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The Heavier the Borscht, the Lighter the Burden: Inaccuracies in Czech Representation on American Screens

in Reviews

By Tereza Walsbergerová

The United States is above all a country of immigrants, which is why it is desirable for American producers and filmmakers to include immigrant and foreign narratives in their stories. While the representation of the larger foreign-born populations in the US (e.g. Mexican, Chinese or Indian) has been constantly improving due to pressure from these communities, the misrepresentation of smaller populations (e.g. Polish or Czech) has not been considered such an issue. However, due to globalization and services such as Netflix bringing American films and TV shows to the rest of the world, producers may soon find themselves under pressure from even these smaller groups. When it comes to the representation of Czech characters and narratives on American screens, it is apparent that producers often do little research, if any, which results in depictions that are often stereotypical or inaccurate. This article offers an overview of inaccuracies in Czech representations on American television with special focus on Jane the Virgin (2014–) and its depiction of the character of Petra Solano.

Petra Solano fanart by Monique Steel

It is a particularly cold night and the gritty streets of 2008 Prague are covered in cigarette smoke, sirens blaring in the distance, as Olomouc-native Petra and her mother Magda walk down an alley brimming with shady existences and “beware of pickpockets” signs, speaking to each other in broken Czech. Suddenly, Petra’s evil ex-boyfriend, Milos “Dvoracek”, jumps out of the shadows, intending to hit her with a bottle of hydrochloric acid. Fortunately, Petra escapes this attempt at her life unscathed, however the only reason the acid ends up burning her mother’s face and not hers is that she ducks down to pick up a Czechoslovak crown off the dirty sidewalk just as the acid is flying towards her. “Mother!” Petra calls out, as Magda, wailing in excruciating pain stumbles under the wheels of a nearby passing car…

To Czech audiences, there are several things that do not quite add up in this scene from the first season of Jane the Virgin, a 2014 American take on the telenovela format. First, even though the narrator claims that this happened only five years ago, the show’s portrayal of Prague resembles the town of Petersburg in the cartoon version of Anastasia rather than a bustling Central European city of 2008. Second, although the characters are said to be Czech natives, they struggle with the language, lisping their way through all the “ř” sounds and putting the emphasis on all the wrong syllables. And third, as Magda stumbles into the road, Petra actually calls out to her in English, even though they have been speaking to each other in Czech the entire time.

This is just one of many examples of how the representation of Czech people on American television can go wrong as Jane the Virgin is by far not the only show which has attempted to incorporate the Czech Republic and its people into its storylines and failed. Czech characters, be it immigrants like Petra or actual Czechs living in the Czech Republic, have appeared on American (as well as Australian, British, and Canadian) screens more often than one may realize. However, these representations tend to be predominantly inaccurate and stereotypical.

While in the past, Czech audiences may have excused these excesses simply because they did not know about them (for example because they watched a dubbed version). Due to globalization and services like Netflix, the probability that we might find ourselves watching ourselves through the eyes of different countries has increased dramatically. Netflix, priding itself on being “the world’s leading entertainment service”, offers predominantly American content (including Jane the Virgin) in over 190 countries around the world. Along with a heightened call for diversity, the expectation is that American writers and producers would become increasingly cautious when it comes to including other nationalities in their narratives and undertake necessary research to ensure that the portrayals are accurate. Unfortunately, the contrary has often been the case.

Czech Republic on film

Strahov Library in Prague, Malenka, Pixabay, CC BY 4.0.

As American filmmakers struggle to reconstruct the Czech Republic on their home turf, Prague has become the go-to setting of many Hollywood productions shooting in Europe – sometimes starring as itself, sometimes disguised as another city. For example, the majority of the second season of Outlander (2014–)TV show about an Englishwoman from the 1950s who time-travels to 18th century Scotland – takes place in Paris, but was actually filmed in Prague. And it was definitely not the first time this has happened. According to “[a]fter the fall of communism and the formation of the Czech Republic in 1992, Hollywood studios rushed into the country to take advantage of not only low production costs, but also the high level of talent available throughout the local industry”. Since then, productions have included films such as; Amadeus (where Prague charaded as Vienna), Mission: Impossible (1996), Snow White: A Tale of Terror (1997), Van Helsing (2004) and Everything Is Illuminated (2005). Unfortunately, not even filming in Czech locations guarantees that the representation of “Czechness” will be authentic. For instance, Wanted (2008) which was partially filmed in the Czech Republic includes a scene in which the announcements at a Czech railway station appear to be in Russian rather than Czech.

Furthermore, the US is not the only English-speaking country which has attempted (and oftentimes failed) to portray Czechs and the Czech Republic on their screens. For example, there is a Czech character in the British TV show Sherlock (episode “The Great Game”) – a woman who owns a gallery in London called “Miss Wenceslas”. Since the rest of the plot is masterfully thought-out and researched, it is almost comical that the creators would not realise that “Wenceslas” is actually the Anglicized version of the Czech name “Václav” (known in England thanks to the Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas”) and is therefore far from being a typical Czech surname. As the character is so minor and this is the only obvious mistake that they have made in relation to her Czechness, besides the fact that she is portrayed by an obviously English actress.

The quest for authenticity

One of the positive examples of Czech representation on English-speaking TV can be found in the Canadian-American show Stargate: Atlantis (2004–2009), which hired actual Czech Canadian actor, David Nykl, to play the crew’s scientist and expert on alien technologies, Radek Zelenka. According to Nykl, the creators were originally looking to cast an actor to play a Russian scientist, but once they cast Nykl in the role, they changed it to a Czech character instead. One of two two conclusions can be drawn from this: either: actors of Slavic-origin have to audition for Russian characters if they want to play foreigners because other Slavic nationalities are not represented on the screen as often as Russian, or: the SGA producers must have been committed to making the character as authentic as possible since they changed his nationality to Czech. Additionally, as Nykl’s natural accent is Canadian, he has made an effort to sound Czech on the show, which showed the authenticity of the character.

Dr. Zelenka first appears on the show in episode “Thirty-Eight Minutes”, introduced by one of the main characters, Rodney McKay, as the “Czech whose name I can’t remember”.¹ As some of his lines of dialogue tend to be in Czech and the show’s creators have decided not to provide subtitles, Nykl has had the opportunity to be as authentically Czech as possible on many different occasions. According to Nykl, the writers would give him his lines in English and he would translate them himself, which often resulted in meta-textual moments on the show in which Nykl, as Zelenka, would comment on the actors’ performances rather than the characters’ actions (e.g. in episode “The Brotherhood” when he exclaims: “Jesus I can’t work with these actors” when something goes awry with the computer system as a part of the plot) or spew profanities in Czech (e.g. in “Grace Under Pressure” when he says: “Shit, this really sucks, whose idea was it that we’d be under water this time!?”, to which the other character, John Sheppard replies: “I think my Czech’s getting better, because I know what you mean”).

Of course, keeping Zelenka authentically Czech may not have been as difficult for SGA producers as it may have been for Jane the Virgin writers. One, they had a Czech actor who was able to ensure that everything was as accurate as possible, and two, as SGA is a science fiction show where all the characters are uniform-clad and live in an ancient alien city in a different galaxy far away from Earth rather than – as it is in the case of Jane the Virgin – in Miami, which is supposed to be the 39th most diverse city in America, they did not have to deal with matters such as fashion, food, or folklore.

Authenticity is something one will not find easily when it comes to the purely American portrayals of Czech characters. Not only are they usually portrayed by non-Czech actors, but the portrayal itself is far from accurate and often Czech characters are dismissed as Russian or simply Eastern European. Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s episode “No Place Like Home”, introduces the goddess Glory – a goddess from a hellish dimension who is supposed to speak Czech. Since the mythical Slavic goddess “bohyně Sláva” (upon which this character was based) is the absolute pinnacle of Slavic mythology, she should be able to speak Czech perfectly, however on the show she can barely string  a Czech sentence together, quickly switching to English under the excuse of adapting to her surroundings.

Clever satire or insufficient research?

Jane the Virgin is a meta-textual satirical show which subverts not only the telenovela genre and writing as such, but also many other American TV tropes and genres. At the same time, however, Jane the Virgin is a drama depicting serious issues such as immigration, physical and  mental illness, murder, and parenthood. Still, it is easier to recognize the show’s tongue-in-cheek moments from the serious ones when it comes to its portrayal of Latinx² issues as the distinctions between scenes that clearly subvert Latinx stereotypes (such as their devout Catholicism and obsession with purity) and scenes that deal with serious topics of the Latinx communities (such as undocumented immigration) are clear-cut.

As Czechs are definitely not the show’s main focus, their portrayal is nowhere near as nuanced, which means that it is often harder to recognize satirical commentaries from outright mistakes. For example, just before the scene where Miloš throws hydrochloric acid at Petra takes place in “Chapter Nine”, the narrator criticizes the producers’ decision to depict it in black-and-white at first even though it is a flashback, claiming that “it seems a little dramatic” seeing as it only happened five years ago. The narrator is clearly jokingly commenting on the telenovela trope of the dramatic depiction of the past. The rest of the scene, including the characters speaking in broken Czech, however, could not have been depicted that way intentionally as there is no way that a general American audience member would be able to perceive it as satire without understanding Czech language, having been to Prague, or even noticing that it says “The Republic of Czechoslovakia” on the coin. Again, as the show’s main focus is the Latinx community and not the Czech community, it seems that the discrepancies in the Czech parts of the show are the result of an under-research on the writers’ part rather than an attempt at metatextual satirical commentary on the depiction of Czechs on American TV.

Slovak pickles and Russian soup

Schwoaze, Pixabay, CC BY 4.0

Still, as the creators have decided to portray an entire family of Czech characters on Jane the Virgin, one might expect them to hire Czech actors or advisors since they are having the characters speak Czech on several occasions and reminisce about their life in the Czech Republic. Again, that is not the case. Petra Solano (née Anděl) and her twin-sister Anežka are played by an Israeli actress Yael Grobglas. While Grobglas’s natural Israeli accent is innocuous enough to not resemble any notoriously known accents, it definitely does not resemble the Czech accent either. This misrepresentation may cause that Czech audience automatically disconnects from the show. Tvtropes refers to this kind of misuse of language as the “Gratuitous Foreign Language” trope. According to the website, the result of TV writers using foreign language on their shows can be “random dialog, often awkward or incorrect thrown around to make a dialogue seem more exotic”, which is definitely the case when it comes to Jane the Virgin and its portrayal of Czechness.

According to the show, Petra (whose real name actually turns out to be Natalia later on in the show, which again, is more of a Russian name rather than Czech) is supposed to originally be from Olomouc where she earned her living as a street performer playing the violin. After the acid incident in Prague, Petra and her mother flee the Czech Republic to escape her evil ex-boyfriend. They change their names and emigrate to America where Petra meets Rafael Solano, her future husband. Although the writers often try to highlight her status as a foreigner by making her forget English words or having her be confused about English idioms or using Czech idioms instead, they in most cases actually end up misrepresenting Czechness rather than representing it. For example, when Petra finds out that Jane’s mother has breast cancer in “Chapter Seventy Eight”, she turns up on the Villanuevas’ doorstep with a pot of hot soup, proclaiming that “the heavier the borscht, the lighter the burden”. While soup can be seen as Czech comfort food (and actually the comfort food of many other countries), borscht is definitely not the choice someone who has done research on Czech food would go with. Additionally, there is no such saying in Czech as “the heavier the borscht, the lighter the burden”.

The issue of misrepresentation becomes even more jarring when it comes to Petra’s twin-sister, Anežka. As she is said to have only come to America recently (as opposed to Petra and her mother who emigrated five years ago), the emphasis on her Czechness is even more profound on the show. Her accent is portrayed as much thicker, for example, often bordering on grotesque, and her wardrobe looks like she got stuck in the communist Czechoslovakia (long crazy-patterned skirts, white socks with lace trims often worn in sandals, long unkempt hair, etc.).

At some points, the producers’ struggle to provide some Czech authenticity even borders on hilarity. For example, in “Chapter Seventy Eight” we find Petra laying on her bed in her pyjamas eating pickles straight from the jar because she feels sad and frustrated, having just seen her crush on a date with another woman. Putting aside the fact that pickles are definitely not considered comfort food in the Czech culture but rather a kind of food which one eats during pregnancy, the pickles themselves are not even Czech; once a zoom-in option is used on the screen, it is clear that the label says “uhorky” – which is the Slovak word for pickles as opposed to the Czech “okurky”.

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for Americans (or Western Europeans) to not realize that Czechoslovakia has not existed since 1993 and they might not therefore know that it is improbable that Petra would be eating Slovak food unless she specifically decided to buy Slovak pickles for some reason (just as they would not realize that it is improbable that she would find a 1933 Czechoslovak crown on the sidewalk). What becomes even larger problem, however, is when the Czech Republic or the Czech people are portrayed as Eastern European, or more extremely, as Russian.

American filmmakers often incorrectly refer to the Czech Republic as Eastern European country or seem to have forgotten that the Eastern Bloc dissolved in 1991. This leads to Czech (and arguably Slovak, Slovenian, Bulgarian, and Serbian) characters being generally portrayed as Russian simply because it is easier for American audiences to place within their subconscious.

Petra’s mother, Magda, is portrayed by a New Jersey-native actress Priscilla Barnes whose image of an aging Czech woman is nothing but a caricature of older Russian women (including speaking with an obviously Russian accent). She is a crude blonde woman with a hook for one of her hands and an eyepatch over one of her eyes (the results of throwing a grenade into the ocean in “Chapter Twenty Eight”). According to the Tvtropes page on the “Ugly Slavic Women” trope, this kind of disturbing depiction of Slavic women may be in fact connected to the western Red Scare propaganda. Magda is also portrayed as a cold-blooded killer, which can be connected to the common portrayal of the Czech Republic as a dark mafia-rotten place brimming with murder and drug lords, which may also be connected to the Russian generalization.

Better than nothing?

Jgryntysz, Pixabay, CC BY 4.0

Ultimately, the question is whether all representation is good representation just like all publicity is good publicity. Generally, one may say that the fact the Czech Republic and the Czech people are noticed by American filmmakers and TV writers at all (as opposed to Slovakia, for example) should be seen as a positive despite the issues listed above. On the other hand, one may also argue that unauthentic portrayals of foreign countries and languages have a potential to hurt the reputation of those countries in the eyes of the American audience with blatant generalizations and the perpetuation of national stereotypes.

As globalization is bound to keep progressing and services such as Netflix are bound find their way into more and more households around the world, however, there is also a hope that American representation of foreign countries will evolve and improve under the pressure from those countries just like it has already happened with the representations of larger foreign communities on TV.

1 Since Atlantis in an international mission, there are around a dozen nationalities amongst the ship’s crew, including Scottish, German, Spanish, Canadian, Russian, American, and Czech.

2 Gender-neutral term for people of Latin American origin or descent.

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