The slaves of empires past, the Roma were persecuted by the Nazis and, today, tend to live in dire poverty, often in shantytowns outside major cities in Central and Eastern Europe.They’ve been subject to forced sterilization, segregation in schools, and, as recently as last year, when French authorities destroyed dozens of Roma camps and rounded up their inhabitants, forced repatriation.To watch “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” is to see Travellers and Roma as uneducated, flashy, and closed-minded people who live in mobile-home parks and throw enormous parties.This was easily confirmed on Twitter Sunday night, as viewers called the show “crazy” and “a trainwreck,” and referred to the women on it as “whores” and “hookers.” The show’s representation of its subjects was best summarized by one viewer who tweeted, “So far they get married @ 16, live in trailers & dress like sluts.” The truth about Travellers and Roma, however, is infinitely complex—and both Channel 4 and TLC have wronged these communities, as well as the show’s viewers, by failing to tell it.(Soon after, however, Pat, a young Traveller man who’s marrying an outsider, offers a different take: “I think it’s very unfair to try to point out differences.”) With comments like Thelma’s coming from the screen, on top of scene after scene of gaudy wedding preparations carefully edited for maximum effect, it shouldn’t be surprising to either Channel 4 or TLC that one viewer took to Twitter Sunday night to write, tragically, “I now understand why all of Europe hates gypsys [sic].”This isn’t to say that the lavish weddings aren’t worth documenting, though it would have behooved the producers, had they been concerned with presenting a fair and robust picture of the communities in question, to show the weddings of Travellers and Roma who aren’t interested in glitz and glam.And, to be sure, even in this thin cultural portrait dominated by tulle and sequins, there are substantively disturbing moments—namely, young brides who bluntly say they don’t think getting an education or holding a job is important, and, most notably, a description of “grabbing,” a dating ritual whereby a young man grabs a woman and demands she kiss him, twisting her arm or otherwise hurting her until she obliges.
(The official premiere is June 3.) A re-broadcast of the British Channel 4 show of the same name that has attracted millions of viewers and widespread media attention, the series documents the lavish weddings, as well as engagements, first communions, and other milestone events, of Irish Traveller and Roma communities.
“[W]hen you get to know them, their morals are so high”—no sex or cohabitation before marriage, for instance—“you would say they are definitely stuck in a time warp.” (The show never attempts to reconcile the sexy outfits with the strict moral code; it’s simply left at being a paradox the audience can point fingers at.)Later, Madine offers her own explanation of why these groups are ostracized: “They don’t want their society diluted by non-Travellers.
They want to keep it as pure as possible.” This sentiment is supported by comments from a young Traveller woman, who disparages “gorgers,” or outsiders, for being immoral.
Granted, the second episode reports that 90 percent of Traveller land requests are rejected, and it shows Travellers being evicted from their trailers camps.
But the back-story offered is simply that the local council had instructed the residents to leave and they had refused.