Of all the odious trash under the guise of ‘documentaries’ spurned out by Channel 4, Thelma’s Gypsy Girls has to be one of the worst offenders. Following the success of the Big Fat Gypsy Wedding series, dressmaker Thelma Madine, who claims to be the go-to designer for travellers (she’s not), embarks on a project in which she trains ten female travellers as seamstresses and eventually hires the best. Madine portrays herself as the saviour of travellers – “this is, like, the opportunity of a lifetime you’re getting here” – and constantly reminds us that she is on the brink of “losing everything” through this venture. Classic lines include “if this doesn’t work then I’m penniless basically” and “I’m putting my life, which is comfortable now, on the line, something that is not going to make me any more money, I’m just gonna put what I’ve made into helping these girls…I could lose everything I’ve got”. Aside from the fact that most of this money has been invested in new premises to expand her business rather than in the girls themselves, one can’t help wondering how much Madine is set to earn from Channel 4 for this series. If times get really tough for Madine as she predicts, there’s always the option of withdrawing her daughter from private school or selling the luxurious 5 bedroom house complete with swimming pool which she is so keen to show off to the viewers. She proudly shows off her gaudy furniture, pointing to a white leather chair and exclaiming “this is real gypsy. I like everything they like”. Gesturing to a guest bedroom, she remarks “that’s definitely a traveller room. There’s nothing subtle”. But as traveller and blogger Pipopotamus argues:
“Her garish furnishings seemed a world away from the reality of my trailer, let alone the homes of my family situated in Bulgaria’s Gypsy Ghettos.”
Despite claiming to understand and empathise with travellers, Madine seems to have no problem with perpetuating stereotypes and provoking hostility. Throughout the series she talks about them in terms which, if applied to any other ethnic or racial group, wouldn’t make it on the air. One of the most telling moments is when Madine informs her staff of the project: she delivers the good news that they are employing ten new girls, but “the bad news is that they are all travellers”. When one member of staff questions why this is bad news, she replies “you come back to me and say that in three months when they’ve been here”. She later explains that, because some of the trainees were taken out of school at a young age, “they’re not like 16 year old girls…they’re like 11 year old girls” and must be treated like children accordingly, a statement chillingly reminiscent of the racist and paternalistic treatment of Native Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She accuses travellers of being uneducated and unreliable: “they’re never, ever gonna be offered a job by anybody, are they?” She ignores the fact that Bridget Deadman, who was featured regularly on the show, has 7 As at GCSE and won a place at college, and allows one of her employees to call her a “smart arse” behind her back. Deadman is also forced to sit through English and Maths lessons, apparently to make up numbers for the tutor. As she herself explains:
“Every stereotype there is about gypsies was pushed to the hilt and Thelma and the camera crew seemingly ignored anything that didn’t fit that image.”
Madine also accuses travellers of being racist – “they most definitely look down on the people who don’t talk English” – because her staff members born outside the UK have been asked by the children of traveller customers “why can’t you speak English?” As Pipopotamus points out:
“Forgive me if I’m wrong, but unless this is the comment of a child raised by skinhead neo Nazis, then surely this questioning is nothing more than the bluntly phrased questions of a child discovering the uniqueness of British society? While Thelma is quick to brand these children racist, she seems to ignore the fact that her own, eight year old, daughter Katrina is guilty of this exact behaviour. Indeed, whilst reminiscing of the day she was first asked to make a Gypsy dress, little Katrina tells her mother that she “should have just said no”. It appears to me that Katrina doesn’t rate the Romany and Irish Traveller communities highly, an attitude inherited from her mother.”
We see several clips of Madine’s 8 year old daughter which reveal her worrying prejudice towards travellers. In episode 4, the trainees are invited to Katrina’s birthday party and are each told to bring a young relative with them. Katrina sweetly explains to the camera crew that if the gypsies “…are naughty I’m going to put them on the naughty step”. The party itself is oddly extravagant for a woman who claims to be financially crippled by her latest venture, and it’s clear that the traveller children are simply there as ‘exotics’, like some sort of novelty circus act. They are gawped at by Katrina’s casually dressed friends; in stark contrast, the traveller children are wearing custom-made revealing and sparkly costumes on Madine’s orders. Madine herself is brimming with smugness and self-importance, proudly announcing “there hasn’t been any segregation at all”.
A theme which crops up regularly throughout the series is sexism. Madine claims that for traveller women “the idea of a day to day job is an alien concept” and that “women get a raw deal in the traveller community. They’re brought up to say, you’re gonna be homemakers, and that’s it”. This is a gross misrepresentation of reality. Seeing as most of the girls selected for the course are 16 or 17, it’s hardly surprising that they haven’t been in paid employment before. When interviewing travellers for the course, Madine asks questions which say more about her view of the traveller communities than it did about them: “some people say in the traveller community that it’s shameful for women to work” and “what would you say to people who might say it’s shameful that you’re working?” Anyone under 18 needed to bring a parent with them, so it seems that a large number of adults didn’t think it was shameful at all. Grace, one of the trainee dressmakers, explains that traveller women “like our independence” and many of them do more than cleaning. She has a choice to do housework and look after the children, and she enjoys it. Yes, some families are unwilling to let women go out to work. Sexism and patriarchy are engrained in every culture. Pigeonholing it as one culture or race’s problem and stereotyping all traveller women as voiceless and oppressed is patronising and ethnocentric:
“There are Romany and Irish Traveller woman who do chose to enter the world of education and employment, and in my experience it is something that is not so uncommon anymore. Within my own family I have an aunty who is a social worker, a sister, cousin and aunty who are hairdressers, a cousin who has ambitions to become a professional dancer, and a grandmother who is a business owner. Thelma Madine believes her scheme is a once in a lifetime opportunity, something that has never been offered before. She is of the opinion that ‘no one gives Travellers a chance’, yet this is misplaced arrogance. In fact, there are a number of academic scholarships, internships, and courses aimed at young Romany and Irish Traveller people, offered by much more prestigious organisations than a Scouser’s dress shop.”
Bridget Deadman’s perspective on the role of women within travelling communities is also very insightful:
“…all of the women in my family have worked just as much as the men, not through need but through want, as we are driven women and we are not content with a life centred on looking after the home. Yes, we are very family-orientated but you can have two, and be extremely happy balancing them both.”
Thelma’s Gypsy Girls is yet another stereotyping and misleading show aired solely for entertainment purposes – or in Madine’s case, to enhance her glittering TV career and to increase her bank balance. There are countless incidences of ignorance and racism throughout the series which are treated as normal and acceptable. When Deadman doesn’t want to model a short lycra dress because she thinks it’s inappropriate, Madine attributes it to differences between English and Irish travellers and accuses her of “not doing herself any favours”. The stereotyping of entire cultures and communities is cringeworthy. So are the prejudices of the non-traveller staff members, who mock them behind their backs and refuse to eat lunch in the same room as them, something which Madine doesn’t seem too bothered about. Deadman, who quit the show early, feels that the programme is exploitative and misleading:
“Thelma wasn’t interested in teaching us anything. It was just a freak show which made us look violent, tarty and stupid. At times it was like being on Jeremy Kyle. The crew were determined to make us look wild. The whole thing was disgusting. We trusted Thelma to help us learn a skill.”
Deadman experienced racist bullying at school as a result of the Big Fat Gypsy Wedding series and had hoped that the dressmaking course would be different, but in reality it “has just made things a hundred times worse”. She would like to go back to college, which she dropped out of to take Madine’s course, and study events management.
The Oxford Student’s interview with Bridget Deadman and Pipopotamus’s blog offer a much more genuine insight into the experiences of travellers than faux-documentaries fronted by self-indulgent and ignorant people like Thelma Madine, and they don’t attempt to generalise entire cultures either. Pipopotamus eloquently summarises everything that is wrong with Thelma’s Gypsy Girls:
“I am willing to throw my hands up and apologise if I have misjudged fairy godmother Madine, yet I am positive that she most definitely is not on the side of the Romany and Irish Traveller communities. The project itself could have provided a new and exciting opportunity for the girls who were picked, but due to Thelma’s longing for money and fame, these girls have been paraded in front of the cameras as an excuse to induce humiliating, degrading and abusive comments over social networks and the media. If Thelma’s heart was truly in the right place, she would have had the decency to conduct her training away from the public eye. Instead all Thelma has proven is that she is the most dangerous ‘spokesperson’ for the Romany and Irish Traveller communities, and one of the biggest threats to our fight for equality.”