When TLC debuted My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding earlier this month, I completely ignored it. That was a bad decision: It’s a fascinating, well-made series that’s a direct import from the UK and brings us into a culture that is stunning in its traditions, from wedding dresses that weigh more than the bride to socially accepted assault on women.
I blame the show’s dumb title, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, which fails to capture the true essence of the series, and the fact that it is on TLC, which I’ve come to expect will air nonsense more often than not. This is a notable exception, and I hope the network airs more reality series like this in the future, because like the best documentaries and reality series, the show humanizes its subjects while letting us into their lives in a way that doesn’t seem exploitative (Jon & Kate Plus 8, ahem).
Weddings are only part of the series, which covers everything from the amusing clothing travelers wear to the discrimination, stereotyping, and persecution they face. There’s also an interesting combination of the modern and the old, like when a man calls his wife on his cell phone from his horse-drawn cart to ask/tell her to get in her car and bring him food because he’s hungry.
That last part is the most fascinating and horrifying to me: The incredibly sexist expectations and traditions that everyone, men and women, tolerate and justify. It’s a community where relationships can start with assault: public, physical violence that the community not only tolerates but expects. (Watch this clip from the UK version about the practice of “grabbing.”)
On some level, the show is a window into the prevailing attitudes about gender that many societies, including our own, have had for some time, and I suspect that a lot of what’s in this series is uncomfortable because we still have similar attitudes. Boys may not grab girls by the hair, forcibly kiss them, and carry them away from a party, but just watch The Bachelorette to see how uncomfortable some guys get with a woman being in charge of a relationship, and see how the proposal is still left up to the man.
The series originally aired on Channel 4 in the UK as Big Fat Gypsy Weddings; this is the same series, but with new narration, because of course Americans don’t like to listen to British people explaining things to us. TLC is producing a version that follows American gypsies, and that will air in 2012. After tonight’s finale at 10 p.m. ET, TLC will re-air the other six episodes starting at noon ET tomorrow.