My turn to spill the tea

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Every Tuesday night for the past six weeks, my eyes have been glued to Channel 4’s jaw-dropping, eye-opening, chav extravaganza that is My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.

Not one to ordinarily promote the watching of vacuous TV, I have religiously been turning on my television at 8.55pm each week to witness the most ridiculous programme this side of the Atlantic.

Advertised as an “examination of prejudice encountered by travelling communities in Britain today”, this overblown marshmallow of a show has attracted over 6 million viewers per episode, one of the highest ratings on Channel 4 since Big Brother. It charts the milestones of gypsy travelers’ lives, from christenings to weddings and funerals, with each event appearing more outrageous than the last. It is the epitome of car-crash TV; you sit gasping and gaping at the screen, in the full knowledge that watching this show is the equivalent of eating five Big Macs in one sitting.

What astonished me was the extent that these people take to embellish their lives. “Embellish” being the key word here – you only need to take one look at the mountains of pink chiffon – covered in crystals, LED lights and mechanical butterflies – made to engulf a small gypsy bride to realise that “low-key” is not a part of their vocabulary.

You come to learn that the fairytale-themed weddings are the most important moment in a gypsy woman’s life. Weddings mark the bride’s coming-of age, her transition from scrubbing the floors of her family’s caravan to a new life… scrubbing her husband’s caravan next door. As the series goes on, it becomes clear that there are a number of prerequisites essential to the make up of a true gypsy wedding. The bride must have a pink dress that is double her body weight – the more scars on the bride’s hips afterwards, the better. The cake must be shaped like a glittering Disney castle, hoards of mini-Lolita relatives will attend, “shaking it” like weird underage Shakiras, and the uneasy-looking groom will be blind drunk by 1pm. One groom-to-be said that “getting smashed” is what he’s most looking forward to on his big day.

Though the rags-to-riches weddings suggest the potential of a better life for the brides post-marriage, their descent back to a Cinderella-like existence continues the day after the wedding is over. These women’s lives are no fairytale.

Hidden under all the pink froth and chiffon of their wedding day lies a much darker reality. The obvious sexism that governs these women’s lives made me gawk even further. Around 60-80% of traveler women suffer domestic abuse at the hands of their partner. From an early age, these girls experience the tradition of “grabbing”, which involves a male traveler chasing down a female traveler with the aim of “getting a kiss”. As one man explains, “Girls won’t give you a kiss; you’ve got to beat them first.” The women explain that they don’t really like being “grabbed”, but are conditioned to accepting whatever their male counterparts throw at them. The idea that a gypsy woman could have a life of her own, a job independent of her domestic life, is practically unthinkable. It would just detract from their time spent doing household duties.

First impressions of these women – from their lack of clothing to their “drag-queen style” make-up – initially suggests a certain “looseness of morals”. Despite their attire, it seems that these women are just as oppressed by their fathers and husbands, as women suffering in the Middle East. The difference here is that these women live just around the corner from us. Gypsy males, meanwhile, drink, swear, fight and cheat on their wives, with no chastisement from their family or community. “It’s a man’s world,” says one female traveler, who was getting married at the ripe old age of 22, practically a spinster in the gypsy world.

The programme takes you through a range of emotions: from incredulity at their lack of basic general knowledge to wonder at their attire; anger at the unfair treatment of women to outrage at their sense of entitlement to land which doesn’t belong to them. Far from exposing the prejudice which gypsy travelers face from the general public, instead it focuses on prejudices within the gypsy communities themselves. Behaviour that we would normally consider unacceptable is highlighted, through deliberate editing and dead-pan narration. Somehow, Channel Four have managed to turn what is ultimately a circus show, into something that is a half-decent form of social criticism.

Nina Zietman

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