Since I spend so much of my time on that sofa, I find that I'm really fascinated by shows that document people whose lives are much, much worse than mine. At first, it was just all the hoarder shows (Hoarders, Hoarding: Buried Alive, and Animal Hoarders), since I can recognize that same tendency in myself - I love to collect things, I have a hard time letting go of things, and I also have anxiety disorder - and it's my way of making myself dust. That, and it's like watching a car wreck. But recently, I find myself fascinated with the Gypsy shows, mainly on TLC (they really need to drop the "Learning" part of their name and replace it with something else). I've seen multiple episodes of My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding, and now, their new show, Gypsy Sisters.
Understand, I'm not proud of watching these shows. What I am is transfixed; by their taste in clothes, by their incredibly sexist culture, by the sheer number of "Soowarofskee" crystals they stick on everything (one girl's wedding dress weighed 100 pounds - about 5 pounds more than she weighed). The girls are sexualized pretty much at birth - they dress them like little hookers as soon as they can stand, and many marriages are made when the girls are 14 or 15. There isn't any of that creepy FDLS cult stuff of old men in their 60s marrying child brides; boys marry similarly young, maybe a couple of years older, on average. In their culture, so the show explains, weddings are the biggest day in
a girl's life; they plan for it almost as soon as they can read and write, and it is not merely a wedding, but an announcement to the world that they are the biggest, the best, and the most expensive weddings money can buy. The marriages are almost always arranged, and to marry outside Gypsy culture is basically a shunning-level event. It's the strangest blend of 1950s middle-class values, hoochie-mama clothes, and 1860s sexism.
Depending on which Gypsy tribe you're in, the rules for women change, but a number of them do not allow women to drink at all. The men, of course, can do whatever they want, including drugs, alcohol, and other women, but their wives must stay at home and raise the kids. In reality, a lot of the rules blur, and the women are quite likely to come after their man with a carving knife if he strays, but they tend to be very parochial. At the same time, the men want their women dressed in the tightest, skimpiest, most-bedazzled clothes money can buy. Watching these shows, I'm struck by how colourful the women are - dyed hair, tons of make-up and spray (or sun) tan, huge earrings, massive amounts of jewelry, and outfits that barely cover the crotch, leave the midriff exposed, and are low, low, low cut. Interestingly, their women mostly tend towards extreme thinness - the bride in one show who weighed 95lbs, and the eponymous sisters who look like the largest size they need is maybe a 6. Strict inbreeding has produced very slim people, it seems - though I don't know many people who would want to be them, since Gypsies have a bad reputation the world 'round.
Sadly, the shows cater to that image, so we get to see all the bad stuff, all the bar fights, and the bad behaviour, and if one of them has a criminal record, you'll be sure to hear about it. In fact, the one show, Gypsy Sisters, seems determined to show the women screaming at each other as much as possible. These shows aren't for your edification, they're lifestyle porn. We're supposed to look at them and feel deeply superior to these people who behave in such a vulgar manner - my dear! Those clothes! Those women! Aren't we all so much better than them? Let's all pat ourselves on the back!
I admit - it does draw me in because they live in a way that is utterly unlike my world - no-one screams at each other in my family, or amongst my friends. We are mostly average-sized, and tend not to wear spandex. Crystals, Austrian or otherwise, show themselves discreetly. I prefer it - it's quiet, and I like quiet - but I find this other, alien world quite amazing, and I don't sneer at it. Even my first wedding did not have half the fuss and ado a Gypsy wedding entails, and truth be told, I love watching it. I would totally have had a wedding just like that if I'd known I had the option (note: I did not have the option). The families stick together, even when they're having screaming matches - supporting each other, presenting an unbreakable force to the outside world. It's charming, in its own way - as long as you forget that a lot of Gypsy/Traveller (the Irish clans) money is earned in a somewhat shady manner.
The Sisters show doesn't let you forget it much - in the first episode, we find out that their mother was a con artist, and was in jail. The sisters had been left with each other (no father around), and the youngest was only 10 when the mother was tried and convicted. This is supposed to somehow explain why the youngest sister is an out-of-control brat at 20, but whatever. She comes off as a self-destructive brat with no insight and a somewhat narcissistic tendency to blame all her issues on other people, but the producers are hardly likely to make a show about well-adjusted, law-abiding people who never get into trouble, are they? Bob and I joke about the idea that it's only a matter of time before we're tapped for a "reality" show, since every new show seems to be scraping the bottom of the barrel in voyeurism, but I doubt there'd be many people excited about tuning into a show where no-one yells, everyone is polite, and the main person sits on the sofa all day.
Even I don't want to watch that. Roll on the train wrecks, please. I promise not to sneer.