Belfast Telegraph

TV's portrayal of Gypsy culture is one Big Fat myth

By Katharine Quarmby

Ask anyone in the street what the word 'Gypsy' means to them and they will almost certainly come up with Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.

And the images the public link to Gypsies and Travellers? Big dresses, spray tans, skimpy outfits and make-up slathered on with a trowel.

It's a far cry from the world I've been visiting, on and off, since 2006, when I first started reporting from Dale Farm and met Mary-Ann McCarthy in her neat chalet.

There is, of course, a grain of truth in Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and its spin off, Thelma's Gypsy Girls. Some young Traveller girls do like to put on the Ritz, spray on tan and totter into town and back on high heels.

Some aren't used to education and employment (the statistics bear this out, with Gypsy and Traveller children lagging way behind in educational achievement), but pinning a few radiant butterflies onto a board for the amusement of the British non-Gypsy public and claiming they are a representative sample?

Talk to Gypsy elders and they splutter with indignation about the depiction of their culture on TV - and point out, for good measure, that almost all of those interviewed are Irish Travellers, not Romany Gypsies anyway.

And, yes, some do whisper, too, that Romany Gypsies see Irish Travellers as "gorgias" - their word for settled people - and deny that the two cultures are one and the same.

Almost all the Irish Traveller women I know dress extremely modestly, in below the knee skirts, or plain trousers. They are more concerned with cobbling together enough cash to take their kids to the leisure centre, so they can give them a hot shower.

The McCarthy sisters, who spearheaded the resistance to the site clearance at Dale Farm, did take pleasure in dressing up for the final court appearances, but that was for a special occasion.

It would be funny, if it wasn't so dangerous, this fixation with what Traveller women wear. You cannot reduce a whole culture to a few crystals, lipstick and a big skirt.

The Irish Traveller Movement in Britain recently hosted a seminar on media reporting of Gypsy and Traveller matters. Participants included Inspector Mark Watson, of Cheshire Police, who stressed the media's responsibility to report on Gypsies and Travellers as fairly as possible, because most people never knowingly meet anyone from those communities. Many of those who gave evidence spoke of the negative backlash post-Big Fat Gypsy Wedding on their lives, or on those of their school-age children.

Andy Slaughter MP, the Shadow Minister for Justice, said that discrimination for almost all racial groups had declined in the last few decades - except Gypsies and Travellers.

I applaud anyone who wants to support young Gypsy and Traveller people into employment. But I'm not sure that turning them into a spectacle for the TV cameras is the way to further their careers.

It makes for good TV - but it isn't good for those who are made objects of fun in the process.

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