Opinion: Thelma’s Gypsy Girls – An Exercise in Exclusion
‘Gypsy girls are fiercely protected by their families,’ the narrator of Thelma’s Gypsy Girls conspiratorially informs us. ‘Mixing with non-Travellers is extremely rare.’ Highlighting that ‘us/ them’ gulf, he strives to render it wider, deeper, and ultimately impassable for us regular folk. Instead, Channel 4 and their current protagonist Thelma Madine become the gatekeepers who can present us with a window into the mysterious world of the gypsies. Or so they would have us believe.
Pure, stark condescension forms the axis of this whole orb of frivolity, vaguely masked by far-fetched claims of anthropological interest. Real life is far too boring to make good television; we know this only too well, having been exposed to countless other mind-numbing ‘reality’ shows of contrived fripperies and desperate attention-courting. Audiences crave shock and scandal; they do not perch on their sofas at prime time viewing hour expecting to become privy to real people helping one another out and having a nice time. Of course, producers are only too willing to feed into this glassy-eyed voyeurism, regardless of who might be trampled in the process. The audience of this floundering spin-off of the equally dire My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding should be ashamed. They should be ashamed of buying into this enterprise of exploitation, and ashamed of its foundations in inexcusable ignorance.
Travellers are as varied and diverse a group of people as settled people are. The ‘Gypsy’ programmes are lying to you when they make sweeping claims about what all Travellers do, or how all Gypsies feel; they can’t possibly know this, nor are they remotely interested in Travellers’ feelings.
These programmes promote nothing but sneering at Travellers, derision of women and girls for exposing their skin, and blatant utilisation of cherry-picked aspects of Traveller culture as archetypes of distasteful things to look down upon smugly from a glowing pedestal of goodness and propriety. Channel 4’s attempts to peddle such ham-fisted profiteering dressed up as a ground-breaking cultural exposition should be transparent and offensive to us. Would we stand for it if another minority group were the target? Would we allow this purposeful disparagement of teenage girls, this flippancy over extreme hardships in their lives, and this encouragement of their objectification?
Perhaps a reasonable reaction to such an assault on the public’s intelligence would be to complain to Channel 4. Another option might be to boycott them until they stop fuelling abuse of a marginalised culture. Either of these actions would be socially responsible and productive.
However, larger underlying problems are at play. What Channel 4 has done is reprehensible, certainly. But its actions alone have not created the inequalities which it wilfully manipulates to spawn cheap entertainment for the masses. Channel 4 has merely taken advantage of a situation which society has created. It is not their fault that racism against Travellers is socially acceptable, they simply capitalise on the fact. The blame for that lies with all of us, the people to whom such racism comes so naturally that it is largely not even perceived to be ‘racism’.
Settled people routinely deny Travellers access to our ‘mainstream’ culture. We do not respect the legitimacy of their everyday experiences, instead regarding them as bizarre and mysterious at best, threatening and suspicious at worst. We collect examples which knit tidily in with our existing stereotypes, and ignore those which pose a challenge to our prejudice. We pay no considered attention to their culture, and accept it in ‘our’ spheres only in the forms which we deem palatable. Travellers are only permitted to express themselves on our terms, in contexts coloured by our perspectives.
Some have come out in half-hearted defence of Travellers: ‘But surely they don’t all dress that way,’ ‘They don’t all speak like that’. Of course this is true, but this attitude misses the point that it is not the business of any person to pass comment in the first instance. Making such statements implies imposition of judgement on those who do dress or speak ‘that way’ and there is no reason why settled people should feel endowed with the natural moral authority to judge.
It should be clear that what is depicted on these shows is not real life. What is being screened is the vision of producers who are hell-bent on making a spectacle out of Travellers, and Traveller women and girls in particular. They splice and edit personas into being, and we swallow these lazily-construed ideas of what it is to be a Traveller as representative of the entire ethnicity. Worse still, we use it as a springboard to attempt to dictate how they ‘should’ act or be, and to criticise a culture about which we know nothing.
This is the pinnacle of a particularly poisonous and insidious brand of racism and cultural xenophobia. It also embodies barefaced misogyny, feeding a culture of downright hostility towards women, shaming of their flesh, and victimisation of those who are likely to be least socially and economically mobile. The reason we have sat back and allowed a television programme to get away with doing this is that it mirrors what see taking place in everyday life. Traveller culture is invisible to us because we choose to shun it. However, when the fancy takes us, we never hesitate to air our opinions on Travellers’ actions from a vantage point of vacuous and passive ethnocentrism for our own amusement.
Thus the burden of changing perceptions does not lie on the shoulders of a group of girls who have been viscerally rejected from society at every turn before being taken under the wing of Thelma, their knight in spangled armour. Instead of judging these girls by titbits so gleefully advertised by Channel 4, such as the fact that some are ‘even unable to tell the time’, we should be incensed, and we should wonder how we have built a society in which this is able to happen without outrage, without so much as a ripple. A whole demographic is being systematically denied every opportunity to participate in society, and we have done nothing about it. In fact, we have done less than nothing, by sitting around and raising our eyebrows at tripe such as that produced by Channel 4, which pushes myths about Traveller culture, and further encourages their marginalisation.
No, the burden of change does not lie with those girls at the receiving end of the majority’s steadfast prejudice. It lies with all of us. Rebuke Channel 4 for producing and broadcasting such offensive material, and show that this vindictive perpetuation of damaging stereotypes is not the kind of ‘entertainment’ you seek. The appropriation and carnivalesque dramatisation of aspects of Traveller culture is harmful and wrong. What you see on this show is not all that they are, and the way in which we have reacted to it thus far is not all that we are. We must show that we want more, we expect more, we are more.
Ignorance is no excuse; there are avenues to find real information for those who are genuinely interested. In Ireland, strong organisations such as Pavee Point work hard to promote awareness of Travellers’ human rights, and to encourage celebration of cultural aspects with which some Travellers choose to identify. They also regularly provide Travellers’ perspectives on news and current issues, minus editing or interpretation through a settled person’s lenses. Find them on Twitter here.
In short, it is time to erase this spurious ‘us’ and ‘them’ which the ‘Gypsy’ programmes seemingly endeavour to preserve. It is time to open our minds and introduce the missing element of respect. If ‘we’ fail to rise to this, then fault will not be with the Gypsy girls, nor will it be with Thelma Madine and Channel 4. Instead, every ounce of the shame will belong to ‘us’, for displaying the apathy that creates conditions in which a demeaning franchise like this one is able to flourish. Shame on us, until we say ‘no more’ and start recognising the gravity of our actions and words, until we begin attaching the label ‘racism’ to the tacit discrimination which continues to evade acknowledgement. We are capable of more than our lack of thought or human solidarity thus far suggests, but let us waste no more time before showing it.
Áine is a recent Psychology graduate from TCD. Currently interning at the National Women’s Council, she particularly enjoys writing and mouthing off about feminist issues. Views are her own, though. She has contributed to the TCD gender equality magazine Siren, the Irish Feminist Network blog, and was also longlisted for the 2012 Irish Times short story competition.