The headline from a story on Jezebel caught my eye:
“SNL Girls Promo Featured a New, Rubber-Handed Albanian Roommate."
That rubber hand was definitely a new twist on the well-worn, offensive stereotype of Eastern Europeans that has been popular in American culture for decades. And why was this character Albanian, in particular? I am not a big fan of Girls, the wildly popular HBO series, but I had to take a look at the video clip.
Blerta (played by Tina Fey) sports the predictable babushka—and a Mexican serape. She speaks with a heavy faux Slavic accent, reminiscent of Natasha-the-spy from the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon series. Of course, Albanian isn’t actually a Slavic language, but Americans don’t demand precision in their ethnic stereotypes.
Blerta is an Albanian refugee who struggles to find points of connection with her new roommates, a group of privileged, twenty-something white women in New York. When the central character (played by Lena Dunham in the actual TV series) warns her that she has OCD, Blerta says she does as well.
“Cool,” squeals the New York girl. “You're obsessive compulsive too? ”
“No,” Blerta says. “I have Old Cow Disease.” It's when you get an infection from an old cow bite and lose your hand. She flaps her rubber prosthesis.
“Your life is so much more interesting than mine. It's not fair!" the American girl whines.
Are you laughing yet? Don’t worry. It gets better.
A little later, one of the other New York girls brags (complains?) that her ex-boyfriend is an Internet millionaire.
“My ex-boyfriend is buried in shallow grave,” Blerta says. When the wind picks up, the dirt blows away and you can see his skull.
That’s where they lost me.
Yes, I understand. This is just a parody—and, in some respects, a good one. Those SNL players could pass for the real Girls actors. Lena Dunham, the creator and main character in the HBO series, reportedly loved it. When the deadpan Albanian woman zeroes in on the vacuousness of the American girls, it is often funny and telling.
But a shallow grave in the Balkans is about as amusing as a crematorium in the Nazi death camps or the murder of Emmett Till.
Most of us know better than to joke about the Holocaust or about lynchings. Even people who are racist or anti-Semitic learn to watch what they say. But stereotypes about the Balkans—and, I would argue, Eastern Europeans in general—seem to be acceptable in America.
There is a long traditon of American humor about Eastern Europeans: The all-purpose "dumb Polack" jokes, aimed at anyone of Eastern European heritage. Steve Martin's skits about the "wild and crazy" Czech brothers, two hapless swingers on the prowl for "big American breasts." The sleazy Borat character, much appreciated by US audiences, who hails from a Romanian village masquerading as Kazakhstan. And now the most recent addition: a long-suffering, tough-talking Albanian woman with a babuskha, a rubber hand and a boyfriend in a shallow grave.
I wonder why these mean-spirited stereotypes are still tolerated.
The link to the story in Jezebel, which includes the video, is here:
Causes Blair Kilpatrick Supports
Louisiana Folk Roots, National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Habitat for Humanity/Musician's Village New Orleans, Doctors Without Borders