American Gypsies needs to catch up with the reality of Roma people's lives
Now comes National Geographic's new reality series, American Gypsies, launched on the heels of TLC's ongoing My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding, itself a spin-off of the UK's Channel 4's enormously successful Big Fat Gypsy Weddings. Sadly, this spate of exoticising voyeurism has nothing to do with genuine interest in Roma or Travellers, the two ethnic groups lumped together under the term "Gypsy" (a term considered derogatory by most Roma activists). Rather, it has everything to do with the chase for ratings, which is at the heart of the tabloidisation of television everywhere. Consequently, these shows are built on tried and true tropes: broad stereotypes, artificially constructed conflicts, unidimensional characters, set-up scenes and scripted lines.
Accuracy is beside the point: these shows are invested in reproducing a version of what it means to be a "Gypsy" that broadcasters believe to be most comfortable for their audience – Esmeralda-like headscarves, belly dancing, innate violence, gaudy parties, psychic healing parlours. The teaser for the series manages to cram all of those cliches into one minute, with time to spare. The response has been predictable: within a day, online comments were rife with racial slurs and no small number of sympathetic references to Hitler.
I have seen this dynamic before. I grew up in an atmosphere permeated by the kind of stereotypes about violent, dirty and scheming "Gypsies" that abound in Europe. I am ethnically Romanian and grew up in Romania, where Roma were enslaved until the 1860s and deported to extermination camps during the second world war. The few who remained nomadic were forcibly settled during communism. Then, many were chased out of villages during violent, deadly pogroms in the 1990s. To this day, Roma children are shunted into dead-end segregated schools which trap them in the vicious cycle of poverty and disenfranchisement.
Yet Roma continue to be blamed for living at the edge of society. Reality shows perpetuate this fiction of self-segregation by stressing difference and tradition, by recasting the viewers' ignorance as secrecy on the part of the Roma and by artificially presenting the preservation of ethnic identity as radically opposed to those elements that make up our common humanity: curiosity and learning, making new friends, falling in love. American Gypsies begins by pronouncing: "For over 1,000 years, Romany or Gypsy people have remained hidden from view. Until now" then proceeds to repeatedly flash info-cards on the fear of outsiders and the mating habits of Roma in their natural habitat. Fittingly, the tagline for this new show is "You Don't Know Gypsy." In the UK, the last season of Channel 4's Big Fat Gypsy Weddings was announced by billboards touting it as "Bigger. Fatter. Gypsier." Try that out with other minorities. Really, see how it feels.
These shows are especially harmful because Roma people do not have any alternative representations in the public's imagination. There is no Roma equivalent to Leonardo da Vinci or Joe DiMaggio, to Rosa Parks or Barack Obama. In the US, where there is very little awareness of Roma, My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding and American Gypsies will likely turn ignorance into all-out prejudice. In the UK, Big Fat Gypsy Weddings has already led to a spike in bullying of Roma and Traveller children. Elsewhere in eastern Europe, where it has been syndicated, the franchise will only fan the flames of violent racism by playing into the hands of skinheads and nationalists.
I know there are other, much more rewarding ways to treat the subject for a general audience. In 2006, I took a small crew to a tiny town in Transylvania to follow a group of Roma children who were taken out of a crumbling segregated school into a Romanian-led school, where they faced further rejection and humiliation. Over the course of five years, we worked with the conviction that audiences would be interested in connecting to the day-to-day lives of Roma and exploring the complexity of race relations. It paid off: in the 30 countries where we screened over the past year, sold-out rooms engaged with our film in lively discussions that sometimes stretched for hours. We found mainstream audiences thrilled to be thinking for themselves, open to exploring their own contribution to inequality, and moved by our shared humanity.
We should give ourselves more credit: we have shown that we can break through patterns of oppression several times over the course of history. Little by little, the way we treat and understand Roma will change, inexorably for the better. It is a shame that television will have to catch up to this, instead of leading the way.