Don’t let anyone tell you reality TV shows are a scourge on American television. We may have “16 & Pregnant” and “Jersey Shore,” but the UK has “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.” Apparently in its second year, “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” follows teen brides from Europe’s gypsy clans, the Romany and the Travellers. Generally speaking, gypsies tend to live nomadic lives and travel from place to place. Last night’s episode featured 17-year-old Josie and 19-year-old Swanley, who married in July only five months after they met. Had you pressed the “mute” button, however, it would be difficult to tell Josie and Swanley were having a gypsy wedding: she wore a fluffy white confection of a dress and a garter, her bridesmaids were decked out in Spanish-style fuchsia dresses, and a priest performed the ceremony in a church. (You can see some over-the-top wedding looks from stills from the first season of “My Bit Fat Gypsy Wedding” on the Guardian’s web site.) And despite the stereotypes that gypsies live on the streets, or travel around in caravans, Josie lived inside a house. According to the Daily Mail UK, the most “gypsy” thing about the bride and groom on “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” is their unconventional-mixed-with-completely-conventional lifestyle.Josie, the 17-year-old bride, dropped out of school at age 11 because school is “not the place for a gypsy girl.” It’s unclear what she did after dropping out of school, or how that is even legal. But two things are for sure — she didn’t mingle with the opposite sex or drink alcohol. According to the Daily Mail UK, Josie explained in “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” that gyspy girls are not allowed to be unchaperoned with gypsy boys because it would ruin their reputation. Gypsy girls are supposed to remain chaste until marriage — although elsewhere in the article, a 15-year-old wedding guest describes being grabbed, shoved up against a wall and kissed by a male guest at the wedding. Apparently it’s a “ritual,” though that could have just been the Daily Mail’s choice of words. In any case, the 15-year-old girl, Cheyenne, told the cameras afterward, “It means they like a girl and want to get her number. … It wasn’t violent, I’ve had much worse than that. … It’s not nice at all, but you just got to live with it.”
Josie the gypsy teen’s life post-wedding is described as being as conservative as some uber-traditional American marriages. According to Josie, gypsy men work and provide for their families while gypsy women cook and clean at home. Apparently, Josie and her friends described throughout the show that its “a man’s world” but “we souldn’t have it any other way.”
It’s difficult to ascertain, of course, whether “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” is an accurate look into the gypsy lifestyle. We know that it’s difficult to ascertain from any shows in the reality TV genre whether it’s accurate. (Gratuitous plug for my friend Jennifer L. Pozner’s book about reality television, Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV!)
I know only a small bit about gypsies from studying abroad in Prague during college. At least in Eastern Europe, the gypsies were blamed for a lot of societal ills, like pickpocketing and drunkenness, and therefore were a target of skinhead groups. One weekend, the “dorm mother” took a van-load of students, including me, to an orphanage on the outskirts of Prague that was all Romany children. Although that was many years ago and my memory is foggy, I remember her telling us that a lot of these children were not really orphans, but were taken away from their parents because they were living in parking lots or train stations or things like that. I never thought to ask at the time why the Romany kids were in one orphanage together and why they weren’t mixed with non-Romany children. I just got the sense in general in Prague (and also in Rome, where I saw more gypsies out-and-about) that gypsies were a touchy subject in civil society.
All that considered, I wonder whether shows like “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” are educational in a way that promotes tolerance and respect, or whether its as grotesquely gawking at the “other” as we know the reality TV genre loves to do. My lede to this article could be totally wrong; “My Big Fat Gypsy” wedding may not be a scourge on television at all. But considering that reality television always has a profit motive, it’s probably cynical but sensible to assume that any education, tolerance or respect promoted by such shows are purely coincidental.