Paulina Stevens and Jezmina Von Thiele
Warning: we do discuss the plot of the series in this review so if you don’t want any spoilers, wait until you finish the series.
The series Infamy (Infamia), a title from Netflix Poland, available dubbed on Netflix US, centers on the story of Gita, a teenage Polish Romani girl living in Wales with her parents and siblings, and how dramatically her life changes when they are invited back to live with their more traditional extended family in Poland after years away. Gita wants to get an education, become a rapper, and follow her own path, but her parents are somewhat reluctantly arranging a marriage for her instead to save the family business. The series is juicy with drama, romance, and rebellion, but some of the themes in the show, particularly arranged marriage, crime, sexism, and purity laws, caused many Romani people concern. We heard from some of our listeners expressing fear about how Roma would be depicted, fearing that old stereotypes that paint Roma as backwards and degenerate would simply be reinforced. However, Infamy is much more nuanced than that, and benefitted from collaborating with Romani people like professor and cultural anthropologist Dr. Joanna Talewicz, educator and hip hop artist Toby Gorniak, and others. When we discovered that Roma were involved in making the show, we were much more interested in giving it a try, and we’re so glad that we did. While Infamy is a more nuanced depiction of Romani life than we’re used to seeing on mainstream media, with attention to the context of systemic racism, we wish the stereotypical tropes of a crime family and an oppressive culture would be traded for more diverse portrayals of Romani life.
Roma are a diasporic ethnic group originally from India, who began leaving and moving west in waves beginning around the 10th century. We are also known as Gypsies, but because that word is often used as a slur many Roma prefer that non-Roma avoid the word and do not appropriate it. Over the centuries, the Romani people have endured 500+ years of slavery, genocide, exclusion, forced deportation, and more, and the human rights crisis continues with employment, housing, education, and healthcare discrimination; disproportionate levels of poverty; vulnerability to human trafficking; police brutality and disproportionate imprisonment; and hate crimes. Infamy uses the ongoing mistreatment of Roma as one of the focal points of the show, which contextualizes the social issues that plague Romani culture. While part of Gita’s family trafficks drugs, it’s also abundantly clear that Roma are so persecuted in Poland, and other parts of the world, that it’s difficult to survive.
The main criticism of the show from the Romani community is that many of the lead actors are not played by Roma. It was jarring to watch the talented Zofia Jastrzębska and feel the joy of representation, and then remember that we’re actually seeing a white woman wearing a dikhlo, a traditional head covering, and speaking the Romani language. It’s rare that Romani actors are given the opportunity to carry a major project as a lead, even though there are plenty of Romani actors, such as Mihaela Drăgan and Zita Moldovan of Giuvlipen, Alina Serban (Gipsy Queen, 2019), Taisiya Schumacher, Sandra Selimovic, Franciska Farkas, Jackey Boelkow, Florian Tacorian, and more. However, because studios rarely take chances on Romani talent for big parts, many actresses, especially younger ones, are not well-known. At the same time, Joanna Talewicz explained in our podcast interview that it was very difficult to find such a young Polish Romani actress to play the teenage Gita, and how demanding it is to take on a project of that magnitude even for a professional actress. It seems that while the casting is not ideal, it’s what needed to be done. Hopefully this encourages more young aspiring Romani actors to pursue training, and more studios to give them opportunities.
We were wary that Infamy focuses on Romani crime, arranged teen marriage, and sexism, which Roma are stereotyped for, but it was more nuanced than that. It is frustrating that the Romani stories that do get told, which are still far and few between, focus on Romani crime. Crime is fun to watch. But we really need more representations outside of this. At the same time, one half of Romanistan Podcast and this review, Paulina Stevens, told her story to The LA Times through the podcast series Foretold, which dealt with Romani crime, arranged teen marriage, and sexism as well. We do need to talk about crime, because it is a major symptom of systemic oppression that Roma face, and to pretend that it does not exist is to ignore that crime also ruins the lives of Roma born into it, and it needs to change. However, maybe a Netflix series isn’t the best place for that discussion because the audience is so broad, and perhaps already prepared with their prejudices. This representation opens a lot of doors however, perhaps to more diverse stories in the future.
Reactions from Romani people have been mixed. Actress, rapper, and creator Mihaela Drăgan gave a positive review of Infamy, but writes that she “felt disappointed by the prejudice that Roma can get rich only by being involved in illegal businesses.” However, she also writes, “I felt for the first time [I was] looking at a show about us that can empathize with us, that I see strong and resilient Roma characters and not only victims or an imagery made of poverty porn.” Infamy showed how the moment Gita enrolled in a Polish school, the administrator told her she needed an aide because of Roma’s “low social ability,” and Gita hides that she’s Romani as long as she can at school because of the intense bullying that will follow. Not to mention that show also highlights the more overtly violent obstacles of police brutality and hate crimes born out of the white supremacy movement. It’s clear that Gita faces tremendous obstacles because of racism. However, Romani activist Anya Redgewell points out that the finer points of why Romani crime exists would likely be lost on the general audience. In her review on Instagram, she writes, “If you're educated on Roma and able to put it in its proper context … it's well made as far as story concept, but it ultimately does more harm than good because it is not meant just for educated people ….” Activist and actor Florian Tacorian, actor and activist, posted on X, “While these attitudes do exist in certain communities, they are direct effects of oppression on a society, NOT intrinsic universal values of Romani society and culture (Romanipen) as portrayed by this series, this sets up the stage to victim-blame Roma for the racism we face.” In correspondence with us, Tacorian adds that he appreciates the steps that the show took to address these issues and acknowledges that the making of this series is just one step toward a larger picture of better Romani representation.
And while it does run the risk of some audiences seeing Roma as backwards, we need to talk about arranged teen marriages too, because while many Roma do not have this experience, some still do, and it is a bleak reality. Early marriage takes young people, especially girls, out of school and away from opportunities for a career, and the social stigma of dating, or refusing marriage, is very heavy. Arranged teen marriage was actually born out of the 500 years that Roma were enslaved, and as such is not even an inherently Romani tradition, but rather an adaptation to horrific circumstances. Unfortunately, this context does not appear in the show. The audience does see though that while Gita’s father had gambled his way into trouble and arranged the marriage of his daughter to pay off his debts, it was also clear that he wanted Gita to be happy. He understood that she would not be happy marrying Janko, the spoiled, lovesick, oblivious, but otherwise innocuous son of a wealthy crime family. The anguish that Gita’s family feels over arranging her marriage, feeling pressure from their community and their debts, and also guilt and loyalty to their daughter, encapsulated how these traditions are painfully changing, but not all at once. Arranged marriage when you are a full adult and choosing it for yourself is one thing, and can be very beautiful, but Gita’s plight is shared by other Roma girls, and we need more freedom and the right to choose for our young people.
In that same vein, Romani sexism is not inherently a part of Romani culture, but it exists and needs to be challenged. Whenever the show depicted examples of sexism, like Gita being expected to wait on the men in her extended family or being shamed for wearing shorts instead of traditional long skirts, there was a counterpoint showing sexism in gadje (non-Roma) culture. Gita’s friend Eliza is controlled by her abusive boyfriend, and her mother refuses to see it and can’t seem to help her. The enemy in Infamy is not traditional Romani culture, but the patriarchy, which is insidious and aligned with white supremacy. The show thankfully avoids the poisonous media trope that to be free, a Romani woman must leave Romani culture on the arm of a white man (like in Gadjo Dilo and others). At the same time, when representation has historically been scarce and terrible, even depictions of real issues that Roma face feel risky. Gita’s family are very traditional and represent one small facet of Romani experience. Romani feminism is alive and well, and many families embrace education and rights for women. This isn’t shown as a counterpoint, which would have been helpful.
The show also depicts Romani classism in a way only Roma truly experience it. Gita’s love interest, Tagar, comes from the poor side of the community. When he is on the run and his own community can’t hide him, he turns to the rich Roma in Gita’s family, who he sometimes works for. He is welcomed briefly, but when he truly needs to be protected, and the police and the neonazis are closing in, he is thrown out. This would not happen if he came from a rich family, even though all Roma from all classes are oppressed by a racist system. For Roma living in community, this hits home. You are accepted, but do not receive the same treatment as your rich counterparts. You eat at the same table, but the service is different. Gita and Tagar came from a similar background,since it’s Gita’s extended family who have money and not her parents. This played a part in them falling in love, and because of this, their love was forbidden, and more pure at the same time. The rich suitor her parents wanted her to marry, Janko, was out of touch and oblivious to his privilege. Gita couldn’t connect with him. This highlights the internal classism so many Roma in community cannot see, or choose not to see, because it messes with our popular ideology of “us against them,” our response to the “othering” we experience from gadje. Despite Tagar being thrown out and slightly looked down upon, he was still accepted and considered “one of ours” in the Romani community. On the other hand, Gita’s sister married an outsider, and is completely ex-communicated despite her class. No matter how much money she makes, she cannot sit at the table. Gita’s sister is struggling out of community because there is no family, no one to help with the kids, and it’s lonely. So the show doesn’t make it seem like leaving for an outside man is the answer either.
We also appreciated that allyship is modeled in the show, with the Polish priest condemning hate crimes, strangers protesting for Romani rights, and Gita’s friends eventually clumsily navigating how to support her through racism and her struggles at home, with their hearts in the right place once they get it together. Most of all, this show opened a door. There was Romani advising on the show, many of the background and minor actors were Romani, a strong Romani heroine advocates for herself without scorning her whole culture, positive Romani values are depicted, allyship is promoted, and Romani music in all of its forms is celebrated and performed. We hope that this show proves to the film and TV industry that people are hungry for real Romani stories, and that they should hire more Romani actors, writers, producers, consultants, advisors, and crew to tell them. Infamy, while not perfect, has still made great strides.