A little over a year ago, I became mildly obsessed with the BBC’s docu-reality show My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. The big dresses, big personalities, and big traditions of gypsy communities in the UK were completely new to me and I wanted to know all about them. I especially wanted some insight into those dresses.
I devoured what episodes I could obtain online and rejoiced when TLC, arbiters of class and good judgment, aired the whole series. And I’m sure you can imagine my excitement when I heard that they were going to be airing their own version of the show called—what else?—My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding.
The American version of the show has been on for a few weeks now and I’ve been playing catch-up with my DVR. Now that I’ve seen all of the episodes that have aired, I’m finding myself thinking about it a lot.
The format and premise of the show is the same as the UK version. We meet several gypsy families, especially the teenage girls who are on the brink of fulfilling their roles as virginal prizes to the gypsy boys whom they’ve been preparing for since birth. We meet the Boston dressmaker who creates the outlandish dresses that they wear for Holy Communions, coming-out parties, weddings, and even Thanksgiving dinner. And we listen to gypsy boys and men bluntly discuss their strict gender roles.
I’m finding that what I was far more tolerant when I was watching people who were definitely of a foreign culture and country discuss these topics than I am when it’s people who live a few states away. What I had previously regarded as, “Well, I definitely don’t agree with any of that, but sometimes you just have to accept cultural differences,” is now, “I can’t believe this is legal. This is so messed up. I can’t believe this goes on in America.”
To be fair, I’m sure that gypsy communities are not the only tight-knit communities in the United States whose traditions would make me uncomfortable, and I’m sure for the show the producers found the gypsiest of gypsies to portray to make it that much more gawk-worthy.
But watching a few episodes in a row, which basically show the full life cycle of a gypsy woman, made me feel really upset. We have, for example, Priscilla who, at 14, is ready to show off her gorgeous bod so that she may get married as soon as possible. Shyanne, a 17-year-old gypsy bride who is purposefully ignorant of sex and reproduction, and whose mom chuckles that she’ll have to find out about sex like she did, “the hard way.” We also see Laura a lot, a gypsy woman who married young and is probably in her early 20s, though you can see some signs of life starting to show on her. She has fully embraced her roles of wife, mother, and homemaker, but does not appear to have matured emotionally past her teen years and most looks forward to any opportunity to put on a slinky dress and once again be the object of desire.
There are also more troubling characters featured, like Mellie, who married a very abusive man at 16. At 22, she can barely talk about her marriage and obviously has a good deal of emotional trauma she’s trying (and failing) to suppress, but needs to get remarried soon before she’s considered ruined. There is also a gypsy mom who is in her early 40s, but looks years older. She and her husband had divorced but are getting remarried. It’s quite possibly the saddest wedding ever.
I’m hoping that at some point they’ll feature people from the gypsy culture who have at least questioned the traditions. I really do understand the urge to keep a culture alive, especially when it’s from a group of people who were definitely targets of persecution and hatred. But I just have a hard time believing that, in 2012, no one has said, “Hey, can’t we keep our traditions alive without being so shady to the women?”