Romany Gypsy blogger Pipopotamus has criticised the Channel 4 TV show ‘Big Fat Gypsy Weddings’ as being a misleading work of fiction that doesn’t even contain any Gypsies.
17-year-old Pip who was in Penrith last week to visit family wrote an open letter to Channel 4 accusing the show of ruining his life.
Pip said: “I am writing to you with the hope that you will stop ruining my life. While your obsession with my ethnicity is flattering, it has become somewhat apparent to me that you might have gotten the wrong end of the stick. This is sort of awkward for me, because I don’t want to be the one to break it to you, but your documentary, ‘Big Fat Gypsy Weddings’, is unfortunately a work of fiction. There is no need to be embarrassed, it can happen to the best of us, and thus I hope my letter will help you establish the facts, after all I’m sure you are passionate about fighting discrimination against ethnic minorities. Don’t be modest now, we know you are…right?
“It surprised me to discover that 99% of Britain’s Gypsy and Traveller population are Irish. Correct me if I’m wrong, as I am sure you have done lots and lots of research on this topic, but just 10% of the Gypsy and Traveller population are actually Irish Travellers. The majority, like myself, are in fact Romany, yet your ‘documentary’ seems to ignore our existence. While I have nothing but respect for the Irish Traveller community, you seem to be unaware that we are two distinct ethnic groups and thus there are many differences between our cultures. While Irish Travellers originate from Ireland, we can trace our roots back to India, so it was hardly surprising that I was somewhat confused when you use the word Gypsy in the title of your ‘documentary’ about Irish Travellers. I was even more confused when your ‘documentary’ about Irish Travellers seemed to feature an alien culture that even most Irish Traveller’s didn’t recognise.
“You correctly identified that many Gypsy and Traveller children leave school at a young age, however you failed to mention that this is not because we are all born to terrible parents, but because our communities suffer from great social exclusion. State education fails to adapt to anything but mainstream culture, thus we have to contend with a curriculum that is totally irrelevant to our way of life. Moreover, both teachers and students seem ignorant of our cultures, thus we are labelled as troublemakers and bullied for being different. The myths that you have been spreading have not helped matters. Indeed, I was subjected to physical attacks during your last series of your ‘documentary’ which ultimately led to my expulsion from school (long story), whilst my 12-year-old cousin was beat up on her way home from school by a gang of girls who were calling her a prostitute.
“As you can see, there are many reasons as to why Gypsy and Traveller children are failing to attend school, but you seem to have forgotten to feature those of us that do stay in education. Take myself, for example, I’m currently at college studying a range of subjects such as, History and Sociology. Moreover, my sister trained to be a hairdresser, my aunty went to university and is now a social worker and some of my cousins completed apprenticeships, thus clearly dropping out of education is not a prerequisite of living in a trailer.
“Your ‘documentary’ has an unhealthy obsession with little girls. While I understand that the outfits worn by some of your younger stars could be considered a little risqué, I see only little girls having fun and dressing up for a special occasion. Your ‘documentary’ appears to be suggesting that we are inappropriately sexualising our children, yet the only people who are sexualising our children are the viewers who watch them and think they are sexy. In reality, our little girls can mostly be found in velour tracksuits and handmade frilly dresses, so I would suggest you should stop filming little girls dancing if you are finding that this is turning on your viewers.
“After watching the last series of your ‘documentary’ it finally hit me why I was so unlucky in love. I would have been married by now, if only I had known that the key to a women’s heart was to sexually assault her using a gypsy courting ritual called ‘grabbing’. I asked my brother if he had grabbed his wife, but it turned out he had just asked her out on a date instead. It appears that in reality, no one actually knows what grabbing is, in fact Gypsy and Traveller men actually have a lot of respect for their women after all.
“Speaking of love, I’ve been to many Gypsy and Traveller weddings, but I’m yet to attend a wedding where the bride’s dress weighs more than my whole family. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen some huge dresses but there is something you need to know: Thelma Madine is lying to you, she’s not our dressmaker of choice. In fact, I’m kind of embarrassed for her because no one actually knows who she is and everything she says about us is actually untrue. Basically, you’ve been conned, so I suggest you find a new spokesperson for the Gypsy and Traveller communities, such as an actual Gypsy or Traveller like my Baba (grandma), she makes some right nice clothes you know.
“It’s hardly surprising that people are watching your ‘documentary’ purely to laugh at us, because even I laugh at the monstrosities that Thelma Madine creates. It is a shame that you haven’t featured any Gypsy or Traveller designers because the clothing that we were actually more traditionally known for before your ‘documentary’, is actually far more interesting than amusing. Last year, Leeds University Union thought it would be okay to laugh at the Gypsy and Traveller communities by hosting a Big Fat Gypsy Weddings fancy dress party. While the union holds events throughout the year to celebrate other ethnic minorities, your ‘documentary’ encouraged them to incite ethnic hatred. You’ll be pleased to know that due to complaints from yours truly and friends, the event was shelved.
“You seem to have misunderstood what a documentary about Gypsies should entail. Gypsies (as in Romany Gypsies that are completely different to Irish Travellers, that are like totally not Irish Travellers at all, get it?) are Europe’s largest and most deprived ethnic minority. The majority of Romani people have never been to Rathkeale, let alone own houses there. In fact, most live in great poverty and I suggest you read my previous blogs. We suffer from discrimination on a daily basis and our human rights have historically been violated, yet you deem it acceptable to broadcast a misleading ‘documentary’ that has been made not to raise awareness of our plight but for entertainment. We are not a joke, we are human beings and your work of fiction is only strengthening stereotypes and ignorance.
“Unlike those who star in your ‘documentary’ I am not after 5 minutes of fame, but what I am asking for, is for you to put humans above ratings. You can’t ignore us forever.”
Nick Hornby, Commissioning Editor, Factual Entertainment for Channel 4 defended the show, he posted an open letter on the Channel 4 website in reply to Pip, he said: “I read your open letter this afternoon and as the commissioning editor responsible for Big Fat Gypsy Weddings wanted to write to you to address the issues you raised.
“First of all, I’m sorry to hear that you and your cousin have experienced abuse – it is clearly unacceptable but I hope you agree that we cannot be held responsible for the actions of the public.
“It is not and was never the intention of any of the films to encourage negative feelings towards Gypsies or Travellers and many people, including several of the previous series’ contributors – and other gypsies and travellers we have met – have contacted us to say that they feel the documentaries have portrayed the community in a positive light and had a positive impact on their lives.
“Despite your fear that people are watching the documentaries simply to laugh at Gypsies and Travellers, I think the films are celebratory and I hope never derogatory. All the issues touched on in the series were thoroughly researched and while we understand that some of the issues are challenging, we are confident that the programme is fair and accurate.
“Please also don’t forget that all aspects of the programme are told through the eyes of the contributors themselves, talking about their own experiences in their own words – so we feel confident that nobody has been misrepresented in any way.
“You say you feel that we are over-representing Irish Travellers and ignoring the existence of Romany Gypsies. We are aware of the cultural sensitivities you express and the programme fully acknowledges the distinctness of both communities. While it’s true to say that Episode 1 of the new series features mainly Irish Travellers, the overall series features a range of both communities with some episodes entirely Romany.
“You also say in your letter that the series is a “work of fiction”. I’m afraid we don’t agree. The programme makers have worked with people from these communities across the UK and Ireland to ensure that there is a wide range of voices sharing their lives and views on what it means to be a Gypsy or Traveller in Britain and Ireland today.
“Specifically on the issue of grabbing – I can assure you that it is something that our production team repeatedly witnessed first-hand while out filming and the programme made it clear that grabbing is a predominantly Irish Traveller custom. The series featured several Travellers- men and women – talking about grabbing very openly to camera.
“You also mention education in your letter, and the difficulties many gypsies and travellers experience in school. The series will explore this in detail a little further into the run, and feature a dedicated episode which looks at attitudes to education within different communities. Two of the contributors featured are Romany teenagers – one of whom has chosen to continue with her education, and one who has been taken out of school. The documentary explores exactly the points you make – how difficult it can be to attend school where your culture and way of life is not understood.
“The series was never intended to comprehensively cover every aspect of Gypsy and Traveller life. But it was always the ambition of the programme to reach a large number of people and challenge their views and preconceptions of travelling communities. Apart from weddings, the last series also looked at issues such as infant mortality, education, land rights and other challenges to maintaining the travelling way of life. We have had much positive feedback from those featured in the programme and viewers more generally, and welcome a more open debate on these issues.
“Reading your letter, it’s clear we won’t agree on everything about the series but I am grateful to you for sharing your views with us and I hope this letter explains where we are coming from. Do get in touch if you want to discuss it further.”
Car manufacturer Honda who sponsor Big Fat Gypsy Weddings has apologised following complaints its advert for the show which said “Bigger. Fatter. Gypsier” was racist.
The Irish Traveller Movement in Britain and others lodged over 100 complaints with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) over the use of the word “Gypsier”, claiming that it was “derogatory and demeaning”.
A spokesman said: “We believe it is derogatory, it is offensive and it is demeaning to Romany gypsies and travellers.”
Paul Ormond, general manager for corporate press and PR at Honda said: “If people did see it that way we are sorry for that – we have just got to be mindful of people’s sensitivities.”
A Channel 4 spokeswoman said: “We have an excellent relationship with Honda and are in regular contact with them.
“We have had a small number of complaints about the poster campaign and are confident that all aspects of it fully comply with ASA guidelines.
“We also are in regular contact with the gypsy and traveller communities featured in the programme and posters and have had very positive feedback.”
The Irish Traveller Movement in Britain spokesman added that the programme – which features young travellers or gypsies as they prepare to wed – has not been “representative” of the communities to date.
“Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, we believe, is a narrow portrayal of gypsy and traveller communities living in the UK,” he said.
Yvonne McNamara, director of the Irish Traveller Movement in Britain, said: “We call on Channel 4 to immediately withdraw their national billboard advertising campaign, which has done so much damage to the reputation of travellers, including exposing traveller children to racial abuse and violence.”
If you would like to read Pip’s blog you can see it at http://pipopotamus.blogspot.com