Diversity Aboveground: The Romani and the Twins

Apr 17, 2015

Dr. Doom and Scarlet Witch

Doctor Doom and Scarlet Witch by Jim Cheung

The Romani may be the most widely discriminated against ethnic group on this planet. In fact, the hatred and persecution of the Romani is so intense that like the Jews, they require a special word… Antiziganism. Romani were slaves in Romania for over 500 years. In Norway, the Romani were forcibly sterilized on a regular basis until 1977. Macedonia is under investigation for withholding Romani passports unless they vote for certain politicians and even Canada, known on the internet as the last bastion of neighborlyness, had protests when they started okaying visas for Romani. It is often common in Europe for Romani children to be funneled through special schools where they receive a subpar education…similar to the African-American children in the United States until the verdict of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954). Even the European Union found in a 2009 study that the Romani suffered crimes against them because of their ethnicity “everyday”. The United States is a rare exception with a much lower rate of hate crimes, very few laws written against them and the biggest problem appears to be misappropriation of their culture as others dress as “gypsies” for Halloween and other events.

Surely, a thousand years of media bashing them isn’t to blame? Victor Hugo vilified them in not just one, but TWO of his books. First, he portrayed them as infant stealers who would trade the disfigured Quasimodo for the angelic Esmeralda. Then, he wrote the antagonist Javert to have a Romani mother. She was the stereotypical fortune teller typical of female portrayals. Males were turned into thieves and swindlers. Children were little more than pickpockets who were taught young. Marvel is very guilty of perpetuating that Romani women know magic and will curse you. Kurt Wagner was raised by a “Gypsy Queen” who was also a sorceress and there’s Wanda Maximoff who will be discussed later.

Two more positive film portrayals of the Romani are Chocolat and The Man Who Cried. Chocolat takes place in 1959 France and shows how the local law enforcement and businesses have often banded together to force Romani out of their community. They are not allowed to stay in town. The businesses refuse to serve them, the officers harass them and they are unable to sell their wares for a meagre living. The Romani are shown as hard-working, honest and loving. The Man Who Cried takes place during World War II and has a Russian Jew falling in love with a Romani horse trainer. However, their relationship seems doomed by the Nazis hunting them both. A character equates Jewish and Romani as both being bad and the Nazis attack the Romani village, killing a child. The Romani victims of the Holocaust are usually ignored.

Marvel’s most famous Romani are the Maximoff twins: Wanda and Pietro. There is another character who should immediately come to mind but his “white-washing” will be discussed later. Yes, the internet has been adamant that Wanda and Pietro have been white-washed despite Pietro and Wanda never being drawn in anything but a pale complexion. There is a legitimate complaint in Pietro being turned into Peter in X-Men: Days of Future Past and not seeming anything other than the average American teenager. However, his main past-time appears to be stealing stuff so maybe not having him be Romani was for the best. Pietro in X-Men: Days of Future Past and Pietro and Wanda in Avengers: Age of Ultron are played by actors born in the United States or England but not of Romani descent. Although the Romani left India just 1,500 years ago, they are no longer characterized by the stereotype of brown hair, eyes and skin. They can have any skin color, any eye color and any hair color. If you still believe that Erik Lehnsherr is their father, the twins are even more likely to have more Caucasian looking features. While it’s great to want more diversity in casting, it seems contrary to demand casting according to what you feel a certain ethnic group should look like. Of course, it would have been better for Marvel if they had cast a Romani or actors of Eastern European descent, but would have someone like Olga Kurylenko or Lengyel Tamas have really been that much more accepted? With a lack of known Roma actors and actresses to choose from, would a viable alternative be for Marvel to show up at Romani camps where they already have centuries of well-founded distrust in outsiders coming to “help” them?

Pietro Maximoff
It’s not as though the characters of Wanda and Pietro aren’t problematic on their own. Pietro is fast. It harkens back to the stereotype of a Romani being so fast that by the time you’re missing your wallet, he’s long gone with it. Pietro’s portrayal doesn’t help this by his using speed often to, as referenced before, steal stuff. His sister is a witch. Wow, that’s so original for a Romani! It’s so original that even Joss Whedon has already covered that stereotype in his first television series. *coughs* Jenny Calendar *coughs* Both twins start off as villains because isn’t that what the media portrayal of Romani supposed to be? Then, through the power of the Avengers’ goodness, the twins see the error of their ways and join them. They change themselves in order to be more like the Avengers and blend in. Isn’t this the goal of every society? To make the outcasts fit in and be like everyone else? It doesn’t work. She ends up going mad and he goes back to villainy.

There are some bright spots to the portrayal of Wanda and Pietro in Avengers: Age of Ultron. For the first time ever, they both have indeterminate Eastern European accents! Yes, they have never had accents before. Their television appearances and his role in X-Men: Days of Future Past all had American accents. Their lack of an accent has even been mentioned in the comics. While losing an accent could be a deliberate way of losing your past or a desperate attempt to fit in, it shows how much their home is important to them in this new version. They are not Romani and this has been criticized but seems necessary for the story that Avengers: Age of Ultron tells. The twins are Sovokian. Sovokia is a fictional country but could double for many of the countries formally owned by the Soviet Union. It’s described as having ‘been ‘liberated’ about a half dozen times since 1970.” They have grown up only knowing war and most of those weapons were American made. It appears that some wars are started to save everyone and everything they love but end up destroying everything instead. Their troubles also explain why they would so readily sign up for HYDRA’s experiments.

Maria Hill: The file says they volunteered for Strucker’s experiments. It’s nuts.

Steve Rogers: Yeah, what kind of monster lets a German scientist experiment on them to protect their country?

Hill: We’re not at war, Captain.

Rogers: They are.

Can you just feel Captain America: Civil War?
At least the horrors of discrimination and assumptions against a whole group of people are being realized by Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Wanda
Another complaint against the cinematic portrayals of Wanda and Pietro Maximoff is that they aren’t Jewish. Because in order to prove you’re a Jew, you have to wear a Star of David all the time like George Sands in the original Being Human? Steve Rogers is a devout Christian but doesn’t feel the need to wear a cross or mention it except for an occasional reference. The truth is that the Maximoff’s religion in the new film is unknown and will probably stay that way. Until the first X-Men film in 2000, there were some references that led people to believe Erik Lehnsherr was Jewish but nothing overt until the film confirmed it. Before that, everyone believed Wanda to be a Pagan. She was included in the Infinity Crusade as one of the 33 most religious Marvel characters without specifying which religion. The only basis for calling Wanda or Pietro Jewish is because of Lehnsherr’s paternity which has been retconned in the recent issues. Ignoring that for now, that’s saying that a man they didn’t meet until adulthood should determine half their cultural identity just by their shared biology. It doesn’t quite make sense. Traditionally, Jewish status is determined through the mother who has never given any indication of being Jewish. The majority of Romani believe in Christianity, Islam or Shaktism. Can you imagine Wanda being a Muslim fifty years before Kamala Khan? For the time period and location, Christianity is much more realistic. However, a person’s religion is their personal business and until Pietro or Wanda self-identify as Jewish, the rest of us shouldn’t force that identity onto them. Did anyone complain about Kitty Pryde not displaying her proud Hebrew faith in the films?

As mentioned before, the Romani were hunted down by the Nazis. They were seen as even lower beings than the Jews. Josef Mengele enjoyed working with Romani children in his experiments. At one point, he had as many 50 sets of Romani twins at his disposal. More than 1.5 million Romani died in the Holocaust. Since they were also taken to Auschwitz and given numbers, Erik Lehnsherr could easily been a Romani instead of a Jew and it would have still worked. Now, his being a Jew at Auschwitz and experiencing that bigotry and hatred is seen as intrinsic to his character, but there’s another character whose villainy was also formed by his cultural identity and he’s never been shown that way onscreen.

Doom and Valeria
Victor von Doom was the child of Romani in Latveria. Under a cruel dictator, their experience was no better than their real-life counterparts. They were barely able to survive on Werner’s occasional doctoring and Cynthia’s spells. Cynthia made a deal with Mephisto to gain enough dark magic to attack the king but Mephisto killed all the children of a neighboring village. The king had Cynthia killed. Later, Werner’s inability to save the king’s wife from cancer led to his own death, too. Young Victor vowed revenge. He became a master of sorcery like his mother and a master of science like his father. When he succeeded, he used these skills to protect himself and the other Romani. His leaving Latveria was because he thought he knew a way to contact his mother in Mephisto’s clutches. The machine he created in the United States worked for a moment before literally blowing up in his face, leaving him scarred. The pain of his mother and following in her legacy of death made him build a metal suit so he would no longer have to feel anything. After more travels, he came back to Latveria to liberate the Romani and other slaves. While Dr. Doom is a villain, he is capable of kindness like babysitting Valeria and bringing Cassie Lang back. It’s too bad that Fox owns him since his use of magic and science aligns perfectly with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, like Doctor Strange.

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Wonder Woman
Before the New 52 reboot, Dick Grayson also had Romani heritage. Some hold out hope of it showing up in the future but it seems about as likely as getting the new Wonder Woman film any time soon. Once again “creative differences” drove away a female director, Michelle MacLaren. Considering “creative differences” were also cited for Patty Jenkins leaving Thor: The Dark World and Brenda Chapman leaving Brave, you have to wonder what these creative differences are. Is there more to it than little boys not wanting girls to touch their stuff because they have cooties?
Now, Patty Jenkins has been announced to be the replacement director on Wonder Woman.
*fingers crossed*
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Black Widow

By April 24, Avengers: Age of Ultron will have been released in over thirty countries, including the United Kingdom, India and Hong Kong. So…good luck staying away from those spoilers, everyone else including all of the United States!

Are you going to make it or will you spoil yourself?

Next week will be about the new Indian sitcom, Halal in the Family that can be found…on Funny or Die.

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