It’s the silly season. During July and August, the standard of tripe churned out in TV-land becomes unbearable. You would imagine our friends in Channel 4, as an alternative to the Olympics, would be using this opportunity to develop a new audience. Is this their intent with “Thelma’s Gypsy Girls”? By Rosaleen McDonagh.
Is reality TV the mirror that we see our reflection in? Distorted; tacky; unbalanced and poorly edited in a salacious fashion. Is reality TV a version of ourselves satellited back to its viewer via settled media and editorial diktat. My understanding of documentaries is that they should educate, inform, be interesting and tell a narrative where the vulnerable become strong and empowered during the course of the storyline – “empowered” being the key word.Thelma’s gypsy girls are supposed to be empowered by a settled woman giving them a job. A job in which they’re ridiculed on television in a multi-dimensional way. Class, ethnicity, cultural vulnerability and educational disadvantage are all key factors in negating an accurate representation of Traveller beoirs.. Social solidarity amongst women should not be about a rich businesswoman employing Traveller girls to teach them a trade. It’s the archetypal story of philanthropic posturing. The settled white woman knows best. The settled white woman will dictate and demand you aspire to her standards. The settled white woman can demean and denigrate with just one word . Calling them “love” in that false, familiar, patronising tone. The beoirs are grateful for the opportunity because other avenues of employment, training or education aren’t always open to them. This settled fairy godmother can wave her wand but unfortunately can’t wave away her own racism and sense of self righteousness.
This woman, Thelma Madine, wants to “give something back” to our community , the Traveller community. This is her mantra throughout the series. She built a business and made a living out of dressmaking; her niche market is Traveller beoirs’ wedding dresses.
The programme is a spinoff of Channel 4’s “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding”. Not only is it difficult to watch. I struggle to have something remotely positive to say about this. Being a Traveller woman of a certain age who has benefitted from third level education, it is not my intention to undermine, sneer, laugh or criticise young beoirs for the choices they make. Universal globalisation means television is more accessible and more aspirational for most young people. Why shouldn’t they want to be on television? The world is changing; traditions and cultural norms are patterns. Some of the old sequins get pulled off. Some of the new diamonds are too shiny and big for the thread to stitch them together. So you end up with a fabric that often is a mismatch for the dimantes. Yet the strong thread of tradition will bring a needle to a new fabric where consciousness and politicisation are swapped for the shiny sequins that eventually will fall off any dress. Our culture is sturdy. We, as women, are strong. We’re custodians of our culture. The programme, like all programmes about us, makes a definite attempt to portray us as victims, subordinates and unintelligent. Of course, we’re all subordinate to Thelma, for without her we’d have no needle, no thread and she’d have no need to make pretty dresses.
Before speculating on Thelma’s motivations for “giving something back to the community”, we,, as Travellers are supposed to be benefactors of her generosity, arrogance and her self indulgence. Other questions need to be asked. Would Channel 4 commission a programme like this involving young Asian women or Muslim women? Would the exoticisation be so overt? Maybe not, but the difference is that members of the Asian and Muslim communities have some power or space in the media. Travellers don’t. Thirty or more years ago, Asian women in Britain did push their way through the glass ceiling by way of education, business and media. Not many, a few. The history of Asian women in Britain obtaining second and third level education is short and recent. Nonetheless, it’s there as a reference and as a marker of change within the community. A marker to outsiders, in this particular case, the media. The filtering effect : our community has yet to experience that breakthrough. So, the power and influence to call a halt or to take these programme makers to task are tiresome and often vacuous. We’re talking to ourselves.
Thelma, the self-styled saviour of Traveller women, is putting her own money into a business where she intends to provide Traveller girls with the possibility of becoming seamstresses. Intentions often get played out in a very ugly, nasty way. People with good intentions often have huge egos. There lies the problem. The opening sequence portrays a huge contrast between Thelma’s five-bedroom house with swimming pool to the young Travellers being picked up from a halting site in Merseyside. Her own daughter, a precocious five- or six-year-old, goes to a private school with a boater hat, blazer, brown leather satchel and a good lunch. The programme, in its voyeuristic, insensitive way, highlights the fact that few of the beoirs, apart from one, has had much education.
Thelma’s ego encompasses everything about her when she says, “I’ve worked with these people, Travellers, for 15 years. I know all there is to know. The families trust me.” 25 years ago, that’s how nuns and social workers spoke about us and to us. Like Thelma’s Gypsy girls, we were used and, in some cases, still are used as commodities. Commodities for Channel 4 to revitalise reality TV for the silly season now that Big Brother has moved to a different station. Commodities for Thelma’s ego, while she promotes her business. Commodities aren’t just the shiny sequins on the dresses that she’s made a good living out of but the young beoirs are like shiny dolls that she’s playing with.
The programme doesn’t even have a vague veneer of liberalism to it. Instead, it’s controlling, demeaning and insulting. As if Thelma has taken it on herself to correct and encourage. Then she expects Traveller beoirs to emulate settled women. The sad part of the programme was when one of the participants, Bridgie, an English Traveller who had done her GCSEs, talked about the racism she experienced while in school. “They tell me I live in a dustbin.” - was a remark that she had received from settled peers.
While the other Traveller girls were ganging up on Bridgie, Thelma –the adult- said, “She’s doing herself no favours by not being one of the girls.” Bridgie, a shy, quiet young beoir didn’t want to wear a short, sequinned tutu skirt - “My family don’t do that.” Again, Thelma laughed when Bridgie’s mother insisted that there was a Traveller chaperone rather than a settled chaperone going to a ‘Moulin Rouge party’ with the young people. Bridgie left the party early; the settled environment, to her, wasn’t that glamorous or exciting. In fact, it seemed dangerous and threatening, which mirrored Bridgie’s experience of going to school.
Any room for difference or diversity among the girls was laughed at. The mantra that all women are different isn’t afforded to Traveller women. The outsider, the settled gaze, cultivates the notion that culture means homogeneity. Diversity or individuality, while adhering to cultural norms, is far too complicated for telly-land.
Again this type of racism is the catalyst for the programme when Thelma’s workers, in particular her own daughter, the older one, talk about how difficult it is having to “share a workspace with Travellers”. Another one of Thelma’s settled workers says, “Most of the Traveller girls have hygiene problems and you just can’t tell them”. A third employee says, “They’re always looking for a fight and I’d prefer not to eat my lunch with them.”
This line reminded me of the experience that a female cousin of mine had 20 years ago when, in a training centre for Traveller women run by nuns. The curriculum was based on hygiene, sewing, cleaning and cooking. Assimilation at its worst and rehabilitation at its poorest. There were separate cups and toilets for Travellers. Not just because they were trainees, but there’s always an element that somehow our ethnicity needs to be contained because it just might be contagious. This is the hidden story of Irish Travellers of my generation. Training and education was always compounded with a good dose of racist ideology. My cousin lasted two days and made sure to break every cup in that building before she left.
Spinoffs, clichés, stereotypes and recycling of bad TV, that’s really what summer television is about. It’s there in the background but no one really watches it. The churning out of Thelma’s generosity is almost too much to stomach. I do hope the young beoirs get something more than their 15 minutes of fame or how to thread a bobbin on a sewing machine. Sewing, as an alternative to education, not just gender stereotyping but also sustains low expectations among the community. It also gives women like Thelma a sense of authority through her unwanted kindness. This programme is not about settled women helping Traveller women. Unfortunately, it’s about a settled bully who thinks her behaviour towards Traveller women is presented in a veneer of goodwill.