TARPON SPRINGS, FL – A reality show called Growing Up Greek premiered on MTV on December 3, much to the outrage of thousands in the Greek-American community, who blast the show as a besmirching of their proud Hellenic heritage.
Reality television – where cameras follow around cast members, recording purportedly unscripted situations – took American popular culture by storm about a decade ago, with shows such as The Osbournes – which featured the life of outrageous rocker Ozzy, his wife, Sharon, and their children around the house, leading their everyday lives. Other shows depicting the home lives of celebrities followed, including Chasing Farrah, about the iconic megastar of the original Charlie’s Angels, Farrah Fawcett, and about Shannen Says, about the life of the oft-volatile television star Shannen Doherty, who gained worldwide fame on Beverly Hills 90210. This year, journalist/actress Maria Menounos launched her own reality show, Chasing Maria Menounos, and told TNH all about it (“Chasing Maria Menounos: You Must Be Quick!” May 10).
But though Menounos’ show, in which her Greek-born parents are featured prominently, certainly could be called “growing up Greek” in its own right, it seems to have been accepted as a benign form of humorous depiction of Greeks – along the lines of the modern classic comedy My Big, Fat Greek Wedding.
HILARIOUS, OR HURTFUL?
Growing Up Greek, however, is a different story. Set in the real Florida Gulf Coast City of Tarpon Springs, the show – like most of its genre – is a mixture of fact and fiction. Two of the show’s stars – who are brothers – are the sons of the owners of the very real Mama’s Restaurant at the Sponge Docks. Also seen is the very real Zorba’s nightclub. What is unmistakably unreal is the “Tarpon Springs Airport” shown at the beginning (Tarpon Springs doesn’t have an airport – what they show is Tampa International Airport). There is also a false impression created that Tarpon Springs is a party town – sort of a Greek-American version of New Orleans. It’s not. It is idyllic and picturesque, and filled with many tourists by day (most non-Greek, and many retirees), but usually after 10PM you can hear a pin drop.
The show’s stars are Tarpon Greek-Americans in their early 20s, whose lives are shown to revolve around drinking, smoking, partying, gossiping, and threatening to brawl. And that is exactly what has many in the Greek community up in arms.
Some sources told TNH that the topic is so controversial, they would rather remain off record. Others described it as “95-5” percent against the show.
Among those who did go on record, though, was Christina Poulakis, who lives in the area with her two sons, both in their early twenties: “I think this show is a poor example of the Greek American youth in the United States,” she said. “It portrays us as low class, uneducated people. It gives the audience a false perception of what we are really like.”
Phillip Frangos, the Supreme President of AHEPA, an organization founded in 1922 to protect against “the evils of bigotry and discrimination,” reaffirmed to TNH the organization’s written statement, which proclaims: “The American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association is deeply concerned with the production of MTV’s latest show, Growing Up Greek, which is an unfortunate reinvention of its Jersey Shore series.
“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. If anything, the characters are more suited for an episode of The Jerry Springer Show than portraying what it is truly like to grow up Greek. 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.
“The show also performs a tremendous disservice to the city in which it is set, the storied location of Tarpon Springs’ Greektown [a reference to the historic Sponge Docks]. In July, the Greektown district earned a special recognition as the first place in Florida listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a Traditional Cultural Property thanks in large part to the hard work ethic of Greek immigrants on the sponge docks dating back to the early 1900s. Sadly, this distinction has been lost on the producers who have chosen irresponsibility to tarnish Tarpon Springs’ rich, cultural history with this distorted portrayal of its contemporary Greek American community…”
Chris Alahouzos, who served for six years as a commissioner and vice mayor of Tarpon Springs and has announced his candidacy for mayor, told TNH that Greek-Americans epitomize “education, religion, family, community, and public service.” Alahouzos emphasizes that those virtues apply not only to “every Greek-American community I know in the United States,” but specifically to the Greeks of Tarpon Springs as well.
Alahouzos does not believe the Greek-American twentysomethings on the show intended to portray their heritage negatively. They were probably told by show’s producers “just do something fun,” Alahouzos thinks, and so the young stars thought it was going to be a harmless, “fun adventure.” His point raises the possibility that perhaps a great deal more footage was recorded, arguably espousing many positive values, but was edited out to make room for only the scenes that sparked the controversy. To that end, Alahouzos thinks there should now be a united effort – including on the part of the show’s young stars themselves – to stop future broadcasts of Growing up Greek.
A ONE-TIME SPECIAL?
Despite a petition on change.org signed by over 5,000 individuals demanding that MTV refrain from airing the show, the channel followed through and the program was indeed televised on December 3. A rival petition emerged on thepetitionsite.com, proclaiming that: “This is one of the most authentic shows MTV has ever aired. A very accurate portrayal of young Greeks in America.” It received a few hundred signatures, a fraction of the thousands the anti-broadcast petition generated.
All of this may be soon forgotten, however, because an MTV spokesperson told TNH that “this show was a one-time special. There are no current plans at this time to turn it into a series.” But the spokesperson added that “we will keep you updated if that changes,” which means this could have been a pilot that might be turned into a regular weekly show, after all. And the tremendous controversy that festers and the publicity it generates might make it difficult for the network to resist the temptation to broadcast additional episodes.
“MTV has always explored different slices of life/youth culture. We have done that with many of our shows including Laguna Beach, Jersey Shore, Buckwild, True Life, Catfish and Teen Mom, to name a few examples,” said the spokesperson.
Some reality shows – not like the ones about Ozzy, Farrah, and Maria Menounos, which feature specific individuals and their families – but more like Jersey Shore (as Frangos referred to) which depict ethnic groups (in that case, Italian-Americans) in what many consider an unflattering manner – is what prominent organizations like AHEPA hope to dissuade.