Channel 4’s latest televisual shocker is the recently successful My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. The series follows both the ceremonial occasions of a travelling community and their experiences of life in contemporary Britain. Perhaps more seriously, it also provides an interesting insight into the social hurdles that minority groups have to undergo to assert their identity as community outcasts. The series has been popular; however, is it in fact a gross spectacle that manipulates a disadvantaged part of society for entertainment purposes?
The show utilises many techniques to turn authentic culture into a kind of “warped” entertainment. 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 travellers as distasteful and vulgar.
Travellers are also distanced from viewers through the use of subtitles, also predetermined as foreigners. In one episode, a traveller is subtitled despite being perfectly legible; whereas a non-traveller is interviewed without subtitles – despite a broad accent making her almost impossible to understand.
The website that accompanies the series provides a good example of how culture is 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.
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? Despite being presented as “cutting edge”; undertones of ridicule are clear. The message sent by Channel 4 to viewers is an invitation: “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. My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding may be seen as nothing more than covert racism and, in a similar way to programmes such as Shameless or The Royle Family, makes a spectacle out a rich culture. The series is simply converting a marginalised people group into entertainment for others, reinforcing stereotyping and prejudice within society.