One can easily sympathize with the exasperation of Alexandra Toma, described in 2005 by the Romanian daily Jurnalul National as “the single Romanian political advisor for foreign policy in the American Congress” (according to the article, as of early 2005 she was serving on the staff of House of Representatives member Stephen Lynch (Democrat, Massachusetts)):
In America, Romanian “orphans” are famous. Everyone asks me about them. That’s all they know. Just orphans, Ceausescu, and Dracula. Those are the three questions I always get asked. “The Romanian Orphans” are always on the TV. (Ana-Maria Luca, “O romanca la Capitol Hill [A Romanian Girl on Capitol Hill],” Jurnalul National, 25 February 2005, online edition).
Alexandra Toma’s frustration is not unique. Alexandra Diaconu wrote an excellent article wittily entitled “Cum ne vindem tara (How we sell our country)”—the title possibly a play on the famous chant of the rampaging miners of June 1990, with whom the country became identified in the international consciousness, thanks to televised images of savage “Balkan” brutality and chaos. (The miners roamed the streets of Bucharest shouting “Nu ne vindem tara,” that is, “We aren’t selling [out] our country.”) Diaconu observed:
When you say France, a few words automatically come to mind: wines, perfumes, refinement, Paris, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and the list goes on. When you say Italy: “la dolce vita [the good life],” Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Pavarotti, Milano, and fashion, the Colosseum, Venice or the [Leaning] Tower of Pisa. When others speak of Romania, however, assuming they have heard anything about us, they think in the first place of Dracula, Ceausescu, Nadia, street children, corruption, immigrants or, and even worse, the imaginary Romanian terrorists that still appear in post-1990 American films [I’d love to know exactly which films she is referring to here, because I am very familiar with the topic and don’t know what she is talking about: Call me Ahab! See my most recent publication on the topic, “Orwellian…Positively Orwellian” Prosecutor Voinea’s Campaign to Sanitize the Romanian Revolution of December 1989” at http://homepage.mac.com/khallbobo/RichardHall/pubs/Voineaswar091706.html].
…Without question, Romania has an image problem. In the past 15 years, it has become something of a national refrain repeated periodically by politicians in electoral campaigns, by cultural elites, when the foreign press judges us critically, when any foreigner confuses Bucharest with Budapest and when our sportspeople return from international competitions laden with medals. [Diaconu, Evenimentul Zilei, 5 June 2005, online edition]
A comment on Diaconu’s characterization seems in order here before moving on. The Bucharest-Budapest confusion, one which frankly is at least understandable because of the similarity of the two capital names in English and many languages, is ceaselessly annoying to both Hungarians and Romanians—and regional specialists—who feel insulted and powerless to overcome foreign ignorance about what is for them a simple, but huge distinction. And it does matter…to the point of having the potential to contribute to wounded national pride and inter-state tensions. When US Team Captain Dennis Ralston was presented with the Davis Cup in 1972 in Bucharest, after what an English commentator termed “the noisiest, angriest, the most absorbing and most passionate contest in the history of Davis Cup competition,” Ralston thanked “‘the good people of Budapest’ for their kindness and spoke of the memories the US team would take back with them ‘of Budapest’s sportsmanship’…[that this] ‘famous victory means Budapest will forever be remembered by American tennis’” (Keating, The Guardian, 11/28/97). Of course, perhaps this mistake should not have been surprising, given that the English commentator recounted of one match that “the linesmen were as partisan as the crowd and with armed guards around the court the efforts of the referee to restore a semblance of fair play were negated by the intimidatory martial atmosphere,” while the American player Stan Smith opined, “I have never been more pleased to be off court. Every arena steward seems to be toting a sub-machinegun and by the look in their eyes the safety-catch is undoubtedly cocked and ready.”
Finally, there are the characterizations of Romanian émigrés who have settled in the U.S. and Americans who have spent extended time in Romania. “What do Americans see when they look at a Romanian?” asks Andrei Codrescu in The Disappearance of the Outside. “Three things: Dracula, Eugene Ionesco, and Nadia Comaneci. In other words, sex, the absurd, and gymnastic ability” (p. 42) (Ileana Florentina Popa, “Cultural Stereotypes: From Dracula’s Myth to Contemporary Diasporic Productions,” VCU thesis, p. 77, May 2006 at [http://etd.vcu.edu/theses/available/etd-07212006-171925/unrestricted/popaif_thesis.pdf].). In other words, essentially the plotline for the Seinfeld episode which introduced this paper!)
Brand-ing Romania: Beyond “The Bottom of the Heap”
That Romania’s image or “brand,” is not merely a partisan political, and thus bounded, issue, has increasingly been realized by those for whom it is a matter of business, a reality of life, rather than a matter of an intellectual’s blame game. The “image of Romania” has even spawned a BRANDING website—[http://www.brandingromania.com]—to discuss the issues of constructing, deconstructing, and reconstructing stereotypes. On 24 June 2005 Corin Chiriac got the ball rolling by asking posters their perceptions of “stereotypes of Romanians and Romania.” The following example was given to spark debate:
People and Personalities: Ceausescu, Dracula, Nadia Comaneci, Hagi [famous soccer player], and folklorists.
Character and Behavior: sa moara capra vecinului [screw your neighbor], proasta organizare [poor organization] (lines and especially poorly formed lines, ignoring scheduled hours), lack of respect for rules (cut to the front of the line mentality)
Events: The Revolution of 1989, Cerbul de aur [annual Brasov-based talent show], mineriadele [referencing the five brutal journeys of the miners towards Bucharest in 1990, 1991, and 1999]
Places: Bucharest, the Danube Delta, Prahova Valley (Predeal, Sinaia), Sfinxul
Monuments or buildings: Casa Poporului [Ceausescu’s “House of the People” monstrosity], Hotel Intercontinental, the monasteries of Bucovina, Bran castle.
The website appears partly responsible for new reflection on the issue of “branding the Romanian image” in the Romanian press that goes less in search of scapegoats for the situation and more in search of solutions. On 25 October 2005, Mihai Ghyka wrote an article entitled “Branding Romania—a ship sunk at the dock” in the daily Gandul in which he opined:
Romania—the country of gypsies. Romania—the country of handicapped orphans. Romania—a corrupt and dirty country. Romania—a country lacking in civilization. Whether or not we like them, these are the most frequent associations that pop into the mind of foreigners when they are asked what they know about Romania. For better than 15 years, the image of Romania in the world has been left to accidental whimsy.
In recent years, Romania has spent an annual budget of approximately 20 million Euros, promoting at random tourism, Brancusi [famous sculptor], Romanian products, the Enescu Festival and diverse commercial fairs…Each minister promoted his activities as best he knew how, by himself. (Mihai Ghyka, “Branding Romania – vaporul scufundat in port,” Gandul, 25 October 2005.)
A truly fascinating and insightful reflection on all this was posted on the branding website on 3 February 2006 under the title “Permission to Brand”:
Starting from zero “Romania has so many problems in terms of perception that it becomes difficult to make an inventory,” says Valeriu Turcan, president of the Agency of Governmental Strategies, which is spearheading the branding Romania campaign. “The difference between Romania and other countries is that its Communist past and its experiences right after 1989 have been much more negative and visible in Western media compared to the others.” Turcan cites the ‘Mineriade’, where miners traveled to Bucharest to violently break-up an anti-Neocommunist demonstration, the orphanages and Romanians who break laws abroad as image wreckers. “This picture is incomplete, out of date and extremely difficult to change,” he adds.
Country branding expert Simon Anholt says that this problem exists in many transition economies. “Their brand is still strongly tainted with negative imagery acquired under Soviet influence,” he says, “and the majority of foreign publics have not yet updated their perceptions. The only reason why Bulgaria and Poland are doing better [than Romania] is because they are better organised and are doing something about it.” “Romania was a blank page after the Revolution and this was what was first communicated,” says Ioana Manea, managing partner at brand and communication firm Loco. “These things do not have the depth they used to have.”
Communism and its fall-out also exercise a powerful hold over the western imagination. Visitors to Romania still bring packet soups and Mars bars, to use as currency. They are also scared to venture out after nine o’clock at night. Anthropologist Vintila Mihailescu, director of the award-winning Romanian Peasant’s Museum, says that compared to other ex-Communist countries in the region Romania still has, for the outside eye, a still strongly visible label of Communist country. Something the authorities and people have failed to change. “When a person, a group, a nation does not build itself an image, it is attributed one, the first one at hand,” he adds.
Another problem is the vacuum of knowledge the west has of Romania. “Many free citizens of Europe are confused between Budapest and Bucharest and Romania and Bulgaria,” says Manea. “We deceive ourselves that Nadia Comaneci meant something to the world and that everyone knows Hagi,” says Naumovici. “Romanians are too optimistic and see Romania as the most beautiful place in the world. Education is partly to blame for this. “We [Romanians] were taught during primary school that we beat the Turks,” he adds, “that we can repair a car with a piece of wire, while the Germans had to wait for a spare part to come from the factory.” (Anca Pol, Ana-Maria Smadeanu and Michael Bird, “Permission to brand,” 3 February 2006, the ‘The Diplomat – Bucharest’)
Wally Olins, one of the apparent gurus of country image-making, suggested recently that Romania may already be developing positive elements to counter the negative ones associated with its international “brand.” Part of Olins’ philosophy seems to be something of jiu-jitsu, making lemonade out of lemons, as he suggests with Nicolae Ceausescu’s “House of the People.” Like it or not, this interests foreigners about Romania. According to Olins: “If I tell people I am going to Bucharest, 20 % believe I am going to Hungary [the Bucharest-Budapest confusion], another 20% asks me what I am going there for, and 15 % ask me if I am going to see Ceausescu’s palace.” (Wally Olins, interview by Cosmin Popan, “Romania devine brand fara stirea ei,” Cotidianul, 15 February 2007, online edition). In other words, use what you have, allow the audience or market to determine comparative advantage/value…and go with the flow.
What? You say you’ve never heard of Nicolae Carpathia? Look him up on the Internet. The last time I did [late summer 2005], Nicolae Ceausescu had 67,000 webpages, Nicolae Carpathia 14,500! (Of course, neither can hold a lit torch to Dracula, who weighs in at 2,270,000 Google hits!)
Well, if you haven’t, don’t feel so bad, neither did I until recently. Nicolae Carpathia is the Anti-Christ of the “Left Behind” evangelical Christian book-series that sketches out visions of the future based on a very specific reading of the Book of Revelation in the Bible’s New Testament. Over the past decade, more than 60 million copies of the “Left Behind” series have been sold (Michael Standaert, L.A. Times, 25 May 2005)! A low-budget film based on the series came out several years back starring Kirk Cameron, a “teen-age heart throb” of the 1980s television sitcom “Growing Pains,”—Cameron is himself a fervent born-again Christian.
Dr. Stu Johnson described “Nicolae Carpathia in the Apocalyse Series” in an article on http://www.Leftbehind.com posted 20 May 2004:
Fairly early in Apocalypse Dawn, we meet the charismatic Carpathia:
Not every politician was pushing for more and bigger weapons and more and bigger armies. Goose had heard of a United Nations representative from Romania named Nicolae Carpathia. Surprisingly, Carpathia was pushing for disarmament in his own country. At the time he’d heard that, Goose had never thought it would happen. Romania was part of Eastern Europe, left orphaned by the failed Soviet Communist government, and host to a series of bloodthirsty dictators who had only been driven from office by equally bloodthirsty military uprisings. Most military analysts had figured that the country would be awash in political unrest and military action for decades to come. Instead, Carpathia had begun to quiet Romania down, almost as if by magic. [emphasis mine] (Dawn, pp. 47-48)
Later, we learn more of Carpathia as Romanian satellites are leased to U.S. forces to fill in gaps in their system, sent into chaos by “the disappearances” [author’s note: i.e. the Rapture whereby the “saved” are suddenly and inexplicably plucked from earth to heaven].
“I can give you access to another satellite system,” [said Cody].
Remington curbed his frustration with the situation. “What satellites?”
“Satellites leased by the Romanian government,” Cody said. “Other satellites that Nicolae Carpathia owns and has offered for your use.”
Remington knew the name. Carpathia was an international figure, and part of the reason the U.N. peacekeeping forces and the United States Army Rangers were presently in-country. Carpathia had taken his own country by storm, becoming the darling of the population over the last few years after getting off to a less-than-sterling beginning. Yesterday, the president of Romania had stepped down and suggested that the legislature appoint Carpathia as their new president [author’s note: i.e. a clear Hindenburg-Hitler analogy here]. In a surprising turn of events, both houses had unanimously done just that. Before becoming a member of the House of Deputies in Romania, Carpathia had been a shrewd businessman who had his fingers in many international business ventures. He’d gotten rich. Remington wasn’t surprised to learn that Carpathia had invested heavily in communications, and satellites would have been one of the most natural investments. (Dawn, pp. 213-14)
According to Michael Standaert in his review of the most recent book of the series, “In the Beginning; The Rising: Before They Were Left Behind” by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, “this prequel sets up Carpathia as embodying everything stereotypically liberal” (Standaert, 2005). Indeed, Carpathia is the creation of a conspiratorial group of “international bankers”—could there be a clearer code for “Jews”?—and, as if that were not enough, almost unsurprisingly given the radical right-wing leanings of the authors and many of the readers of the series, Carpathia is “a genetically engineered test-tube baby with the DNA of two homosexual fathers”[!, the trifecta…how prosaic]. And Satan’s forces predictably use the cherished institutions and policies the radical-right attributes to “liberals” (i.e. the left in the political parlance of the American right)—the U.N., disarmament, peacekeeping forces, and satellite television (somewhat ironic I would add given the use of this by evangelical fundraisers themselves!; clearly they have in mind here Ted Turner and not Ruppert Murdoch)—to establish tyrannical “one world government.”
The hazy popular and media images of Romania shine through in the character of Nicolae Carpathia. It is a simplistic and, frankly, tacky amalgam. Nicolae Ceausescu, “Genius of the Carpathians”…and so we get “Nicolae Carpathia.” A brutal dictator who was initially perceived in positive terms: he presents himself as a man of peace, a proponent of “disarmament,” a supporter of Israel (when he really is not), a neutral arbiter of international relations in a difficult time. When the Ceausescus were executed on Christmas Day 1989, the Romanian media hyperbolically proclaimed “The Antichrist is Dead” (the deconstructivists among Romanian intellectuals at home and abroad ascribed intent of the former communists to cynically use religious language to cleanse their sins before the population and buy credibility—to me this is over-interpretation.) Romania is depicted as a place of chaos, military intervention, and mystical leaders and politics. And if that is not enough, Carpathia’s political assistant is named Stolojan—the last name, it just so happens, of the Romanian Prime Minister from September 1991 to November 1992. One interesting difference, however, that would be difficult for evangelicals to explain is that whereas Ceausescu banned abortions, Carpathia imposes them!
Predictably, and it would be interesting to see what Romanian evangelicals actually think of the series, Romanians have not been amused by the selection of a Romanian as the anti-Christ in the end of time! (Indeed, as Theodor Stolojan’s political profile rose once again in Romanian politics in early 2007, the daily Cotidianul noted the influence of the “Left Behind” series was such that “when you look up the word ‘Stolojan’ on the Internet, the first five results refer to the character in the book,” leading the author to opine “it is impossible to estimate for just how many people the Romania described in the book [is for them Romania]” (Barbu Mateescu, “Stolojan si presedintele sint eroi negativi in SUA,” Cotidianul, 17 February 2007, online edition). Of course, the very fact that this paradigm [Nicolae Ceausescu] is used is because it exists—it says everything that Nicolae Carpathia is a Romanian, not say a Bulgarian, Albanian, or Hungarian.
Gymnasts, Acrobats, and Circus Performers…Oh My!
Clearly, Nadia has been the template for all “gymnast”-based images of Romanians in American pop culture since the 1970s. In a 1989 romantic comedy, “Her Alibi,” the Czech model Paulina Porazskova plays a Romanian circus performer (acrobats are the afterlife, professional extension of gymnasts apparently) who defects and falls in love with a character played by Tom Selleck. The Securitate make a cameo in the film trying to prevent her defection, although if I remember correctly, as always there appears to be some political/cultural confusion/script simplification, with references to them as the “kgb” or the like.
Although it is no great insight, it is interesting to note in the context of “Her Alibi” how Hollywood was (is) a barometer, if a lagging one, in terms of geopolitical relations. The James Bond film series is, of course, the most famous of these, with the comparative role of the renegade Chinese revolutionary communists rising in the 1960s, with Barbara Bach as not just Russian love interest, but as professional partner in the détente-era “The Spy Who Loved Me (1977),” (the Soviets all-but-disappear from the 1979 “Moonraker”) and with a return to outright identification of the Soviets and associated East Europeans (East Germans, Czechs, etc.) as the enemy in the 1980s (at its apogee in film as in life with the 1983 “Octopussy”—fanatical Soviet general using faberge eggs to undermine the West, a showdown in East Berlin, etc.). With movies such as “Red Heat (1988),” the typical buddy-cop, fish-out-of-water, opposites-become-friends movie (see, for example, Beverly Hills Cop (1984)) showing Soviet (Arnold Schwarzenneger, Austrian descent) and American (Jim Belushi, Albanian descent) cops working against the politically-correct scourge of the 1980s—drug kingpins, a threat to both American and Soviet societies that they could agree on…after all, what about the children?, I believe the children are our future…), Hollywood chose to find more geopolitically-correct villains.
By 1989, Gorbachev’s Soviet Union was not a geoplitically-correct villain; Ceausescu’s Romania, on the other hand, was—it would be interesting to see how a similar script would have been written a decade before, when Romania was on the top of the West’s geopolitical world. Of course, if the creation of fictional enemy countries—satirized well in the Austin Power film series, Kreplakistan—can be annoying and is itself still an amalgam stereotype of the former Soviet Union, from Ukraine to Central Asia, Hollywood’s search for the most consensual-least box-office controversial enemy can have backlash, especially years later. See, for example, the substitution of generic Middle Eastern enemies for the Soviets and others as the 1980s progressed; the choice, for example, of “Libyan terrorists” in the 1985 “Back to the Future” may have seemed like a “safe” one—an official enemy of the US, that had targeted Americans in terrorist acts (such as the Berlin discotheque bombing), and that had a very small Libyan (as opposed to Arab) émigré community in the United States—but it is clear that in retrospect it was far from “safe.” Clearly, as the Soviet Union waned, drug cartels became prosaic and boring, and the East bloc “mafiya” prototype ran its course, the xenophobic “Middle Eastern terrorists” became “useful.” The United States, in part, probably reaps some of the anger directed against it from the happenstance, box office driven selection of real-world enemies for action-thrillers in a post-Cold War world.
The Seinfeld episode that introduced this paper—with its Romanian gymnast-cum-acrobat—“Her Alibi,” etc. made me question whether there was any empirical reality that may have contributed to the birth and growth of this stereotype. I have not compared things systematically to the situation of defectors from other East bloc countries, but I did a brief search in the Washington Post and New York Times on the subject. Clearly, the most well-known, “gymnastics defections” from Romania were those of Nadia herself in November 1989 and in 1981 her controversial ethnic Hungarian coach Bela Karolyi, his wife Marta, and the Romanian team choreographer Geza Pozar (based on the name, apparently also likely Hungarian). In November 1985, an acrobat, Andi Georgescu, who performed for Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey, defected (WP 11/22/85 A 30a; NYT 11/22/85 II 3:1). In April 1987, two 16 year olds, Carmen Georgescu and Julia Catrinoiu, both gymnasts and acrobats were granted political asylum (NYT 4/9/87 II 7:6; WP 2/24/87 A 14a). In August 1987, four acrobats in California with Ringling and Barnum and Bailey sought asylum (NYT 8/8/87). It is possible that coverage of such incidents, particularly in the media of major metropolitan areas could have, by osmosis, created this connection and image, particularly among America’s creative intellectuals? Of course, once again, as occurs throughout many examples raised in this paper, there is the chicken-or-the-egg problem, since coverage and attention given to these particular types of defections—of gymnast/acrobats, from Romania—had already been conditioned by Nadia and Romanian gymnastics (in fact, in a sense perhaps, to the extent that was possible, made “easier,” likely to garner more media coverage, and a greater blow to a country whose prestige had become tied to this issue).
The Magical and the Mystical
As a repository for the occult, for evil, for the mysterious spiritual world, Romania became a good bet for American television shows during the early and mid-1990s. Thus, the 5 May 1993 episode of the drama “Law and Order” entitled bluntly “Securitate,” has a lawyer pleading that his Romanian immigrant client charged with murder is “not guilty due to cultural insanity” claiming he had been “conditioned to violence in his homeland” [!]. There is, of course, the great irony here, that what in the American context may appear to be “understanding”—sensitive to cultural differences, recognizing the societal influences on individual action—would no doubt beckon Todorova-like indignance over a classic “Balkan” stereotype. Moreover, given the timing of the episode (May 1993), a year into the Bosnian conflict, the argument of “cultural insanity” played well into the Kaplanesque “ancient hatreds” mentality so prevalent at the time. And to top it all off, three of the main characters in the episode have the last name Iliescu!
The magical-mystery tourism aspect of Romania is better explored in the 14 April 1995 episode of the “X-Files” where the traditional Romanian fertility folk dancers, the “Calusari,” become a trope for warding off evil. In this episode, Romanian language shows up again. A character in the episode comments on the Calusari: “In Romania, they are responsible for the correct observance of sacred rites.” An episode capsule expands on their role in the plot:
When Steve Holvey is later killed in a bizarre accident, ash from the scene is identified as a substance called Vibuti, holy ash produced during the presence of spiritual beings. The Grandmother later dies while performing a protective ritual on Charlie and when a social worker questions Charlie about the incident, he claims his still born twin brother Michael killed her. Which comes as a shock to Maggie Holvey, who claims she never told Charlie about his dead twin brother. It appears that the families only hope is a strange group of Romanian elderly chanters called The Calusari.
The exotic and superstitious are in full effect: Bram Stoker’s Romania meets FBI chasers of UFOs and the supernatural.
The “Romanian Quintuplets” South Park Episode:
A Cornucopia of Modern Romanian Pop Culture Images in North America
Comedy shows, often distastefully, have also used Romanian images to good effect. For example, the British comedy series of the 1990s, “Absolutely Fabulous” in which a layabout, alcoholic, high-maintenance fashion-designer threatens her straightlaced daughter that she will adopt Romanian orphans if her daughter won’t invite her to a school presentation. The threat backfires when her addle-minded assistant actually follows through on the idea and Romanian orphan babies begin arriving (“Iso Tank,” 10/3/92). However, the trifecta, the grand slam, of American (although the creator of the show is Canadian) images of Romanians—and one that is actually intended, it appears, to be just that—is the so-called “Romanian Quint(uplet)s” episode of the cartoon series “South Park.”
The “South Park” episode from 2000 (Original Air Date: 26 April 2000) is a satire of the Elian (aka Alien) Gonzalez saga from the spring of that year—an arguably absurd made-for-cable/satellite “twenty-four/seven” round-the-clock television news channel production, with Cuban émigrés in Florida attempting to prevent the return of a seven-year old boy to his father in Cuba. In retrospect, given the whole Florida fiasco in the 2000 elections—and I am not aware of any studies that have specifically looked into the issue although they may exist—one has to wonder if the television coverage of the saga and interest in the Cuban and other communities in Florida may have contributed in some (though doubtfully decisive) measure to the election results. The South Park episode has orphan Romanian gymnasts/acrobats from the circus defecting from communist-like bureaucrats and a country described in the most negative terms.
The episode contains a number of the characteristics and stereotypes of (North) American images of Romanians. A Romanian woman is named “Mrs. Vladchick,” one can assume a sort of slang combination of Vlad (Tepes, aka Dracula) and “chick” (also, conveniently an ending for some (especially South) Slavic last names in English). Names and language are pseudo-slavic: although one girl is named Nadia (a clear descendent of the ’76 Olympics), another is named Baltania, while Mrs. Vladchick carries on a conversation in “Romanian” that centers around the following gibberish: “Nid kelmin da bushka.” It should also be noted that the idea of “quintuplets”-as-circus-show-for-viewing may be influenced by the story of five French Canadian sisters—the Dionne quintuplets—who were treated in this manner in the 1930s in Canada without much regard to their fate (the story was given wide play in the late 1990s and the creator of the show is Canadian, so this may be the link).
A television reporter summarizes the background and scene as the Mrs. Vladchick’s Quintuplets from the traveling “Cirque de Cheville” attempt to defect:
Tom, I’m standing at the home in South Park where five precious little girls have been rescued from Romania. Their mother passes away some months ago, and then their grandmother died trying to bring them here. But all is well now, and people are coming from all over the country to view the little tykes. [someone takes a picture] If you’d like to come down and visit the quintuplets, admission is only $5, and for a few dollars more [“FEED THE QUINTS! One Dollar” A man buys some fishsticks], you can feed them fishsticks.
A Quint: [hops up and down, then opens her mouth for a fishstick the man drops down to her] Mmm.
Reporter: Tom, it looks like these cute little girls have made it out of that armpit of a country they call Romania.
[Romania, day. Government officials watch the report in a run-down office]
Reporter: Yes, luckily for them, these quintuplets no longer have to live in
Romania, the asshole of the world. [a last shot of the quints is seen] Back to you, Tom.
President: This is not good. It makes our country look poor and stupid.
Romanian Official: This could kill our tourism.
President: You know what to do. [they salute him and leave.]
(author’s note: from Episode 403 “The Quintuplets,” script can be found online at many sites, for example, [http://www.southpark.dsl.pipex.com/scripts/scr403.shtml], captions as found in script).
In a later scene, one of the South Park children, Cartman, tries to convince the quints that they don’t want to go back to Romania, by saying, “In Romania they just oppress you and try to bring you down.” All is for naught, however, for, as with Elian Gonzalez, the Quints’ father comes forward, and (then Attorney General) Janet Reno descends on Easter Sunday in an Easter Bunny suit, seizing the girls at gunpoint with well-armed soldiers in the background.
“Vlad,” orphans, gymnasts/acrobats, Romania as a poverty-stricken country dependent on tourist revenues and run by a mindless, oppressive bureaucracy and an aggressive president—the images/stereotypes are all here. Ironically, South Park and this episode are perhaps more bent on satirizing (North) American society and the hypocrisy, absurdity, and sanctimony of politicians, special interest groups, and the media. Yet, with Romania as prop, they succeed in creating a “perfect storm” of kitsch Romanian pop-culture iconography (although in truth, political correctness is always a target, never a shackle for the cartoon’s creators).