Sex, Love, and Assimilation in the New World

Sex, Love, and Assimilation in the New World: A Brief History of White Ethnicities in Rom-Coms

by Celia Mattison

“Leaving my family is like renouncing my citizenship” – Holly Hunter as Renata Bella in Once Around

Some history

The mass immigration of Europeans into the United States during the Progressive Era (1896 to 1916) would spark anxiety and fear for many Americans, and the xenophobia of this era would continue to shape public policy and cultural attitudes. Many of these immigrants formed communities that preserved their language, religion, and traditions, unable to assimilate or uninterested in assimilating the way their American-born children could and would.1 

Writing in 1911, sociologist Henry Pratt Fairchild encapsulated an attitude toward immigration that would remain dominant in both policy and public opinion long after the Progressive Era: “The business of the alien is to go into the mines, the foundries, the sewers . . . If he proves himself a man, and rises above his station, and acquires wealth and cleans himself up — very well, we might receive him in a generation or two. But at present he is far beneath us, and the burden of proof rests with him.”2 3 

Fairchild’s explicit tie of class and labor to race, and his call for by-one’s-bootstraps assimilation were predictive. The next generations would increasingly discard the traditions and languages of their progenitors as they obtained upward mobility. By the time these second- and third-generation children were coming of age, working in society, and making movies, they were not considered foreigners but white Americans, and most of the mainstream nativist anxieties around their presence had faded.

A brief timeline of Progressive Era xenophobia4 5

The Page Act of 1875: prohibited the immigration of Chinese women
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882: prohibited the immigration of all Chinese citizens
The Immigration Act of 1917: established a literacy test for immigrants
The Emergency Quota Act of 1921: set up national quotas to dramatically limit immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, minimize immigration from Asia, and effectively ban immigration from Africa. Immigration from Latin America was not legally restricted because of the demand in the American west for labor but would be complicated by colonization efforts and revolutionary movements6
The Immigration Act of 1924: a revision to the 1921 act that would further impede Eastern and Southern European immigration, and would officially prohibit immigration from Asia outside the Philippines (then a U.S. colony)

The romantic comedy

There is no shortage of movies about immigrant (particularly Italian) men desperately pursuing wealth through violence and organized crime. These stories tell us that the American Dream is only attainable through a sacrifice of one’s morals. But the romantic comedy, a genre which entered a new phase of popularity as the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Progressive Era immigrants came of age in the 1980s, offered a different narrative: there was an alternate American dream, one that promised marriage and everlasting love through personal sacrifice and compromise.

In his study of the history of romantic comedies, Leger Grindon refers to the 1986-96 period as “The Reaffirmation of Romance Cycle.” The growing political dominance of Reagan and Thatcher conservatism was replicated in romantic comedies that reaffirmed the power of romance and embraced traditional marriage as the happy ending.7 These films rejected the neuroticism of 1970s romantic comedies and affirmed what those movies doubted: true love was the American Dream. It was real, possible, and attainable for everyone — even the sadsack viewer. This is not to say that these romantic comedies were always inherently conservative, but that this genre was no longer asking questions about sex and liberation but compromise and stability.

Building on Grindon’s thesis, the white ethnic romcom forces the protagonist to consider their ethnic identity as they attempt to secure romantic love. These films contrast the ideals of individualism and capitalist conformity that were at peak depravity during the Reagan presidency as core components of the American Dream, with the traditions embraced by the protagonist’s family. Looking at five romantic comedies that depict the romances of second- and third-generation European immigrants — people who today might be called “spicy white”8 — we can see the onscreen development of whiteness as a mainstream class construct.

The movies

The large presence of women filmmakers on this list is unusual. During the 1980s to the 2000s, fewer than 20% of writers and 12% of directors were female.9 Consider how and why women might have been able to more fully participate in the making of rom-coms, and in this subgenre specifically.

I’ve included the nationality and ethnic backgrounds of the director and writer where this information was available. This is my clumsy attempt to briefly reflect the many diasporic heritages that these artists have publicly discussed as a part of their cultural background. It is not meant to be a prescriptive label, which is why I have not included percentages, generational numbers, or hyphens. Please note that American and Canadian are used to refer to national identities; none of these artists have acknowledged North American Indigenous heritage.

A still from "Moonstruck": The Castorini family sits around the kitchen table while Johnny and Ronny stand and regard each other in confrontation.

Moonstruck (1987) 
Directed by Norman Jewison (Canadian), written by John Patrick Shanley (Irish American)

Cher stars as Loretta Castorini, an Italian American widow about to marry her age-appropriate boyfriend, Johnny (Danny Aiello) when she suddenly falls in love with his much younger and wilder brother, Ronny (Nicolas Cage). In choosing between Johnny and Ronny, Loretta is caught between traditional expectations — embodied by Johnny (successful, devoted to his Italian mother, and emotionally withdrawn) — and her modern desires — embodied by Ronny (working class, flashy, and deeply passionate). 

Consider: the Castorinis’ explicit Catholicism and obsession with death.

A still from "Mystic Pizza": The three protagonists stand in the pizza shop with "A slice of heaven" t-shirts, looking out at something beyond the camera.

Mystic Pizza (1988) 
Directed by Donald Petrie (American), written by Amy Jones (American), Perry Howze, Randy Howze, and Alfred Uhry (German Jewish American)

Three young Portuguese American women come of age in seaside Connecticut while working in a popular local pizzeria. Each woman navigates a separate love story that confronts their notions of class, desires for upward mobility, and fears that they will be trapped in Mystic repeating the lives of their mothers. Though Connecticut does have a substantial Portuguese American population, the film takes many liberties with Portuguese culture and in particular the pronunciation of Portuguese names. 

Consider: these three women are the youngest and poorest on the list, and the only ones who do not live in a major city.

A still from "Crossing Delancey": Izzy stands in the foreground gazing outward on a NYC street, while Sam and his pickle shop appear in the background.

Crossing Delancey (1988) 
Directed by Joan Micklin Silver (Russian Jewish American), written by Susan Sandler 

Isabella (Amy Irving), a young Jewish woman who hosts events at a local bookstore, falls for a prominent European author. Her Bubbe, concerned about Izzy’s ongoing singledom, hires a matchmaker who pairs her with a working-class Jewish picklemaker that Izzy immediately dismisses as a romantic equal. As she navigates her own ambitions and desire for equitable romantic partnership, she finds her expectations of her love interests subverted. Silver is also the director of Hester Street (1975), a drama about Jewish immigrants in 1896 Manhattan whose marriage does not survive the pressures of Americanization.

Consider: how Isabella and her Bubbe’s expectations of class and marriage are shaped and shared.

A still from "Once Around": Renata, her father, and a young bride stand together at a wedding.

Once Around (1991) 
Directed by Lasse Hallström (Swedish), written by Malia Scotch Marmo (American)

Renata (Holly Hunter) is the unmarried, oldest daughter of an Italian American family in Boston and is happy to be coddled by her adoring parents. She has a whirlwind romance with Sam Sharpe (Richard Dreyfuss), a Lithuanian-American businessman her father’s age who boasts wildly about his self-made success: “Take a look at what I’m wearing. That’s America.” His abrasiveness immediately irritates her modest family (especially her father, this is Danny Aiello’s second appearance in this syllabus) who resent the sudden wealth Renata has obtained without any work.

Consider: the accuracies and inaccuracies of how Sam represents his Lithuanian heritage10, and the recurring circle imagery.

A still from "My Big Fat Greek Wedding": Toula wears a white wedding dress and is surrounded by her family and bridesmaids.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002) 
Directed by Joel Zwick (Jewish American) and written by Nia Vardalos (Greek Canadian)

Probably the film you think of when you think of culture clash: this low-budget indie was an Oscar-nominated sleeper hit. Toula (Nia Vardalos) has recently taken a job at her aunt’s travel agency when she falls for Ian (John Corbett, who was playing the similarly mild Aiden on Sex and the City). She unsuccessfully tries to hide Ian from her family and her family from Ian, as she deals with her family’s expectations for her future and what she actually wants.

Consider: the tagline, “Love is here to stay . . . And so is her family.”

More to consider:
The hair;
What a remake of any of these could possibly look like;
What a movie like this with a male protagonist would look like;
Why so many of the directors, writers, and actors do not share their character’s ethnic backgrounds but are still white;
How these films engage with capitalism;
How stagnant these women are in a pink-collar labor force.

Extra credit viewing

West Side Story (1961)
Directed by Robert Wise (American) and Jerome Robbins (Jewish American), written by Ernest Lehman (Jewish American), music composed by Leonard Bernstein (Ukrainian Jewish American) with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (Jewish American), based on the book by Arthur Laurents (Jewish American)

The Way We Were (1973) 
Directed by Sydney Pollack (Russian Jewish American) and written by Arthur Laurents (Jewish American)

Married to the Mob (1988) 
Directed by Jonathan Demme (American), written by Barry Strugatz and Mark R. Burns

“The Conversion,” Seinfeld (1993)
Created by Larry David (Jewish American) and Jerry Seinfeld (Jewish American), directed by Tom Cherones (Greek American), written by Bruce Kirschbaum

Brooklyn (2015)
Directed by John Crowley (Irish) and written by Nick Hornby (English), based on the novel by Colm Tóibín (Irish)

1The English-Language Proficiency of Recent Immigrants in The U.S. During the Early 1900s” by Anthony P. Mora, Marie T. Mora and Alberto Dávila
2White immigrants weren’t always considered white — and acceptable” by Brando Simeo Starkey
3 Contours of White Ethnicity by Yiorgos Anagnostou
4U.S. Immigration Timeline
5Closing the Door on Immigration
6 The History of Mexican Immigration to the U.S. in the Early 20th Century
7 The Hollywood Romantic Comedy: Conventions, History, Controversies by Leger Grindon
8 Urban Dictionary, “Spicy White”
9 Long-term patterns of gender imbalance in an industry without ability or level of interest differences” by Luís A. Nunes Amaral, João A. G. Moreira, Murielle L. Dunand, Heliodoro Tejedor Navarro, and Hyojun Ada Lee
10 The Lithuanian Angle in a Hollywood Movie: An Analysis of Once Around” by William Wokovich-Valkavičius