Big Fat Gypsy lies

Thelma’s Gypsy Girls (credit: Unreality Primetime)

An interview with Bridget Deadman, who appeared on ‘Thelma’s Gypsy Girls’ (Channel 4), conducted by Amy Addison-Dunne, offer-holder at Ruskin College

Before ‘ My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding’ was released, I will admit that I had never thought that deeply about the racial abuse and discrimination the Gypsy and Travellers’ community faced from non-Travellers. Unfortunately, there have been few if any serious attempts to learn about and engage with ‘Traveller culture.’ Hence Channel 4 has been allowed free rein to portray these communities in any manner they choose, and because no-one thinks of these things, not many people question the portrayals and don’t even think to consider the repercussions of programmes like Big Fat Gypsy Wedding for members of the community. Imagine for a moment if Channel 4 were to commission a show called, ‘My Big Fat Black Wedding’ which espoused a slew of negative stereotypes about the black community and refused to differentiate between different cultures, i.e. Nigerian and Congolese? Or if they were to produce a show called “Big Fat Gay Civil Partnership” which portrayed all women in the gay community to be butch, and all men in the gay community to be effeminate with outlandish dress style? There would quite rightly be outrage; so why the relative silence on the show’s open and blatant racism? In addition, the Dale Farm struggle (where a long-standing Traveller site was brutally cleared by an army of riot police at a cost of £18million) was put on the show alongside the ‘outlandish’ and ‘entertaining’ wedding of a young girl (on a side note, filming the happiest day of a woman’s life for a cheap laugh is pretty disgusting as well). The very fact that they decided to include such a serious political issue as Dale Farm in such a fatuous and racist show, just proves that Channel 4 has no respect for the Gypsy and Traveller Communities whatsoever.

The show that attracted millions of viewers to Channel 4 –Big Fat Gypsy Wedding –has now franchised into another meaningless and unbelievably offensive new show. Thelma Madine, self-declared spokesperson for the Gypsy and Traveller community, has got herself yet another deal with Channel 4 with a new show called ‘Thelma’s Gypsy Girls.’ The show is promoted as a documentary on a ‘selfless’ project about a sewing and textiles course especially for women over sixteen in the traveller and gypsy community. She claims that all women in this apparently homogenous way of life are all horribly oppressed by this ‘male dominated society’ and that Thelma is putting her entire business and life on the line to offer these women the ‘opportunity of a lifetime’ (note: I wonder how much she got paid for this documentary). In both shows, Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and Thelma’s Gypsy Girls –all the female participants of traveller and gypsy descent are portrayed as ill-educated, wild and basically enslaved by men, and the narrator behaves like she’s narrating a nature documentary, (my personal favourite example being: “the girls travel in packs”).

There has been a backlash from the Traveller and Gypsy Community trying to quash these myths that have been preached as gospel truth by Channel 4 and Thelma, for example, a Romany Gypsy called Pip Borev wrote an open letter to Channel 4 citing all the racial abuse he’s undergone since the hit television programme was released- apparently, his twelve year old cousin was beaten up and called a ‘prostitute’ as a result of the way traveller and gypsy youngsters were portrayed in Gypsy Wedding, and the constant physical abuse inflicted upon him by other students because of its release led to his expulsion  from school. Since the release of the newer series called Thelma’s Gypsy Girls, one of her students she so magnanimously offered a place on her course to has come and out and corrected a few untruths surrounding the show.

Bridget Deadman, 17, is an English Traveller based in Liverpool and left the course after Week 10, and has been quick to correct the show on a lot of things, she allowed me to interview her in order to convey a different –more accurate –perspective on Thelma’s Gypsy Girls.

Would you say that BFGW offered an unfair interpretation of your culture and community?

I think the portrayal of life for the Travellers & Gypsy community on Big Fat Gypsy Wedding was an untrue and misleading portrayal, but Thelma’s Gypsy Girls was a lot worse. Thelma’s Gypsy Girls concentrated a lot on the drama, violence, and dress sense of the community even though majority of the time on the course everyone was getting along fine and most girls were working well. They failed to show the different beliefs and variations within the community and instead chose to show how one portion of the community are and use this to further a stereotype of travellers and gypsies that is very far from the truth.

When you read about this programme that Thelma was doing about dressmaking, how was it sold to you, and why did you apply? 

I didn’t read about the programme online like most of the girls, the first I heard about it was when some of the film crew were “scouting” around local sites in the area and they visited mine. Originally, I was only going to help them ask some of the other girls but I was told that there would be a City & Guilds (a qualification equivalent to A Levels or GCSEs) on completion of the course and that it would be like an apprenticeship with Thelma herself. Seeing as I am interested in the wedding business and I already had some skills with textiles, I thought it would be a good career move, hence I applied.

On that, Thelma has portrayed the women in traveller and gypsy communities as point blank not allowed to work because it’s some sort of massive taboo, is this the case?

No, this is definitely not the case, especially within my family because all of the women in my family have worked just as much as the men, not through need but through want, as we are driven women and we are not content with a life centred on looking after the home. Yes, we are very family-orientated but you can have two, and be extremely happy balancing them both.

You said that you were made to sit down with the other girls and undergo lessons on reading and writing -how did that make you feel, knowing you have 7 A grades at GCSEs and attending college? Also, were you discouraged at any point from continuing your education by anyone in your family or community?

Yes, I was made to sit with the other girls but not for their benefit, it was later revealed that the tutor was also there for two of Thelma’s workers to help them with their English, and I was simply there to make up the numbers for the tutor. I felt used, degraded and confused because I could have been using my time in a more useful manner by continuing with the tasks I was being given by Thelma’s workers, instead I was taking tests I had done and passed 6 years ago and assisting the tutor with the other girls, which I didn’t mind doing at all because they were very appreciative of my help and I could see the progress they were making. Everyone should be able to read and write. It isn’t a skill anymore; it’s a necessity and a gift. I was never discouraged by my family at any point during my education, they were very supportive but obviously some people I have come to contact with have had different views on the matter, as it’s not their family’s belief that we should go to high school due to the bullying we receive, but majority of the travellers and gypsies I know are fully aware of the need to go through the education process.

In the first episode, Thelma claimed that the gypsy community was sexist, as a woman in this community, would you feel you are subject to culture-based discrimination?

There is sexism within every culture, even British, they are just more subtle about it. I disagree with Thelma pinpointing it as a problem within my community. Yes, some of the men and boys are sexist but on the other hand the majority of the men and boys in our community worship the ground the women walk on, they work hard to keep their wives and families provided for and comfortable. Basically, no I do not feel discriminated against in my own culture.

As a traveller, how do you feel about your culture and way of life being used as entertainment for non-travellers, and since the release of Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and Thelma’s Gypsy Girls, how has your life changed?

I was disgusted with the way Big Fat Gypsy Wedding had used my way of life as entertainment and not even portrayed us in a true light, that is partially why I went on Thelma’s course to try and shed some true light on the situation, but Thelma’s Gypsy Girls has just made things a hundred times worse. I was in high school during the release of Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and I received a lot more racial bullying due to the show. Since Thelma’s Gypsy Girls, I have actually received a lot of positive feedback from people online and when I have been recognised (so weird) but I fear that there are still people out there being manipulated by Channel 4 and Thelma Madine.

What sorts of things did people do/say to you after Big Fat Gypsy Wedding?

Not going to repeat them, it was basically backlash from the way the girls dress and act on the show.

You said in tweet that you dropped out of college to take Thelma’s course –do you have plans to go back?

I am hoping to go back to college and study events management.

Deputy Comment Editor’s note

In Italy in 2008, a photo emerged of two young Roma Gypsy women dead on a cosmopolitan beach, whilst around them the sunbathers ignored their presence. This came shortly after a Roma encampment had been burned to the ground outside Naples. In one Eastern European country, a far-Right paramilitary were able to occupy a Traveller community and terrorise it for several months before authorities bothered to intervene. According to the Cultural Survival journal, ‘in 1993, Jozsef Pacai, the mayor of the Slovak village of Medzev said, “I’m no racist, but some Gypsies you would have to shoot.” Since 1989, progrom and mob attacks against Rom neighborhoods have been reported in Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and the Czech and Slovak Republics, coupled with deliberate non-intervention by authorities.’ Everywhere, both Roma and Irish Travellers are overall deprived in terms of employment, infant mortality, education levels, access to political decision-making- and all too often this deprivation is thrown back at them; portrayed as their fault. It may seem that we are a long way from the level of apartheid that is seen in parts of Eastern Europe, but viewing the Dale Farm eviction and the coverage of it earlier this year, it was evident that a political dehumanization of Travellers had taken place. They were ‘fair targets.’ Shows such as ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding’ are an integral part of that process, a cultural dehumanization that yes, has been allowed to come about through a general trend of anti-Traveller sentiment, but also contributes to the furthering of both popular and political discrimination. Under whatever guise it manifests itself, racism is racism and must be resisted wherever it appears.

–          Nathan Akehurst


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