By now the events of Peter David’s NYCC anti-Romani rant is all wrapped up, with David writing a series of personal blog posts including an apology to the Romani community. Whether the Romani community — and the Romani activist involved in the incident, along with fans who were both at the panel and have seen the video — forgive David is a separate issue. Rather than focus on the merits of an apology, the opportunity presents itself to instead focus on the actual issue of lack of Romani representation in our media.
To first understand why the lack of Romani representation is an important issue, we have to understand who the Romani people are. For many — including myself — because of this overall lack of representation, there comes an overall prevalence of ignorance regarding who the Romani people are, what their struggles are, and what their actual culture is.
The Romani people are considered an Indo-Aryan ethnic group that originally derived from Northern India. They are sometimes confused with Romanians of the country Romania, which is a European country. This misconception is ironic, considering that Romania has a long, and continuing history against the Romani community. One that includes over 500 years of slavery. But the end of their government-enforced slavery didn’t suddenly resolve hundreds of years of discrimination. Rather, it merely developed and changed into other forms of oppression.
In an article published under the European Roma Rights Centre titled, “Being a ‘Gypsy’: The Worst Social Stigma in Romania” authors Valeriu Nicolae and Hannah Slavik state:
“Instances of anti-Romani speech from public figures, ranging from mild abuse to calls for extermination, abound. For example, on August 16, 1998, Corneliu Vadim Tudor, then a member of the Romanian Senate, reportedly stated that his platform for running the country included “isolating Gypsy criminals in special colonies” in order to “stop the transformation of Romania into a Gypsy camp.”
In David’s first open letter, he describes his horror at the supposed maiming and crippling of a Romani child. His tour guide explained that this was what the Romani people did, and David stated he felt his tour guide wasn’t lying to him — the man truly believed what he said. Which is most likely true. David’s tour guide most likely did believe everything he said and then some.
David’s trip to Romania was in 1993, and the above statement made by a member of the Romanian Senate was made in 1998. The two statements, one made by a tour guide and the other a government official, both say essentially the same thing — to them, the Romani people are considered animals, and subhuman. They do terrible things like purposely crippling their children, and deserve to be placed in camps separate and isolated from the main populace. Nicolae and Slavik also note in their essay:
“The majority of Romanian media sources are openly hostile towards Roma and readily use any means available to manipulate public opinion against Roma. A good example is the 1999 case of Mihai Olariu, a Romanian man responsible for the rape and killing of at least three children. […] it was announced that Mihai Olariu had been arrested and found guilty of the killings. The announcement did not mention the fact that Olariu was an ethnic Romanian, nor did the media apologise to the Romani community.”
In many parts of Europe, news media paints a picture of the Romani people as thieves, rapists, exotic seductresses, and otherwise manic criminals. In American news media, they are near non-existence. An invisible minority of isolated individuals.
Cristiana Grigore, a student at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, who is part-Romani, stated in an interview with VOA News, “They [Americans] know about Gypsy, but not as a real ethnic group, real people. They see it more like a Halloween costume, a role that you play once a year.”
You’d be hard pressed to name more than four or five Romani characters in American media and that’s being gracious. There is a handful of references in Shakespeare’s work to the Romani people, but they are typically dark exotic beauties, or mischievous thieves for comedic purposes. In many European works of romantic fiction, such as Jane Austen’s Emma, and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, there are appearances of Romani characters, but they are typically romanticized fortune tellers or exotic nomadic folk and always referred to as “g**sies.”
In some American media, such as the Star Wars expanded novels which featured an alien race known as the Ryn whom embody stereotypical Romani narrative features, Romani people are characterized mainly by being thieves, nomadic, with strong family structures. In Stephen King’s novel, Thinner, the main plot is caused by a Romani curse. Not all depictions of Romani people are negative, however. Philip Pullman’s series of novels, His Dark Materials, features a fictional race heavily based on the Romani and are depicted as kindly people.
Perhaps the most famous Romani character in fictional media is Esmeralda, who is prominent in Victor Hugo’s novel, Hunchback of Notre Dame along with the Disney film of the same name and many other adaptations of the famous novel. A character who, in the original novel, she was stolen by the Romani people and not in fact Romani at all. In her adapted film appearances she’s been played by mainly white actresses, and once by Selma Hayek who is Mexican-American. In many of her adapted appearances she has been portrayed as hyper sexualized.
Then there’s comics. The most famous Romani characters in mainstream comics are most likely: Wanda Maximoff, Pietro Maximoff, Dick Grayson, and Doctor Doom. And there’s been plenty debate about the merit of both their Romani ethnicity, whether they fall into harmful stereotypes of the Romani, and their lack of connection to their ethnic identities.
Pietro has gone back and forth between being a villain, hero, and moderate anti-hero who is often considered untrustworthy by others. While Wanda is a hero, her most well known storyline was Disassembled and House of M where she has a mental breakdown, is manipulated by her brother into recreating the world, and eventually causes a mutant genocide. Her character design has also gone from an “Esmeralda” inspired view of exotic beauty, to much more standard white features. Dick Grayson’s Romani origins were revealed in a story by Devin Grayson, which also relied on harmful stereotypes of the Romani people. Since that storyline, very few writers have taken the opportunity to write Dick as anything but white, with a strong absence of any major connection to his Romani culture and ethnic identity.
This isn’t to say these characters are inherently bad characters. Pietro, Wanda, and Dick are all characters with decades long history with both good and bad stories under their belts. All three are considered favorites for many comic book fans, including Romani fans. But their positive attributes do not negate that they embody some negative stereotypes that contribute to the negative portrayals of Romani people. In dealing with the complex subject of representation of minorities in our media, we have to acknowledge both the positive — if there are any — and negatives of media depictions of minority characters.
The positives of Wanda, Pietro, and Dick are: they are complex characters, with sizable fanbases, good stories, and popular enough to be included in film adaptations. The negatives are: Wanda was often depicted as an exotic g**sy witch who turned mentally unstable, while her brother, Pietro was often depicted as a thief, with loose morals. Dick has an overall strong disconnect with his Romani culture, and his Romani identity feels often forgotten. All three characters are designed with light features, from skin tone, to hair color and eyes. Wanda and Pietro were portrayed by two white actors in Marvel’s Age of Ultron — being barred from having Magneto as a father does not mean the studio was barred from making the characters Jewish and Romani — similarly with Fox’s X-Men franchise where Pietro is played by another white actor. In Dick Grayson’s lone live action appearance in (in both of Joel Shumacher’s Batman films), he was also played by a white actor.
If anything, the incident at NYCC highlights the importance of better representation for Romani people across the board. Whether film, comics, or books, the fact of the matter is the Romani community is either invisible or stereotyped. There is a strong lack of positive depictions of them with only semi-positive ones scattered throughout fictional media at large over the course of decades. Given how the Romani suffer from widespread discrimination across Europe, while being nearly invisible in America, positive portrayals in the media are necessary. Negative portrayals of the Romani people have been the norm for decades, it’s time for that to change.