Twenty-five years ago this month, the judges at the Cannes Film Festival named Emir Kusturica as Best Director for his Time of the Gypsies (1988). The audience at Cannes gave the film a five-minute standing ovation. It starred Romani people speaking the Romani language and incorporated symbolism based on their cultural beliefs into its plot. A beautifully constructed and moving film, it also played to nearly every cultural stereotype of “Gypsies” imaginable: psychics, thieves, and beggars abound. Inspired by a real (and sadly common) case of Romani children kidnapped for illegal adoptions, the movie emphasized not victimization but Romani criminality. The term “poverty porn” hadn’t been coined yet (a London critic first used it to describe the 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire), but it trafficked in a similar kind of appeal. Ever wonder about the backstory behind the gangs of pickpockets or crews of beggars found in any tourist center in Europe? Well, this film has something for you.
In 1988, Yugoslavia, Kusturica’s country, still existed. Much has changed in the world since the fall of the wall and the end of the Iron Curtain. Not much has improved for the European Roma, and in many ways their situation has worsened. Widespread discrimination and harassment (both official—see France—and unofficial—see skinheads) continue to keep them often impoverished, poorly educated and socially marginalized. Recently, the New York Times reported that a school principal in Slovakia was looking to the American experience for models of how to desegregate schools (FYI: still a work in progress around here). In this principal’s school, Romani children study in separate classrooms for slow learners, play on a separate playground, are not served in the cafeteria, and their parents are forbidden to enter the building. These are just some features of the grave and systematic violations of human rights faced by Roma peoples in Europe.
And then we have My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding. The tremendously successful show on TLC is in its second season and about to spawn a spinoff: Gypsy Sisters. Based on a similarly titled British series, the Big Fat franchise gets its kicks by letting viewers into the “secretive, extravagant and surprising world of the gypsies.” The voiceover narration used by the show is a mash-up of old school voice of God omniscience (“explaining” customs such as child marriage) and TMZ style snark. An earlier attempt by an American network to cash in on the newfound popularity of this subgroup titled American Gypsies featured a New York clan that runs psychic shops didn’t manage to get the mix quite right. National Geographic canned it after one season not, apparently, because it was threatened by a potential class action law suit on the grounds of racist discrimination, but rather because viewers found the characters “obnoxious” and the situations “contrived.” Big Fat has avoided an emphasis on criminality by instead taking viewers inside the blinged out wedding rituals and family dramas that accompany them and that the show relentlessly insists are typical in this community. Slate’s reviewer found the show “compulsively watchable,” and had no problem blaming the Roma for being backwards.
The Romanichal (the largest subgroup of Roma people in the United States, Britain, and Ireland) don’t, of course, face the kind of persecution in the U.S. that is more common in Europe. Indeed, in the nineteenth century, some Romanichal fled Europe for just this reason. Generally speaking, they are often lighter skinned than Romani groups in southern and eastern Europe. This fact places the recent reality shows about “gypsies” squarely in the category of a slew of shows that pander to stereotypes about the white working class. From the “hixploitation” of Buckwild to Honey Boo Boo and Breaking Amish to the many iterations of Italian bashing in Jersey Shore, Mob Wives, and Mama’s Boys, white is the new black for entertainment networks skittish about engaging in actual race baiting. As Eric Daggans of the Tampa Bay Times points out about this trend, the African American and Latino communities are far better prepared to bring pressure on producers to avoid creating shows around the most blatant stereotypes of these groups. It’s a good reminder though that it hasn’t been that long in the United States since the boundaries of the word “white” didn’t always include groups such as Italian or Irish Americans.
But as the principal of that Slovak elementary school realized, the African American experience remains relevant for understanding the dynamic of how Romanis (and other white ethnics) are perceived in contemporary popular culture. Reality shows about otherwise marginalized groups offer up the same deal with the devil that characterized how black characters and culture have long appeared in “mainstream” entertainment. From the minstrel shows of the nineteenth-century, to the mammies and Sambos of the early twentieth, to the homeboys and Sapphires of today, playing to a broad audience has meant playing to type. This has often been the only way in for black performers. As Hattie McDaniels famously put it about her mammy role in Gone with the Wind, given the choices available to her, it was better to play a maid than to be one.
It’s remarkable that reality shows are almost the only venues on American television where one is likely to hear regional (especially Southern) accents. It’s also remarkable to see the great diversity of peoples and lifestyles that make up this nation. Only on shows such as Bridezilla does one routinely see mixed race couples and a genuinely broad representation of ethnic and racial backgrounds. Yet they usually come with a kick. Exploiting masquerades as explaining and blaming is never far behind. Theories about “cultures of poverty” often lurk in the background where “traditional” and “backwards” are nearly always synonyms.