This blog originally appeared on Kosovo 2.0. Available here in English, Albanian, and Serbian.
Last weekend, Saturday Night Live aired a spoof of the popular American TV series Girls with a special twist: in this episode, the titular girls have a roommate, and she’s an Albanian named Blerta. Played by Tina Fey, Blerta wears a headscarf, speaks with a Slavic accent, and has a plastic hand. Her boyfriend is buried “in a shallow grave” somewhere, and she thinks the bun on one of the roommates’ head is a donut. The character of Blerta highlights the petty concerns and privilege of the show’s protagonists, while also employing the tired stereotype of the “backward Balkans.”
The “othering” of Eastern Europe is not new or uncommon. In the Western imagination, the Balkans signify war, poverty, and backwardness. On an episode of The Simpsons, a visiting exchange student named Adil Hoxha ends up being a Communist Albanian spy. In the action films Taken and Inside Story, Albanians are portrayed as violent gangsters. International news coverage of Albanians over the past 20 years has endlessly relayed images of Kosovar Albanian refugees living in camps and masses of starving Albanians fleeing to Italy after the fall of communism. The mental image of the Albanian in most Westerners’ eyes is not a favorable one, and for most of them, the only information they receive about Albanians is through pop culture and news coverage. The same goes for Serbians, Montenegrins, Macedonians, and inhabitants of every other country on the Balkan peninsula.
It shouldn’t surprise us, then. that Blerta represents the trope of the hard-nosed, simple Balkan woman. Her depiction reminds me of every time I was asked whether there were still landmines in Kosovo; whether it’s true that Kosovo is a land of prostitutes and criminals; and just how many goats Albania exports every year. It reminds me of the way that Roma (still often known as “gypsies” in the West) are imitated on Albanian sketch shows, and it carries a whiff of minstrelsy. Simply put: it’s lazy, and it’s an easy ploy for easy laughs; another image of the “backward Albanian” to be banked with the rest of our ethnic stereotypes.
If you’re going to go down the tricky route of using ethnicity as a point of humor, use what you know. My Big Fat Greek Wedding is a cheesy example, but the ethical question of perpetuating negative stereotypes about Greeks is much easier to deal with when the creator is telling the story of her own experience. In the SNL sketch, Tina Fey appeared to be drawing on memories of her own Greek grandmother for the role of Blerta; the parody would have been less problematic if she had not chosen to transpose it onto an Albanian woman.
Albanians know how to laugh at themselves; it’s actually difficult to find a more self-deprecating people. There are probably many Albanians who find Blerta funny — on a surface level, I’d agree with them! But does Blerta really do anything to help our tattered and unfair image abroad? Not really.