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Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, it really needs no introduction. I have yet to meet anyone who has not seen at least half an episode of the hit Channel 4 programme, showcasing the travelling way of life for the entertainment of us “country folk” (non-travellers, in case you didn’t know). Its popularity is evident from the increasing tabloid and television coverage of its characters and issues, not to mention that gypsy star Paddy Doherty won the Celebrity Big Brother series in September 2011. However, despite the obvious interest in the show, it is questionable as to whether or not this insight into gypsy culture is having positive or harmful effects.
The episode aired on Valentines Day, followed the rubric of pretty much every episode so far: lots of unimaginably frilly, meringue wedding dresses – by designer of choice, Thelma Midane – spray tans, diamantes, tiny girls in tinier outfits, and a few token shots of the gypsy men, all to a soundtrack of fairground accordion music and thick Irish accents. A simple formula, yes, but entertaining nonetheless. But perhaps it is this very fact, that this is viewed primarily as entertainment, which is the problem. I won’t lie, I, like everyone else, sat gawping and giggling at Dolores’ luminous pineapple and palm tree hen party dresses and shook my head as girls no older than ten writhed about in outfits that wouldn’t look out of place on an ageing Ibiza poledancer. It was only as I began this article that I realised how much footage is used to portray the gypsy community as a materialistic, slightly stupid (see Sammy Jo on a sunbed proclaiming that ‘if I get cancer, I get cancer, at least I’ll still look good’), and somewhat hypocritical group – and we are not offered anything to inform us otherwise.
Aside from the occasional snippet of information regarding history or tradition, the programme seems more concerned with portraying the gypsy community as something to be poking fun at, rather than attempting to educate its audience to look beyond the stereotypes. This is done very cleverly, with a serious-sounding narrator explaining to us that a young girl is preparing for her Holy Communion by having her nails done – cue camera shot above the aptly-named salon, ‘Sin City’. Similarly done with shots of brides in elegant horse-drawn carriages trotting along graffiti-littered back streets, or subtle camera angles at the wedding dinner that show plates of nuggets and chips on the tables as the bride talks about her wedding being “dead classy”, this editing openly invites us to ridicule and scorn these people.
In BFGW, we are being shown a glimpse of traveller culture, but edited and communicated in such a way that encourages already existing stereotypes, furthering the differences between cultures in a way that would be deemed unacceptable if it were focused on distinctions such as race or sexuality. Despite its entertainment value, there is an argument to be made that BFGW is, as Live journalist Ian Hyland suggests, a ‘spineless and spiteful trick’, a form of cyber-bullying at its worst, and one that should not be allowed to continue, unless a more balanced, factual account of traveller life is delivered.