Editor's Note: This is a response to Torie Bosch's recent DoubleX article on the TLC show My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding, which was very controversial within the Romani community. Oksana Marafioti is the author of American Gypsy: A Memoir.
The first time I heard that TLC was planning an American version of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding (then unnamed), I was thrilled. Though not particularly fond of the British series (its content had very little to do with Romani culture), I had hopes for this new show. I was in the middle of working on my book and thought the show’s creators might benefit from my personal experience. My literary agent contacted the show, and after a prompt, enthusiastic response from the producers, I flew out to meet one of them in L.A., excited to be a part of something this important and extraordinary. Here was an opportunity to dispense with the silly outdated notions that we all live in trailers and marry off our tween daughters, that Romani women prefer cleaning baseboards to getting an education, that our men drink more than they work.
When I met the producer, I was pleased to hear he was still working on the show’s angle. But as we talked, he seemed to become increasingly disappointed with my profile. As a college graduate, a classically trained pianist, and member of the film industry, I did not fit the bill of the “real gypsies” he was interested in meeting; everyone he had been interviewing resembled me far more than the tambourine-jangling caricature he had in mind. At this, warning bells went off. I suggested staying away from stereotypes if possible, but when he asked if I planned on attending any “old-fashioned gypsy weddings or birthday parties” in the future, I felt so dismayed I wanted to cry.
Having worked in the industry, I know that producers are entertainers first and foremost. They’re in the business of making money, a business which employs many hard-working people and supports countless families. However, a show like this can harm a group of people already under scrutiny, people who also have families to watch over. Being a Romani isn’t a way of life or a cult. We aren’t Gypsy by choice or calling. No one can decide to become a Gypsy one day. We are a race of close to 10 million, with a culture that spans centuries and across continents. It is one thing to present a willing group of people in a negative light, but quite another to represent an entire race of people as a niche stereotype. This is particularly dangerous since people know so little about us and yet think they know so much.
Once home from the meeting, I wrote the producer this email:
On the way home I've thought about our conversation more and I do have a few suggestions.
The Romani always remember their roots, but that doesn’t mean they don't break out and try to find bigger ways to express who they are. THIS diversity is who we are. Although some Romani live more traditionally, there’s an overwhelming number who have accomplished great things while still holding on to their identity. These people make up the majority of Romani, but are rarely talked about. Maybe if they’re shown, their stories told, the audience can relate in more profound ways than ever. After all, we all strive to prove our worth in this world without losing who we are, where we came from.
You may find a Romani painter who perhaps doesn't celebrate birthdays Gypsy style, yet is meticulously developing a Rromanes alphabet so that the language isn’t forgotten and our stories can be recorded. Or, you may come across a Romani woman who never cuts her hair and often wears skirts and cooks for her family, all after working as a lawyer all day. This kind of juxtaposition might be an angle to consider in addition to the old-fashioned celebrations, because it’ll showcase us as so much more than vagabonds with no care in the world. It will show our connection to the rest of the society, our true face.
I think to show the Romani in this balance instead of a narrow viewpoint, would produce a breakthrough project like no other!
Sorry for the rant. I'm simply enthusiastic about what you’re doing. This show has so much potential. Good luck!
He never answered.