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Bizet’s Carmen and the Wanton Woman

Sydnee Wagner

‘Gypsies’ as hypersexual tropes

One of the first apparent representations of a Romani woman on the European stage was in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (1607). The early modern European associations between Egyptians and Romani people led early modern writers, like Shakespeare, to reconfigure classical Egyptian figures as ‘Gypsies’.

Romani sexuality is specifically racialised, and thus subject simultaneously to exoticisation and vilification.

In evoking the image of a Romani woman to describe Cleopatra’s sensuality, Shakespeare illuminates well-known racialised ideas of promiscuous, enigmatic desire. Cleopatra’s sexual passion, described as a ‘[G]ipsy’s lust’, becomes the paramount feature conjuring fanciful notions of exotic eroticism that threaten to beguile and bewitch white European men, like Cleopatra’s paramour, Mark Antony.

The operatic Carmen

The trope of the hypersexual Romani woman who seduces white men did not die, of course, along with the early modern period but was continuously reproduced in the 17th and 18th centuries. Georges Bizet’s Carmen (1875) is without doubt the most recognised stage production centred around a Romani woman and her sexuality. The French opera, first performed at the Opéra-Comique in Paris, scandalised audiences with its tale about Don José, a Spanish soldier who is seduced and discarded by the wanton Romani woman Carmen.

The trope of the hypersexual Romani woman, which continues to live on in popular media representations of Roma and in the imaginations of white Europeans, has enabled systematic sexual assault and sexual trafficking of Romani women in Europe.

José is at first resistant to Carmen when she sings the habanera ‘L’amour est un oiseau rebelle’. But when Carmen attacks a woman with a knife (a stereotypical display of supposed Romani criminality), the officer of the guard, Zuniga, orders José to tie Carmen’s hands, an act that allows Carmen to ensnare and seduce José. To appease Carmen and join her in her criminal pursuits, José abandons his former life, but when Carmen becomes bored with José and leaves him for the bullfighter Escamillo, he kills her in a jealous rage while declaring his passionate, obsessive love for her.

Repressed sexuality and Romani transgressions

With regard to the connections to perceived Romani criminality and sexuality, Sarah Houghton-Walker posits: ‘This fascination with the sexuality of the [G]ypsies is indicative of a general pattern according to which, despite expressing themselves with violent repulsion, many writers seem nonetheless drawn to the vagabonds they deplore’. Houghton-Walker suggests that this pattern is due to a white European male desire to break free from domesticity, but this ignores the ways in which Romani sexuality is specifically racialised and thus subject simultaneously to exoticisation and vilification.

In her study of the figure of the Spanish Gitana, Lou Charnon-Deutsch asserts, ‘in the vast majority of stories the mismatched union consists of a man, superior in many ways but often repressed, who is attracted to a woman whose carefreeness and sensual faculties are magnified by comparison’. The trope of the wanton Romani woman thus becomes a way for the male European suitor to express his own otherwise repressed sexuality while placing the social responsibility for the transgressions on the Roma.

The trope of the hypersexual Romani woman has enabled systematic sexual assault and sexual trafficking of Romani women in Europe.

While these representations are fictional, they have had real consequences for Romani women during the past few centuries. The trope of the hypersexual Romani woman, which continues to live on in popular media representations of Roma and in the imaginations of white Europeans, has enabled systematic sexual assault and sexual trafficking of Romani women in Europe. Bizet’s Carmen is an opera that displays both the obsessive fantasy among white men of the sexualised Romani woman and the violence against Romani women at the hands of white men – a violence that, unfortunately, is far more real than the caricatural Carmen is or will ever be.