I made the mistake of spending Sunday evening with my TV tuned to The Learning Channel. My mother called me once after seeing an episode of “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” to tell me that it was a fascinating glimpse into a culture she had no idea existed. So, this weekend, while puttering around the house, and working on other things my TV stayed on for several hours watching as the show followed British and Irish women who live in the “Traveler’s culture.”
The show isn’t just another “Say Yes to the Dress” where women are convinced that spending thousands on a big fancy gown is the most important thing in their lives. It’s a show that glamorizes the submissive role that women take in a culture that views them only as wives and mothers. For example, most women who are Travelers quit school when they’re very young to help mothers raise the often large numbers of children their mothers had. One such woman left school when she was 11-years-old just to help clean the house and care for her nine brothers and sisters. At 17 she was marrying her soon-to-be husband after only a three month engagement. Another 16-year-old girl, eager to find a husband, was engaged in a “grabbing ritual,” a custom popular in the culture, where young men corner women, and despite repeatedly saying “no” the boys roughly attempt to force the girls to kiss them. The girl was asked if she felt in danger at all, and she said “no of course not” it’s just how things are done.
Women aren’t allowed to be with men alone unsupervised in the culture, nor are they ever allowed to have sex before marriage. These girls don’t leave their families until they are married, and when the women DO walk down the isle, the biggest and most expensive wedding possible sends them off into their next requirement — to get pregnant ASAP.
Behind the expensive weddings are dresses that are often times so heavy that women’s hips bleed just from holding them up. The blood, sweat, and tears as they leave their brothers and sisters are only the beginning of living a lifestyle where they aren’t allowed to work outside the home, and serve only as a vessel of procreation.
As I watched this horrific ritual unfold, I was tormented with ads for other TLC shows that were just as atrocious. “Sister Wives” tries to make polygamy in Mormon faiths look mainstream. With millions being spent on recruitment in advertising from the Mormon Church, one would think they wouldn’t want to highlight the more controversial side of a faith. I suppose the family is attempting to make polygamy appear acceptable as the husbands bounce around among their harems of wives. It certainly serves as a stark contrast from news reports of young girls removed by authorities after they were forced into polygamous marriages and molested by older men.
During a screening of the documentary “Miss Representation,” I saw footage of “Toddlers and Tiaras,” where children, often under five-years-old, are made up, spray tanned, and sequined from top to bottom in attempts to prove that they are the fairest of them all. The cameras follow stage moms and their little girls who are often times sobbing as they refuse to spend hours having their hair and makeup put on. Fake eyelashes glued to them, hair pulled up and ratted to be the biggest, and little girls taught to do sexy dances to entice the judges into thinking they’re adorable and grown-up. The focus isn’t on playing with your friends, taking ballet classes, learning how to ride a bike, or read and write; it’s about who is the cutest and sexiest four-year-old. Not disturbed by the idea of a “sexy” four-year-old? Watch “Toddlers and Tiaras” on The Learning Channel.
One of the more successful shows on TLC is the long running series “What Not to Wear.” A simple show where family and friends of women call in and request their schleppy gal pal get a make-over. The only episode I ever had the misfortune of watching featured a stylist who was at work when the host and camera crew came into her shop. Never mind the inappropriateness of humiliating a woman in her workplace, where women have to work hard enough to garner respect, this woman was so upset she fled to a back room where she was overheard sobbing by the cameras. It took hours for the host and the woman’s sister to convince her that thousands of dollars in free clothing was the reason to sign over her dignity. What an outstanding thing for women to learn! It isn’t how smart you are, how hard you work, or how good a job you do personally or professionally, it’s all about what you wear. Why don’t we see SpikeTV making over some plumber with jeans falling off his ass? When can I expect “What Not to Wear” to have an episode where “Pawn Star’s” Chumlee is made to look like 007?
Whatever happened to having educational television on The Learning Channel? Instead, viewers are learning about the many traditions and faiths that demoralize women, while highlighting the way American culture shows women young and old that sexiness and the way you dress is really all that matters in life.
Guest contributor Sarah Burris has worked as a fundraiser with numerous campaigns from presidential to city council races. In 2007, she worked for Skyline Public Works where she helped state based youth organizations connect with major funders across the country and develop better networking opportunities. In 2008 Sarah was named one of the five Rock the Vote Rock the Trail Reporters and traveled the country during the 2008 elections covering the campaign from the youth perspective. She’s reported from both conventions and debates and followed candidates on youth tours through their states. Sarah was also a recipient of the Democracy for America Netroots Nation scholarship and was named by the New Leader’s Council as one of the 40 Emerging Leaders Under 40. She was a founding blogger at Everyday Citizen, was a long time writer and researcher for Wiretap Magazine, and a previous partner at Mixed Media. She now serves as the managing editor for FutureMajority.com where her writing focus has been faith based politics, rural youth, young women, young progressive democracy, and youth specific legislation. Sarah currently lives in Washington, D.C. and works in online media and marketing.