It seems almost a lifetime ago that I first heard the words ‘Big Fat Gypsy Weddings’,yet it was just two years ago when Channel 4, and their Firecracker lackies, imposed a life sentence upon the Gypsy and Traveller communities. I remember the moment well; there I was flicking through Baba’s weekly Closer magazine when I stumbled upon an ‘article’ about the lavish wedding of a sixteen year old bride. Little did I know this was just the prequel to a television series that would dramatically change public perception, of the Gypsy and Traveller communities, for the worse.
Winning an award for the ‘Most Groundbreaking Show’ at the 2010 (wait for it) Cultural Diversity Awards, the series has been monumental in achieving relentless bullying for Gypsy and Traveller children and new methods in which to ridicule an excluded minority (e.g. fancy dress, though apparently this is not comparable to ‘blacking’ yourself up). What is more, it has paved the way for the Moses of the Gypsy and Traveller world, non-Gypsy Thelma Madine, to spread the word of her people, whilst ensuring awareness that the Gypsy and Traveller people, of the UK and Ireland, are rich, misogynist arseholes. Over the past two years, the Gypsy and Traveller communities have expressed their outrage at the misrepresentation of their culture. Indeed, despite following the lives of less than 1% of the Gypsy and Traveller population of the UK, Channel 4 have insisted that their documentaries have “portrayed the community in a positive light and had a positive impact on their [Gypsy and Traveller’s] lives” and that they “feel confident that nobody has been misrepresented in any way.”
One may expect that a series which has caused so much controversy and upset, and which has generated such backlash and complaints, would expect to be condemned by official bodies such as Ofcom. Indeed, it does appear that Channel 4 have breached many conditions of the Ofcom Broadcasting code:
1.29 People under eighteen must not be caused unnecessary distress or anxiety by their involvement in programmes or by the broadcast of those programmes
2.2 Factual programmes or items or portrayals of factual matters must not materially mislead the audience.
7.6 When a programme is edited, contributions should be represented fairly.
Yet, the white, British, middle class cog’s of the Ofcom machine, deemed that Big Fat Gypsy Weddings was not in breach of the Broadcasting Code.
Indeed, it seems very reasonable for a bunch of desk jockeys, whose only contact with Gypsy culture was most likely posing for a photograph with Esmeralda at Disney World Florida, should judge whether a documentary about a handful of Irish Travellers is representative of all Gypsy and Traveller communities. Surely, this is a question that only the Gypsy and Traveller communities can answer.
It came to me as a surprise, when I discovered in August that Big Fat Gypsy Weddings was to come to an end in 2013. Perhaps I was arrogant to think that this may be the result of the relentless campaigning of the Gypsy and Traveller people, that perhaps I had played some part in its overdue demise. Indeed, as expected the Goliath Channel 4 cited “creative reasons” for the cancellation of the show, and once again defended their exploitative, racist and money grabbing ways. Yet as the story goes, there was one battle that Goliath could not win. Last week, the Advertising Standards Authority ruled that the poster campaign that accompanied the TV shows“depicted a child in a sexualised way and reinforced negative stereotypes.”
For many this was a time to celebrate, at last the Gypsy and Traveller communities had been listened to, yet for me I saw it as insult. How can we celebrate the condemnation of a poster? It was not a poster that encouraged the bullying of our children. It was not a poster that moulded new stereotypes of our people. It was not a poster that misrepresented our culture with such vulgarities. These were posters of scowling boys, and over-made teenage girls. Without the series they were advertising, I believe they would have done little if any damage to our reputation.
The only thing we have to celebrate is that sometimes we are listened to the second time around, as in fact the ASA originally decided not to investigate the poster campaign. With the Big Fat Gypsy Weddings era coming to an end, what can we say it has really achieved? Apart from aforementioned discrimination and stereotypes, I would suggest it has been very damaging to the communities themselves. It has served to divide us into two camps: those who wish to sell out our cultures for their fifteen minutes of fame, and those who condemn them. We cannot lay the blame exclusively with Channel 4 and Firecracker. Exploitative as they may be, they did not hold a gun to the heads of those participating in the documentaries; they made a choice to appear on the show. Those of us from more traditional Romani backgrounds, like myself, would never consider parading our culture in front of money grabbing television producers. Through centuries of discrimination at the hands of the non-Romani population, we have grown to distrust those outside our cultural walls, thus leading us to become very secretive and sheltered about our culture. Indeed, I doubt these producers would at all be interested in the traditional Romani lifestyle anyway.
The Big Fat Gypsy Weddings series appears to have attracted a certain strand of the Gypsy and Traveller communities- specifically Irish Travellers. This is somewhat contradicting, as Irish Travellers have no ethnic connection to the Romani (Gypsy) people whatsoever. Indeed, the series seems to reinforce the views of the general public, that the Romani and Irish Travelling communities are not distinct from one another. This is an issue that has repeatedly angered the Romani people. There is a deeply engrained feeling amongst us, that often the Romani people are blamed for the ‘ills’ and ‘wrongdoings’ of the Irish Traveller communities. Indeed, it is not uncommon for the Romani people to play the ‘blame game’. When faced with accusations (for example, fly tipping) it is often the case that Romani people will use the defence of “it wasn’t us, it was the Irish Traveller’s”, and this has been the case throughout the Big Fat Gypsy Weddings series. An idea has been promoted by our community that we are somewhat more moral and respectable than the Irish Travellers; more traditional, tasteful and ‘classy’. We have played on the nostalgic, romantic notions of the traditional Romani Gypsy as a means to defend ourselves against the tacky and ostentatious portrayal of our culture seen in Big Fat Gypsy Weddings.
I am guilty of this myself; I am eager not to be associated with the vulgar displays of wealth and materialism that this programme has exposed. I am angered by the disregard and ignorance of reality that these Travellers have shown with their garish, flashy attitudes. It plays into the media’s deceptive hands, especially the likes of the Daily Mail, who thrive from exposing the Gypsy and Traveller populations as prosperous, pilfering, fraudsters, with lavish homes in Rathkeale or extravagant mansions in Romania. In reality, the Gypsy and Traveller communities are amongst society’s poorest, indeed just next week I will be visiting my family in the Roma slums of Bulgaria, where a house with four walls, sanitation and running water is considered a luxury rather than a right. There are no flamboyant weddings here, with dresses worth more than a 2 bedroom house. There are children who are not refusing education, but who are denied education; parents who are forced to beg to feed their children; young men and woman selling their bodies to earn a living; and certainly no rampant materialistic displays of wealth.
Yet, the blame game is not a helpful game, nor a fair one. Indeed, the Irish Traveller Movement in Britain have been most vocal in their disapproval of the Big Fat Gypsy Weddings series, and were pivotal in overturning the ASA’s original ruling on the poster campaign. It is perhaps time for this culture of blame to come to an end, and is it can no longer be ignored that the cultural similarities between the Romani and Irish Traveller communities form an unbreakable bond that must be utilised to fight back against these misrepresentations and stereotypes of our cultures. Big Fat Gypsy Weddings was not representative of the Irish Traveller or Romani communities; instead it was our very own version of the Jeremy Kyle Show. Sadly these types of programmes attract a certain kind of person – the attention seekers, the fame hungry, the show offs - yet they are the easiest people to exploit. It is unfortunate that despite the repercussions of these shows, there are still people queuing up for their fifteen minutes of fame. This leaves the rest of us to pick up the pieces, to defend ourselves against their blatant disregard for the sanctity of our cultures, thus perhaps it is not the bigotry that has arisen from Big fat Gypsy Weddings that has been most detrimental to our lives, but the fact there are people from within our communities that are willing to screw us all for their fifteen minutes. I know who I’m more scared of.