Romani Proverb Poem

The Romani proverbs in Ian Hancock’s We Are the Romani People express many things about Romani culture and how they view the world. A good deal of the proverbs are cautionary or distrusting such as “if you want to see the fish don’t stir up the water” and “Be careful in the village with no dogs.” This skepticism and cautiousness makes perfect sense when we take into consideration the fact that for hundreds of years Romani only had each other to trust or rely on. Another common theme running through the proverbs is one of making your own luck which is illustrated in a number of proverbs such as “Don’t rely on your feet, rely on your mind”, “A righteous man will profit even in a poor town”, “The poor man seeks out poverty, because he makes his own luck”, and “A dog that wanders will find a bone.” This idea of making one’s own luck is interesting because Romani are often thought of as superstitious people who believe in things such as fate, like the fortunetellers shown in films and literature.

            I chose the proverb “Be careful in the village where there are no dogs”. At first I chose it just because the sound of it and the image resonated with me the most, but as I began to write my poem it took on a deeper meaning for me. I started thinking about the times in my life where I could’ve used a little more prudence or guided myself more carefully; I thought of my mistakes. Mistakes are a great thing to write a poem about because everyone makes them, and they resonate strongly on an emotional level with everyone. I wanted to use the proverb as an epitaph to give the poem a cautionary or regretful feel.

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Ars Poetica Poem

For my Ars Poetica poem I chose to write in response to Jose Heredia Maya’s poem “Seeing if there’s something that makes me good for nothing”. In this poem he discusses what it’s like to be a Romani person and to subsequently feel like you’re not worth anything because of it. He discusses his need to beg for the things he needs because they are not given to him simply because he is a Gypsy. Being born a Romani person is of course, however, totally random; Heredia touches upon this randomness in the lines “I don’t have a bed because I’m unlucky”. He further elaborates on the image of a beggar by juxstaposing himself to a bishop. He describes the bishop as a beggar as well, but a beggar that has mastered his craft. People have no problem giving to the bishop because he is a bishop. But being a Gypsy, Jose gets nothing. He point this out in the lines “I am a Gypsy, and I am good but in the winter I am cold.” In the end he muses on the idea that maybe there is something wrong with him, something that doesn’t even make him worth other’s charity.

What struck me the most about the poem was the last the last two lines: “Maybe there’s something that’s wrong with me.” Everyone can relate to the feeling that they have some sort of defect. While I have been lucky enough to not face the same struggles that Heredia has, I can also relate to this feeling. I also really enjoyed the conversational tone of the piece. It is a relatable problem written in a relatable fashion. I wanted to capture that casual, conversational, yet very human and penetrating style that Heredia achieved with his poem in mine. 

Mulvey’s Theory of the Male Gaze

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In her 1975 article Visual Pleasure and Narrative cinema, Laura Mulvey coined the term “the male glaze”. The male gaze essentially turns women into an “erotic object” of both the male protagonist within the film and then men in the audience that are watching the film (Mulvey 838). Mulvey differentiates even more between the role of men and women in film by pointing out that the “pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female” (837).  In our largely patriarchal society, men are the creators of the gaze while women must simply bear the gaze without having any say. The promotion photos used for Mitchell Leisen’s 1947 film Golden Earrings are a perfect example of the projection of the male gaze onto women. The main character Lydia played by Darlene Deitrich, is an example of a typical exotic and sexually desirable Romani female. In the poster for the movie we see her adorned in sexy gypsy clothing; the sleeves of her dress falling off her shoulders and her breasts being very exposed. The positioning of her body also indicates the presence of the male gaze. Her hands are positioned near her breasts making them the focus. However, perhaps the most parallel aspect to Mulvey’s theory present in the photos is Dietrich’s apparent passiveness. In both photos Deitrich is looking directly into the camera in a provocative manner. In one photo she is appears to be lying back, passively accepting that she is the object of sexual desire. The passivity of the bearer of the gaze (Deitrich) and the activity of the maker of the gaze (men) makes this photo a prime example of Mulvey’s theory. 

The Portrayal of Women and Romani People in Film and Literature

The film industry is very well known for its gender inequality and with a 7 to 3 male to female ratio of characters with speaking roles in movies, its easy to see why.  Not only are women highly under represented in film, but they are usually portrayed in the same way; the “sexy decoration, or the sidekick” as Feminist Frequency points out in this video. In addition to pigeonholing women into these restrictive roles, there is often only one woman in an all male cast; this is called The Smurfette principle. Katha Pollitt coined the Smurfette principle two decades ago when she noticed that many films and television programs featured only one woman. Unfortunately, Hollywood has not progressed much since this observation has been made, as many of the programs still suffer from this principle. As other people started to notice the lack of real women in movies a test was developed to measure women’s significance in a movie and it is called The Bechel Test. In order for a film to pass the Bechel test, it must have at least two female characters with names that speak to each other about something other than men. Most films in circulation do not pass this test, which goes to show that there is an obvious problem with the representation of women in film.

However, women are not the only ones that are unequally portrayed and misrepresented in film. Most minorities suffer the same problem. Producers try to remedy this with tokenism, which is featuring one person from a minority (who is usually a stereotype of that minority) in an effort to make the film seem multicultural. Romani are one of the minorities that are stereotyped the most in film and literature. Ian Hancock points out in his article The Origin and Function of the Gypsy Image in Children’s Literature that Romani people are always portrayed as gypsies even though they are not mutually exclusive. He also points out that they always seem to have a specific purpose or function in the film, which he broadly defined as “the Gypsy as liar and thief either of property or (especially) of non-Romani children; the Gypsy as witch or caster of spells; and the Gypsy as romantic figure”, especially in children’s literature. We could almost create our own Beschel test for Romani people, any book or movie that features two Romani characters, with names that aren’t thieves, spell casters, or romantic pass the test (and not many would, I’m sure).

It is harmful to portray characters in these stereotypical manners, especially in children’s literature, because it teaches children that these stereotypes are true. You wouldn’t want a little girl to grow up thinking that she can only be either sexy, or second to a man. It would also be unfortunate for a child to grow up thinking that all Romani are fantastical gypsies because that’s the only way they’ve ever seen them portrayed.

The Role of Antigypsyism in History and Today

According to Ian Hancock, “antigypsyism is the treatment of Romanies as less than equals, and seeking to deny them the same freedoms in society that one wishes for oneself” (Hancock, We Are the Romani People, 53). Antigypsyism is written into many institutions, especially in Europe. Today Amnesty International is working to point out that Romani children are “placed in segregated schools and receive a substandard education. Roma are often denied access to jobs and quality health care. They are victims of racially motivated violence and are often left unprotected by the police and without access to justice.” While people are now joining together to try to combat this injustice, it is difficult because it is something that has been tradition for a long, long time.

Antigypsyism has been occurring for hundreds of years and is the result of the perpetuation of stereotypes and the fear of the unknown. Because Romani migrated to Europe from India and not much is known about them, they are seen as foreign intruders, or threats to the status quo (Hobson, 1965:338). Stereotypes such as Romani people being thieves, or dirty (because of their dark complection), or even such outlandish claims as Romani being foreign spies have been used to justify the mistreatment of Romani people for hundreds of years and are still being used today (Hancock, Romani People, 54-57).  As long as Romani are continued to be looked upon as filthy, dishonest people, then it will continue to be okay for them to be mistreated.

Hancock also points out that Romani people are largely defenseless against this antigypsyism because of their lack of “military, economic, and territorial strength” (Hancock, Romani People, 62). Without someone to speak up against the injustices that are wrought against Roma people, they will continue to be the victims of prejudice and discrimination. 

The ‘Gypsy Fortune-teller’ Story

A stereotype that is very commonly associated with Romani or ‘Gypsy’ culture as it more frequently referred to is magic, and more specifically fortune telling. As a child my mother used to read my Tarot cards all the time; it was a stereotype that I held very near and dear to my heart. However, stereotypes like these are problematic because they are a misrepresentation of an entire culture. This website gipsyfortuneteller.com is the perfect example of how far the stereotype has gotten. The idea that an online computer generated fortuneteller could tell your fortune is ridiculous and referring to Gypsies in the title is highly disrespectful.

             Like the sexy Gypsy stereotype, the stereotype of Gypsies as magic or divine has sad origins based on years of discrimination; fortune telling was not a career that Romani people chose for themselves. There is a whole other side to the story. Ian Hancock explains in his book We Are the Romani People so many Romani people practice fortune telling because it “requires little or no equipment and can be done anywhere, there is a steady demand from the non-Romani public to have predictions made about their future , and it is a skill which gives Romanies a small measure of control and protection”. If we dissect this phrase we can see how this tradition is bred from persecution. Romani people needed a career that was easy to move around because they were constantly being forced to move around due to the prejudice against their people. They enjoyed what little sense of power and protection they could get from it because this was something that was so lacking in their lives.

            Continuing to perpetuate the Gypsy fortune telling story is negative because it hold the Romani people back and doesn’t allow them to escape from the identity that other cultures have imposed on them. 

The ‘Sexy Gypsy’ Stereotype

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If one were to create a business a business called “Gypsy” what would you imagine they’d sell? Perhaps they would sell funky home décor, or nail polish. It is more likely, however, that they would sell something that more people identify with ‘Gypsy’ culture. What do people identify with Gypsies? Sex. So it makes sense that when launching a lingerie company, Kate Rugiero would choose to call it Gypsy.

Gypsy features several different lingerie collections whose titles such as  ‘Crystal Visions’, ‘Sprit in Flight, and ‘Wild Heart’ play on the romanticized idea of Gypsy women as free spirited, often magical, hyper-sexual beings. One of the most obvious demonstrations of this objectification is the image of one of the Gypsy girls laying in her dream catcher adorned tent, flashing her sultry eyes at us, wearing nothing but her Gypsy panties and high socks, almost as if she was just waiting there for sexual contact.

Ian Hancock’s article ‘The ‘Gypsy’ stereotype and the sexualization of Romani women’ reveals that this sexy Gypsy stereotype is hardly a new commodity. Hancock points out that “westerners were (and still are) much more familiar with the enslavement of Africans in the Americas than they were with the enslavement of Romanies in Europe”. Enslaved Romani women were often used as sex objects by their masters, being offered to relatives and guests against their will as if they were just slabs of meat (Hancock, The ‘Gypsy Stereotype). It is wrong to depict Romani women in this highly sexualized manner because this stereotype has no basis in real Romani culture, it was born from years of enslavement, and repression. Perhaps people would identify less with this ‘sexy Gypsy’ stereotype if they knew that it came out of sex enslavement. Even the term ‘Gypsy’ is a misrepresentation of Romani culture; there used to be a common misconception that Romani people were Egyptian so people coined the phrase ‘Gypsy’ for short (Hancock).

It is wrong to continue perpetuate the ‘sexy Gypsy’ stereotype and all other stereotypes of Romani culture because as long as we do we are allowing the standard of ignorant and prejudiced behavior (that has existed for hundreds of years) to continue.