My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding: Why is it a hit?

Sam Norton in a 20 stone wedding dress

The Channel 4 series My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding following the nuptials of Gypsies and Irish Travellers has been a huge ratings hit. So what does the series teach us about these communities?

The only thing bigger than the wedding dresses are the TV viewing figures.

This week's episode had a peak audience of 7.4m viewers, Channel 4's highest ratings since Big Brother in 2008.

Visual spectacle

Image caption Girls are expected to remain virgins until they get married, and divorce is rare

The pictures of young women hardly able to support the weight of their own dresses make great television.

The visual spectacle is enjoyed not least by wedding design enthusiast Sarah Evetts. The "jaw droppingly awesome" show inspired her to create a mood board on her weddings blog Boho Bride.

But in the Daily Mail Jan Moir isn't as impressed.

"Walking down the aisle, Sam looked like a day-glo cross between a Christmas tree and a crochet toilet-roll holder."

She does concede that while the show portrays "frock horror" it also had its own "astonishing, nightmarish beauty".

'Munchkin strip club'

Moir calls the weddings lurid, the parties gaudy and the first Holy Communion ceremonies unsettling. She is not alone in her disapproval of an episode which showed six-year-old Mary Ann getting a spray tan before her first Holy Communion.

"These tiny toughies in their ­Sunday-best frills are oddly affecting, yet there's no escaping the fact that in their high heels, tight dresses and false eyelashes, they look like the can-can chorus line from a munchkin strip club."

Image caption The extent girls under 10 dress up has attracted criticism

The episode was followed by widespread criticism of the perceived sexualisation of children. However, the programme also shows the comparatively strict morals of girls in the Traveller communities.

There is expected to be no sex before marriage, divorce is almost unheard of and talking back to elders is unacceptable. Selina Julien wonders in Now magazine how a community that thrives on their strict practices justifies allowing children to look "more like they belong at Spearmint Rhino than the local comp".

It isn't just the girls' outfits and morals which are new to the viewer. The dating ritual of "grabbing" depicted in the programme shows boys virtually pinning down girls who in return have to reject their advances.

Racist accusations

Lindy McDowell argues in the Belfast Telegraph that showing these fascinating practices offers a haunting picture of a community about which we think we know a lot but don't actually know very much.

In among the sartorial excess are storylines depicting discrimination experienced by gypsy communities and travellers. One episode explained wedding venues very often have to be kept secret until the very last minute for fear that the venue owners will catch on that it is a gypsy wedding and cancel the booking. In another, a family is caught up in planning laws which don't allow building on the land they own.

The programme makers themselves believe they are illuminating a hidden part of society, through a "revealing documentary series that offers a window into the secretive, extravagant and surprising world of gypsies and travellers in Britain today".

But some members of these communities have been expressing their unease with the programme.

Helena Kiely, a 22-year-old Irish Traveller who spent her childhood on local authority-run encampments around east London and now works as a youth adviser at the London Gypsy and Traveller Unit, says in the Guardian that it doesn't take much to bolster crude stereotypes. For her, the accent on frills and flouncing is a missed opportunity to show contemporary Traveller culture as it really is.

Ms Kiely is not alone as the Travellers' Times is leading protests about the show aimed at the communications watchdog Ofcom. The publication is arguing the programme is not only inaccurate but also "misleads the audience and leads to harm and offence".

My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding is on at 2100 GMT on Tuesdays on Channel 4. Previous episodes are available on its catch-up service

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