Tonight the second episode of the new series of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding airs on Channel 4, and the controversy sparked by the show will doubtless resurface in its wake. The first episode of the new series gained 5.7 million viewers, making it Channel 4′s most watched show so far this year. With the city of York’s largest ethnic minority group being Travellers, we’ve looked into the issues that have been raised by another controversial Channel 4 show…
Described by Channel 4 as a “Revealing documentary series that offers a window into the secretive, extravagant and surprising world of gypsies and travellers in Britain today”, it has however been criticised by many as being racist and damaging to the Travelling Community. Featuring the lives of Irish Travellers in England, in a documentary format, focusing on their traditions and, as expected, the more dramatic side of life, including weddings with raucous wedding parties, enormous dresses with lights woven into them, illegal horse-and-trap road racing, and bare knuckle fighting, it has been labeled by some as a ‘mockumentary’.
A major criticism of the show is that it focuses mainly on the Irish Travelling Community, but as the title suggests that it covers the whole gypsy community many have found this strange when the Irish Travellers only make up a proportion of the community as a whole.
Christine Shepherd, Chief Officer at York Travellers Trust said, “Many Travellers in York watch the show but there is quite a lot of upset as to how the community has been portrayed. The show focuses only on Irish Travellers who are a completely different to English Travellers.”
Many of the traditions and incidents shown such as ‘grabbing’, the practice of rough sexual play where a man ‘grabs’ any women he desires, are portrayed by the makers of the documentary, as being normal practice in Travelling Communities, and caused public outcry when the first series was aired. Christine however told me that most in the communities she works with had never heard of the practice before they saw the show. She went on to say of her own experiences working with Travellers, “In 12 years of working with Travellers I have never seen anything like some of the things they show in the programme.”
Many such as the York Travellers Trust work hard to help to improve relations between Traveller and non-travellers communities and feel that the negative impact of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, sets back this hard work. As Christine told me, “it generates conversation about this disadvantaged community which could be positive, but the way it shows the Travelling Community it only increases the barriers between communities”, and there have been anecdotal reports of increased bullying of Traveller children in schools as a result of the programme.
It’s not just the content of the show that is causing offense, but the advertising of the new series has already provoked many to comment on the perceived racist nature of the wording used. The now infamous ‘Bigger. Fatter. Gypsier’ adverts have gained a large amount of media and social media coverage, and when one thinks of an advert for those in other communities being referred to in this manner, it does seem to be quite… well, racist. If you disagree think about ‘Bigger. Fatter. Jewier’, or ‘Bigger. Fatter. Blacker’ being used to promote documentaries on these ethnic groups.
On the advertising Channel 4 said in a statement: “The word ‘gypsier’ refers to the fact that this series offers even greater access and insight to the communities featured, and the terms ‘gyspy’ or ‘gypsier’ are not being used in a negative context. Everyone featured in the campaign has seen the posters and is happy with them. All images were taken with full consent and all aspects of the poster campaign fully comply with advertising guidelines.” This hasn’t stopped people expressing their view of the posters with direct action…
The show has already received wide-spread complaints from politicians and those in the Travelling Community. Once such complaint came in the form of an open letter from Pip who describes himself as ‘Not quite your average 17 year old romany boy’ on his blog here. Starting with “I am writing to you with the hope that you will stop ruining my life”, the letter is a powerful rebuttal to the show’s makers. Labelling the documentary a “work of fiction”, he goes on to say “your ‘documentary’ about Irish Travellers seemed to feature an alien culture that even most Irish Traveller’s didn’t recognise”, and “I’m yet to attend a wedding where the bride’s dress weighs more than my whole family.”
He ends with, “Unlike those who star in your ‘documentary’ I am not after 5 minutes of fame, but what I am asking for, is for you to put humans above ratings. You can’t ignore us forever.”
According to Shelter more Gypsies and Travellers live in conventional housing in the UK than live on sites or unauthorised encampments, but this kind of fact presumably doesn’t get the ratings going. There is consensus that Gypsy culture originated in India and that the Romany language (a version of which is spoken worldwide by Gypsies) is rooted in an Indian dialect.
It is believed that the ‘Romany Gypsies’ emigrated from Northern India in the ninth century, and there are records of Romany Gypsies in Britain in the early 1500s. Romany Gypsies in England are widely known as English Gypsies, (there are also separate Welsh and Scottish Gypsies) and they share some of the same cultural traditions and beliefs as Roma, who are also descendants of original Indian Gypsies, having been displaced and moved into Eastern Europe.
Irish Travellers, who are heavily featured on My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, have been living in Britain since the seventeenth century, and have been a part of Irish society for hundreds of years before that. They are believed to originate from a pre-Celtic, nomadic group of people, and preserve their own language, Shelta, which is different from Irish Gaelic.
The Travelling Community is also comprised of those who reject consumer society and instead live a nomadic lifestyle, and are commonly known as New travellers.