Women married off in their teens into lives of little else but motherhood and domesticity, boys raised to be the breadwinners and sex before marriage virtually unheard of: as much as this sounds like a collection of values belonging to a distant, Victorian community, it is shockingly regarded as integral to modern-day travellers.
Channel 4’s My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding investigates the gyspy community and reveals it to be completely antithetical to society today. Strong religious values are upheld, as is a patriarchal, traditional societal order in which the men are educated and control the family, whilst women do not have the same opportunities, yet seldom question their place as unfair or unnatural.
Throughout the series so far, Channel 4 has shadowed several families within the gypsy commnity, each one offering a glimpse into a life in which the phrase ‘marital home’ is replaced with ‘marital trailor’. The show features regular insights from dress designer Thelma Madine, who explains that girls are trained to be home-keepers from a young age. ‘They’re much more prepared for marriage than other kids. [When they’re engaged] they’re still children, and sometimes you want to steer them away from taking on grown-up lives. But you’ll never speak to a traveller who isn’t happy with their lot. They like the strict rules and morals that they’re brought up with, so I’m happy for them’.
One example of a young bride is, seventeen year-old Josie, who is startingly different from the average teenager. Having dropped out of school at eleven because ‘high school is not the place for a gypsy girl’, she had been thinking about her wedding day ever since. She then met her husband and became engaged only a coupe of months later, a seemingly usual arrangement for young girls in the gypsy community.
Like-minded gypsy girl Lizzie explains that ‘every travelling girl knows when they grow up there’s no careers or school – it’s just marriage! And children and that’s it. I suppose school’s good for the boys to go ‘cos they need to write and read and whatever, but for girls it’s not a big thing.’
In complete and glittery support of this is the sheer extravagance of the big day itself, the only down-side being the sheer tackiness of its every aspect. Think bridesmaids like strippers, bridal dresses larger than physically possible and everything but the dress in garish neon pink.
Despite this over-riding comic element, the show raises some serious concerns, not only regarding whether the brides and husbands are ready to devote themselves to each other at such a young age, but also the foreign customs presented to the viewer. One such worry is the tradition of ‘grabbing’, which entails a boy literally grabbing a girl that has caught his eye and physically forcing her into a kiss. This at times violent act is as disturbing to watch as it sounds, yet completely unquestioned by members of the gypsy community, both male and female.
Similarly jaw-dropping footage fills the screen when pre-pubescent girls are dressed like prostitutes and are not ready to hit the dance floor until they are smothered with a face full of slap. Over the course of the documentary so far, even a six year-old has got a spray tan, to which no-one battered an eye-lid. Gripping but shocking (and at times downright confusing) viewing.