Thelma’s Gypsy Girls

Thelma's Gypsy Girls on Channel 4So the backlash against Thelma’s Gypsy Girls has already started, and we’re only one episode into the six-part series. Channel 4’s latest gypsy documentary series follows the wedding dressmaker, Thelma Madine, as she hires 10 apprentices to join her dressmaking business. The controversy lies in the fact that the apprentices are all girls from the Romany and Irish Traveller communities.

Romany traveller Pip has seen his blog go viral, after he poured criticism over Thelma and her new business venture. He accuses her of ‘parading the girls in front of the cameras as an excuse to induce humiliating, degrading and abusive comments on social networks’. He also names her as a ‘dangerous spokesperson’ for the Traveller community and a ‘threat against their fight for equality’. He then goes on to claim that she wrongly assumes that gypsy women are forced into a life as homemaker.

Having watched the first episode, it’s easy to see where Pip’s anger is coming from. There were two stand-points that I felt were coming from Thelma. Firstly, that Thelma’s project would encourage the girls to earn a living, rather than stay at home (thereby implying the life of a homemaker was somehow inferior to that of a working woman). Secondly, that taking on the girls would mean having to deal with the ‘problems’ that came with them. No doubt, we’ll see lots of bad behaviour from the girls in the episodes to come, which will justify her assumption. But isn’t this just reinforcing negative stereotypes?

On the other hand, Thelma has known these communities for 15 years. A lot of the first episode explains how Thelma got into making dresses specifically for the gypsy and Traveller communities. After her divorce in the 1990s, she was left with nothing. Penniless and with a baby to feed, one of Thelma’s first jobs was making a wedding dress for a gypsy bride-to-be. From there, word spread and her business thrived. She makes no secret of the fact that she owes her success to these communities. This is her trying to give back; trying to empower the women that empowered her.

The only time you doubt Thelma’s intentions is when she explains that if this venture goes belly up, she will be left penniless once again. She’s put everything into it, and success depends on if the girls stick with it and don’t rebel. The apprentices are mainly teenage girls who have never held down a proper job before in their lives. So it begs the question: WHY did she risk so much? With barely enough time to do the work she already has (a colleague points out that she often works until 6 ‘o’clock in the morning) why would she make life more difficult for herself? Was it because Channel 4 producers enticed her? Is she secretly being paid by the broadcaster?

Despite the obvious doubts, the overall portrayal of Thelma is so earnest that you can’t help thinking she has gone into this with nothing but the best intentions for the gypsy community. With only one episode to serve as an insight into the project, we are basing much opinion on little content. Maybe we should judge after watching the remainder of the series.

Thelma’s Gypsy Girls continues on Channel 4 on Sundays at 9pm. The first episode is available to view on 4oD and 4seven.