Channel 4’s latest televisual shocker is the recently successful ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding’. The series follows the lives and ceremonial occasions of the travelling community experience in contemporary Britain and the social hurdles that they must overcome as community outsiders to assert their identity. The series has been popular; however, is it in fact a gross spectacle that manipulates a disadvantaged part of society for entertainment purposes? Also, could the series cause social division and lead to the distancing of their culture and the exclusion of travellers from society?
The show utilises many techniques to turn the authentic culture into a kind of ‘warped’ entertainment. For example, the music that accompanies the series – a traditional, quick-paced, Romani violin – is felt keenly out of place when the travellers seem to listen more to popular music and has the effect of making the culture seem old-fashioned. The alternative soundtrack – a bumbling, plodding, brass piece – also suggests clumsiness and portrays the people as distasteful and vulgar.
The travellers are also distanced from the viewer through the use of subtitles. In one particular episode, a traveller is subtitled despite being perfectly legible; whereas a non-traveller is interviewed without subtitles – despite her broad accent making her almost impossible to understand. It’s almost as if the traveller is predetermined as a foreigner through the use of subtitles despite articulate clarity.
The website that accompanies the series provides a good example of how the culture in the film is being exploited and belittled. It invites the browser to see “more thrills and flounces”. Even the series title is derogatory. Despite ‘gypsy’ not being traditionally thought of as an insult by travellers, many non-travellers consider it (and use it) as a degrading term. ‘Big’ and ‘Fat’ also have many negative connotations and perhaps receive extra poignancy on a channel that regularly broadcasts documentaries detesting obesity – such as ‘Britain’s Fattest Man’ (2011).
The public reception has been one of spectacle: “Have you seen that ‘gypsy’ programme? Isn’t it hilarious?” But is it supposed to be funny? Isn’t it supposed to be a documentary of a culture? Despite being presented as ‘cutting edge’; the undertones of ridicule are clear. The subliminal message by Channel 4 to the viewer is an invite to: “Look at these ridiculous people, with their ridiculous traditions, come and laugh at them for not being like us.”
The message is clear. These people are not like ‘us’, these people are ‘outsiders’, these people are ‘others’. The viewer is supposed to define themselves against them and treat travellers as an underclass. Therefore, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding is nothing more than covert racism and, in a similar way to programmes such as Shameless or The Royle Family, makes a spectacle out of the poor and disadvantaged and a joke out of their cultures. It is people’s lives converted into entertainment for the rich and reinforces stereotyping and prejudice within society.
Since writing this article there have been similar opinions expressed in other newspapers:-
‘This Portrayal of Traveller Life Shows Huge Ignorance – But Not From The Gypsies’ – The Independent (Accessed: 15th Feb 2011)
‘Controversy at Last Over the Gypsy Wedding’ – The Guardian (Accessed: 17th Feb 2011)