When I heard that a big-budget Hollywood movie was going to be made of the musical Les Miserables, starring Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman and a bunch of other very attractive people, I was apprehensive.
I couldn’t say exactly why I was apprehensive. I just was. I have a few friends who are dedicated history buffs who were excited for the movie, and I watched their excitement grow with a detached sort of unease. I think this sense of unease is probably very common - it is the unease that the marginalized feel when romanticized versions of history become popular. Les Miserables takes place in France, in 1815, at a turning point in French history. It is written by Victor Hugo, whose portrayals of Rromani people in Europe and specifically in France were problematic to say the very least.
The cast of the blockbuster Les Miserables movie is quite, well, white. I don’t know the whole ethnic backgrounds of every actor, but I don’t know if it really matters - what escalated my vague sense of unease about the musicals newfound popularity was the casting of the character of Javert, and specifically, the dialogue around it in fan circles.
Take a look at this. A fan expresses the (frankly racist) opinion that a Black actor should not have been cast as the character of Javert. Others point out, correctly, that people of colour existed in Europe in the 1800’s and that the practice of “colourblind casting” (horrible term, good casting practice) has been ultimately beneficial in bringing new, thoughtful, skilled and dynamic artistic takes on old characters.
Then… the subject of whether or not Javert is a “gypsy” comes up.
For the record, the fluent French speakers I have spoken to seem to agree that the idea that Javert is Rromani is incorrect and based on a flawed translation. Javert comes from a “bohemian” family, presumably petty criminals; as an adult, he has grown to hate criminals and political dissidents alike. In the first English translation, “bohemian” was translated to “gypsy”, and Javert was referred to as hating criminality because he hated his own “nomadic race”. It’s a trope that I find particularly troubling; the “gypsy” who is villainous because they hate themselves for being a “gypsy” - that for translators, a hatred of criminality would be read as a hatred of his own race is especially offensive, the implication being that criminality is inherent in his race (“gypsy”), and his conflict with criminals stems from a conflict with himself and his natural inclination to turn towards a life of crime.
But this interpretation of Javert is one that many fans have latched on to. They call it “headcanon” or “fanon” - an interpretation that they hold to be as true as canon, but mostly a matter of personal preference. “Javert is a gypsy!” It goes unremarked-on that this interpretation is rooted in an understanding of Javert that implies some very unpleasant things about what it means to be Rromani. It also goes unremarked-on that it is far less common - in fact, I’ve seen approximately zero cases of this, and I’ve spent the last few days looking into it - for peoples’ “fanon” interpretations of any of the more clear-cut protagonists to be Rromani. Nobody says that Marius or Cosette, the romantic leads, might be part Rromani; nobody suggests that the revolutionary furor of one of the characters leading the June Rebellion might be due to a desire to see some improvement in the lives of their oppressed community.
I am troubled by this because it’s one of those things that well-meaning gadje often fall into - thinking that by championing the idea of Javert-as-Rromani they are championing the representation of us in fiction, when in fact all they are championing is a gadje’s (racist) idea of who we are and what defines us as a people. Meanwhile, in order to be viewed with any kind of true complexity, any dimension beyond the most simplistic (“he hates revolutionaries because he’s a self-hating gypsy”), a character must be read as white. Characters who are not read as such are denied a full understanding of their humanity, their motivations boiled down to an outsider’s impression of their race.
It is good to push for more historically accurate representations of Europe - representations that include Rromani, Sinte, Romanichal, Pavee, and Traveller peoples! But it is also necessary to challenge our understandings of why these representations have been lacking, and where existing representations are coming from. If they do not come from us, who do they benefit? What purpose do they serve?