"I feel like we’ve been Gypsy Wedding-ed," a friend complained on Facebook last night.
“Now I know what it’s like to come from Essex,” said another. My reaction to the first episode of Channel Four’s Jewish Mum of the Year competition? Not my community, again.
The show, essentially a contest in who can best conform to the worst stereotypes about Jewish women, comes hot on the heels of other Jewish-centric documentaries, including Paddy Wivell’s BBC Wonderland programme about the Orthodox community of Stamford Hill, A Hasidic Guide to Love, Marriage and Finding a Bride and the follow-up, Two Jews on a Cruise, and Strictly Kosher, ITV’s study of Manchester’s most colourful Jews.
Of course, other communities have also come in for scrutiny, from the “hilarious” nuptials of Irish Travellers to the activities of the youth of Essex, Liverpool and Newcastle. Life in a minority can be fertile ground for comedy writers, as the seven-series run of The Kumars at No. 42 shows.
When Channel Four advertised the second series of Gypsy Wedding with the tagline "Bigger. Fatter. Gypsier", they came in for a fair amount of flack, and last week the Advertising Standards Authority ruled that it was irresponsible, offensive and reaffirmed negative stereotypes. The deputy chief executive of the charity that publishes the Travellers Times criticised the series for making the community “look totally feckless, not really to be taken seriously as an ethnic group”. “It just confirms prejudices,” said Jane Jackson.
In truth, I’m not sure taking a look at a minority group for entertainment is necessarily offensive, or in any way made with racist intent, but I do wonder what the point is.
It’s always hard to watch an outsider’s account of your reality. But worlds we don’t know are inherently fascinating, which is why geography programmes that reveal the secrets of Amazonian tribes or the Frozen Planet make such compulsive viewing, and why the foibles of Edwardian Englishmen have had the audience hooked on Downton Abbey.
At its best, television can be an unparalleled tool for instruction, for introducing audiences to subjects and scenarios beyond their wildest comprehension. It’s far more accessible than a magazine feature, and documentary-makers have a good reputation for thorough research. 24 Hours in A&E, for example, is far more revealing about the challenges faced by NHS workers than a bold headline about overworked doctors.
So why did watching Jewish Mum of the Year – with its token religious spoilsport, steely Alpha Mum, not to mention X Factor contestant Stacey Solomon dispensing wisdom – feel akin to having a tooth pulled? Mainly because it wasn’t about informing its audience, it was, unfortunately, all about cheap laughs at the expense of quirky traditions.
If the point of a fly-on-the-wall programme is to be fly-on-the-wall, why not spend time with the average member of that group rather than filming comedy characters who represent only themselves? This may well be the nature of reality television, but that doesn’t justify such a programme being made in the first place.
What did the audience take away from Jewish Mum of the Year? That Jewish women are hyper-competitive, obsessed with status and image, and have little interest in the religious component of their faith? The women involved may not be like this, but that’s how they came across.
There’s nothing wrong with using television to tell the world something about a minority group. Hearts and minds can be won over, as by the endearing Holocaust survivor Jack Aisenberg on Strictly Kosher.
The problem comes when all it does is confirm assumptions, without acknowledging that it is unrepresentative and designed primarily to entertain.
There is a difference between using television to break down barriers, and taking a stereotype and running with it. The danger is when a programme masquerading as informative can descend into a modern version of the Victorian circus freak show.