Digital Marketing

Images of Hungarians and Romanians in modern American media and popular culture


JERRY SEINFELD: (trying desperately to make conversation) So, Ceausescu. It must have been some dictator.

katya [A guest character, she is supposed to be a Romanian gymnast who won a Silver medal in the 1984 Olympics] : Oh yeah. He was not shy about dictating.

JERRY: He, uh, must have been dictating first thing in the morning. “I want a cup of coffee and a muffin!”

KATYA: And you couldn’t refuse.

JERRY: No, you would have to be crazy.

KATYA: He was a very bad dictator.

JERRY: Yes. Very bad. Very very bad.

(from the American television comedy series, Seinfeld, episode titled “The Gymnast”, aired November 3, 1994, various sites, see eg .shtml)


TONY KORNHEISER: “Thank you, Julian… folks, Julian Rubinstein, author of ‘The Ballad of the Whiskey Thief’ [a Hungarian bankrobber of the 1990s whose cover was playing ice hockey]will be at the ‘Hungarian-American Foundation’ tonight… What will they have there? [Laughing] Goulash, yes, they will have popperkash [sic]…”

ANDY POLLIN: [Laughing] Maybe Zsa Zsa [Gabor] I will be there…

(Essential by the author of a conversation heard on “The Tony Kornheiser Show” sports/comedy radio show, December 2, 2004, 9 am, WTEM 980 am, Washington, DC)

Part I: Introduction

Larry Wolff, Maria Todorova, Vesna Goldsworthy, and other scholars interested in the development and spread of Western images and stereotypes of the peoples of Eastern Europe have understandably focused their research on travelogues, plays, novels, operas, ett)as, paintings, etc. This makes sense and is methodologically appropriate since these are the artifacts of the era in which these ethnonational images and stereotypes were specified, recorded, and communicated to audiences larger than the direct audience. But the content and context of these images and stereotypes are not static, nor are the means by which they are communicated. During the last century, and in particular half a century, technological and media innovations, mainly in the form of mass media (movies, cartoons, radio, television, Internet), have changed the way in which they arise and are transmitted. ethnonational images. others. Arguably, this change has diminished the role of traditional elites (especially intellectuals) in shaping the content of ethnonational images, while at the same time enhancing the role of the audience in determining which images they “take” and which ones they “take.” creative intellectuals, journalists and others will use in their work.

Ironically, the very point that is at the center of the research by Wolff, Todorova, et. al.–that these ethnonational images were not always what they later became, or what they are today–has been somewhat lost, even in the application of his own theories to the latter part of the 20th century. This departure from their intellectual assumptions has occurred despite the fact that conditions such as the technological revolution, commodification, globalization, and democratization clearly challenge and reshape, and have challenged and reshape, individual and collective identities. It is one thing to say that ethnonational images evolved, but hardened over time, and continue to shape how people see themselves and others, despite such changes. It is quite another to say, as many in this constructionist literature seem, at least implicitly, that somehow this evolution was frozen in time, that these images, after a long period of evolution, have “consolidated” and are now essentially impervious to significant changes. change, that is, everything is just deja vu over and over and over and over again.

The two excerpts I have invoked above suggest the arbitrary, idiosyncratic, and often event-driven and personality-driven character of modern ethnonational images of Hungarians and Romanians in the United States. These images are placed in a context of larger preexisting images described by scholars of the “first generation” of image-making and stereotyping (the constructionist literature described above), are influenced by, and feed off of, but are neither a subset nor beholden to those first-order images. Furthermore, the interaction between televised images and the audience viewing them (i.e. as consumers who can vote with the remote control, so to speak), as well as the Internet’s empowering ability to encourage and facilitate individual expression and participation . -means that the power over the content and meaning of these ethnonational images has evolved more towards non-traditional elites (journalists, producers, media executives, businessmen) and the mass audience compared to the situation that prevailed in the past.

Despite the “Eastern (European)” classification of Hungarians and Romanians, the negative Hunnic/Mongolian/Asian/Oriental connotations of Hungarians and the “Balkan” characteristics of Romanians, and the general “neo-orientalist” treatment of this “second / third world” or “semi-periphery/periphery”, the actual content of popular and media images of Hungarians and Romanians is much less predictable, and more internally and externally diverse, than those general and generalizable theories of imposed and created cultural construction externally. predict. (I will use Csaba Dupcsik’s term “Euroeasternism” here to collectively capture the ideas of Wolff, Todorova, Goldsworthy, Bakic-Hayden, and others.)

In addition, the constructions of this literature have difficulty accounting for something that stems from the excerpts above and is repeated throughout this article: the difference between the Romanian images, which I will argue tends to be more recent and political (from the episode from Seinfeld, Nicolae Ceausescu and a Nadia Comaneci-style gymnast)–and, as a consequence, vulnerable to changes in content and connotation–and Hungarian images, which tend to be older and more “cultural” (from the program of sports radio interviews: goulash and Zsa Zsa Gabor) and static. Although the cultural constructionist model of Western image creation and imposition does not spell out its assumptions and expectations, based on its treatment of the concept of “Central Europe”, its underlying logic would seem to suggest that the more “Eastern” a people is, the more the more simplistic and pejorative are the ethnonational images and stereotypes attributed to that people, the more indistinguishable that people is from the rest of the “dirty” peoples of the non-West, and the more inflexible the images and stereotypes. At least in the comparison of Hungarian and Romanian images in the West, this does not seem to be the case, and that begs the question: why?

Overall, I conclude from an examination of the representations of Hungarians and Romanians in modern American media and pop culture, that in comparison with each other, with other peoples of Central and Eastern Europe, and with peoples of Western Europe, the Neo-Orientalist (distinctions Todorova and despite the caveats of his own model), the bias of much of the work studying images of “Eastern Europeans” simplifies and exaggerates the image. As I have already hinted, some of this stems from the sources, medium, and time period selected by these scholars for study. However, I would say that another part stems from the reification and sclerosis of this academic point of view, which sometimes seems unable to overcome its elitist roots. Having said all this, I do not fully conclude that the neo-Orientalist perspective has nothing useful to contribute. Because one of my conclusions is that the images of Hungarians in the American imagination are older, more established, less subject to change, and more diverse than the contrasting images of Romanians. The collection or archive of images of Romanians tends to be smaller, less differentiated, more political and newer. I assumed that some of this is arbitrary, but it has to do with the timing of the incorporation of ethnic imagery, itself a consequence of travel to the country, emigration from that country, and the timing of modern national consciousness and movements of identity in that country. in the Western European/English-speaking/American consciousness. Like Gerschenkron’s late developing states, late developing nations face a different set of rules, or at least more limited options: a choice between irrelevance and ignorance, less-than-desirable stereotypes, or the possibility of exploiting one’s comparative advantage. that stereotype no matter how unsatisfying and condescending it may be.

Here’s a preview summary of my findings then:

1) The range or universe of ethnonational images of Hungarians or Romanians in American film and television is more diverse, more internally contradictory, and less predictable than neo-Orientalist assumptions seem to allow.

2) Neoorientalist assumptions are somewhat ahistorical. Accident and lack of intent are filtered in retrospect, and intent and malice are assumed in their place to create a cohesive narrative.

3) The concrete, individual and idiosyncratic images are much more enduring and influential than the pale abstract assumptions associated with the neo-Orientalist model. It is these that often differentiate people in the popular mind and are most impervious/inflexible to change.

4) Partly due to the role of individual images, televised images/images are more convincing and enduring.

5) This points us toward the influence of television, film, and the Internet, media largely ignored in earlier neo-Orientalist constructionist research, research that, surprisingly, while emphasizing the role of new mass media such as novels and travelogues it brought new peoples and places into Western consciousness, and while it emphasizes that images have changed over time (i.e., were not what they would later become), it underestimates or ignores both the capacity for change and the role of new media. in identity and image formation. .

6) The theme of modern media, popular culture of inclusion/consumption, etc. brings us to the question of audience and highlights the link between technology and broader market access in determining image selection, formation and duration. The neo-orientalist perspective focuses excessively on elite control and dissemination, suggesting that audiences are labile and easily manipulated, and places little importance on the audience’s role in determining image formation and content. . The greater role of the masses in determining which images “stick” dampens the elitist approach of the neo-Orientalist perspective and partly explains the more mixed and syncretic character of contemporary ethnonational images.

7) As with state formation, the late developing nation and its late incorporation into Western consciousness has a persistent role in the content of ethnonational images. Being unknown and imageless, while beneficial in presenting a tabula rasa template upon which good images can be projected, often leaves people vulnerable to being pigeonholed in the foreign imagination by a small number of late-developing images, images that inevitably seem to be more political than cultural, and on the whole, more negative. However, it is important to note that this is as much a product of mass audiences and visual media…as it is of elites and any imputed constructionist imperatives.

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