Bigger. Fatter. Gypsier. More Racist.

This is a guest post by Emma Milne, who worked as a community worker with Travellers in Nottingham

In the last couple of days The Guardian, as well as several other newspapers, has picked up on the issue of Channel 4’s latest ad campaign. At last count around 100 complaints had been lodged with the Advertising Standards Authority regarding the ‘Bigger.Fatter.Gypsier’ billboards publicising the new series of the channel’s documentary’ ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.

The Gypsy and Traveller way of life is one which we in this country have refused to accept as valid. Councils across the UK take a hard line on evicting ‘illegal encampments’, and will use force, such as was seen at Dale Farm recently, or tactics such a midnight raids, to move families on. There are often no places for families to move on to, and as council caravan sites are basically non-existent and private sites are overcrowded* families will often just move to wherever they can find space, most likely to be moved on again before too long. When accommodation is offered by the Local Authority it is invariably in bricks and mortar.

The offer of bricks and mortar accommodation is culturally insensitive; it exemplifies the overriding attitude that Travellers’ way of life is a lifestyle choice. It is not a choice. It is deeply embedded in everything about the way their community functions as a whole. Without the ability to travel, the support systems and traditions of this very self contained, self sufficient community break down. How many of the people calling on travellers to move into bricks and mortar would feel their needs had been met if someone knocked on their door, told them they had to leave, but offered them a caravan to move into?

So, we ignore Gypsies and Travellers in this country, refusing to recognise their way of life, and slowly and quietly make laws which aim to back them so far into corners that they disappear. Then when a mainstream television channel takes notice and gains the trust of this very private community, they turn them in to caricatures for our entertainment. I was working in the Traveller community in Nottingham this time last year when the first series of the program was broadcast, and could spend the rest of this article writing about how offensive the content was to the people I was working with at the time.

The discussions which have been happening in the media over the last couple of days have focused on the potentially racist word ‘gypsier’, and the fact that the pictures have been chosen particularly as they make to people in them look menacing. For me though the discomfort I feel when looking at the adverts comes not mainly from any of the specifics, but rather the overall sense of a community being taken advantage of.

I think I would be uncomfortable with any advert which has a photo of a young boy, with huge white text emblazened across the middle of his face. There is a feeling of vulnerability and broken trust when you see someone’s face ‘endorsing’ a message over which they have had no control. When it is a message as questionable as ‘Bigger. Fatter. Gypsier’it is even more uncomfortable. It is exploiting an ethnic identity to get viewers, and is done with an explicitly mocking voice.

Travellers and Gypsies have historically been persecuted, and have over many generations developed a high level of suspicion and nervousness about mainstream society or country folk. The documentary makers have exploited the trust that was placed in them, and, as Christine Cawley, an Irish Traveller living in London, said in her piece on The Guardian’s Comment is free; ‘Channel 4 seems to be using who we are against us in a way that feels very hard to take’. They do not dispel any myths about the people they are making their films about, they have simply found new ways to make them different, and this advertising campaign is the ultimate manifestation of that.

We continue to let Gypsies and Travellers down in this country, and there are many more things we could and should be doing to allow these people to continue in their way of life, and break down the boundaries put up by a lack of understanding between them and country folk. The series was an opportunity to help out in that process. Unfortunately it has been wasted by Channel 4, and has done long lasting damage in terms of renewing the suspicions of much of the community, and limiting the involvement many travellers will have with the media in the near future. The adverts feel like a strong demonstration of the attitude behind the programs, and lodging a complaint about them feels like a good place to start questioning these attitudes so pervasive in our society.

You can, and should, complain about the adverts here.

* This is still the case despite the 1968 act which placed a duty on all Councils to provide sites, and the 2005 planning law which meant councils had to allocate some land for Travellers to buy to set up their own private sites. It was the 2005 planning law which saw The Sun newspaper launch it’s “Stamp on the Camp” Campaign.

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