BOOKS AND ARTS MAY 31, 2011
“A spectacle like nothing else … their lifestyle will blow your mind,” proclaims the commercial for TLC’s newest show, “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding,” which debuted in a “sneak peek” Sunday night. (The official premiere is June 3.) A re-broadcast of the British Channel 4 show of the same name that has attracted millions of viewers and widespread media attention, the series documents the lavish weddings, as well as engagements, first communions, and other milestone events, of Irish Traveller and Roma communities. The “spectacle” includes teenage brides and grooms, elaborate dresses that can weigh in at more than 70 pounds (including one that lights up in the dark), bouffant hairdos, spray tans, stretch limos, and scantily clad female guests. “From the makeup to the miniskirts, from the heels to the hair,” TLC declares at the beginning of each episode, “it’s the outrageous, it’s the unbelievable, it’s ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.’”
What’s most outrageous, however, aren’t the celebrations on display: It’s the show’s voyeuristic, stereotypical, judgmental, and shallow depiction of one of the world’s most misunderstood and, at times, abused minorities. “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” (a terrible, degrading title to begin with) claims to offer one-of-a-kind insight into a unique community, but it manages to achieve the opposite. Viewers are instead offered an overly simplistic view of the cultures of Travellers and Roma—two distinct groups, though the show happily conflates them into one category—with scarcely any historical or political context about their place in the United Kingdom and Europe more broadly.
To watch “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” is to see Travellers and Roma as uneducated, flashy, and closed-minded people who live in mobile-home parks and throw enormous parties. This was easily confirmed on Twitter Sunday night, as viewers called the show “crazy” and “a trainwreck,” and referred to the women on it as “whores” and “hookers.” The show’s representation of its subjects was best summarized by one viewer who tweeted, “So far they get married @ 16, live in trailers & dress like sluts.” The truth about Travellers and Roma, however, is infinitely complex—and both Channel 4 and TLC have wronged these communities, as well as the show’s viewers, by failing to tell it.
That TLC’s version of the show—which has substituted an American narrator for Channel 4’s British one, but uses the same content—would be biased was clear from the network’s p.r. that preceded it. A press release described Travellers and Roma as living in a “hidden world” and having a “highly secretive community.” From the get-go, TLC’s language perpetuated a dangerous stereotype by instructing viewers to see these people as other, as aliens living outside the mainstream by choice. This sort of language carried into the show; in the two hours it was on Sunday night, words like “mysterious” and “suspicious” came up again and again.
The narrator also tells the audience early in the first episode that Travellers and Roma “are at odds with the world that judges them at face value.” Yet, in the first two hours of footage, there is no real examination of why this is. In addition to failing to clearly explain the differences between the two groups’ origins—Travellers are ethnic Irish, while the Roma came from Eastern Europe (and originally, historians think, India)—there is no explanation of why tradition dictated for centuries that they live nomadic lifestyles, or of how rampant prejudice against them evolved over generations. Granted, the second episode reports that 90 percent of Traveller land requests are rejected, and it shows Travellers being evicted from their trailers camps. But the back-story offered is simply that the local council had instructed the residents to leave and they had refused. A twelve-year-old Traveller boy named Jerry tells the camera that this happened “[j]ust cause they don’t like Gypsies”—and the show seems happy to leave it at that. No one on the council is interviewed, nor did the show bother to find a historian who might have been able to offer some genuine insight into the tensions over land between Travellers and non-Travellers. (The production team also betrays its own bias against the community’s way of life when a soon-to-be-bride says looking for a trailer to live in after getting married is no different than looking for a house, and a man behind the camera exclaims, “No, it’s not!”)
Moreover, there is no discussion of the broader Roma community, which remains Europe’s most hated minority. The slaves of empires past, the Roma were persecuted by the Nazis and, today, tend to live in dire poverty, often in shantytowns outside major cities in Central and Eastern Europe. They’ve been subject to forced sterilization, segregation in schools, and, as recently as last year, when French authorities destroyed dozens of Roma camps and rounded up their inhabitants, forced repatriation. A 2006 article in the journal Comparative Economic Studies noted that the Roma’s “unemployment rate is 100 percent in some rural areas” and still high in heavily populated areas, while The Economist has reported that “West Europeans … tend to believe that Roma migrants are responsible for an epidemic of pickpocketing, shoplifting, mugging—and worse [crimes].”
None of this seems to matter to Channel 4 or TLC. In their view, “Gypsy”—a term many Travellers and Roma find derogatory—culture apparently need not be understood in a historical or pan-European context. Rather, it is sufficient to see it almost exclusively through the lens of parties: the clothes worn (or not worn, as the camera seems to gravitate toward women’s bare midriffs), the color schemes, the people attending, the mode of transportation used to get there.
By way of such details, the show often claims to be giving the audience exclusive access to arcane rituals that will illuminate Traveller and Roma life. Problem being, they aren’t arcane or revealing at all. For instance, the narrator teases, “[T]he secrecy behind a Traveller communion is revealed for the first time”—but there isn’t much that’s secretive; it’s more or less a young girl in a too-big, too-ornate dress, followed by a large family party. Or “another important Gypsy [marriage] custom is the cake-cutting”—one which, last I checked, goes for most modern weddings as well.
Worse still, the show’s chosen arbiter of all things Traveller and Roma is Thelma Madine, a dressmaker who is from neither community. (“Few outsiders have a keener understanding” of the “plight” of these communities than Madine, the narrator tells viewers.) Madine, who designs and constructs elaborate gowns for Traveller and Roma weddings and communions, admits to having been skeptical of the communities and their fashion choices when she first encountered them—implying, of course, that it is acceptable for the audience to feel the same way. “When I first seen them, it was like ‘My God,’” she says early in the show’s first episode. “They did look like prostitutes—that’s how you would describe them. … You wouldn’t let your daughter walk around like that.” But Madine tells viewers she came around, realizing that Travellers and Roma are decent people, too. “[W]hen you get to know them, their morals are so high”—no sex or cohabitation before marriage, for instance—“you would say they are definitely stuck in a time warp.” (The show never attempts to reconcile the sexy outfits with the strict moral code; it’s simply left at being a paradox the audience can point fingers at.)
Later, Madine offers her own explanation of why these groups are ostracized: “They don’t want their society diluted by non-Travellers. They want to keep it as pure as possible.” This sentiment is supported by comments from a young Traveller woman, who disparages “gorgers,” or outsiders, for being immoral. (Soon after, however, Pat, a young Traveller man who’s marrying an outsider, offers a different take: “I think it’s very unfair to try to point out differences.”) With comments like Thelma’s coming from the screen, on top of scene after scene of gaudy wedding preparations carefully edited for maximum effect, it shouldn’t be surprising to either Channel 4 or TLC that one viewer took to Twitter Sunday night to write, tragically, “I now understand why all of Europe hates gypsys [sic].”
This isn’t to say that the lavish weddings aren’t worth documenting, though it would have behooved the producers, had they been concerned with presenting a fair and robust picture of the communities in question, to show the weddings of Travellers and Roma who aren’t interested in glitz and glam. And, to be sure, even in this thin cultural portrait dominated by tulle and sequins, there are substantively disturbing moments—namely, young brides who bluntly say they don’t think getting an education or holding a job is important, and, most notably, a description of “grabbing,” a dating ritual whereby a young man grabs a woman and demands she kiss him, twisting her arm or otherwise hurting her until she obliges.
But a quick Google search will reveal that many in the Traveller and Roma communities were outraged by these aspects of the show when it initially aired in Britain. Traveller Jill Smith told News of the World, “The programme made out that all gypsy girls are forced to leave school at nine so they can stay at home cleaning until they marry. Yes, we’re expected to cook and clean, but we do have our own lives too. … Most girls have the opportunity to go to school, many of them have jobs.” In the same article, a Traveller mother of two young boys said of grabbing, “I don’t agree with it and neither do many other travellers. It’s tantamount to sexual assault.” (It’s also worth noting that, in the first two episodes of the show, the couples getting married met on Facebook or as children; there is no mention of grabbing in their courtship.) This isn’t to suggest that the situations depicted on the show are false or that they are all acceptable, but rather, that the realities of Travellers and Roma’s lives are far more complicated and varied than what appears on the show.
What, then, to make of this series debuting on U.S. television and the rationale behind airing it? A few months ago, I interviewed Rita Mullin, vice president of development at TLC, about the channel’s ethos. (If you’ve watched TLC at all over the past few years, you’ll know that it is dominated by a collection of reality shows about people in unusual circumstances: polygamists, hoarders, and people who have dwarfism, to name a few.) She described the network’s “creative filter” as being for “extraordinary everyday people.” “People may tune in because they’re thinking, ‘That’s sort of funny or weird,’ but they don’t keep watching it for that reason,” Mullin said. “They do because they are amazing people [on the shows].”
“My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” may fall into this category, but, as with much of TLC’s programming and reality television more generally, it’s a mistake to think most people will watch the series because they feel an empathetic connection with its subjects, or because they believe they are gaining a fuller understanding of a culture. The show simply isn’t good or fair enough for either to occur, and it doesn’t help that audiences are often just seeking out something to be entertained by. Perhaps the substance of the show will improve in the coming episodes, but based on what I’ve seen thus far—and on the Channel 4 clips available on YouTube—I’m not counting on it. (I’m also guessing TLC’s upcoming venture “Gypsyville,” which will chronicle the celebrations of Traveller and Roma communities in the United States, won’t be much better.)
Instead, because this misleading, incomplete show will likely be many Americans’ only exposure to Travellers and Roma in Europe, it will lead to a deep misunderstanding of who these people are. If Twitter is any indicator, it will continue to draw adjectives like “odd” and “insane,” as well as countless comparisons to “Jersey Shore.” Indeed, as the Internet response has shown—after Sunday night and during Channel 4’s airing of the series—“My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” seems destined to become another thing to gossip about, to ogle at, or to mock.
Seyward Darby is the online editor of The New Republic.