by Emily Coccia
“What’s the national sport of Italy?” the police officer asked us during our orientation at Villa le Balze in Florence, Italy.
We responded in unison with some variation of “Calcio!” or “Football!” or “Soccer!”
He smiled at us and laughingly responded, “No. Women.” He continued to explain that catcalls, constant flirtation—even touching and hand pulling—are common experiences for women in Italy. While he warned us to stay in groups and use caution, he explained that the men don’t mean any harm, nor are they dangerous—it is, in fact, a game for them. However—and he stressed this point—we were not to react. Italian men have grown accustomed to women ignoring their advances, but women actively rebuffing their answers—now that’s another story. He told stories of American students responding to these “innocent flirtations” with a few choice words or gestures, often towards the end of the night after having grown fed up with the unwanted attention, only to receive a violent blow from the men. The officer left us with the warning, “And for you women, remember: inaction and non-response are the best responses.”
While I certainly wouldn’t dream of putting myself in danger by angrily reacting towards anyone in a foreign country, the principle behind this bothered me—and it’s been bothering me since I did a project on “il feminismo” in my Italian class last semester. In post-World War II Italy, the influence of fascism, with its emphasis on the importance of the family and traditional gender roles, hindered the development of the feminist movement at a time when it truly began to flourish in most other countries. Since then, women have slowly started to stand up for their rights and demand equal treatment, but many still see feminism as something “extreme” and unnecessary. Yet to this day, the ideal of the feminine housewife remains strong and women remain a minority of sorts, making up only a miniscule percentage of government officials and company leaders. While I recognize that much of the current situation is a product of Italy’s unique culture, as well as its close historical ties with fascism and Catholicism (and I say that as a Catholic myself), I cannot help but wonder at how Italian women still put up with this, at how anyone could possibly see feminism as “unnecessary.”
Just today we watched “Italy: Love It or Leave It,” a documentary of sorts produced by a couple—Gustav and Luca—when making the decision over whether to stay in Rome, as Luca wished to do, or move to Berlin, like Gustav preferred. Over the course of the film, the two traversed the whole of Italy, traveling from city to city as Luca attempted to convince Gustav to stay. In each city they found both beauty and deep-seated problems. Many of these problems centered around issues relating to women’s rights. In once city they found a movement defending Fascism and decrying homosexuality and women working outside the home, while miles away in Milan, they stumbled upon a rally of citizens, including many women, vehemently defending Berlusconi as merely “young at heart,” arguing that they knew he loved women when they elected him. However, just as I discovered in my project, not all is lost.
Luca and Gustav also talked to some of the women leading the feminist movement. One woman, who headed a successful local movement against some of the worst advertising, explained the problems facing women in Italy, especially those based in their television representation. Italian advertising—in addition to just their normal television—tends to look more like pornography than innocent entertainment. Want to see two middle-aged men give you the news while a woman runs around them in a bikini? There’s a show for that. Want to see what appears to be a version of So You Think You Can Dance involving two women suggestively dancing together in heels and lingerie? You got it. Want to see sexually explicit images in all your commercials? Just flip through the channels at night. But one day she realized she’d had enough. She realized that no longer was she simply angry; she had internalized this phenomenon—when she looked at a woman, she saw her in the way she imagined a man would see her. This internalization of the male gaze drove her to start a campaign, which actually found a large degree of success, and which has inspired many women throughout Italy. Movements like these, while perhaps not overly prominent or even very common, play an important role. Sure, the feminist cause faces an uphill battle in Italy, but it’s one that, with enough perseverance and support, can be won.