To watch Big Fat Gypsy Weddings on Channel 4 is to be bombarded with big fat stats: wedding dresses that weigh 16 stone, leaving indelible scars on the wearer; holy communion frocks that are twice the weight of their 12-year-old occupants. At one traveller wedding, even the icing on the cake comes in at a whopping nine stone. Perhaps not surprisingly, the bridal rig that reached the greatest parodic heights belonged to a non-traveller, a “gadgi’, who was marrying a gypsy and felt she had to out-travel the travellers. It was trimmed with battery-operated butterflies and fitted up with UV and fibre-optic lighting that meant a fire extinguisher had to be discreetly brought to church.
One watches these exercises in hyperbole with a mixture of fascination and alarm. The romantic notion of the rootless, horse-powered purveyor of the wild music that informed jazz and flamenco, and the snaking hips of Eastern dances, is quickly derailed by Channel 4’s presentation: the soundtrack of choice booming from the party limos is electro-house by the Black Eyed Peas. The Appleby Horse Fair, a “major event in the traveller social calendar”, sounds like an Arcadian pageant from a Thomas Hardy novel, but the young males who attend don’t get beyond the car park. Here they size up flesh quite other than horse.
The hips are still snaking but they belong to the little girls: jet-tanned, spray-painted Lolitas, who appear to have picked up their outfit in Versace then left most of it at home, and who ape the moves of Shakira and Beyoncé; shanks and bellies bared for the consumption of others. In fact there’s a whole lot of aping going on at these gypsy celebrations. Little distinction is made between factual and filmic, celebrities and cartoons (arguably quite rightly). The glass-coach is just like Jordan’s; the cake is a model of the Disney fairytale castle.
The provocative show of breast and haunch sits queasily alongside a deeply conservative version of bygone Catholicism, where women cannot go out alone (or they are “scandalised”, “filthy”), cannot drink or have sex until they are married, and are taken out of school and into domestic servitude at the age of 12 to swab out the trailer and rear younger siblings. It was hard not to be moved by the fear and the dread of one 13-year-old girl when confronted with her older sister’s marriage, which marked the start of her own skivvying sentence.
Gypsy lads, on the other hand, are free to do as they please with their leisure, though they, too, are taken out of school in order to work. Whereas their girl-brides are so burdened by their giant dresses that they cannot walk (an evolutionary positive-feedback loop; the cost of display impeding basic biological function), the groom is free to strip to the comfort and ease of his vest. No amount of mealy-mouthed cultural relativism can talk away the Irish traveller custom of “grabs”, where sexed-up swains extract a kiss from the girls by force. This assault is the courtship’s opening gambit, the nail on which a lifetime’s relationship hangs.
And yet some of what we experience when we watch the documentary is surely recognition: the traveller life holds up a mirror, albeit a fairground one, to the community at large. The featured Holy Communion dress was an exaggerated version of all the other creepy mini-brides of Christ; the church attendees were Lady Gaga-ed to the max, but not so very different from the show of plumage we are more accustomed to. Substance abuse with Carlsberg or Cloudy Bay — the object of getting off one’s face remains the same. The programmes concern themselves only with the major celebrations in traveller life, the times when they are at their most theatrical, as it were. Perhaps an unblinking gaze at the high days and holidays of Middle England would reveal similarly fantastical preoccupations with being a princess for one day, with price tags to match, in an otherwise unexceptional lifetime.
Not only is “them and us” a misleading binary (as the mild-mannered Romany Pat points out), but crucially the documentary fallaciously yokes Romany and Irish travellers together, neatly eliding the two with the tags “traveller” or “gypsy”. This semantic amnesia conveniently ignores a complicated plurality of traditions and values, and is a mistake that “muscular liberalism” would do well to avoid. The Romany are no strangers to crude catch-alls: the very word gypsy is a misconception about their Egyptian origin. But then, more accuracy would mean less big fat telly.