The ‘Gypsy’ stereotype and the sexualization of Romani women

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1To appear in

Valentina Glajar, ed.

Gypsies in Literature and Culture.

Basingstoke: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2007.

The ‘Gypsy’ stereotype

and the sexualization of Romani women

Ian Hancock

The Gypsy women and girls . . . are capable of exciting passion of the most ardent description, most particularly in the bosoms of those who are not of their race, which passion of course becomes the more violent when the almost utter impossibility of gratifying it is known.

(Borrow, 1841:I:88)


he fact that the representation of people of colour—and women of colour in particular—has been exoticized and sexualized in the Western perception is nothing new (cf. Burney, 1988, Grant, 2004, Jan Mohamed, 1985, Jiwani, 1992, Lalvani, 1995, Negra, 2001, Parmar, 1984 and Shohat & Stam, 1994). The Romani people, or “Gypsies,” have not escaped this portrayal and the literature that examines it is growing rapidly (cf. Awosusi, 2000, Briel, 1989, Champagne, 2002, Charnon-Deutsch, 2004, Esplugas, 1999, Gabor, 2003, Gordon, 2004, Hancock, 1996, 2002, 2004, Hund, 2000, Iordanova, 2003, Lemon, 1996, Malvinni, 2002, Mayall, 2003, McLaughlan, 2004, Needham, 1920, Nord, 1998, 2001, 2007, Pellegrino, 1998 and Schrevel, 2003).

Romanies are a people originating in Asia, whose ancestors left the north-west of India at the beginning of the 11th century in response to a series of successful Islamic incursions led by Mahmud of Ghazni. The Ghaznavids were defeated in turn in AD 1040 by the Seljuqs—another Muslim people—and their militia and prisoners of war taken into Armenia, which the Seljuqs defeated in AD 1071. The Indian troops and their camp followers were settled in semi-autonomous areas known as beyliks and over the next two centuries crystallized into an ethnic population inhabiting both the Seljuqs’ Sultanate of Rûm and the adjoining Byzantine Greek territories. With the westerly expansion of Islam, Anatolia was increasingly encroached upon by the Ottoman Turks and by AD 1300 different groups of Romani people had been pushed up into south-eastern Europe. Here, perhaps half of that population was held in the Balkans in slavery (a condition lasting until 1864) while others were able to move on and spread out into the rest of Europe. There are today

some 12 million Romanies throughout the world, with between two and three million living in the Americas and elsewhere, and ca. eight million throughout Europe—thus constituting the largest and most widely dispersed of its many minority peoples. There are nearly twice as many Romanies as there are Danes or Swedes.

When Romanies first appeared in Europe, they were assumed to be a part of the Islamic spread into Christendom, and were identified with the Ottoman Turks. “Turks” as an exonym referring to Romanies is still found today in some places. Other misnomers that have stuck are “Egyptians,” resulting in such erroneous labels as Gypsies (earlier ’gypcians), (E)gitanos, Gitans, &c., and the Byzantine Greek nickname , “(the) don’t touch (people),” which has given rise to Zigeuner, Cigan, Tsigane, &c.

While there are mediæval and Renaissance references to an actual Indian origin this fact did not become generally known, and was eventually forgotten even by the Romanies themselves. As a consequence a great many incorrect, and sometimes bizarre, hypotheses were put forward. These included an origin inside the hollow earth, or on the Moon or in Atlantis, that Gypsies were the remnants of a prehistoric race, were Nubians, or Druids, or else were Jews coming out of hiding after the mediæval pogroms, or even that they were a conglomerate drawn from the fringes of European society that artificially dyed their skin and spoke a made-up jargon for the purposes of plotting criminal activity; it is the very existence of this nebulous identity that has contributed to the ease of its manipulation. The real origin was discovered fortuitously in the 1760s when a student at a Dutch university who had learnt some Romani from labourers on his family’s estate in Hungary overheard some students from India discussing their own language. Recognizing similarities, he passed the information along and eventually it became public knowledge through the first book ever written on the subject (Grellmann, 1783).

The publication of Grellmann’s book during the Enlightenment, and which appeared in an English edition in 1807, coincided with the emergence of a number of scientific disciplines, including botany and zo`logy. The need to categorize the plants and animals being encountered in the new European colonies overseas quickly extended to the classification of non-European human populations as well, and the 19th century saw a plethora of dissertations dealing with “race” and the ranking of human groups—not only in terms of their perceived genetic, social and technological advancement, but in terms of gender as well. Even Charles Darwin employed clearly biased language when he referred to “the uniform appearance in various parts of the world of Gypsies and Jews . . . contrast[ing] sharply with all the virtues represented by the territorially settled and ‘culturally advanced’ Nordic Aryan race;” he maintained further that “man is more courageous, pugnacious and energetic than woman, and has a more inventive genius” (Darwin, 1871:557).

The notion that “race mixing” was dangerous both genetically and socially became to an ever-increasing degree the focus of such studies—not only because those born of unions between Europeans and colonized peoples of colour were thought to have aspirations of political equality that could eventually challenge European dominance overseas, but because it was already believed that the product of “race mixing” resulted in the worst traits of both parents emerging in their offspring; thus describing their “bastard brood,” Smith (1744: 213) said “whatever is bad among the Europeans and the Negroes is united in them, so that they are the sink of both.” Founder-gypsilorist R.A. Scott Macfie, writing about “pure Gypsies” (1913: 73) said “half-breeds—posh-rats as they are called—combine the vices of both nations, and by some malignant law of nature, shed the good qualities.” Bartels & Brun cautioned that “nothing good has come from a crossing between a Gipsy and a white person” (1943: 5). In the American South the reaction to racial integration and the inevitability of intermarriage was most forcefully voiced by a judge who in a 1955 court case ruled that the state’s purpose was “to prevent the corruption of blood (and . . . ) the creation of a mongrel breed of citizens’’ (Naim vs. Naim, in Sollors, 2002: 15; see also Zack, 1933, especially pp. 77, 83-4).

That non-European blood would contaminate the gene-pool of Hitler’s envisioned Aryan “master race” was the underlying rationale for the intended extermination of Romanies and Jews during the Holocaust (Hancock, 2002: 34-52). The small African and Afro-European population in Nazi-controlled Europe was eradicated even before the Holocaust began.

Because of its forbidden nature, miscegenation acquired an attraction that journalists were quick to exploit; depictions of sexual encounters between colonized or enslaved women of colour and white males in their position of control found a ready place in Victorian literature. The erotic photography of the late 19th century consisted largely of naked African or Asian women (Stenger, 1931). That magazines such as National Geographic have traditionally never included photographs of unclothed white women merely helped carry that double standard into the 20th century.

The oldest organization devoted to the study of the Romani people was the Gypsy Lore Society, established in 1888 and still in existence. Some of its male members—all non-Romanies—referred to themselves as ryes, a self-designation interpreted to mean one who had gained privileged entrée into the Romani world, but which in Romani itself (as rai) means a person in a position of authority, including “lord” and “policeman.” For some ryes at least, it seems to have had a more specific in-group meaning: managing to bed a Romani woman. Thus in a letter dated November 6th, 1908 Augustus John wrote to fellow gypsilorist Scott Macfie

I have recently taken it upon myself to confer the title of Rai upon a friend of mine—one Percy Wyndham Lewis, whose qualifications, the having coupled and lived in a state of copulation with a wandering Spanish romi in Brittany, seemed to me upon reflection to merit the honourable and distinctive title of our confraternity.
* * *
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, and because of this, inaccurate portrayals of Gypsies relied upon the literary clichés of the period, describing in stereotypical terms the kind of slave a Victorian audience was more likely to have encountered in the literature. Ozanne wrote that the Romani slaves in Wallachia had “crisp hair and thick lips, with a very dark complexion, [and . . .] a strong resemblance to the negro physiognomy and character” (1878: 62, 65); St. John wrote that “the men are generally of lofty stature, robust and sinewy. Their skin is black or copper-coloured; their hair, thick and woolly; their lips are of negro heaviness, and their teeth white as pearls; the nose is considerably flattened, and the whole countenance is illumined, as it were, by lively, rolling eyes” (1853: 140). An anonymous writer three years later wrote “on a heap of straw in the middle, in the full heat of the blazing sun, lay four gipsies asleep. They were all four tall, powerful men, with coal-black hair as coarse as rope, streaming over faces of African blackness” (Anon., 1856: 273).

Sexual preoccupation also fixated on non-white men, believed to be consumed with lust for white women. That not all of the latter seemed quite so bothered by such a notion must simply have compounded this male insecurity; in contrast to Smith’s dim view of the “mulattoes” in West Africa (above), one 19th century visitor to the same region named Mrs. Bowdich found them “handsome, generally tall and gracefully formed, and very elegant” (Mahoney, 1965: 126). The early 20th century practice of castrating African Americans by racist mobs directly underscored a sexual fear, and male Romani slaves in the Balkans were likewise seen as a threat to white womanhood. Among them there was a category called the skopitsi (scopiÛi), men who had been castrated as boys and whose job it was to drive the coaches of the women of the aristocracy without their being in fear of molestation. This was reflected in the Moldavian Civil code at that time, which stated that “if a Gypsy slave should rape a white woman, he would be burnt alive” (Section 28), but if a Romanian should “meet a girl in the road” and “yield to love . . . he shall not be punished at all” (Section 39; Panaitescu, 1928: 14, see also Hancock, 1987).

Perhaps related to this emasculation of the non-white male is the literary tradition of having white men, in Gayatri Spivak’s words, “saving brown women from brown men” (1988: 294; see also Cooke, 2002). Shehrezade Ali (1996: 2) has strongly criticized Disney’s film The Hunchback of Notre Dame for creating a subliminal racial bias in the developing social attitudes of children:
To date, none of Disney’s white female characters have been mated with Black or non-white suitors, yet the animated women-of-color are exclusively tied to white men, embracing them and ignoring their own races. Is this Disney’s attempt to be inclusive? . . . Why does Disney put women-of-color in romantic situations with white men instead of men of color?, and what kind of subliminal message do you think it sends to little Black or Gypsy girls by repeatedly implying that the only hero or savior they have is a white male?, and what about little Black or Gypsy boys who have yet to see themselves in a strong hero role in a Disney film? What about their self-esteem?” [it . . .] makes visual a continuing racist myth that every woman on the planet, whether Black or white, has only one everlasting hero—a white man.1

One recurrent feature in plots of this type is that the love interest turns out not to be a Romani after all, but a high-born white girl who was “stolen by Gypsies” as a child and subsequently rescued, thus making the romantic attraction acceptable as well as admirable. The folk ballad The Whistling Gypsy tells of a young woman leaving her home to follow her roaming Romany; societal fears are allayed in the last verse: “but he is no Gypsy my father dear, he’s lord of these lands all over” (Quinn, 2001). This is in fact a literary cliché: the hidden identity revealed, thereby legitimizing the union (Shakespeare’s Fawnia in The Winter’s Tale comes to mind, or Cervantes’ Preciosa in La Gitanilla).

Populations of colour were seen furthermore as unclean, both spiritually and physically. Hoyland repeated the Elizabethan belief that the Romanies’ dark skin was simply due to dirt: “Gypsies would long ago have been divested of their swarthy complexions, had they discontinued their filthy mode of living” (1816: 39-40). Celia Esplugas, in her grossly misinformed essay (which claims, for instance, that “whether Gypsies originate in either Egypt or India is a matter that has not been settled”) explains that “the Gypsies’ cleanliness and hygiene failed to meet English standards” (1999: 148).

Kenrick and Puxon believe that the present-day hatred of Romanies is a folk memory that dates from their earliest appearance in Europe, and stems from the mediæval conviction “that blackness denotes inferiority and evil, [which] was well rooted in the western mind. The nearly black skins of many Gypsies marked them out to be victims of this prejudice” (1972: 19). European folklore contains a number of references to the Romanies’ complexion: a Greek proverb says “go to the Gypsy children and choose the whitest,” and in Yiddish, “the same sun that whitens the linen darkens the Gypsy,” and “no washing ever whitens the black Gypsy.” A widespread self-ascription in Romani is Kalé, which means ‘Blacks’, while Caucasian gadjé (non-Romanies) are referred to in the same language as parné or parnorré “whites,” even by fair-skinned Romanies who might now be physically indistinguishable from them. The latter were remarked upon by the French traveller Félix Colson, who visited a slave-holding estate in Romania in the 1830s: “Their skins are hardly brown; some of them are blonde and beautiful;” and while this resulted from the established practice of offering female Romani slaves as unwilling sexual entertainment to visitors, they were given such degrading house-names as Bronze, Dusky, Dopey, Toad, Witch, Camel, Dishrag or Whore by their owners (Colson, 1839: 49). In her novel set in the time of Romani slavery Prince of One Summer, Roberte Roleine (1979: 111) described this scenario:
In the evening, the master makes his choice among the beautiful girls— maybe he will offer some of them to the guest—whence these light-skinned, blonde-haired Gypsies. The offspring from these unwelcome sexual unions automatically became slaves. It was this exploitation which was largely responsible for the fact that many Gypsies are now fair-skinned.
While she could be thus used, a Romani woman could not become the legal wife of a white man. Performing such a marriage was considered “an evil and wicked deed,” and a priest doing so was excommunicated, as stated in an anti-miscegenation proclamation issued in 1776 by Constantin, Prince of Moldavia:
[I]n some parts Gypsies have married Moldavian women, and also Moldavian men have taken in marriage Gypsy girls, which is entirely against the Christian faith, for not only have these people bound themselves to spend all their life with the Gypsies, but especially that their children remain forever in unchanged slavery . . . such a deed being hateful to God, and contrary to human nature . . . any priest who has had the audacity to perform such marriages, which is a great and everlasting wicked act . . . will be removed from his post and severely punished (Ghibanescu, 1921: 119-120).
Those who have written about the treatment of the slaves have believed, probably as a salve to their own consciences, that Romanies were actually well-disposed to such barbarity: Lecca (1908: 181) maintained that “once they were made slaves . . . it seems that they preferred this state,” and Paspati (1861: 149) wondered whether Romanies didn’t in fact “subject themselves voluntarily” to bondage because of the “mild treatment” from their owners. Emerit (1930: 132) believed that “despite clubbings which the slave-owners meted out at random, the Gypsies did not altogether hate this tyrannical regime, which once in a while took on a paternal quality.”

Together with imagined uninhibited pagan (i.e. non-Christian) behaviour, the pathologized, Janus-faced image that emerged both fascinated and at the same time repulsed; George Borrow was said to have both “despised yet intimately loved” Gypsies (Thomas, 1924: vij). The Augustinian phrase inter urinam et fæces sedet amor well reflects this paradox, which in the case of people of colour might also allude to skin pigmentation. Reference to the same two-way attraction but attributed this time to Gypsy men finds a place on the cover of Connie Mason’s new novel Gypsy Lover (2005): “The arrogant gypsy had swept [the ‘lovely Lady Esme Harcourt’] into his arms at a county fair, awakening both her desire and her disdain.”

Bayle St. John (1853: 142), who based his anonymously-written account wholly on Grellman and who (like Carmen’s creator Bizet) had never met an actual Romani in his life, wrote that Gypsies were “a very handsome race, the women especially. These bold, brown, beautiful women only make one astonished to think how such eyes, teeth and figures can exist in the stifling atmosphere of their tents.” It was furthermore his painful duty to admit to his prudish Victorian readership that he was “sorry to be obliged to add that both men and women are, as a rule, exceedingly debauched”—bongobongoistic editorializing ex-pressly calculated to titillate and shock, as well as being a claim safe from academic challenge (Douglas, 1970: 15-16). Esplugas writes that “distrust of the Gypsies’ moral standards extended to their sexual behavior,” and that non-Gypsy men were “attracted to the mystery of this roaming race, to the beauty of the Gypsy women, or to their free lifestyle . . . [their] refusing to be tamed” (op. cit., 148-9, 152). Helbig (2004: 1) elaborates:

The alleged lack of morals among the Gypsies was vehemently applied to the critique of their sexual practices and their disregard for decency and respect toward the body, especially by Gypsy women. In much of the art, music, and literature of the 19th century, the female Gypsy in particular was characterized and stereotyped as free-spirited, strong, deviant, demanding, sexually arousing, alluring, and dismissive. This romantic construct of the Gypsy woman may be viewed in direct opposition to the proper, controlled, chaste, submissive woman held as the Victorian European ideal. This ‘oriental’ fascination with the forbidden and taboo world of the Gypsy other in music is best characterized in the opera Carmen.


udith Okely, who makes it abundantly clear how hygiene-conscious and conservative Romani culture actually is, points to George Borrow as being largely responsible for this pervasive stereotype, both in his books about English Romani life (1851, 1857), and particularly in his influential description of the Calé in Spain (1841). This latter, together with Carmen’s enticing appearance in 1875 made that of the Spanish Gitana the default image. She writes that “in England, a stereotype of the Spanish Gypsy is often thought to be typical, and is often depicted in popular paintings: a black-haired girl in dJcolletage, with flounced skirts and swaggering walk, hand on hip . . . sexually available and promiscuous in her affections” (1983: 201). An illustrated novella about Romanies in Romania has the women in flamenco attire complete with castanets (shown here -- Labois, 1954: 18. See also Charnon-Deutsch, 2004).

Male attitudes such as those of St. John and others are still with us. In 1981 an article appeared in Cosmopolitan magazine written by martial arts specialist Dave Lowry entitled “What it’s like to be a Gypsy Girl.” A clue to the motivation for a grown white man to tackle the topic in the first place is in his references to “male libido” and “endless erotic fantasies” in his very first paragraph, and while he claims to have allowed a young Romani girl “Sabinka” to speak for herself, it’s clear that Sabinka is Dave Lowry, who had gathered bits and pieces for his highly misleading story from the then easily-available sources—probably Gropper or Sutherland or Wood, all of which appeared during the previous decade.

It will be a while yet before an accurate depiction of Romanies—and Romani women—is the one that comes first to mind; The New Yorker magazine recently referred in its pages to “assertive women—‘female scholars, priestesses, gypsies, mystics, nature lovers’” (Boyer, 2006:36), as though all those categories were behaviours or occupations. The pervasiveness of this exotic image is nowhere more in evidence than on the eBay Internet auction site, where “sexy gypsy-wicca blouses” and the like account for almost all of the over two thousand “gypsy” offerings posted there daily. Another site, “The Gypsy,” informs the visitor that “Gypsies are normally dark skinned with bold flashing eyes; however it is not unusual to find golden or crimson haired Gypsies . . . most Gypsies live in traveling wagons called vardos . . . the campfire is the center of Gypsy family life.” Two other sites providing details of Romani culture belong to Morrghan Savistr’i-Lovara, an “American born Rom woman in her Mid 20’s” and Allie Theiss, a “descendant of Rom gypsies of Transylvania.” On her website Ms. Savistr’i-Lovara says she is “a practicing Chaos Mage as well as Shuvani (think Romani Shaman) [who is] currently working to devise some Roma rituals for cleansing and purification that are newer and less complex that the traditional ones . . . most Rom do not do them because of the scarcity of materials as well as the amount of time they take to properly perform. [She is] owned by two cats names Fuzzface and Mr. Pants.” Allie Theiss in her books on Gypsy love magic (2005a, 2005b) tells the reader that that “no one knows where the Roma originated,” but
no matter their original origins, Gypsies, or Romas, are prized for their remarkable psychic abitilites and the gift to attract good fortune or upset a life with a curse. All are born with such gifts, but what makes their powers so innate is their relationship with nature. Their bond with the spirits of the outdoors allow[s] their gifts to evolve naturally . . . no longer do they wander the earth in a horse-drawn caravan, but are modernized and travel by car, bus and plane. The very definition of “free spirits” . . .
Three titles recently-acquired by the Romani Archives at The University of Texas are Sasha White’s Gypsy Heart (“Can a man bent on settling down convince a free-spirited woman that doesn’t believe in ‘happily ever after’ to risk her Gypsy Heart? Warning: this book contains explicit sex explained in graphic detail with contemporary language”), Isabella Jordan’s Gypsies, Tramps and Heat: An Anthology of Erotic Romance (“Lose yourself in the dark eyes and crystal ball of a gypsy lover”) and Alison Mackie’s series The Gypsy Chronicles (“Upon each matrimonial bed that Tzigany de Torres makes, he bestows a potent charm, one which guarantees a lifetime of pleasurable love making . . . with his matchmaker wife, Gitana”). She adds “What qualifies me to write about Gypsies? . . . I had an Andalusian Gypsy nanny by the name of Ahalita” 2006: 182), a justification not unknown among white writers about the black experience (see for example Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees). Thus Romani identity still remains to a great extent controlled by the non-Romani world, by Hollywood and by novelists and journalists like those exemplified here.

That an ethnic label might be applied metaphorically is not necessarily offensive, but it often can be. Stereotypes need not be malicious as long as they are recognized as just that—stereotypes. We know that Hollywood gangland Mafiosi don’t represent all Italians and we learn in school at the same time about the contributions of Botticelli, Leonardo and Michelangelo. Today, with increased media coverage and access to informative websites such as Patrin and Radoc, ignorance can no longer be used as an excuse if writers do their homework. The general public is coming to understand that the literary “Gypsies” (or more usually “gypsies”) are something quite different from the actual Romanies, whose real story is both complex and moving—so reasons for the relentless perpetuation of the myth must be sought elsewhere, and the consequences of so doing examined. We don’t want to say goodbye to Carmen and Esmeralda and their fictional sisters, but we should recognize them for who and what they really are.

1For Disney, the message is there even where non-human females are involved. The mermaid Ariel rejects her “merman Talassio who’s so boring he’ll put you to sleep” and grows legs in order to be with Prince Alex, “tall, dark-haired and incredibly handsome . . . the most beautiful human she’d ever seen!” (McLain, 2003: 26, 31). It was Disney too who perpetuated the “Gypsies steal children” myth with the character Stromboli in his Pinocchio, and the image of Gypsies as robbers and cheats in his version of Robin Hood. Gypsies as thieves and sorcerers have also been stock material in such children’s cartoons and movies as Scooby-Doo, The Smurfs, The Simpsons, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Daddy Daycare, Corsican Brothers, etc.
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Ian Hancock

April 2007

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