My Big Fat Gypsy Prejudice

Channel Four’s Big Fat Gypsy Weddings captured, in just a few short months, the interest and the imagination of the entire country. The first show attracted 6.4 million live viewers and ratings have only grown larger; it is now Channel Four’s eighth highest-rating programme ever and the final episode of the series drew more viewers than The Brit Awards.

However, while the series has given people access to an area of society that they previously knew nothing about, in doing so, it also seems to have provided many with greater confidence in their authority to comment on and criticise aspects of Gypsy and Traveller culture. Millions of viewers tuned in every week to satisfy their curiosity about travelling communities, but did they also do so to satisfy their prejudices? As one Romany Gypsy viewer pointed out, in the improvement of traveller and non-traveller relations, “this programme could have made such a difference; instead it has set us back even further!”

A survey conducted in 2004 by campaign group Stonewall revealed that the groups receiving the most hostility from the 1,700 respondents were Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers. The use of selective editing and degrading subtitles, along with a refusal to seriously tackle the persecution of Gypsies and Travellers throughout their history will not have escaped the more astute viewers of Big Fat Gypsy Weddings. Perhaps this programme does more than simply encourage hostility towards its subjects: does the entire concept of such a series unwittingly expose an “acceptable” racism towards travellers and gypsies that is still institutionalised and perpetuated even in our increasingly politically-correct society?

For a show that claimed to be a “revealing documentary series that offers a window into the secretive, extravagant and surprising world of Gypsies and Travellers in Britain”, ‘Big Fat Gypsy Weddings’ portrayal of traditional nomadic life is surely appallingly limited. Although distinctions are drawn between the Irish Travellers and the Romany Gypsies on screen, little effort is made to explain the differences between their cultures in the first place. It is clear from various television appearances and online discussion threads that this has particularly affected the Romany Gypsy community, who were underrepresented in the programme. Indeed, Romany Gypsies did not make an appearance until episode three, and only two interviews with Romany Gypsies were included in the series.

Kelly G*, a Romany woman I interviewed for this feature, explained to me that, “we are as different from Irish Travellers as an Anglo/European-Indian Protestant is from a Catholic Irish person. This is no exaggeration; it’s pretty much the simple truth of it. Channel Four misinforms the public that they are getting a glimpse into Gypsy and Romany culture – they are certainly not.”

“The inability of the media to differentiate between various travelling groups (many of whom are only travellers in name) such as Pavees (Irish Travellers) Romanies (English Gypsies), Carnival workers, New Age Travellers – has caused all groups to be seen as a mix,” and Kelly is not the only person to criticise. Journalist Jake Bowers, a Romany Gypsy who founded and appeared on Daybreak to speak out against Big Fat Gypsy Weddings has said that the show “has as much to do with Gypsy people as Borat had to do with Kazakhstan.”

Irish Travellers may have made up the majority of the participants in the show, but there has still been anger from their community about the way they have been represented. One Irish Traveller commented on a discussion board that, “this programme made the men look like barbarians and our girls look like hookers.” A woman interviewed by blogger Susan Craig-Greene complained “they made us look like some sort of alien.” Paddy Doherty, who was portrayed as a bare-knuckle fighter on the show and has been criticised for many of his remarks, has since revealed to The Daily Mail that his claims were “all nonsense” and “for show.”

Of course, even such vehement rebuttals cannot deny the accuracy behind one of the main themes of Big Fat Gypsy Weddings: the continuing marginalisation of nomadic communities within our society. As the programme went some way towards demonstrating, Travellers and Gypsies are often still at an extraordinary disadvantage within Britain, even those who have settled or been brought up in houses. One in every three members of the travelling population dies before they are 59. An Ofsted report into educational provision for travelling children in 1995 revealed that up to one fifth may not even be registered with a secondary school. As many as 80% of Irish Traveller women were found to have experienced domestic violence at some point in a study in Wrexham, and a woman who travels is three times more likely to give birth to a stillborn child or to miscarry than others.
As shocking as these figures are however, what is even more appalling is how little is being done to rectify the situation and improve Gypsy and Traveller quality of life in areas where it’s needed. There is only one, ten-roomed refuge for traveller and gypsy victims of domestic violence in the country. The £50 million budget allocation to build new sites in London was scrapped just days after the general election. According to Jake Bowers, literacy rates among Travellers and Gypsies remain very low.

It is Channel Four’s apparent reluctance to explore these issues and the reasons behind them seriously and sensitively that has resulted in criticism of the show from the Irish Traveller and Romany Gypsy communities. As journalist Paul Richards argues in his article on the programme, “a serious documentary might have explored the variegated ethnicities and subcultures within Britain’s traveller communities [along with] the reasons for their tragically low life expectancy and poor educational attainment, and their historic persecution.” Kelly seemed unsurprised by the Channel Four’s take on her community. She feels that Big Fat Gypsy Weddings is just symptomatic of a traditionally closed-minded and stereotype-reliant outlook towards travelling people from the media in general.

“The sad fact for us Romanies is that we have yet to be portrayed as normal, which is what we are. We are always shown in the media to be criminals, cowboys, psychics, fortune tellers, hags, temptresses, people who have a wanderlust, people who are ignorant, unable to read, inbred, and the list goes on. Channel 4 has reinforced these stereotypes.

“I am more representative of a Romany today, educated and living in a house. But that’s boring, why would Channel 4 make a show about that? Better to sensationalise. I know for a fact if I tell people I am an English Romany Gypsy I will be making trouble for myself. It’s best to keep quiet. All people have to go on is stereotypes shown in the media, which is inherently racist, without question. This gives justification to a few bigots out there. You cannot imagine how acceptable and justified people feel their hatred of us as a group is, even though they are surrounded by us and call us friends, bosses and employees.”

Clearly, sensationalise is exactly what Channel Four has done. More than this however, Big Fat Gypsy Weddings has perpetuated the kind of hostility towards, and ignorance of, nomadic communities which has been a feature in Britain for centuries. It is this, more than any misrepresentation or exaggeration, which has been so damaging to Traveller and Gypsy relations with the rest of society.

Kelly sums up the problem perfectly: “Now I have to hear the usual stereotypes and when I question people and ask ‘how do you know all “gypos” are like this?’ they tell me ‘I’ve seen it, haven’t you seen Big Fat Gypsy Weddings?” In response to complaints, Channel Four claimed that “the production company did a lot of research last year into the usage of words Gypsy and Traveller and spoke to a lot of experts who were all happy with the use of those terms.” This does come across clearly in the programme: the audience is always aware of whether they are watching a Romany Gypsy or an Irish Traveller. The question is, why were these two groups combined in a documentary in the first place, when they identify their cultures and histories as being entirely different?

While it is widely believed that Irish Travellers are the descendants of Irish families driven off their lands by Cromwell in the 17th century who have continued in their traditional nomadic lifestyle, Romany Gypsies originate from a nomadic group from Asia: Kelly explained to me how “our people are from India originally and left, because of religious wars most likely, and travelled throughout Europe. Since moving through Europe over the centuries we now are a mix of Polish, Spanish, Italian and French, and this is reflected in our dying language of Romani.”

Channel Four’s “documentary” has reduced these two different cultures to one homogenous group by presenting them to the public under the umbrella name of “Gypsy”, apparently for the sole reason that they both share a tradition of travelling. Big Fat Gypsy Weddings is neither a detailed exploration into all travelling cultures in Britain, nor is it the representation of modern Gypsy life that it claims to be. When we take into account the various other travelling communities in Britain which were not featured in the show, along with the fact that many of those who were filmed had actually stopped travelling years ago, such generalisation seems not only ridiculous but also incredibly racist.

Channel Four has highlighted some important social problems of travelling communities, but it does so in such a way as to alienate the viewer from these issues, rather than promote understanding. We are shown young girls taken out of school in order to marry young and fulfill the role of housekeeper, an unthinkable idea in a society focused on educational attainment. Rather than aid understanding and encourage solutions to the serious predicament of a minority, Channel Four instead presents it as the norm, capitalising on the marginalisation of these youngsters while reinforcing cultural barriers.

Where are the Gypsy and Traveller university graduates in Big Fat Gypsy Weddings? Why does only one of the women in the show work and why do all the men run scrap metal businesses? Why are we told the “secrets” of Gypsies and Travellers by a woman who is not in fact a part of either community? The subtext is obvious: travelling and non-travelling communities cannot communicate properly without some form of go-between. A cultural bridge is required if we are to ever properly understand this mysterious and separate world, something which Channel Four is kindly providing.

Kelly makes her feelings on this matter very clear. “I don’t know any Romany who is against education or reading, we see it as a wonderful way for our children to improve their chances of doing well in life. The only person in my family who did anything like tarmacking was actually a ‘gorga’ (an old term for somebody not born Romany) who married a Romany! I myself hope one day to write a novel based upon all the things I know and have experienced, as I hold no hope for TV documentaries any more.

“As for people who can’t see that the programme’s racist, I’d like to know what else it is when your ethnicity is generalised in such a negative fashion based upon assumptions and other groups’ behaviour.”
She is supported by Jake Bowers, who said on ITV’s Daybreak that, “Channel Four should be ashamed of itself. They would never do this to another community… You wouldn’t go to Brixton and film gang violence and say ‘this is the entire black community.’”

Perhaps what is most dangerous about Big Fat Gypsy Weddings however, is its entertainment value. The population at large (myself included) have clearly found it compulsive viewing, and many seem to have taken Channel Four’s negative portrayal as evidence to support their own prejudices. The show is easy-to-watch, car-crash television, filled with the kind of gratuitous exhibitionism and cruel mockery that makes shows like Big Brother, Tool Academy and Jersey Shore equally as popular. But while nobody would suggest that Big Brother showcased an accurate cross-section of the whole of British society, the lack of cultural reference points for Gypsy and Traveller communities means that Big Fat Gypsy Weddings is now the leading authority for them in the national consciousness, a deeply misleading depiction.

As Kelly sadly points out to me, such an attitude can do nothing to improve the integration and acceptance of Gypsies and Travellers within the wider society. “It’s not the people that are the problem, it’s the fact that racism is so easy to do. It’s so easy to justify with the media in this country not offering any alternative. In my opinion the majority of Gypsies and Travellers are like me, just getting along, proud of our roots and looking forward to the day when we can share our stories, which are part of English history, without fear of bigotry, assumptions and discrimination.”

Whether intentionally or unintentionally, Channel Four has created a show that accepts cultural stereotypes about an already marginalised section of our society, reinforces them and does nothing to overcome the barriers created by them. That it proved so overwhelmingly popular where a similar documentary about a minority group would have been received with anger suggests that there are still many “acceptable” prejudices in British society that need to be overcome.