> Twenty stone wedding dresses and bizarre ‘grabbing’: a look at one of the UK’s most insular communities.

For the past four weeks the nation has been enraged, entertained, disgusted and delighted by Channel Four’s fabulously crude reality show, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.

Pulling in over 7.5 million viewers an episode, making it the eighth most successful programme for Channel Four ever, viewers were privy to “unprecedented access to the UK’s most secretive community”.  And wow, did we dive into it.

A quick glance over a few tabloids and magazines in your local shop, and you’re presented with numerous brides and brides-to-be who were featured in the show (not to mention the recent controversy surrounding the shows self confessed hard man Paddy Doherty’s court case). But why was this show such a hit? And was it a fair representation of a self-professed proud culture?

Channel Four has always had a knack for pioneering new types of television, Big Brother being a case in point. Big Brother has been called everything from a social study into human behaviour, to a freak show, ‘cruelty parade’ for media hungry contestants who are still continuing to form the Z-list of celebrity parties; Nikki Grahame of “Who is she?!” fame being the obvious example. Gypsy Wedding has been met with similar reaction of both wonder and horror, perfectly fitting into the genre of car crash television. On the one hand, viewers get to witness life within the travelling society, in a way that ‘settled’ communities never have. Traveller’s commitment to celibacy, lack of divorce, and religious and parental commitments were all extremely interesting to a fairly ignorant audience who had previous assumptions about the Gypsy way of life. Not to mention the initial shock and awe at the Princess-Barbie style gowns which all Gypsy brides-to-be covet.

Predictably, the main focus from the media has been on the more negative aspects of Gypsy life, such as the blatant sexism, the early age of marriage, and of course ‘grabbing’. Whilst some elements of Gypsy tradition may become lost in translation, no one could deny the uncomfortable sight of watching a young teenage girl (Cheyenne) be physically assaulted as a method of flirting. After it was aired, 15-year-old Cheyenne claimed, “the whole ‘grabbing’ thing. That was all blown out of proportion”, but to us as viewers, and as a culture, it seems frightful that this is practised behaviour. This was proved by the outrage on message boards after the airing, with some angry viewers “disgusted by the sexual harassment of underage girls”. But these controversies and outrages are what makes viewers tune in every week, the shock appeal has worked for Channel Four since its launch, and it is doubtful the broadcaster will change a winning formula anytime soon.

Another part of Traveller life that was met with controversy was the treatment of women. It seemed these girls were basically bread for marriage. Education, independence and employment all paled in comparison against a ‘Jordan & Peter’ style celebration. To the girls, in a strange 1950’s throw back, life after marriage is based around serving your husband and family and cleaning your caravan. But isn’t this all culturally relevant? Who are we to intrude into an ethnic group and claim their traditions and, in effect their culture is wrong, that they should alter in order to fit within our society. However, this is the confusion that arises when dealing with travelling communities who are part of our society, but at the same time not.

This is also the reason why Gypsy Wedding was so popular. Their heritage is a mix of the familiar and unfamiliar. The young girls claim to learn their provocative dance moves from popular music videos by Lady Gaga and Beyonce; they are similarly obsessed with celebrity culture, with their idols being women such as Cheryl Cole. The dresses worn are a gaudy exaggeration of ‘Disney-Princess’ gowns. Travellers are constantly claiming they are so private because they have a great need to preserve their culture, yet seeping in are these elements which are becoming common place in Traveller celebrations.

Whether Channel Four truly portrayed Traveller life is debatable. There are claims in various tabloids that Travellers are proposing legal action, and many participants in the show say they would not partake in the programme again, with the finished product causing “too much agro”, and being a “mickey-take”, “exaggerated” version of the truth. And then there are the ongoing debates that are left as an aftermath; where do they get their money from? Should the girls be allowed to leave education early? And what can we make of “Munchkin Strip Club” sexualised children, with their barely-there style clothing, suited more to Jodie Marsh than to primary school.

Whatever your own opinion of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, there is no doubt it has left a huge impression on the country. Only the other day after switching on the television, two of the happy couples were chatting casually to Alan Carr on his celebrity chat show. No doubt there will be more drama connected to the show, and to the travelling community in general; however I believe the programme was at least a step into understanding this normally socially outcast group. And no one, not even a television snob could criticize the entertainment value of the show, guilty pleasure or not, it certainly wasn’t dull.

Kim Parker