The first episode of His Dark Materials, which aired last night on HBO, introduces viewers to a rich fantasy world that has real-world parallels but is a setting entirely its own. One of the central narrative elements in the first episode and moving forward is the Gyptians, a group of water travelers. Who are the Gyptians? What is their deal? Let’s discuss.
Who are the Gyptians?
The Gyptians are directly adapted from The Golden Compass, the first book in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, from which the TV show is mostly being adapted. In the book series and TV show alike, the Gyptians are a group of people living in the Fens of Brytain. They mainly live aboard boats and make their way around the country (and beyond) via canals and rivers. Their main income comes from the trading of goods at various ports. They are divided into familes and are ruled by the Gyptians’ Council.
The fictional group is loosely based on the real-life Roma people (often known as “gypsies,” a term with negative conotations that many Romani do not identify with and consider racist). If you’re anything like me, you spent much of His Dark Materials‘ first episode trying to determine how problematic the Gyptians are as a narrative element based on a real life, marginalized group of people but featuring (as far as I can tell) no representation from that group of people, at least in the main cast.
Who are the Roma?
As discussed by the National Organization for Women’s blog, Romani are the largest ethnic minority in Europe, with an estimated 10 to 12 million Roma living in Europe. The Roma population in the U.S. is roughly one million. The Roma people have been persecuted and marginalized for centuries. They were among the groups targeted by Hitler, with an estimated 70 to 80 percent of the Romani population murdered in the Holocaust.
The Roma people continue to face discrimination in Europe and other parts of the world today. The stigmatization, discrimination, and erasure Roma people face is perpetuated by most mainstream media in various ways, and that includes both screen adaptations of His Dark Materials.
To give an example of the kinds of misrepresentation the Roma people can face from mainstream culture, and what positive change can look like, let me briefly hand you over to The Roma People’s Project at Columbia University. Last year, the initiative successfully asked the Actors’ Equity Association to change the name of the longstanding ceremony previously known as the “Gypsy Robe” ceremony, to the “Legacy Robe.” In an open letter, The Roma People’s Project wrote:
The Roma people have been called ‘gypsies,’ a term derived from ‘Egyptian’ because it was once believed the Roma originated in Egypt. Over time, ‘gypsy’ has developed many meanings, such as ‘gypsy lifestyle’ (transient and carefree), ‘gypsy cab’ (illegal), and ‘theater gypsies’ (wanderers, artists on the move), to the point where many people, especially in the United States, believe ‘gypsy’ only refers to a lifestyle. They associate the word ‘gypsy’ with fantasy, freedom, and nomadism. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Roma people could actually benefit from such freedoms?
The truth is that there is a great disconnect between the ‘gypsy’ fantasy and Roma realities. Sadly, too often the word ‘gypsy’ has been used as an instrument to bully, harm and dehumanize the Roma people, erasing their history and plight. We are aware that some who use the term do not intend to use it in a derogatory manner, but to many Roma people, ‘gypsy’ is derogatory and they see it as an insult. Few know that Roma people have endured a period of five-hundred years of slavery, were victims of the Holocaust, and even in today’s world are frequently targets of hate crimes, discrimination and scapegoating. As recently as this summer the Italian Interior Minister echoed Nazi discourse, calling for Roma deportation.
Is His Dark Material’s depiction of Gyptians problematic?
That’s a complicated question.
In many ways, the portrayal of Roma people in the His Dark Materials TV series is very positive, taking its lead from its source material in subverting many of the negative stereotypes that pop up in mainstream storytelling when it comes to Roma representation. The Gyptians are portrayed as a loving community, a positive force in both Lyra’s life and the larger world. If I could choose one of the communities in Lyra’s world to be a part of, it would definitely be the multiracial found family that is the Gyptian community.
This heroic depiction of Roma-inspired people is cool to see, but is undercut by the fact that, while this is a fictional group of people meant to be analagous to the real-life Roma people, the production seemingly chose not to cast Roma actors in the main Gyptian roles. This is an erasure of a culture and community that has a history of being forced into the margins in real life while simultaneously having their culture essentialized and co-opted in mainstream culture.
There is a history of co-opting Romani culture in many parts of the world (have you or a friend ever dressed up as a “gypsy” for Halloween?), while real-life Romani see no benefits from that appropriation, and face discrimination and prejudice informed by a vast misunderstanding, especially in the United States, of the Roma community. In the first episode, the Gyptians, with their knit sweaters and fedoras, share some aesthetics with our world’s hipsters—which is to say financially-privileged young people, known for co-opting other cultures.
(There is also the glaring fact that the group is known as “Gyptians,” which is very close to “gypsy,” which, as previously discussed, is considered racist by many members of the Roma community.)
While the Golden Compass film cast white actors in the main Gyptian roles (much like the Marvel Cinematic Universe did with the character of Wanda Maximoff, who is canonically Romani), the TV series has chosen to cast multiracially (and also with people of different abilites, which I would love to read some response to).
Neither the film nor TV series adaptations seem to have cast Roma people in the main Gyptian roles, with Anne-Marie Duff as Ma Costa, Daniel Frogson as Tony Costa, James Cosmo as Farder Coram, and Lucian Msamati as John Faa, Tyler Howitt as Billy Costa.
Generally, the His Dark Materials creative team seemingly worked to add more racial diversity to its cast by casting more people of color than is explicitly found in the book series. Amir Wilson, a young actor of color, has been cast as Will Parry, one of the main characters in the second book. (While Will is never explicitly described as “white” in the books, he has always been illustrated as such on book covers.) These kinds of efforts to make our on-screen stories better reflect our real world are vital and should absolutely continue.
To cast a character or group of characters as racially-inclusive, multi-bodied, as His Dark Materials did with the Gyptians, is very cool and presumably came from a well-intentioned place, but, in this specific case, serves to erase Romani culture while simultenaously appropriating elements of it.
In casting so diversely, I think the series was trying to divorce this group of people from the Roma inspiration, presumably as a way to avoid perpetuating any negative stereotypes. While presumably well-intentioned, I think this was the wrong way to go. Firstly, the series was unsuccessful in removing all Roma signifiers (including the “Gyptian” name). More importantly, this serves to perpetuate the erasure of Roma people, taking away one of the relatively few positive representations of Roma people in mainstream culture.
The other, better choice (in my opinion) would have been to bring in Roma people behind the scenes to consult on the story and world, as well as to cast Roma actors in the Gyptian roles—which the series presumably did not do. (But I would love to be proven wrong on this.) I am not Roma, and therefore I am not the person to answer this question. Neither, I suspect, are the—in many other ways very capable—people making His Dark Materials.
His Dark Materials airs Mondays at 9pm on HBO. Find out more about the TV series here.