People who go shopping for reasons to be offended need look no further: you’re idiots.
Context is everything, coupled with a bit of common sense is a good gauge of what’s reasonable or not. Vacuous MTV me-fest ‘Jersey Shore’, for example, made a good number of the Italian diaspora choke on their gnocci, suspecting quite rightly that these swaggering simpletons in enough hair gel to choke seagulls to death off the coast of Florida didn’t represent them, their history and their culture. The Italian diaspora were right, and the Italian diaspora are idiots too.
Italian-American identity is common currency in the US, it informs countless musicians, directors, actors and fuggedaboutit works of fiction, film and television. There’s a solid foundation of familiarity and knowledge in the English-speaking world from which we can all gaze in mortified bemusement at the simian capering of these permatanned shits as they shuffle charmlessly through their charmed lives. Nobody is in danger of going away thinking these people represent you – ‘Jersey Shore’ is pure titillation, low on inconvenient subtext and associated hand-wringing moral dilemmas that cause Guardian readers such sleepless nights.
In the UK, there’s no similar foundation to our knowledge of traveller culture, not even close. Instead we have alarmist tabloid newspapers, hand-me-down prejudice, ‘Snatch’, which returned the slur of ‘pikey’ to the tongues of otherwise worldly folk, and ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Weddings’. No doubt many Irish travellers, like an equal percentage of the great white underclass, have zero taste – for the former this manifests as the Disney-fuelled wedding attire captured in Channel 4’s ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Weddings’, and for the latter as the Nike tick shaved into the back of your head and children named after Premier League footballers and brands of aftershave.
To ‘My Big Fat…’s credit, they do smuggle a genuine sensitivity in under the billowing taffeta gowns and butterfly wings, the second episode dealing with the closure of a traveller site and the first talking about the culture’s strong morals and traditions. But without that foundation of knowledge these things get stand no chance of registering in the face of far flashier scenes, and it becomes an exercise in freakshow gawping at fashion faux pas and parochial tutting over young girls with suggestive dancing and revealing clothing, the latter more than negated by revelations in the first episode that traveller girls don’t go out unchaperoned, don’t drink before marriage and certainly don’t approach boys. Can you say the same about your daughter, sister, cousin or niece you sanctimonious hypocrite? By the standards of the average traveller you’re little better than a pimp, whoring their pink pre-teen virginity from school disco to Glee club, and back.
Travellers in Britain are an eclectic mix unique to these Isles, many descended from Irish travellers, the Pavee, with their own language and culture, and many descended from Romany who entered the country in the 19th Century – intermarriage and contact with Britain has left them as representative of those points as all in between. It’s not entirely accurate to refer to the subjects of ‘Big Fat Gypsy Weddings’ as ‘Irish travellers’, or as ‘Romany’, the former is accurate to a certain degree and the latter represents an even smaller group, which leaves us with the awkward sobriquet of ‘gypsies’. As faintly patronising a relic as that is, it’s immensely better than pikey – a hold-over from a way of thinking that should have died in the 1960s. What other word left in the English language refers to both a minority ethnic group and a set of stereotypical negative qualities associated with them? Would it be appropriate to call someone who’s tight with money a Jew, or accuse someone who smells of being French? No, that’s racism, and it’s only the widespread ignorance and proliferation of offensive misconceptions that allow this spectre to continue haunting conversation.
In mainland Europe, gypsies – of which the Roma are the most widely known – are in a bad way, forced to settle into sprawling ghettos in Eastern Europe by communist administrations, they remain locked in a cycle of poverty and alienation, while the society around them has moved on. Those who moved looking for a better life are being kicked out of France and Germany, and harrassed in Italy as a scapegoat for rising crime and unemployment, and the subject of abhorrent far right propaganda, legislation and hate crimes in Hungry, the Czech Republic, and almost every country in which they live. In 60-odd years since the Holocaust, known in Romany as the Porajmos or ‘devouring’, obliterated 220,000 to 1,500,000 of their number, conditions have scarcely improved and in Britain, despite boasting a gypsy population far less obviously ‘alien’ and far more in step with the dominant culture of shit music, brainless TV, subwoofers and spray-on tans, the situation is little better.
Tabloid papers continue to sneer and propagate racist stereotypes, councils insist on trapping communities in situations where they’re forced to break the law – often setting aside sites that are too small or worse, alongside landfill sites or blighted by open sewage, or denying them permission to settle at all – and otherwise intelligent people use pikey so painfully casually, out of ignorance that the word is as belittling and discriminatory as nigger, faggot or paki.
Until these things stop, or at least are countered by knowledge and understanding, ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Weddings’ isn’t harmless, trashy unreality TV. It’s on a par with ‘Til Death Do Us Part’ and ‘Rising Damp’, where the approving baying of intolerant thugs drowns out the egalitarian message hidden within, and an attempt to germinate understanding, far too subtle for its own good, becomes an unwitting rallying trumpet for discrimination and bigotry.