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.
Image: Wikimedia Commons