From 18th Century ‘kidnap’ to Big Fat Gypsy Weddings: New book tackles negative stereotypes of travellers

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A new book explores how negative stereotypes about travellers seen in programmes like My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding have existed for centuries. Chris Burn reports.

It has become known as “the last acceptable form of racism”; the openly hostile prejudice towards people from Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities that continues to pervade society.

According to recent research from The Traveller Movement, four out of five Gypsies, Roma and Travellers have experienced hate speech or hate crimes, ranging from being subjected to racist abuse to physical assaults. Half say they have experienced discrimination in the workplace, including being fired once a company discovered their heritage to colleagues refusing to work with them.

Now a new book by University of Huddersfield professor Dr Jodie Matthews is exploring how ingrained social stereotypes about Gypsies have existed for centuries and continue to make the travelling community a target for racism and hostility.

Dr Matthews’ new book, The Gypsy Woman, draws parallels between cases from the 1700s and what she considers to be the “exploitative, patronising, hysterical and exaggerated portrayal” of travellers on modern-day reality show Big Fat Gypsy Weddings. “Gypsy and traveller men and women say ‘this is nothing like my experience, this is nothing like my life. I have never heard anybody say they think it was a positive portrayal.”

One of her chapters looks at a case from 1753, when a maidservant named Elizabeth Canning was allegedly kidnapped by a Gypsy woman named Mary Squires, who was condemned to death but later pardoned when it was found that her accuser had committed perjury. The cover picture of The Gypsy Woman is an 1865 painting by Thomas George Webster that depicts a pale-skinned young woman menaced by a sinister, dark-haired female Gypsy outside her window. The painting hangs in the Smith Art Gallery in Brighouse.

She says her research clearly shows negative stereotypes about the communities have been embedded in society for generations and continues to a large extent to this day. “Our viewpoint on the past is totally founded on what we experience today and all the stereotypes in contemporary culture. One of the most troubling things about the stereotypes is that they are redeployed in every decade in slightly different ways.”

Travellers setting up unauthorised camps on public land is a frequent occurrence in Yorkshire, with cases reported in Sheffield, Hull and Eggborough in recent months. It is these incidents which often elicit an emotional reaction from local residents concerned about littering and clean-up costs – but Dr Matthews says the situations can frequently result in “violently racist” online comments.

She says one of the problems is the “chronic shortage” of authorised sites for travellers because of difficulty in getting planning permission for them. But despite these challenges, according to a recent Government paper, the proportion of caravans on authorised land has risen from 79 per cent in January 2007 to 87 per cent in January 2017.

Dr Matthews says even supposedly positive portrayals can be detrimental.

“There is a conception is that all Gypsy women must be fortune tellers and dark-haired, dark-eyed beauties,” she says.

“What about being a strong and educated blonde-haired Romany woman? What about being a politician? The trouble with these stereotypes is that they tell the same story again and again.”

She says she hopes the new book can aid better understanding.

“In popular culture, there is a lot of interest in programmes such as Big Fat Gypsy Weddings and there has been a great deal of academic research in disciplines such anthropology and the social sciences, but literature studies had lagged behind a little.”