What is the public sphere?

According to Jurgen Habermas, a German philosopher, the public sphere is “a domain of our social life where such a thing as public opinion can be formed (where) citizens…deal with matters of general interest without being subject to coercion…(to) express and publicise their views” (Habermas, 1997:105). Basically the public sphere is a metaphor for the place where members of society gather to discuss the news of the community, and the social, cultural and political issues they face.

In “The Public Sphere: An introduction”, author Alan McKee dictates the pros and cons of the public sphere. Some of the points McKee made included that the public sphere is useful for understanding how societies are organised and how ‘liberal’ societies function, it is a useful metaphor because it makes us think about the role ordinary people play in the creation of culture, and it also reminds us that representations in the media aren’t always reality some criticisms of the public sphere or causes for concern are that the media is too commercialised, trivialises issues, concentrates too much on spectacle rather than rational arguments and is too fragmented which is causing citizens to become too apathetic about some important issues. There are two main sides in the debate on the public sphere, one is that the public sphere has been degraded by consumer capitalism, and the other is that it has been enhanced by a changing society and the creation of new public spheres or spaces.

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When the tv show “My big fat gypsy wedding” first aired in the UK, it’s aim was to shine a light on a little understood section of the community, with the first season attracting 7 million viewers. Each episode of the show follows one or two families who are having a big event, usually a wedding but also sometimes christenings. These gypsies or travellers are portrayed as being not poor but they are shown to live in caravans rather than houses so some people see them as being lower class. The events shown in the program are always very flashy and some of the wedding the dresses are over the top and amazing. The “spectacle” includes teenage brides and grooms, elaborate dresses that can weigh in at more than 70 pounds (including one that lights up in the dark), bouffant hairdos, spray tans, stretch limos, and scantily clad female guests.
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However, the controversy around this show is growing steadily. Some members of the travelling community believe gypsies are being shown in a negative way which breeds negative connotations. according to the UK Guardian “The London Gypsy and Traveller Unit lodged a complaint with the Advertising Standards Authority arguing that Channel 4’s marketing of the show was offensive and racist.” Meanwhile some people are shocked by the sexism in these communities, eg. The practice of ‘grabbing‘, where men engage in grabbing a girl and dragging her away to try and kiss her. This is an insisted upon courtship ritual in the travelling community. According to an article on newrepublic.com “To watch “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” is to see Travellers and Roma as uneducated, flashy, and closed-minded people who live in mobile-home parks and throw enormous parties”. The article also states that the show portrays travellers and Roma as one group rather than clearly identifying the two groups and their origins, which is seen as offensive to both communities,

A women’s role in a gypsy household is to cook, clean, look after the children and basically do whatever her husband tell her. They are usually not allowed to work and most can’t because they leave school between the ages of 10 and 14 so most are illiterate. The episodes show a girl getting her dream wedding with a sparkly princess dress, but they don’t always get the ‘happily ever after’.

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