Representations of Gypsy-ness

From Brontë's novel Wuthering Heights to Cher’s “Dark lady” song and to the recent American Gypsies reality show on National Geographic, gypsies have traditionally been portrayed in a romanticized fashion. They appear as people consumed by passion, as great musicians and dancers, often living a nomadic and carefree life. Last but not least, their alleged mystical/exotic lives make them more likely to be associated with fortune telling and other magic rituals.

Photo: The Gypsy Fortune Teller. Color card depicting young girl having her palm read by a fortune teller.  Source: Wellcome Library

Photo: The Gypsy Fortune Teller. Color card depicting young girl having her palm read by a fortune teller.

Source: Wellcome Library



Photo: Gypsies dancing (1882). Source: Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation

Photo: Gypsies dancing (1882). Source: Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation


A parallel, and equally stereotypical, representation of gypsies can be frequently encountered in the European media, where the word “gypsy” tends to be associated with criminal activities and/or poverty. Stories of gypsies’ alleged abuses of social welfare systems in order to lead lavish lifestyles “back home”, their decried involvement in conning activities, thefts or human trafficking, and, last but not least their common association with begging are very popular topics in the European mass media and make for very catchy tabloid headlines.


(Daily Mail newspaper, November 5th, 2015)

(Daily Mail newspaper, November 5th, 2015)


The representations of gypsy-ness thus seem to alternate between the fictional gypsy, portrayed as the exotic “Other”, and, the “real” gypsy often presented by the media as a criminal, the menace in our societies. While the latter representation is blatantly discriminatory and unfair, the romanticized portrayal is not necessarily positive either: it represents an idealized and oversimplified image of a gypsies as a group of people exclusively guided by emotions and strong passions.

The representations of gypsy-ness thus seem to alternate between the fictional gypsy, portrayed as the exotic “Other”, and, the “real” gypsy often presented by the media as a criminal, the menace in our societies. While the latter representation is blatantly discriminatory and unfair, the romanticized portrayal is not necessarily positive either: it represents an idealized and oversimplified image of a gypsies as a group of people exclusively guided by emotions and strong passions.

Apart from these two types of representations, there seems to be nothing in between. The lack of a critical mass of powerful voices emerging from within this ethnic group, leads to a dearth of alternative representations. Hence, as David Mayall mentioned in book “Gypsy Identities 1500-2000: From Egipcyans and Moon-men to the Ethnic Romany” (2004), gypsies are who the writer or speaker thinks they are.

It is disquieting that gypsy-ness is nowadays still limited to a stigmatic label which does not leave much room for any positive, empowering narratives to emerge. There is a strong need for more diverse and more complex representations of gypsies and their culture. And this can only achieved by engaging the group in constructing this narrative together.


Gloria is a sociologist, a woman with strong opinions, a mom and also a self-identified coffee addict. She reads and writes about migration, race and ethnicity, intercultural communication, gender issues and, last but not least, social perceptions of what makes a “good” vs. “bad” mother.