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Friday, 4 February 2011

My Big Fat Guilty Pleasure

It’s been a helluva week at work , the kind where you have no room to breathe or think because you must squeeze as much productivity as possible out of each and every second of your day. I won’t bore you with the details but to suffice to say there’s been extra stresses on top of all the usual mass of human insecurities that is working in a large comprehensive.

So I’ve tended to come home completely spent with nothing more to give, which explains the lack of blog activity.  The post-work stupor has meant that I’ve watched more telly than usual this week. Usually I try to only turn it on if there is something I actually, really and specifically want to watch. It’s all very consciously bourgeois.

So my observations  this week are as follows: Kevin McCloud looks much more attractive as an older man than he does in the re-runs of Grand Designs from the late 90s.  And, Big Fat Gypsy Weddings is an intriguing little show.

Who knew some men could look better with less hair?
It’s voyeuristic television at its worse, and as a consequence, is voyeuristic television at its best.  There’s no pretense of being invited into the heart of a community, as with the best of such documentaries. Rather we’re standing at the edge of a big goldfish bowl, staring in and very firmly laughing at the poor misguided creatures swimming around inside.

It’s a show that’s attracted a fair amount of interest on the old social networks, mainly larks and banter about fake tans and big dresses. And why not? That castle cake on this week’s show was pretty funny.

But beyond the 16-stone dresses , the diamante and the frills, there are darker revelations about the travelling community.

Now I’m a good liberal girl and I know that I should believe in cultural relativism.  This week’s programme ended with the assertion that we could learn from the way the travellers live their life – strict moral codes about sexuality that help young girls to avoid exploitation; defined roles resulting in happy and satisfied individuals.

I remain unconvinced.  Traveller girls are encouraged to leave school at 13, many of them unable to read or write (this also seems to be the case for many of the boys). This lack of education seriously limits the choices  and aspirations of these girls. They are expected to take care of the family home until they are married, sometimes impossibly young, when they are then expected to take care of their husbands.

When questioned on the fairness of this set up, they were insistent that ‘It’s a man’s world. It’s how it should be.’  Proper education is a powerful thing. It helps you to develop a questioning and enquiring mind. Pulling young girls out of education helps to maintain the status quo: they are not given the tools to query  their lot and the ways of the world around them. 

And then there’s the practice of ‘grabbing’. Young traveller girls aren’t allowed to be seen out with boys: that would put their reputation and honour in question. However, they are permitted to be physically carried off and isolated by burly boys who  then slap them around, asking for a kiss. It’s makes for uncomfortable viewing.  And what is the result of sanctioning violence at the very beginning of relations between the genders? Data is difficult to gather about such an enclosed community but one paper estimates that  between 61% and 81% of married Gypsy and Traveller women have experienced direct abuse from a partner.

I’m not suggesting that we go and seek out the travelling community with pitchforks and torches, demanding better treatment of women. I wouldn’t want to fuel further prejudice against this already disadvantaged group. But I’m  not comfortable with tittering at the big dresses and then turning my back on some of the more questionable cultural norms.  There is inherent criticism of these practices in the show, but no suggestion of how to deal with it. We are encouraged to laugh at their funny gypsy ways, are encouraged to harshly judge their traditional culture, but  we are offered no positive way forward or solutions to these difficult and important issues.

The rights of women are granted to all women, not just those in a position to ensure they can access their rights for themselves. It’s a huge problem for both the movement and government to ensure women on the fringes of society have access to their rights. I can offer no answer here and in any case it needs to happen from within the community . I fear the best I can do is feel a stab of guilt next week when I scoff at the see-through mesh wedding dress and the flimsy horse-drawn carriage.

Oh, and bring attention to it on t’interweb. 

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