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Jarmila Balážová: What does the stormy debate in the Czech Republic about the TV series featuring Romani performers show us?

13.4.2021 17:40
Jarmila Balážová (personal archive).
Jarmila Balážová (personal archive).

You have probably all noticed the very stormy discussion between the creators of the "Ďábelské Cikánky" (Devilish Gypsy Women) series and some Romani musicians, which more and more people are joining. The debate has become too exaggerated for my taste, too emotional, involving insults and vulgarities that have to do with different personal disputes.

Until now I have stayed on the sidelines and not publicly expressed my opinion much - I have communicated my comments and objections "face-to-face" with those who were interested, who called upon me to express myself, etc. After considering this for some time, however, I have decided to write up some of my observations in as substantive a way as possible and to express my own views. 

At the start I would like to point out that I am not personally involved in any of the endeavors under discussion, I have no personal interest in this, I do not now have nor have I ever had any agreements to collaborate with anybody involved, etc. That may even help me to be as matter-of-fact about this as I can.

First... I dislike the hyperbolic tone of the debate underway and I have personally told that to the different people involved. The reason I dislike it is that it is happening in public, as there is no doubt today that social media is a public forum.

I can understand the emotions, getting angry, etc., but the fact remains that the substantive aspects of what the creators of the series are being criticized for are being harmed by all this emotionality. In my opinion, there are three basic matters here that I want to address: 1) The name of the series, which has even been broadcast by a television station; 2) The content of the series, where it is absolutely, for me, not about whether somebody is gay or not, but where what bothers me is when stereotypes against us Roma are being supported, the stereotypes to which we keep objecting and fighting against and don't want to hear others use; 3) Other associations that are external to the program, in the context of which the content of this series simply cannot be seen as anything other than stereotyping. 

I'll get to all that in a moment. Right now, though, I would like to go back in history, because what I want to write about here is very related to the recent past.

I am a journalist and I have long been covering what the media write about us Roma, what appears in the public space that is mentioned so much, and what influence that has on the life and the perceptions of each of us. When, many years ago, the young Romani performers Monika Bagárová and Jan Bendig appeared on the "SuperStar" program, I was enthusiastic about them both.  

What I liked was how successful they were, how their careers progressed, and how at the young age of 15 they managed, through their nice, sweet appearances, to break down so many of the anti-Romani stereotypes we had experienced. They were diligent, hardworking, polite and modest.    

Bendig even sang the Czech national anthem as his audition piece, which altogether captivated me, exactly because it was something that absolutely nobody would have expected from a Romani guy back then. During a brief amount of time, they managed what we had been attempting to do for years - to win over to their side (i.e., including Romani people) a significant part of the media audience. 

Neither performer ever denied being Romani - on the contrary, they were proudly committed to that, and they also presented certain values that we Roma have to a greater extent, which Czech society mostly acknowledges. These values include behaving with great love and respect toward our families, our parents and our loved ones. 

When all is said and done, both of those performers are committed to their Romani identity to this day (naturally, other successful performers who are Romani had also done this in many competitions before them) and they genuinely deserve big thanks for that. I have indulged in this historical excursion because I want to remind us how these people - whether consciously or not - managed to break down the stereotypes that had been created about Romani people and that we had experienced here. 

The TV series currently at issue unfortunately supports those stereotypes, and that, I think, is the core of this entire dispute. At least among a significant proportion of the people who are expressing their opinions about this now, that is what this is about. 

Before I get into the details of the series itself, I would like to point out - and I have posted this publicly to Facebook in response to the status update posted by Bendig - that I appreciate his many activities and efforts, I like him, I appreciate how he manages to get lyrics in Romanes into songs that are mainstream and part of programs that are being watched, that he has been willing to make appearances to support reporting Romani nationality in association with the census, to support International Romani Day, to perform at charitable events, etc. However, I regret that substantive debate about the TV series is being shut down from his side.   

As I wrote on Facebook, I hope that once the exaggerated aspect of this debate subsides, Bendig will be able to reflect on the substantive arguments that have been made during it. Some have been repeated quite frequently and are coming from people who, for many years, have been doing their best to improve the position of Romani people on many levels. 

Now to the three arguments that are burdening not just me, but that are also being formulated by many other people. The first of them has to do with the name of the series. 

Many Romani people worldwide, including many from the Czech Republic, have fought for too long for us not to be publicly referred to as "Cikány/Cigány" (Gipsies/Gypsies). We, in Romanes, call ourselves Rom and Romni.

We have called ourselves that since time immemorial. I do not want to give a historical and linguistic lecture here.

I am aware that many other Romani people have also declared about themselves that they are "Cikáni". Yes, this is about a failure of the system, and of the schools, and of us Roma ourselves, in that we apparently do not know how to consistently explain, on a more massive scale, that the denomination "Rom" is not a recent invention.   

Yes, it is not good just to reproach this TV series for this. Of course, when the moment came that it was not just on YouTube and other social media (where parents can correct how their children access content), but a television station began broadcasting it, then unfortunately, from my perspective, that has legitimized the use of the word "Cikán" here in the eyes of many non-Roma.

That is what bothers me, as a matter of principle. I am warning everybody else who uses that denomination in the media, etc., about this. 

For God's sake! Do you want other people to style us this way once again, so that after this long battle (the last 50 years and the struggle of many of our forebears) we will end up back where we were? 

Do you not see the attempts by different politicians to harm us, humiliate us, use us and dishonor us? For those people, we are "Cikáni", and for any of us to also say so (for example, out of ignorance of our own history, etc.) is putting a weapon in their hand, a trump card.  

I am telling you all that we must be careful - I know the media world (which includes television) quite well. You can lose something immediately there that it will be very difficult to get back. 

I do not want the members of yet another generation to again be publicly called "Cikáni/Cigáni". Any of us can play into that through each error of this kind.
  
The next argument has to do with stereotypes. On "SuperStar", Bendig managed to break down many of the negative stereotypes about Romani people that we have experienced here. 

That is why I have mentioned that now, however, he is strengthening those stereotypes through this series. Yes, I know, the show is ostensibly about satire. 

Satire can be done in different ways, though, you don't always have to go as far as to speak in the so-called "typical Romani accent" that the non-Roma have used to parody us for so many years. Yes, some people certainly do speak with such an accent, I don't deny that. 

The truth is that the actors in the series know how to brilliantly imitate that accent, as well as the speech patterns of some Romani people. Of course - and this is important - only some Romani people speak like that.   

My mother does not speak that way, nor do I. The parents and relatives of many other Romani people also do not.

The same goes for the vulgarity. The argument that the show will carry a warning that it is meant for those over 18 in the future does not do much to calm me. 

This is not just about the children who arewatching, it's about the image of Romani people - and in this case, of "Gypsy Women" speaking this way. Is this, again, satire?

O.K., but why isn't there a single character in the show making fun of the sisters for having their minds in the gutter, for example? Or for the fact that they are calling each other "Cikánky"?

Somebody could make fun of them for speaking with that accent. Somebody could poke fun at them for how they behave, etc.

The fact that their behavior is never challenged within the show itself makes it the norm in the eyes of those watching. It strengthens the stereotypes they all have experienced. 

This is the same as the case of using the word "Rom". It would also bother me just as much if this behavior were being presented by a classic family, a heterosexual one.

For me personally, the sexual orientation of the actors is not important. Among us Roma, it is not customary to publicly "make eyes" at others and present ourselves in such a way. 

Romipen is about this too. I'm sorry to say that whoever is active in the public sphere bears responsibility for how they behave.

At this moment, when there is nothing much else about Romani people being produced here, that means there is nothing to compare this show with, and that is bad. That's why, after all, the debate around the TV series "MOST!" sprang up, in which the Romani actor Zdeněk Godla performed. 

If you're going to have enough other productions happening at the same time then yes, this would be just a little piece of the mosaic of how Romani people are being depicted. Not like this, though.  

I understand that neither Bendig nor Rejmon are responsible for the fact that there is so little about Romani people in films, on television, or in the theatre, but if I get a series produced somewhere, then I have to count on substantive criticism of it. If it's just about the life of three girls, if it doesn't have the word "Cikánky" in the name, then fine, it's just the stories of these individuals.   

That's not how this is being done, though. It does not bother me at all that guys are dressing up as women in the series, although that, too, is not supposed to be the norm.

I am attempting to take into consideration the idea that this is satire. Personally, I would be more comfortable about it if it were being used as a parody of the fact that many people expect gay men to cross-dress, which is absurd, and if it were to remain exactly at the level of combating prejudices - and then the satire could be used in a quite appropriate way. 

In my opinion, therefore, this series unfortunately legitimizes and supports stereotypes. What's more, it opens up a way for people to grab hold of it, for the purposes of argument, who have long been against Romani people here. 

The series is reducing the significance of the efforts of all those who have been fighting stereotypes for years, and many non-Romani people are in that category as well, such as journalists, etc. In conclusion, I would like to say that this debate should not revolve just around this series.  

More than one Romani person here has agreed to perform in different degrading roles in films, series, programs or advertising. It is up to the rest of us to hold up a mirror to that fact through critical debate.  
 

Jarmila Balážová, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Culture, Media, Roma, television



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