By now, nearly everyone with access to cable has either seen or heard of TLC’s latest “documentary,” My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. Originally broadcast on Britain’s Channel 4, TLC boasts that American audiences can now watch the “secret” and “outrageous” lives of Gypsies unfold.
When I first learned that TLC was to air this program, I was horrified, as anyone who reads my blog knows that the plight of Europe’s Roma is very close to my heart. Initially, I intended to boycott the show entirely as well as write a letter to TLC to express my outrage with the network’s decision to air a program that glorifies stereotypes and misconceptions about Europe’s most discriminated minority group. However, after considering it might be unfair to criticize the show before watching at least one episode, I decided to hold off on the letter and temporarily rescind my personal boycott. Now, after watching three full episodes, I feel better equipped to voice my views concerning TLC’s “newest smash hit.”
Much like a car wreck from which you cannot look away, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding is undeniably mesmerizing. All of the racial archetypes surrounding the Roma are present – exotic girls dancing seductively to fast paced violin music in colorful “belly dancer-like” costumes, grown men fist fighting and playing dice in the street, and, in general, seemingly uneducated and low class people who inexplicably manage to have of loads of cash on hand for fast cars, extravagant weddings, and lavish first Communion celebrations. One cannot help but marvel at the spectacle of it all, making it easy to forget that the program is, in actuality, an ignorant, incomplete, and grossly xenophobic caricature of “the Gypsy.”
What to expect when you watch:
Sadly, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding gives viewers a very limited and exaggerated perspective into the lives of the UK’s Gypsy and Travelling communities.
Within the first minute of the premiere episode, the narrator sets the scene very melodramatically, indeed, explaining to viewers that they will soon be granted access into Britain’s “most secretive community.” This “us versus them” attitude only advances negative attitudes towards Gypsies and puts viewers on notice that the people they are about to encounter must be very mysterious and cannot be trusted. A non-Gypsy woman who is a bridal dressmaker specializing in Traveller weddings goes on to explain, “[Travellers] don’t like anyone knowing anything about them at all.” (The dressmaker appears numerous times each subsequent episode, ostensibly the “documentary’s” resident expert on all things “Gypsy,” providing her insight on Traveller culture and beliefs.) Finally, after a long series of clips showing scantily dressed teenaged Gypsy girls writhing around on dance floors and literally walking the streets, the narrator very seriously explains that, “the show will explore every aspect of Gypsy life.” (Here it is important to note that My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding focuses almost exclusively on Irish Travellers, which is a group separate and distinct from Roma Gypsies. While the program does identify the two groups, it provides no explanation as to the reasons for the difference, so Romani Gypsies and Irish Travellers are thus lumped together, leaving viewers with the impression that the two are indistinguishable.)
My perspective on the show:
Ironically, a Gypsy or Traveller who is interviewed within the first two minutes of the premiere episode best states my opinion of the program, though the quote is meant to promote the show:
“Ninety-five percent of people in this world have had no contact with [Gypsies], and they don’t know anything about them. The only information they have on Gypsies is what certain tabloids write about them, or what certain television programs put on about them, and that’s the only information. Ninety-nine percent of it is a load of nonsense.”
Certainly, after having watched My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, I would have to agree with the show’s own assertion. Ninety-nine percent of it is a load of nonsense.
Each episode begins in relatively the same way. Viewers are introduced to a young Gypsy or Traveller girl, who is portrayed as a virginal seductress though totally powerless and without control over her own life. Beautiful yet pitiably uneducated, she prepares to marry and move hundreds of miles from the only family she has ever known only to cook, clean, and submit to the will of her soon to be husband. She is innocent and chaste before marriage yet dresses like a Vegas prostitute. From childhood, she has dreamt of her wedding day and it consumes her thoughts. Though she may be somewhat disenchanted by the drudgery of her everyday life, she is nonetheless acquiescent and rarely questions her role in society.
On the other hand, the young Gypsy man is street smart and tough; a hustler who has a lot of cash available even though he is a laborer or migrant worker. He does not have to answer to anyone and can come as go as he pleases. He is brash and bold and enjoys drinking and fighting. From childhood, he was taught to settle his scores “like a man.” He wears “wife beaters” and baggy pants, has slicked back hair and may be heavily tattooed. He is worshipped by his mother and female family members and will be the adoration of his future wife. (Of course, there are a few deviations from this basic premise, but each episode can guarantee these characterizations.)
The real “Gypsy Experience:”
What is particularly disturbing about My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding is that this program is, in most cases, the first and only experience American viewers have with the Roma community. Because Gypsies live primarily in Eastern and Central Europe, American audiences are largely unfamiliar with the plight of Europe’s Roma and have little knowledge of the group’s long and painful history, which is marred by persecution, violence, slavery and genocide. The treatment they suffer is tantamount to the persecution that African Americans in the US suffered leading up to the Civil Rights Movement. Once slaves to Eastern Europe’s elite, today’s Roma continue to be victims of race-based violence including beatings and murders, as well as employment and housing discrimination, forced sterilization, extreme poverty and school segregation (as was the case in Oršuš and Others v. Croatia). This past summer, France and Italy implemented controversial Roma expulsion policies, which were hotly debated by world leaders as possible human rights violations. (SeeFrance begins controversial Roma expulsion, CNN Aug. 2010)
Perhaps the only redeeming aspect of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding is the account of the perspectives of the Irish Travellers, especially the children, as state authorities bulldoze their trailer homes. Still, such a serious subject is sensationalized. At one point in the opening scene, the narrator asks, “Gypsies are fighting for their very survival, but how long can the party last?” as young Gypsy girl gyrates across the screen to quick violin music.
My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding has been compared to MTV’s Jersey Shore , which is outrageous and highly entertaining, but certainly not an accurate depiction of the majority of Italian-Americans. While I am inclined to agree with that characterization to a certain extent, the fact remains that the ramifications of a program like My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding further exacerbate the already dire situation of Europe’s Roma, who are, in reality, concentrated in Eastern and Central Europe. Frankly, I see little difference between a program such as My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and the minstrel shows of America’s past, which exploited African American culture by perpetuating unfair stereotypes and misconceptions about a group that continues to face discrimination.
Jane Jackson, deputy chief executive of the Rural Media Company, a charity that publishes the Travellers’ Times, had this to say about the show when it first aired on Britain’s Channel 4.
“It’s posing as a documentary. The voiceover is saying we’re going to let you into the secrets of the traveller community – and it just not true. It might be true of the particular families in front of the camera, but it’s not generally true. It just confirms prejudices that Travellers are just people who choose not to live in houses.”
Certainly, one would hope that a program like My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding – one that blatantly promotes extreme prejudices and stereotypes about a maltreated minority group that continues to face persecution – would not be tolerated, especially here in the United States.
(Note: The two-hour premiere of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, which aired on June 3 on TLC, delivered 2.2 million viewers and earned the night’s top slot. Since, then, viewership has increased. See (Ratings – TLC Starts Summer Strong With “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” )
What you can do to support protests of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding:
How and why you should protest My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding: https://apps.facebook.com/causes/posts/790204
For UK readers: File a programme complaint with Ofcom: http://consumers.ofcom.org.uk/tell-us/tv-and-radio/a-specific-programme/
Stop Gypsy Persecution on Facebook: http://www.causes.com/causes/170001-stop-gypsy-persecution
VISIT: National Romani Anti-Discrimination Organization http://www.nrado.com
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