Giving the gadje what they want: NatGeo’s “American Gypsies

New York, 23.7.2012 16:05, (ROMEA)
Source: The National Geographic
Source: The National Geographic
The National Geographic channel is currently running a program called American Outliers which is being promoted as a documentary series about subcultures in the United States. The series features groups like the Amish, the Roma (or Gypsies), religious groups who believe in the imminence of the Apocalypse, etc. The first installment of the nine-episode American Gypsies series aired on Tuesday 17 July and was as disappointingly trashy as its advertising.

The program’s website promises the television voyeur an “intimate portrayal” of the Johns family, who are described as “steeped in honor” and striving to “preserve age-old Gypsy customs amid the vices of New York City, while upholding their family’s power in the community and expanding their psychic shop empire.” The first episode featured tropes familiar to Euro-American viewers from centuries of romanticized portrayals of Romani people: The women are supposedly gifted psychics, while the men act like stereotypical Mafiosi. The program is edited in the rapid-fire “reality show” style, interspersing interviews with the main characters commenting post facto on the supposedly “real” events that have been captured on film, with lots of adrenaline-inducing percussion in the soundtrack. It is designed and presented as sheer entertainment.
For anyone who has actually befriended members of the Romani community, it is painful to watch this particular family serving up the stereotypes, however cynical or earnest their involvement in this “documentary” actually was. The word “gadje” is constantly harped on during the first episode, in which the viewer is repeatedly told that Romani people must not interact with “the Americans”. Most viewers must surely have asked themselves at some point why this family was permitting the “gadje” cinematographer and director to record and then edit them for posterity, to be seen by potentially millions of “gadje” viewers. The answer, of course, is that the Johns are just as “American” as any other celebrity-seeking group of people who want to see themselves on television - no more exotic than the countless attention-seekers on “reality” shows across the globe. Their participation in this particular genre, complete with the “interactive family tree” on the show’s website, its glossary of Romani terms, its Facebook page (“Have a grievance with a friend? Take your case to your Facebook peers. Solve your dispute in Gypsy Court”) and its brief overview of Romani history (a small gesture toward National Geographic’s long-forgotten origins as a popularizer of scientific knowledge), is rendered doubly ironic by the characters’ constant reiteration of the need to “save” their culture from outside influence. NatGeo is supposedly trafficking in “authenticity” here, but the participation of this family in such a program in the first place marks their assimilation into a 100 % American art form.
As someone who has followed the various issues facing Romani communities for some time, mostly in Europe, I understand I am not the average viewer the NatGeo show is aiming for. Ignorance, in this case, would indeed have been bliss, as everything I know about “real Romani people” made the program doubly offensive to me. For example, I know that Romani people have been producing their own documentaries – films actually worthy of that designation – about their own realities. There is the fantastic Me, My Gipsy Family & Woody Allen by Laura Halilovic; or any of the many films produced by Katalin Barsonyi’s Mundi Romani company such as Granada: The Maya Family, Trapped – the Forgotten Story of the Mitrovica Roma, or The Last Days of Sulukule. Any one of these would do far more to educate NatGeo’s viewers about the world the gadje and the Romani people currently share than American Gypsies has done so far.
The truncated history on NatGeo’s web page references the historical persecution of Romani people, including their targeting by the Nazis during Holocaust, but does not address their situation in the United States. I don’t know whether future episodes of American Gypsies will address some of the contemporary issues that Romani people in the US find so persistently troubling. For example, according to Professor Carol Silverman of the University of Oregon, the police departments of several southern cities officially maintain "Gypsy Crime" units. It is difficult if not impossible to imagine police wearing uniforms inscribed with “[racial epithet] Crime Unit” where other ethnic minorities in the US are concerned, but for Roma, this is apparently still tolerated. There is also no doubt that television portrayals of Romani criminals on detective shows are probably the only way most Americans ever learn that Romani people exist.
For a Romani perspective on this program’s first episode, I contacted Ms Ciuin Ferrin, Educational Director for the O Porrajmos Education Society and a Daily Board Member for Khetanes. "My job is to assist Romanies who need help and to educate the public on real Romani issues,” she said. “My job has been made harder by these shows. ...The references and comparisons to the Mafia during the show certainly do not help Romanies anywhere. We are seen as thieves, con artists, and mob bosses, e.g.: in The Riches on FX, The Finder on Fox, Criminal Minds on ION and Bravo, and even an episode on Law and Order: SVU on NBC. On Criminal Minds, we were portrayed as a race of serial killers and kidnappers of little girls. National Geographic has legitimized that stereotype by broadcasting American Gypsies."
Professor Ian Hancock at the University of Texas had this to say about some Romani families’ reactions to the program so far: “There is anger for a couple of reasons: (a) too much has been revealed publicly about Roma culture, and (b) it … includes lots of references to the mafia. Some families however, find it funny, not realizing the dangers. Roma are facing very serious problems today, but if we as a people can’t be taken seriously our problems never will.”
There was one moment in American Gypsies’ first episode that struck me as having inadvertently captured something “real”: An interaction between a father and his young daughter in which she reveals to him that she was not able to read as well as the other girls in an acting class they just attended. The girl’s anguish in confessing her shortcomings to her father felt genuine, and his concern and promise to help her with her reading did also. In the United States it is possible for people to home school their children, and the scene raises many questions. Had the girl attended school with other children, would she have received the assistance she needs with reading sooner? Given the awful reputations of some of New York’s public schools, that is an open question. Then again, the impression the Johns give is of an upper-middle class family, theoretically able to afford private school.
I don’t know if the daughter’s literacy will be an ongoing storyline in American Gypsies, but I can only hope she gets what she needs in “real” life. I hope National Geographic gets what it needs too: The harsh criticism they deserve for airing a show filmed in such a way, and recommendations for future content that would actually educate, not titillate, their viewers.