American Gypsies: Breaking old stereotypes or creating new ones?

Mechele R. Dillard's picture

American Gypsies on the National Geographic Channel may be an interesting look at the Johns family, but it isn't doing much to break old stereotypes about Romani culture.

American Gypsies on National Geographic Channel certainly is an eye-opener about the Romani culture—but not necessarily in a good way.

When this new reality series was announced by the National Geographic Channel, it certainly sounded intriguing. Who hasn’t heard stories about gypsies—free spirits, travelers, mysterious. And, a chance to learn about the culture was exciting. The show, produced by Ralph Macchio (known to many as the original Karate Kid), follows the Johns family in New York City. And, while some of the old stereotypes have not been well-broached at this point—the Johns family, for instance, seems pretty well-based in NYC, not “travelers” or “wanderers” as some old stereotypes might hold—others are simply being reinforced. For example, the term “gypsy” is taken by many as a slur. However, as the title of the show itself uses the word, and the Johns refer to themselves as gypsies seemingly every other sentence, it is hard to imagine how the audience is supposed to understand the opposition to the word by much of the Rom community. And, of course, many non-Rom cultures may associate the term “gypsy” with “fortune-telling.” Well, that belief is firmly reinforced by this show, for good or bad, with the Johns family running “psychic shops” and performing “psychic healing.”

Since the show has been on, American Gypsies and the Johns family have been compared to The Godfather; if you’ve seen the show, you’ll understand why. Family life is depicted as being structured from a male patriarch down, in this case from the ailing Robert Sr., through his five sons—Erik, Bobby, Nicky, Joey and Jack. Erik is the oldest and, as such, “in charge” of his brothers, but he doesn’t seem to have a lot of control over anybody. Bobby is really the center of the show, and, thank goodness, likeable. Nicky is shady, a loudmouth, and impossible to like. And, as far as Joey and Jack, well, they are too far down the line to get a lot of airtime.

“Tradition” is the constant cry on this show, with everyone seeming to compete with one another on how well they are carrying on Rom tradition. But, the question is: Why would anyone want to carry on the traditions this family is glorifying on this show? Subjugation of women? Marrying off young girls in their early-to-mid-teens? Expected infidelity by men in marriage? Overt prejudice against “gadje,” i.e. non-Roma? What is to be glorified here?

Bobby Puts His Daughters First

Bobby seems to actually get these things. He respects his family, loves them; he is proud of his heritage. But, he also understands that there is a need for change. Having daughters, he wants them to be all that they can be, not forced into a marriage by age 16 with a husband who is expected to cheat on her; no education or career; and no options in life beyond being a psychic. When one of Bobby's daughters revealed to him that she essentially could not read, it was heartbreaking. Her mother (from whom he is estranged and who seems to be out of the picture at this point) was doing the homeschooling, and apparently the daughter in question had fallen quite behind. This happens, of course, in public schools—we’ve all heard the stories. But, somehow, it seems even more heartbreaking that it would happen in such a personal setting as a mother homeschooling her daughter. But, it seemed to awaken something in Bobby—a reaffirmation that it would be up to him to fight for his daughters and their dreams instead of blindly following Rom so-called "tradition."

And, as for long-held gypsy stereotypes?

Well, if viewers continue to hold beliefs that may not be accurate in the Romani culture after watching American Gypsies—and maybe even develop a few new ones--it would be hard to blame the viewers.

American Gypsies airs on National Geographic Channel on Tuesdays at 9 p.m.

UPDATE: Will "American gadje" audience keep watching this train wreck?

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Comments

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on
I find this show very sad. The whole group seems to be such unhappy, angry people. Maybe they do need to hear Bobby and make some lifestyle changes.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on
The show has taught me that American Gypsies are ignorant, uneducated, hot headed, materialistic, intolerant, misogynistic, dishonest, superstitious, overweight and suspicious of all non gypsies (gadje).

Submitted by TYIEKA (not verified) on
YOU IGNORANCE APPALLS ME SIR OR MADAM, AS YOU APPEAR TO BE JUDGING ALL AMERICAN GYPSIES ON THE T.V . PROGRAMS STARS, CANT YOU THINK FOR YOUR SELF AND SEE PEOPLE FOR WHO THEY ARE AND NOT WHAT ONE FAMILY PORTRAY? THIS IS A T.V. SHOW IT DOES NOT TRULY REPRESENT THE TRUE ROMANI PEOPLE OR THEIR CULTURES AND TRADITIONS, YOU LABEL THEM AS IGNORANT, UNEDUCATED,HOT HEADED, MATERIALISTIC,INTOLERANT,MISOGYNISTIC, DISHONEST, SUPERSTITIOUS , OVERWEIGHT AND SUSPICIOUS BUT YOUR COMMENT PROVE YOUR IGNORANCE,AND AND YOUR LACK OF EDUCATION REGARDING THE ROMANI PEOPLE AND THEIR LONG HISTORY AND CULTURE. I SUGGEST YOU GO AND LOOK UP THE INFORMATION ON ROMA THEN MAYBE YOU WILL HAVE SOMETHING BETTER TO SAY NEXT TIME YOU GO TO TYPE ON YOUR KEYBOARD XXXTKXX

Submitted by John Romani (not verified) on
Nick Johns of Natgeos American Gypsies is guilty of racial discrimination towards non-Roma (gajay) but was also caught recently being racially offensive towards a minority group in particular and also said "if anyone says anything bad about his famly or his show, He would wish cancer on the children of his critics" !! Search hash tag #boycottamericangypsies on twitter and my instagram @boycottamericangypsies for the proof. One of the producers, Andrew Kriss followed my instagram for about 6 Hrs so thy know about this and Refuse to address the situation. The people on the show represent only a very small portion of the Romani people and is doing much damage and reinforcing horrible stereotypes of the Romani people. Please help in getting the word out about this.

Submitted by TYIEKA K. (not verified) on
THIS PROGRAM IS OF ONE FAMILIES VIEWS AND DOES NOT REFLECT THE VIEWS THOUGHTS TRADITIONS OR CULTURE OF ALL THE ROMA PEOPLE OF AMERICA. THE PROGRAM SHOULD STATE THESE FACTS AT THE BEGINNING AND END AS IT IS GIVING THE VIEWER A FALSE REPRESENTATION OF THE TRUE ROMA PEOPLE. TYIEKA K.

Submitted by Angel Ivanov (not verified) on
My name is Angel Ivanov and I am a Roma activist in Bulgaria. Being Roma myself, I felt quite offended when I saw how you present Roma on your channel - it is very very deregatory. The word "Gypsy" is derogatory for us, Roma. It is similar to the word "N" in English. We, Roma, never call ourselves "Gypsies" because such a word does not exist in our language. Please see below some more information about the derogatory word. I personally find the word "Gypsy" quite derogatory and degrading. In our language, Romanes, does not exist the word "Gypsy". It's a foreign word given to us by the ancient Greeks, as some scholars say. We always identify ourselves as Roma, which means people, in our own language Romanes, i.e. the term Roma is our ethnonym (ethnic name). Therefore, I would like to ask you not use the words "Gypsy" or "Gypsies" anymore because it negatively reflects on my own and other people's identity calling proudly themselves ROMA. To provide you with a better understanding on the word "Gypsy" and its origin, I would like to ask you to read the following paragraph. In Greece (around the 11th century), Roma got the spiritually and socially stigmatized name Gypsies. The word Gypsy derives from the Greek word "atsiganos" meaning "untouchables", i.e. spiritually dirty people. Roma looked spiritually and socially different to the then Greek Orthodox Church and society: they spoke different language, had a dark skin, wore different outfit (a colorful one), had different "religious" practices, e.g. palm reading, fortune telling etc. Such "religious" practices were proclaimed for occultism by the Greek Orthodox Church because they were against its teaching and no one had the right to practice them. Of course, Roma did practice them and were publicly reprimanded and announced for outlaws. Everyone who was in touch with them was announced by the Greek Orthodox Church for an outcast and untouchable. Therefore, Roma were announced for Gypsies, i.e. untouchables or outcasts. Today, the spiritual meaning of this word has diminished, however it has gotten the meaning of socially stigmatized people (disgraced and disapproved). The reasons for that are again the misunderstanding of their nature as people, discrimination, scapegoating and marginalization. Thank you for your understanding and for not using th words "Gypsy" or "Gypsies"! -- Best regards, Angel Ivanov

Submitted by AL (not verified) on
Nicky u probably can't read this but maybe someone will read this to u. First ans foremost when u live in a country where u work, u don't insult them. U want to be head of your family and u can't run your own business. U are always borrowing money from Bobby but then u want to tell him how to make his money. U are not smart. Gadge make make most of your money and yet u not only insult us, u insult our country. If u don't like us, get the hell out. Bobby is the only one that could run that family. He knows that everything must change if u expect to survive. Tradition is nice but u have to know when to change. Nicky, i know and that u won't listen to me or anyone. Bobby hang in there and don't change. U take care of your family any way u have too. U have to to put NICKY in his place soon or u will have a lot bigger problems. People like me never go to his shop or anything he owns. STOP lending him money and learn what RESPECT means.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on
These people look down upon Amrericans and pray only to our dollar. Manual labor is considered beneath them as a culture so they prey on those who perform it. These people actually make me sick!!! They are not Americans!!! They should be prosecuted for the THIEVES,LIARS and CON ARTISTS that they are proud to be!

Submitted by TYIEKA (not verified) on
The show as previously stated is just ONE families view and does NOT reflect the Roma ways or their traditions and it should be stated that this is the case, as it only serves to give the Viewers a WRONG impression into TRUE Roma life.

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