An Anthropological Perspective on “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” by Paul Burgess

Posted on October 10, 2011

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My Big Fat Gypsy Weddings; a guilty pleasure for many of us, an anthropological Eden for myself. If you are not familiar with these documentaries, they come to Australia and the Americas courtesy of Britain’s Channel 4. They follow various aspects of life of the travelling, or gypsy, community in Britain. The most extravagant of these are the weddings and first communions. In this series, two travelling cultures are documented: Irish Traveller and Romany Gypsy. Their combined population is about 90,000 of Britain’s 60,000,000. Their historical similarities lie in their shared desire to roam and to live free lives in caravans.

Historically

In modern times

Only recently, with Britain’s stricter laws, have these people begun to settle in homes and flats, while many others live in motor-less caravans in various purposed parks around Britain.

All of these details, fascinating really, are merely background to the modern and intriguing way of life as shown in the documentaries. These people are quickly slandered and described as “antiquated”, “trashy”, “chauvinistic”, “dumb”, “shit-show”, “goat rodeo”, “chav”, “sexist”, “uneducated”, “euro-trash”, and “gutter-scum”. Many of these terms are in fact misrepresentations, and only surface observations. This brings me to one of my favourite sayings: different—but equally valid. As a friend says “It’s either my way or… another different—but equally valid—way…”

Moving on, let us start with the dress. For weddings and communions females tend to have an utter obsession with hoop skirts, chiffon, sparkles, the colour pink, and tiaras. The dresses often far outweigh their wearer. The bridal party is no less attention-grabbing. LED lights and animatronic butterflies integrated into dresses are not unheard of.

Bridal Dress

Communion Dress

Party and street wear? More synthetics (in smaller quantities) than you can imagine. On your sister, friends, they would be deemed slutty. However, all of these people are not of the same culture as you or I may be, neither are they a sub-culture. They are of their own culture, and have been for hundreds of years. They predate the reign of the current Royal family, and the dynasty before that. It is so easy to judge because in many ways these travellers are similar to the mass “Western Culture” you may be most familiar with. This comes from assimilation, voluntary or involuntary. We certainly would not make such snap judgements about a Papuan tribe in New Guinea, or others living in isolation in Brazilian Amazon, but that is because they are so obviously and completely different. We tend to judge on a scale where similar but different is not O.K., but vastly different is held as fascinating, and deemed culturally appropriate.

This travelling culture was vastly different from the rest of Britain, but urbanization and a growing population meant that the travelling peoples collided with the rest of Britain, and this collision has significantly altered and restricted their lives. What we see in these documentaries is the result. The particular style of dress does not have historical roots, but is a way to keep a culture alive, by setting it apart from what travellers may view as the mundane milquetoast masses. Setting oneself apart is a way to preserve a sense of identity, as these travellers were always different in someway from mainstream Britain. The events though, the celebrations of life and death (particularly the weddings) have always been important.

Dress tied to history? Nope, just the desire to be unique.

Tan and loving it.

Out for the night, but not on the prowl.

Ok, so it’s settled, we will think of these behaviours and lifestyles as being part of a deeper culture, and not judge just because some aspects correlate to negative aspects of the society we may be familiar with. 220 pound dress? Great. Riding in Cinderella’s horse drawn carriage, cursing and chewing gum? Fine. Toxic levels of spray tan, more rhinestones than Taiwan’s quarterly output? Splendid. Low cut and low-rise terrycloth schoolgirl ensemble? FAN-tastic.

Sexual harassment, gender-hypocrisy, and unequal rights? Not O.K. This is where I split off, and consider an issue present in the greater world, and in many cultures. Respecting other’s cultural practices is a necessity to every degree other than when fundamental human rights are being broken. Who defines fundamental human rights? Herein lies a problem; who gets to determine right and wrong, and can it be done without bias? Unknown, but I’ll try. Many of the travelling girls accept their degraded position in society willingly and without complaint, saying they would have it no other way, although in others a particular sadness and desire for change is evident. The thirteen year-old younger sister of a new bride who was pulled out of school—without choice—forced to clean the caravan and take care of her other siblings until she is married off, she certainly shows her sadness. Can these instances of female complacency not be linked to that of modern American or Australian culture from two or three generations ago?

In travelling cultures, a girl—literally thought to be owned by the dominant male in her life—must ask permission of this male to leave the house or caravan, and must be escorted by other females when doing so. This is done so that if a distasteful accusation is made against her, she has proof to back up her story…because who would believe a woman at her own word, against that of a man? Females cannot drink alcohol until they are married, whereas a male may (culturally, not legally), at any age he wishes. In addition to this, he may leave the house spontaneously without notice.

Sex before marriage is strictly forbidden, but during a courting process the female has little choice in other romantic interactions. The practice of “grabbing” is essentially sexual harassment condoned by the culture, which females have no choice but to accept. A male chooses a female of his liking, “grabs” her, and drags her to a private spot. He then forces her, in various physically violent ways (minor, such as pinching or arm twisting), to kiss him. She is eventually allowed to escape. Granted, the outfits many girls choose to wear to events usually would not make a getaway quick and easy. Yes, all of this and more in 21st Century Britain.

Must all of these practices be respected, and who is to judge which practices are ‘wrong’, or indeed to tell the travellers? They have no state of their own, no written law, or sovereignty to construct their own laws. Archaic practices continue because the groups can be so insular that policing these actions is nearly impossible. In addition, if one is raised this way, having little or no outside interaction, living in a country where one feels they are hated by the 59+ million other people for the way they dress, speak and act; how is one to break out into free society?

An anthropologist is not meant to judge, just record and observe, but Channel 4 has already done that job. I am here to review and form my opinion. I have no firm answer, but a sense of what rights are being broken, and questions to follow them. Are all of these practices different but equally valid, and how can one institute and push equal rights in a culture where its citizens are not believed to be created equal? Perhaps, if society were more accepting of certain cultural aspects, and less quick to judge, equality could make its way into the culture? Perhaps the folly lies in being different, but not different enough. Each side could praise some differences and learn from others; we do not have to live in an ‘all or nothing’ world.

What do you think of  My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, and what the series shows us about travelling culture in Britain? Whether you agree with Paul, or think he’s dead wrong, we’d love to read your comments:

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Posted in: Opinion, Television