the interests driving each position, and, finally, illuminate the controversy as a series of ideological paradoxes and clashes.

I chart the paradoxes embedded in the public contestation of the show in the following manner. I begin by first noting that while critics of Growing Up [End Page 156] Greek normalize ethnicity as a coherent entity, its advocates recognize Greek America's internal diversity by bringing attention to what the ethnicity's norm displaces. The controversy circulates in popular discourse the tension between modernist notions of ethnicity as a stable essence and postmodernist notions of ethnicity as a malleable and context-specific process. I examine the way in which normative ethnicity asserts itself and attempt to illuminate a fundamental contradiction in the show's critical reception. I show that when an ethnicity posits a specific norm—that of the model ethnicity—to protect itself from vulnerability, the public circulation of the norm implicitly harms other vulnerable collectives. This applies to stigmatized collectives within the ethnic group, such as political radicals, and outside of it, such as disenfranchised racial Others. If Greek America protests MTV as an exercise of symbolic violence, it itself exercises violence to its internal and external Others. As such, I argue for the necessity of reconfiguring Greek America's hegemonic narratives of self.

Making Greek America on MTV

The hegemonic representations of Greek America showcase a perceived model ethnicity, a collective integrated into American life, embracing middle-class values of order, work ethic, civic propriety, education, family, faith, and success. But Growing Up Greek presents ethnicity as a counternarrative to a deeply entrenched ethnic norm, interfering with those otherwise articulated dominant representations. Notably, the choice of Tarpon Springs as the setting for the show magnifies the distance between the community-generated public images of Greeks in this town and their portrayal on the show. Greek heritage and folk culture in Tarpon Springs enjoys positive visibility at national, state, and local levels. Both the city's Greektown Historic District and the Greek Sponge Diving Boats at the city's Sponge Docks on Dodecanese Boulevard represent valued heritage; they are both listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Folklorists compile oral histories, and museum exhibits feature nationally the heritage of the place; local identity narratives emphasize the importance of family and cultural values. The local community's Greek Orthodox ritual blessing of the waters on the Feast of the Epiphany is widely publicized, projecting the image of the community as cohesive and religiously oriented. Practitioners of occupational traditions and preservationists of folk life have more than once received the States' Folk Heritage Award.2 In addition, the community's ethnic heritage plays a key role in marketing the town as a tourist destination. [End Page 157]

In contrast, MTV construes Greek Tarpon Springs as a bastion of crude popular lifestyle and disorderly conduct—in fact, even prone to violence. If the tourist industry commodifies ethnicity's heritage in the locality, MTV turns to lowbrow culture for profit. The recipe is tried and true, witnessed by the high ratings of programs such as Jersey Shore: "The cruder the stereotype, the bigger the hit" (Marche 2010). The network reactivates this formula to enter additional ethnic landscapes, turning ethnic youth into spectacles of visual consumption.3

Both in its spoken narrative and its imagery, Growing Up Greek exalts ethnicity—particularly the pleasurable dimensions of dance, food, and romance—and projects Tarpon Springs as an exclusive ethnic enclave, marketing Greek ethnicity as culturally insular. A cast member, for instance, refutes hyphenation when he rejects cultural affiliation with an American identity: "I am an American citizen, but don't call me American. I am Greek" (Growing Up Greek 2014). This public denunciation of American identity is at odds with the dominant self-presentation of Greek America as an American ethnicity.4 MTV further Others Greek America when it asserts a claim to ethnic authenticity of the place and people it brings into representation:

An idyllic and picturesque all-Greek town, where everyone is either dating, related, or brawling each other. Family means everything here; even the over-bearing parents and grandparents can get outrageous and festive.

(MTV site for the show, now removed; cited in Aravosis 2014)

Yet ironically, the show's narrative does not enhance but instead undermines the performance of a stable Greek identity. What is known as second generation youths in the cast display utter ignorance of certain Greek traditions, and, as I will explain later, radically depart from (and even challenge) immigrant cultural expectations. What is more, public celebrations of friends and family are interlaced with unruliness and belligerence, as well as behaviors the public imagination may also associate with generic American college student behavior: drinking (and its attendant occasional drunken fight), indiscriminate flirting, and casual sex. This generic behavior is juxtaposed with the hypervisible showcasing of ethnic identity. As Ann Klein notes, MTV's "identity project" indeed "works to both highlight and eradicate differences in contemporary youth cultures" (2013).

Let us note that the cast's behavior may even evoke an aspect of white Americanness that is seen as lewd and unsophisticated, outside so-called proper middle-class norms. Tellingly enough, what Greek American audiences read these media images to be doing is to place Greeks as "low class, uneducated people" (Scaros 2014, 1). There was the fear that the show steered [End Page 158] viewers to conflate Greeks with other white Americans who are stigmatized as so-called white trash (Aravosis 2014). MTV then both asserts and blurs ethnic boundaries. Here, Greeks are portrayed as existing both within and outside the nation, as both culturally dissimilar and familiar, occupying an ambiguous position of in-betweenness. Disavowing national (US) cultural belonging, lacking civility, and exhibiting cartoonish buffoonery, the characters are certainly removed from normative middle-class America—doubly strangers to it, doubly outcast by social class and ethnicity.

The controversy: Ethnic facts, cultural fictions

The image of the Greeks as doubly alien to middle-class America estranged a wide range of Greek America. The disapproval was immediate. In response to the promotional trailer even before the airing of the show, an online petition entitled "Cancel the Show or Rewrite It with True Representation" sought to galvanize opposition. Growing Up Greek was denounced as offensive misrepresentation assaulting ethnic pride:

"Growing up Greek" is a gross misrepresentation of what it means to grow up Greek. What makes us Greek is PRIDE. Pride for our faith, family and each other. This show lessens us to look like Jersey Shore! We have worked hard to not have that stereotype. We are an ethnicity strong in family and Orthodoxy. This show is NOT who we are and we are embarrassed.

("Cancel the Show or Rewrite It with True Representation" 2014)

This initiative avalanched into vocal grassroots calls for boycotting, gathering 7,250 signatures. Commentaries on blogs and other social media, including on a Facebook page (now removed, accessed 15 March 2015), followed soon after, expressing outrage. Official condemnation appeared, as well. The American Hellenic Progressive Educational Association (AHEPA), a national organization, issued a statement denouncing the show as flagrant misrepresentation in the interest of commodifying ethnicity. The call for censorship rested on the fear that audiences would conflate MTV's stereotypical images with the entirety of Greek America:

"Growing Up Greek" is a gross misrepresentation of the experience of growing up in a Greek American family and within the Greek American community. The show is problematic because it portrays characters as being representative of the Greek American community based upon negative stereotyping. … In the spirit of "Jersey Shore," MTV is aiming to exploit raucous and unruly behavior for a ratings boost and the merchandizing potential that comes with it.

(Papapostolou 2014) [End Page 159]

Yet, Greek America's public reception of Growing Up Greek was by no means uniform. A counterresponse to the outcry did appear, centering around the Facebook page "Fans of Growing Up Greek" and registering almost 3,000 likes (now removed, accessed 15 March 2015). A counterpetition, which touted the show as "one of the most authentic shows MTV has ever aired" and "[a] very accurate portrait of young Greeks in America" garnered, as of 1 February 2015, a mere 221 supporters. Several letters in defense also appeared in the ethnic media. But in this intraethnic split, the outrage won. MTV terminated the show after only airing the first episode.

The controversy exposes the power struggles inherent in the public representation of ethnicity, revealing internal tensions over ethnic image. There are two competing renderings. The first showcases hedonistic and unruly dimensions of youth culture, including intergenerational conflict. The second frames ethnicity as family and faith oriented, with a striving for collective and individual excellence and achievement, and as a moral exemplar—all-inall the embodiment of the promise of the American Dream. The opposition to MTV ranges from calls for a wider representation to ethnocentric claims about the superiority of Greek ethnicity. For instance, a review of the show in cosmosphilly.com, Philadelphia's local Greek American internet magazine, states that "no other culture can compete with [Greek American traditions]!" (Karapanagiotides 2014). Significantly, however, the opposition consistently returns to the claim of normative ethnicity, the prevailing narrative of model ethnicity as the real Greek America. Thus, AHEPA's statement of opposition to Growing Up Greek also showcases its narrative of ethnic history as real. The association's vision and mission include:

the progressive development and emergence of American citizens of Greek heritage into every facet of society: government, business, education, and the arts. This fulfillment illustrates the promise of the American Dream and symbolizes the hard work ethic of our immigrant forbearers who labored to achieve that dream with the principles of Hellenism rooted deep in their hearts. This is the reality of the Greek American experience.

The two renderings of Greek America, of course, clash with each other. Confronted by the national circulation of Greek nonnormativity, both elite and grassroots organizations mobilize to regulate representations that are perceived to be threatening.5

The question, then, becomes: What counts as Greek? What is real ethnicity? And what is fictional? To make ethnicity, as I explained in the introduction, [End Page 160] is to create boundaries of inclusion and exclusion and, in doing so, entails an authorization of belonging, a designation of insider or outsider status. Marking membership is the product of power struggles among competing definitions, as witnessed by not only the opponents of the show and its defenders, but also in the variety of reasons given in the arguments of opposition. The opponents dismissed the reality show as fiction. The defenders saw reality in this fiction. The battle over Greek ethnicity's boundaries was predicated on the facticity or fiction of certain cultural practices. How does each position claim its truth as legitimate? And what is at stake in each claim?

Certain Greek American viewers do not recognize themselves in the show's representation of Greek Americans. MTV presents Greeks as under-educated, disorderly, and oversexed, a caricature in which its critics do not recognize their own image, taking MTV to task for misrecognition. The show does not recognize alternative ways of growing up Greek, a nonrecognition that Greek Americans from a position of leadership seek to correct:

And that, at the end of the day, is truly what makes MTV's "Growing up Greek" so disappointing. It's not that MTV chose to focus on carefully curated moments of stylized drama. It's that MTV chose not to focus on the rest of Greek American life, that daily reality of balancing two cultures, keeping Hellenism alive across generations, honoring family, chasing excellence and achievement, and giving back to our communities. A show like that? A true depiction of growing up Greek American with all of the overwhelming love, drama and exuberance it entails? That would have been a reality TV show so good, you wouldn't even have to script it.

It is to be expected, then, that the petition seeking the cancellation, or the rewriting of the show "with true representation," links misrecognition with identity and shame. Recall its concluding line: "This show is NOT who we are and we are embarrassed." In this statement it is as if the critics stole a page from Charles Taylor's basic premise on the politics of difference. As Taylor writes, "a person or a group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people around them mirror back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves. Nonrecognition or misrecognition can inflict harm, can be a form of oppression, imprisoning someone in a false, distorted, and reduced mode of being" (1994, 25).

Misrecognition damages ethnicity. The rhetoric of the opposition defends ethnic interests based on legitimate epistemological and political grounds. Because the show claims to represent ethnicity as a whole and not ethnicity as a specific social group in a particular locality, it exercises symbolic violence. [End Page 161] It misrepresents the part as a whole, and in doing so it introduces a crisis regarding the effects of misrepresentation. Because stereotypes are pernicious, the show may injure ethnicity in ways that cannot possibly be anticipated. The concerted mobilization to silence MTV's rendering of ethnicity reflects the awareness that misrepresentation introduces vulnerability to ethnicity. Greek America's historical solution to the specter of vulnerability has been to represent identity as model ethnicity—a highly idealized and ideologically problematic narrative of distinction, as I will explain—that construes ethnicity as "acceptance difference" (Urcuioli 1998, 178), enjoyable cultural expressivity, socially nonthreatening difference, socioeconomic success, and moral integrity, all topoi of European ethnicity sanctioned by liberal multiculturalism (Jacobson 2006; Anagnostou 2013). This brand of positive stereotyping, be it Italian or Greek, indeed turns the ethnic "family into a Hallmark-card cipher, perfectly harmless and relatable" (Marche 2010).

The defense of the show, in contrast, circulates a counternarrative. It privileges, for instance, MTV's value as a venue for a partly scripted performance over its potential for a reflection of reality. It welcomes the show as fictional entertainment—the "it is just a show" argument—and registers disbelief that anyone could find it offensive. It reminds the critics that MTV stages culture as enjoyment and spectacle, fact and artifice, and that its representations must therefore be consumed accordingly. Defending the right of the show to public circulation, a Greek American friend put it this way: "Reality television is not just 'enjoyment' or entertainment but is predicated on the idea that we want to watch a comedy of embarrassment, or spectacle. That the idea alone sets up something a bit viciously voyeuristic."6 In this positioning, postmodern ideas of identity as construction, play, spectacle, and performance enter Greek American popular narratives of self.

Furthering the debate, a sector of MTV's supporters took their defense of the show in the opposite direction, seeing it as indeed mirroring real ethnicity. The following statements capture this perspective: "Good representation of what I know and see," or "Funny, real. What Greek kids do these days" (as quoted from the Facebook page, which has since been removed). Commentaries place the images as accurate reflections of ethnicity both regionally and nationally, proceeding with self-critique:

In the broader sense, this show is a statement of our culture in America, our Greek-American culture, and the culture even within some aspects of the Church. The show is also about what we passively condone, expect (if not promote) within our own homes. That's what I think. [End Page 162]

The show was Tarpon in a nutshell. It was funny. Nobody outside of the inse-cure among us in the Greek community really cares, nor will it do anything around the world to set a negative example of the Greek community, especially of Tarpon. My generation was much worse. If they filmed a show about us, it wouldn't be able to be on MTV.

(comments from two different commenters cited in Karapanagiotides 2014)

Seen by some of its defenders as a genuine facet of their experience growing up Greek in a regional subculture but also overall in the United States, Growing up Greek resonates as real. A resident of the Tarpon Springs area pointed out to me in 2016 that Greek insularity in the show resonates with local realities, as the Greeks in Tarpon Springs are "often quite insular within" the town.7 Yet another resident I spoke to shared the following local knowledge when s/he said that Greek residents with a long history in the town

are in fact pretty much all related one way or another at this point. And if they didn't date, their parents or grandparents did. People from the long-term core group are in fact pretty much all related either through family or ritual ties at this point. What is more, some families are not favorites of the police, who have been called on way too many domestic disputes. And certain parents are known to get fall-down drunk at Greek clubs.8

What is more, several respondents praised Growing Up Greek as restoring a measure of truth to the group's idealization, as undermining its mythologization. In the words of a commenter named Mitch: "Great job on punching a hole in the pseudo-legacy of how closely knitted Greek families are … Greek youth is not much different from other youth. Cudos to MTV!" (cited on the original MTV site of the show, now removed; accessed 15 January 2015). Commentary even welcomed Growing Up Greek as empowering in its resistance to immigrant culture: "Loved it because youth challenged parents." Entering the conversation of Greek identity as the interplay of display and concealment, one blog commentary affirms the underpinning of reality in MTV's stereotyping: "No one likes to have their flaws shown up close to them more so if he/she is so arrogant to believe him or herself perfect. Perhaps Greeks are not willing to stare at the mirror and so would rather break it" (Greek American Girl 2014).

MTV's Greeks destabilize ethnicity's normalization. Despite its staged fictionality, it builds on real referents. Oral history and scholarship have documented the show's representations as ethnographic facts. Traditionalist, patriarchal fathers; overbearing, in fact, even trauma-inducing parents (Papajohn 1999); the power of sensual aspects of Greek culture—dancing, eating Greek food, close friendships, and ritual enactment of superstitions as sources of [End Page 163] pleasure—for the Greek American youth (Bratsis 2003); dating sites for Greeks only; the public disavowal of the American aspect of the hyphen (Hellenic American Oral History Project 2015, Aikaterini Manolis, 2:10); even unruly drunken behavior in Greek American youth dance events are all ethnographic truths in Greek America. The interplay among staging ethnicity as reality, the rhetoric of the reality of ethnicity, and ethnographic realities underlying ethnic stereotyping is aptly captured in this statement in the blog Greek American Girl:

The fact that the collective reaction has been so strong has to do with the "reality" behind the reality TV. But all those who really know anything about reality TV know that it is hardly that. Everything is scripted; the "real" people are coached. The director runs the show. Nothing is real behind reality TV. Is it really a case of reality TV imitating reality or reality used in reality TV? My guess is that whichever way the arrow points it has some hints of reality.

MTV, postidentity, identity

While MTV grants visibility to ethnographic truths—albeit misrepresenting them as a whole—its importance lies in undermining its claim to a real, authentic Greek identity. For one, as I mentioned earlier, a cast member rejects the hyphen in identity, opting instead for cultural authenticity: "I am Greek. What do you mean how Greek am I?" Ethnicity is asserted categorically. Furthermore, the community it portrays projects a close-knit insularity. Unlike Jersey Shore, where non-Italians perform Italian identities (Troyani 2013), all cast members are presented to be of Greek descent. This claim to authentically insular ethnicity, however, breaks down when the second generation repeatedly performs its cultural distance from ethnicity. Young women, for instance, reject immigrant gender roles aspired to by their fathers. In a cultural metacommentary, they mock their male counterparts for failing to cook lamb on the spit, one of the most visibly gendered traditions in Greek America during the Easter celebration: "A boy's job. I could have done better than that!" And the rare moments when the second generation speaks Greek are laced with pronunciation mistakes (the use of eyla for instance instead of ela).9 Still, the ethnocentric conclusion, "best thing ever [Greek social and kin networks]. I would not change it for the world," returns to the categorical affirmation of identity, a pervasive attribute of contemporary American youth as it grapples with postethnic practices that undermine it.

The youths then simultaneously affirm and cancel ethnicity as authentic, declaring rigid ethnic boundaries while at the same time abolishing them. This avowal and disavowal destabilizes the notion of unchanged identity. [End Page 164] MTV frames ethnicity both as essential and dynamic, as stable but also as ever-changing, and as interfacing with American youth culture. Instead of being self-contained, ethnicity is interconnected and related to dominant society. This questions popular constructions of Greek identity as fixed and timeless, the notion that "people change but Greeks don't."10 In this respect, MTV directs attention to ethnic boundaries as flexible social constructions; it points to the ways in which the youths negotiate their crossings and the ways that the media contributes to this process.

Growing Up Greek adheres therefore to the template of MTV's "labor of identity construction" (Klein 2013) to reach out to a historically specific youth demographic, the millennial generation. Embracing identity in a social landscape that appears postidentitarian (postracial, postgender and pomosexual), this demographic represents "active spectators" who take an active role in its construction. They assert their identity unequivocally, in the most visible form, to subsequently try it out, struggle with it, deconstruct it, and reconstruct it, figuring out in the process "what identity means in a society that really wants to believe it is post-identity" (Klein 2013).

The performance of youth identity as categorically Greek confronts Greek American normativity, for the group of friends and lovers on MTV comprises an enclave of moral alterity, approximating what Dick Hebdige calls "spectacular subculture" (1979, 92). The group exhibits its consciousness of alterity by deploying "forbidden forms" to norms (breaking laws, an overt display of sexuality, and self-conscious, ironic buffoonery ["we are some Greek idiots, right?" (Growing up Greek 2014]) to assert ethnicity as a source of meaning but also to highlight its rupture from immigrant culture (Hebdige 1979, 91). It defies the cultural expectations of the immigrant generation and their norms. Herein lies its subversive power. Embracing the forbidden as identity, it counters ethnicity's normativity as cultural exemplar.11

Normativity posits criteria of inclusion—values, images, and practices—to subsequently distribute rights and privileges to those in conformity. Ethnicity therefore functions as a regulative mechanism of social control: it rewards consent to its norms with rights. Significantly, its privileges include protection from vulnerability. To understand ethnicity as boundary-making shifts attention away from the notion of ethnicity as expressive culture and toward ethnicity as regulation of belonging, asking who produces ethnicity, as well as when and how; who legitimizes inclusion, and, finally, to what end. Ethnicity-as-boundary takes us to the politics of identity, probing inquiry into how norms are established, whose interest normativity serves, and how dominant versions displace, silence, or forbid alternatives. [End Page 165]

In this respect, the national circulation of this nonnormative cultural text is bound to be resisted by social forces protecting ethnic boundaries. As an affirmative stereotype conferring privileges to its holders, this norm feeds the power struggle for its reproduction. This clash is a fixture in Greek America; the opposition to MTV is not an isolated instance of Greek America pursuing censorship. The exclusion of certain truths from historical narratives, both in official history and popular documentaries; the overt hostility to displaying parts of the archive that are deemed threatening to the ethnicity's image; and efforts to boycott "screenings of films deemed 'controversial' on political and moral grounds, by certain people and groups" (Pappas 2015) in the San Francisco Greek Film Festival all participate in the struggle to maintain the hegemony of the ideology of model ethnicity (Anagnostou 2003, 2009, 2010).

Stereotypes, norms, vulnerabilities

Where does this leave us? The reading of the controversy grapples with the question of the power of negative stereotypes. Is it, as Stephen Marche (2010) poses in the magazine Esquire, that contemporary "stereotypes have become meaningless, and … we can finally start enjoying them," in fact craving their "easy meaning … that most Americans have drifted away from"? Negative stereotypes are seen as empowering, in fact enabling ethnicity: without stereotypes, ethnic youths are "just as boring and predictable as everyone else," Marche's essay wants readers to believe; there is nothing wrong "with a little bigotry" (2010). Audiences read stereotypes as playful and ironic. Are we all poststereotype now?

The idea of stereotypes as an innocuous ideal speaks of the privileges of those who advocate it in dominant popular culture. After all, how can one normalize stereotypes without attending to the ethnographic realities they participate in shaping? Growing Up Greek touched a raw nerve among several sophisticated Greek Americans with whom I have spoken, individuals who understand satire in popular culture and yet felt the sting of annoyance upon watching the Greeks' representation on MTV, even against their will, as they pointed out. There is also the issue of damage that MTV's negative images might inflict on ethnicity, making it not responsible for dismissing stereotyping as trivial (Tricarico 2010). Not everyone possesses the interpretive irony of urban, educated readers of popular culture, and many could misrecognize MTV's staged Greeks as real Greeks, and so local Greek American populations could suffer the consequences. It is necessary, therefore, to unequivocally expose the show as flagrant misrepresentation, to denounce it as undeserving [End Page 166] of respect. At the same time, however, it is important to take a distance from the discourse of "pride police" (Marche 2010) that seeks to banish it from public circulation.

The context of its circulation matters greatly. Growing Up Greek dramatizes ethnicity to the level of crude soap opera, disseminating in popular culture a rude misrepresentation which makes the show indefensible, as I have pointed out, on epistemological and political grounds. Certainly, the temptation is present to read the show as satire, mere entertainment, even as subversive. But timing is also key: the Greek sovereign debt crisis underlines the high stakes in the show's reception. The fact that the international media have had a field day unabashedly ridiculing and Orientalizing the Greeks amplifies the urgency to challenge MTV's caricatured representation. Thus scholars of Greek America cannot possibly neglect the political contexts of their analysis. At a time when "nothing is off limits" when it comes to the Greeks, it is indeed of vital importance that Modern Greek studies "challenge[s] radically simplified representations" and names their pernicious effects anytime it encounters them (Leontis 2011–2012, 5).

But to establish the show as disrespectable does not mean to argue for intolerance. I am following here Amy Gutmann's distinction between "tol-erating and respecting differences" (1994, 22). In the interest of free speech, Gutmann advocates tolerance of a wide range of views, "as long as they stop short of threats and other direct and discernible harms to individuals" (22). She cautions, however, that silence is not an option. Disrespectful views must be subjected to relentless interrogation.

Still, the cancellation of the show, which was the result of ethnic lobbying, as I suggested above, stifled the prospect for a meaningful, wide-ranging debate on the landscape of identity in Greek America. This is unfortunate, as the national visibility of the show could have generated discussion beyond the limited scope of the commentary it sparked.12 For one, as I show here, the evocation of normative ethnicity to interrogate MTV as a text harming the ethnic self in fact implicitly inflicts harm to social demographics both within and outside the ethnicity's borders, namely nonnormative Greek ethnicity and disenfranchised people of color. Model ethnicity generates all sorts of hierarchies and, in turn, relations of inequality, making it necessary to probe the safeguarding of its borders further.

The power of the normative narrative to shape ethnic borderlands is evident in the way in which the show's critics interpret ethnic history. A blog on the website of the Hellenic American Leadership Council, for instance, discusses a Library of Congress photograph depicting early-twentieth-century [End Page 167] immigrant children bootblacks in Washington, DC, as famous evidence proving the deep roots of Greek America's work ethic. "Growing up Greek in America back then was a story of unbridled hope, dogged determination and awe-inspiring courage," the blog's author writes (Logothetis 2014). The immigrant past is read along the script of self-propelled success, the ideology that posits work ethic as the sole cause for overcoming humble origins to achieve mobility. But this rags-to-riches perspective neglects crucial historical facts. Research in Greek American history has shown that these immigrant children were part of a notorious system of indentured labor, their photographs telling the infamous story of intraethnic exploitation of child labor by Greek padrones and business owners (Papanikolas 1994). The bootstraps ideology hides the realities of mobility as a trajectory sometimes tainted by unlawful labor practices.

In addition, critics draw upon personal experience to assess the validity of Greek cultural expressivity. Take for instance the following statement: "when those loud, obnoxious Greeks aren't setting cheese on fire, they're breaking plates and throwing money around while dancing (something I have never seen an actual Greek ever do, other than the money thing that might happen at a wedding as a donation for the bride and groom)" (Aravosis 2014). Boundaries of ethnicity are demarcated based on eyewitnessing, neglecting the anthropology of Greek conspicuous consumption or popular cultural practices on the dancing stage. For instance, as any perusal of YouTube clips might demonstrate, plate smashing and money throwing are a common practice at Greek American festivals and dance performances.13 Authoritative critics of MTV then circulate false and superficial accounts, displaying a cultural and historical illiteracy. The normative narrative not only excludes research but also simply any other aspect of popular culture that may complicate it. In this power-knowledge nexus, scholarship ironically finds no place in the pride narrative of highly educated Greek America.

An affirmative stereotype, model ethnicity "reflects favorable exceptionality and positive exemplariness" (de Jesus 2015, 260). As a position embodying social ideals sanctioned by the dominant society, normativity offers rewards to those who adhere to it—acceptance, protection, rights, honors, access to resources—and, most important for this discussion, minimizes an ethnicity's vulnerability. Being the product of social struggles, ethnic norms function as mechanisms of social control, as the objective aims at the "maintenance of privilege [and] the accumulation of profits" (Foucault 1982, 792). Hence the "normative aspiration" (Butler 2003, 15), which commands continuous investment for the social reproduction of the norms and the concomitant aim [End Page 168] for the minimization of vulnerability. This political work includes permanent supervision, surveillance, and ultimately the disciplining of nonnormativity. One strategy entails the deployment of power to exclude those who threaten it. This has been a ubiquitous mechanism of control in Greek America. Identity narratives produced by elite members fail to recognize multiple sectors of Greek America—the working poor, non-Greek Orthodox, dysfunctional or alternative families, political activists, academics, alternative sexualities, cultural critics, and often musicians, filmmakers, or visual artists, especially if the latter are not portraying appropriate subject matter—that fall outside normative ethnicity and its ethnic pride discourse. This exclusion homogenizes a heterogeneous collective while at the same time sustaining hierarchies within the group. Abstaining from any attempt to understand the issues confronting these demographics, it enhances their vulnerability as transgressors or failures, or as simply abnormal. The MTV controversy then brings to the fore a fundamental contradiction: Greek America opposes disrespectful cultural texts such as MTV's for the symbolic violence they exercise on itself, only to exercise symbolic violence against its own internal Others.

Vulnerabilities, paradoxes, power: Greeks, whiteness, the stigma of white trash

It is vital to further recognize yet another paradox. Growing Up Greek certainly introduces a degree of vulnerability to Greek America, raising acute concern at a time when the international media inundates the public with Greek stereotypes. Yet its reliance on the model ethnicity for self-protection enhances the vulnerability of a number of disenfranchised populations. This is because model ethnicity assigns a position of power to certain collectives (Greek Americans, Asian Americans, and so on.) within the nation's ethnic and racial hierarchies. In doing so, it distributes vulnerabilities unequally across this spectrum. The ideological work of this differential distribution of vulnerability is often hidden. Norms do not name the unequal structuring of relations, but instead these effects usually remain implicit, their ideology invisible.

Critical Greek American historiography makes visible how normative ethnicity harms vulnerable populations, such as disenfranchised racial Others. As I have shown in detail elsewhere, the narrative of self-propelled ethnic success, a core ingredient of model ethnicity, constitutes an informal yet deeply political "folk etiology," contributing to racial domination (Anagnostou 2015a). This narrative—the bootstraps model of achievement—draws a wedge between European Americans, African Americans, and often Mexican Americans in the volatile national debate about inequality divided along racial lines. Once [End Page 169] success is collected solely as a function of culture and psychology—(male) entrepreneurial acumen, hard work, discipline, deference of gratification, risk, self-reliance, strong family, and the craving for achievement—it hides the competitive advantage of white privilege conferred upon European Americans. Following this reasoning, what else can possibly explain their high levels of poverty if not specific cultural pathologies? Disregarding institutionalized exclusion and the disproportionate scale of racist violence inflicted upon African Americans, the culturalist explanation of ethnic mobility feeds interracial estrangement.

Misrecognizing the conditions associated with successes and failures is a defining attribute of whiteness. The narrative of bootstrap mobility both reproduces racial hierarchies by refraining to mention race and through this neglect denies the constitutive role of the privileges of whiteness in the social and economic ascent of European Americans. Whiteness remains unmarked, while its power is asserted via the narrative of success, which performs all this ideological work (Hartigan 2015). My analysis identifies this cultural operation in a narrative that differentiates the Greeks from a highly stigmatized category of poor white people, classified under the loaded label white trash. By this distinction, Greek American vulnerability is turned into an occasion to ascribe power to the Self at the expense of yet another vulnerable Other.

In the opening of this article, I noted that MTV's portrayal of the Greeks as uncouth and disorderly distinguishes them from the normative middle class. This class-specific placement connects with wider classifications of social differences and inequality, specifically racial hierarchies in the United States. MTV's images generate associations linking the Greeks with a category that demeans poor white people, namely, the contemptuous epithet white trash. One viewer responded to the prospect of national audiences linking the Greeks with this maligned so-called low class as follows:

So when I think of MTV's attempt to turn my family into what southerners call "white trash," I think of my yiayias and papous, of Theio Yianni and his brother Xristo (who was Greece's Minister of Tourism), of his son Georgios who is a member of the Greek parliament, of a second uncle Xristo who is now the Greek ambassador to the United States, and of my great-many-times-over grandfather Dimitris Papatsoris who, like so many in our family, when it really mattered, was there to stand up for his country, and for what he knew was right.

This commentary responds to the show's totalizing representation of all Greeks as a uniform entity, which subsequently registers the author's personal offense, as a Greek, for the misrecognition of his identity for another one, "white trash." [End Page 170] The narrative draws an equivalence between MTV's images of the Greeks and this latter category, whose meaning is assumed of needing no naming; it stands for something transparent, shared by all and thus naturalized, implied without saying. In its inception, the term white trash referred to an enduring stereotype of the white poor as "intemperate, licentious, and prone to incest," lazy people who lack civility, a contemptuous label originally associated with the American South; its historical usages are connected with intraracial racism. The epithet is now widely in national circulation (Hartigan 2005, 66), and although it has been recently reclaimed by some as "a proud identity" (122) and in some regions of the country such as California "is an oddly comfortable assertion of a self-identity" (132), the term "carries an irreducible debasing connotation for those who rupture white social etiquette" (122). The label stands for social undesirability. The specter of MTV viewers' associating this name with Greeks animates the aforementioned narrative of family identity. Meanwhile, the speaker unreflectively tosses in the epithet—"white trash"—which demeans and debases a particular demographic, without any attention to the way that such classification may also be offensive, all the while criticizing the same callous stereotypes of Greeks that haunt the MTV show. Such a contradiction directs attention to the ways in which the making of Greek American identity takes place in relation to US significations of class and race. What does this discursive instance tell us about norms, vulnerabilities, paradoxes, and power in the narration of Greek American identity?

First, the commentator appears untroubled in circulating an insulting name that "can evoke strong emotions of contempt, anger and disgust. [White trash] is no ordinary slur" (Wray 2006, 2). Though this use may be striking, it is far from exceptional. It is the dehumanizing power of this "very troublesome word," Matt Wray (2006) notes, that explains "why, for so many, white trash rolls off the tongue with such condescending ease" (1). In this regard, it is worth quoting John Hartigan Jr. (2005) at length for underlining the power of the category to naturalize an undesirable cultural figure:

In a political moment when derogatory labels and innuendos for ethnic groups are rigorously policed in social and institutional exchange, white trash still incurs little self-conscious hesitancy on the part of the user. The confidence with which people are labeled white trash derives from a long tradition of social contempt and a complex process of racial and class stereotyping.


MTV's transgressive caricaturing of the Greeks mobilized, as we saw, a campaign to regulate the boundaries of the Greek collective.14 It is notable that a defense seeking to protect a socially desirable image for one collective readily [End Page 171] reproduces a pernicious label for another. In other words, the care invested to safeguard the interests of the Self does not match the attention in matters concerning the interests of the Other. What the Self demands from others—representations that do not injure—it neglects to practice itself vis-à-vis Others. This realization alerts us to the limitations—and social perils—of any identity narrative that is vested to merely benefit a single collective.

Second, the anxiety that the Greeks might be misrecognized as white trash generates a narrative of self-identity that establishes a pedigree of family distinction. High political rank, social achievement, patriotism, and moral worth connote differentiation from a people whose history has been construed as the opposite of social and moral virtue. Like any identity narrative, the making of this Greek identity is a relational construction. In addition to marking Greek identity culturally, it also makes a claim to Greeks' belonging racially, specifically to unmarked whiteness. In doing so, it steeps itself in national discourses of racial and class hierarchies. This is because the derogatory term white trash, in its referencing of a debasing cultural and class element, historically serves to produce and maintain interracial boundaries within the space of American whiteness. As Hartigan (2005) notes, white trash operates as a rhetorical identity that organizes an "interracial contrastive strategy by which whites have long demarcated a certain form of racial detritus, composed of other whites who, through their poverty and ungainliness, fit insecurely within the hegemonic order of white political power and social privilege" (114). Because white trash presents a threat to white superiority, it is marked and subsequently demonized; it functions as a boundary of interracial differentiation between proper and improper whiteness.

MTV's representation of the Greeks as disorderly, licentious, leisure prone, and unsophisticated circulates a constellation of attributes stereotypi-cally assigned to white poor people, therefore placing the Greeks as an unde-sirable element, in fact a polluting one, in relation to the cultural expectations (decorum, order, civility) associated with belonging to unmarked whiteness. Hartigan (2005) further links the rhetorical dimension of white trash as a mechanism of boundary maintenance with the connotation of pollution (trash, dirt) that the name invokes. Drawing from the work of anthropologist Mary Douglas, he notes the "role of pollution in establishing and maintaining cultural orders" (114) and, in turn, making visible a normative cultural identity, one that defines itself against what is deemed necessary of exclusion. MTV then threatens the historical aspiration of Greek America for middle-class respectability (Saloutos 1964) and—via the narrative of socioeconomic class distinction—its claim to whiteness (Anagnostou 2009, forthcoming). This [End Page 172] is the reason it triggers a counternarrative of Greek identity in alignment with the cultural expectations of normative white middle-class Americanness. The Greek claim to whiteness is constituted as a narrative of sociocultural distinction.

In protecting itself from injury, Greek America implicitly injures others. It silences nonnormativity within ethnicity and blames vulnerable demographics, such as the racialized poor, distributing vulnerability differentially. A campaign mobilized to exclusively safeguard ethnic interests therefore misses the opportunities for interethnic solidarities to minimize harm inflicted across the spectrum of unequal vulnerabilities. This is, after all, the blind spot of identity politics: protect the normative Self, even if this protection may damage Others.15

Closing identity, opening identities

The irony, in fact a string of ironies, is painful. If MTV misrepresents Greek ethnicity, the narrative of model ethnicity misrepresents Greek identity. If MTV obliterates ethnic history, its critics misconstrue it. If the media lacks sophistication, its opponents reproduce historical simplifications. When the idealized image is posited as the reality of ethnicity in contradistinction to the fiction of MTV, affirmative singularity replaces negative caricature. In this respect, the opposition replicates in reverse the logic of the representation that it criticizes.

The MTV controversy offers no satisfactory narratives of Greek identity in the United States. It demarcates this collective within two stereotypical poles, each reducing complexity. The show must be acknowledged for what it is, a disrespectful and potentially harmful representation of Greek identity. It magnifies selective aspects of real Greek America to subsequently misrecognize them as a whole. Still, this misrepresentation brings attention to the borders where normative ethnicity asserts its power of exclusion. In other words, the media image makes hypervisible real practices that the dominant narrative silences, and it affirms ethnic expressivity that ethnicity's norms displace. Growing Up Greek destabilizes the ideology of a static ethnic identity, understanding ethnicity as a borderland of context-specific negotiations. It exposes claims of a single and fixed ethnicity, pointing instead to ethnicity as a social construction, partial and fluid. If dominant narratives of Greek identity safeguard borders of normativity by censoring alternative ways of performing, exhibiting, viewing, or discussing Greek identity, the controversy brings to the fore that the recognition of nonnormativity is always an agonistic enterprise. [End Page 173]

The controversy raises a key question in multiculturalism regarding representation of difference. How is the identity of an ethnic collective portrayed, by whom, and for what purpose? What is at stake when certain versions of ethnicity circulate in public, while others are silenced? Tackling this question takes one into the thick of identity politics. The debate around Growing Up Greek makes visible a cultural divide within ethnicity—thus directing attention to the collective's internal fragmentation. Its heterogeneity, silenced by normative ethnicity, questions how one represents identity when this identity refers to an internally diverse collective. Identity refers to sameness. How does then one engage with public articulations of identity when this identity is fragmented? In other words, how does one represent identity as plurality, sameness as difference? This is a central problem in critical ethnic studies: how to both affirm ethnic identity as difference in the multicultural polity and simultaneously acknowledge this identity's heterogeneity.

Greek American studies needs to question the reproduction of the uneven distribution of vulnerabilities. But if normativity must be interrogated, what alternatives are present? Dominant ethnicity excludes critical scholarship. Still, in the spirit of agonistic engagement, academic work is positioned to articulate new Greek identities. Paradoxically, the MTV image could offer cues for a promising analytical route. Though socially irresponsible and deserving criticism, it sparks the thinking of identity at the intersection of postethnicity and ethnicity. This moves the question of ethnicity beyond self-referentiality (narrating identity solely in terms of cultural values) and narrow self-interests. It calls instead for an inquiry that takes into account wider social issues. An identity narrative that is attuned to the differential distribution of vulnerabilities and privileges in American society presents a prospect for imagining Greek identity as a political and ethical vision that affirms identity as it refrains, to the extent possible, from injuring Others.

Yiorgos Anagnostou
The Ohio State University
Yiorgos Anagnostou

Yiorgos Anagnostou is Professor of Modern Greek Diaspora and Transnational Studies at The Ohio State University. He has published in a wide range of journals, including Ethnicities, Journal of American Folklore, and Diaspora. He is at work in a series of articles about literature, history, and culture, a topic which he is developing into a book-length manuscript.



I am grateful to Tina Bucuvalas for offering valuable comments and for bringing my attention to the local specificities of Greek America in Tarpon Springs. Insights by the anonymous reviewers of the journal prompted me to expand the scope of the article. Natalie Bakopoulos asked a key question that led to extensive rewriting. JMGS Editor for the Humanities, Artemis Leontis, made the publication of this work a rewarding professional and intellectual [End Page 174] experience. Last but not least, I would like to thank the Hellenic Studies Program at California State University, Sacramento, for inviting me to present an earlier version of this work. I greatly benefitted from the feedback I received from the audience.

1. This emphasis on boundaries draws from the seminal work of Fredrik Barth (1969). On the function of norms in relation to power relations see Foucault 1977.

2. Recipients include, for example, Anastasios "Taso" Karistinos (2010), "a practitioner of sponge diving," and John Lulias (2014), an educator, dancer, and curator, as well as "a model of cultural advocacy across the state" (Florida Department of State, Division of Historical Resources).

3. This formula, however, does not necessarily guarantee commercial success. A number of ethnic variants of Jersey Shore—Canadian, Russian, and Persian—have all commercially failed (Marche 2012). I should add here that MTV selects the cast on the basis of personality that contributes to outlandish behavior.

4. Of course, one must take into account context in identity articulations. In everyday con-versation, a Greek American's self-definition, "I am Greek," may signal situational identity to denote ancestry, without necessarily denying the American component. One must also reckon with region-specific ethnic and racial classifications. In Tarpon Springs, for instance, a place with a historically high Greek demographic, "Greek" operates as a common marker of difference in selfand institutional definitions. According to Folklorist Tina Bucuvalas, who works in public settings in Tarpon Springs, "it is common to consider yourself Greek or American—as in, Greek Americans talk about a non-Greek as an 'American' and the local historical society hosts an annual remembrance tea for three categories of families long-settled in the area—white, black, and Greek (pers. comm. 2016). As one of the anonymous reviewers of this article indicated, the Greek American demographic in Tarpons Spring is further differentiated internally by regional specificities that are particularly marked in the locality. Youths raised in the town with heritage from the island of Kalymnos "tend to think of themselves principally in terms of their regional identity and secondarily in terms of the national identity." This in turn raises the question for this reviewer about the extent to which "Greek-American norms [are] based on a standardization of Greek culture that rejects the regional cultural diversity of the United States and its survival" in the country. "Are there regional hierarchies within Greek-American culture?" These questions are important and require ethnographic study.

5. Italian American elites also privilege selective cultural forms, notably using the rhetoric of ethnic authenticity. They, too, have attempted to boycott reality shows such as Jersey Shore, even before airing, and also attempted to discredit academic conversations on controversial subjects. Very much like Greek Americans filing a notice of discrimination to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Italian Americans also promoted an antidefamation campaign against MTV as damaging to Italian America. Not unlike the Growing Up Greek controversy, Jersey Shore also raises the question: "what constitutes 'real' Italian culture and 'real' Italians?" (Skee 2015).

6. Personal notes, cited by permission.

7. Author's email communication with a Tarpon Springs resident, 26 February 2016.

8. Author's email communication with another Tarpon Springs resident, 26 February 2016.

9. Because this could potentially reflect a regional linguistic variety in this particular locality, I asked Tina Bukuvalas, a public folklorist, about it. Several locals with whom she spoke do not believe that eyla represents a dialectical variation of standard Greek in Tarpon Springs.

10. Recently circulated in the trailer of the sequel to My Big Fat Greek Wedding ("My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 Trailer" 2015). [End Page 175]

11. MTV makes a spectacle out of Greek ethnicity in the same manner in which it spectacularizes the Italian American youth in Jersey Shore (Klein 2011). Unlike the latter, however, which builds on a recognizable social type (that of the "Guido"), no Greek American youth subculture registers as a distinct identity-style in the social landscape of American ethnicity and therefore circulates in a sort of cultural vacuum. Tina Bucuvalas nuances this point, adding that the performance of the Growing Up Greek cast may "count as a modern variant of the still operant stereotype, from the '60s (the films Zorba the Greek [1964] and Never on Sunday [1960]), of 'crazy,' uninhibited Greeks" (pers. comm. 2016).

12. Engaging with the popular interest generated by Jersey Shore, The John D. Calandra Italian American Institute, for instance, brought together scholars, leaders, the community, and members of youth subcultures in a colloquium to illuminate issues regarding Italian identity. One of the purposes of this initiative, as Joseph Sciorra put it, was to "educate Italian Americans about Italian American culture" (2010), a statement that could also speak to the problem of cultural and historical illiteracy in Greek America.

13. For example, see St. Barbara Greek Glendi ("The Ikariotiko" 2009) and Festivals in Dallas, TX ("Greek Festival-Dancing & Plate Breaking" 2009). I have also witnessed money throwing at the Greek American festival in Columbus, OH.

14. There is something to be said about MTV's stereotyping of the Greeks in this moment when public representations of "ethnic groups are rigorously policed," a transgression also registered with exasperating irony by an Italian American commentator responding to MTV's Jersey Shore: "We Italian-Americans are not untrained house pets who exist for the amusement of others. Would that programming ever have been allowed if the group were African-Americans, Asians, Hispanics, Jewish people? Right" (Stasi 2009). How to explain this license to reduce Southern Europeans into types? Is it part of a wider cultural propensity to interrogate and undermine "white privilege," including assimilated Southern Europeans? These important questions fall outside the scope of this paper.

15. When I presented a version of this work at the 24th Modern Greek Studies Symposium (Anagnostou 2015b), an audience member questioned "identity" as a relevant analytical tool for this topic. This question registers, I believe, a critical fatigue with identity as an analytical concept. Here, we should add revisionist work on postidentity, understood to denote nonessentialist views on subject positions as performative, incomplete, partial, and in process. This postpost-identity turn is of course a welcoming theoretical development, directing attention toward issues of inequality, policy, beliefs, and ideology. This shift represents an analytical move away from postidentity studies, which recent theorists believe still does not escape essentialist identity politics. But to question the relevance of identity in the analysis of "MTV Greeks" is to replicate a major blind spot in post-postidentity theory, namely, that at a pragmatic, ethnographic level, identities continue their deployment in the public sphere with important social and political consequences (Millner 2005). It is necessary, therefore, that critical analysis engages with these narratives, making visible their ideologies and the way in which they position subjects vis-à-vis structures of inequality. [End Page 176]


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