Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The skin they're in: the uneasy paradox of Italian women - Part 1

The scene: an elementary schoolyard.

Little girls run about, playing tag, leaping like free-spirited gazelles on the African savanna; they fall down and scrape knees, kick balls and climb the perimeter fence along with the boys, their hair tangled and streaming behind them like the militant flags of some young republic. They loudly and forthrightly speak their minds, bellow their desires, call raucously to their companions, and flee their mothers or nonni with great rebellious whoops. "Non mi piace!" [I don't like it!]" Quello mi fa schifo!" [That's disgusting!] "Non voglio andare!" [I don't want to go!] There is nothing here, in this crystallized moment of exuberant youth, to cause them to doubt themselves or be conscious of the gazes of others: they are pint-size packages of pure self-awareness, pure potential, pure elemental force.

If you could catch them and ask them what they want to be when they grow up, you would get these answers: zoologist, teacher, bus driver, doctor, rock star or toy store owner or dog walker (those last three being my own daughter's peripatetic career goals).

Standing all around nearby, like fixed stars in a firmament of tiny hurtling meteors, the picture of Italian womanhood changes. There are the indomitable grandmothers in sturdy shoes and silk scarves, watching their charges with hawk eyes, cringing and shouting uselessly when tiny togs get dirty. There are groups of mothers--the ones whose schedules or housewifely status allow them to be present at this hour--chatting, smoking avidly, looking decidedly less carefree than the young females around them. Many are over-tanned, with deeply-lined skin and dark circles under their eyes, yet are very carefully and self-consciously tucked into tight, stylish clothing and heels, designer sunglasses perched just so on top of smooth dark hair. Trying to make themselves heard over the general din, they squawk with the shrill-edged voices of tropical birds too long in the sun, with colorful kid backpacks dangling off their shoulders like exotic plumage--and they seem manic, stretched too tight: like the skins of drums made for the manipulative hands of others, used to beat out rhythms not of their own making. On the surface of things, they seem happy enough.  But are they? If you asked them, what would they say? Would they speak their minds as confidently as the small, schoolyard sirens all around them? 

Anna Magnani: one tired mamma

Much of Italian life is marked by paradox: Italians adore bambini but little is provided for them by State or City in terms of services or enrichment activities beyond school; the Church is everywhere and nowhere at the same time; in general Italians have very little civic sense or regard for those not of their immediate conoscenza, yet have an extraordinary capacity for empathy. Italian women and their roles are marked by the same paradoxical nature, ambiguities, contrasts, and gray areas so common to this peninsula--and are similarly bound by history and tradition, along with an oppressively patriarchal society.

Here are some of the stats:

--In 2012 Italy fell from 74th to 80th place out of 135 countries in terms of gender equality (for comparison's sake, the USA is at 22 and Ireland, another traditional Roman Catholic country, ranks 5th). Countries like China, Sri Lanka, Ghana and Botswana rank higher *

--Only 48.5 percent of Italian women are employed, a gender gap that is the second-lowest in Europe, Malta being the lowest.

--the average Italian woman has 1.4 children (in the U.S. it's 2.1, in Ireland 1.9)

--In Europe, Italian women have the greatest household workload (Swedish women the least)

Though there are encouraging signs of change, traditional gender roles persist in that many Italian men (whom I've written about here) still see domestic chores, childcare and caring for elderly parents as women's work and show little interest in becoming involved. Beyond paid maternity leave, there's not much help from the State for working mothers, such as access to affordable daycare or more flexible labor laws that better allow for part-time employment, especially when compared to other European countries. The fact that the State provides so little in terms of services for the infirm elderly also means that this burden falls squarely on the shoulders of Italian women. The battalions of nonne that are depended upon to care for grandchildren are charming on the one hand, but speak of a general lack of State support and viable options for women on the other. These are all factors contributing to the low female employment rate (as well as the low birth rate) in this country; Italian women are like butter--they can only be spread over so much bread before becoming too thin and exhausted. Indeed, in the excellent documentary film about Italy, "Girlfriend in a Coma," a female minister describes Italian women as "the only effective and existing welfare system." Is it any wonder that those in power do nothing when there's so much cheap slave labor out there?

The issues facing Italian women make for a very complex topic, embedded as they are in tradition, societal expectations and even religion (the Virgin Mary being the predominant role model), while at the same time being influenced by BerlusconiVision: the media proliferation of scantily-clad showgirls and empty-headed gold-diggers (talk about your Madonna/whore syndrome). To me, the pressures on Italian women seem enormous: for the entire trajectory of their lives they must strive to be good, obedient daughters, mothers, lovers, wives and even grandmothers. And they must always look good, too: properly turned out in the latest fashions, groomed, coiffed, manicured, svelte, and ideally stuffed into skinny jeans and mini-skirts, regardless of age or inclination. How often have I walked behind a woman with long, wavy, luscious blonde hair, in tight leopard-print trousers and stiletto boots, only to have her turn her head and reveal the face of a hag pushing seventy sucking on a cigarillo. There is such pressure to conform, to submit to the traditional female roles and the tyranny of the ever-present male gaze.

Lorella Zanardo (of "Il Corpo delle Donne" fame) talks about this tyranny in the equally excellent documentary, "Italy: Love it or Leave it". She says, "women have a fear of losing that approving masculine gaze, a fear that is so strong in Italy. We need to work on feeling sure on our own legs." I would add that this critical male gaze, and the imposition of patriarchal codes of behavior, comes not only from husbands and lovers (real or potential), but also from fathers, brothers, bosses/male co-workers, clergy. The media is saturated with it. And the weight of this collective, subtle and at times blatant pressure and expectation to conform, as well as the obsessive female hunger for male approval, seems like a chunk of blunt travertine around the neck of the Italian woman.

Good mammas

Hot mammas

Tobias Jones described Italy as "the land that feminism forgot".** While I would agree, I do think there's a lot more to it than that, and while I acknowledge the complexity of the issues facing Italian women today, I can only share my opinions and observations based on my experiences living here among them all these years.

I must say that I am rather in awe of Italian women, and also perplexed by them. They've always managed to elude my complete understanding, which I've come to believe is due to their paradoxical nature (more on this to follow). I'm in awe of them because they are surely among the strongest, hardest-working and most chic women on the planet. They seem selfless, and yet I know things are not entirely as they appear: there is that element, to be sure, but I also get the sense that they are moving within tight, rigid grooves; that they are engines set in motion by forces beyond their control, carefully-calibrated mechanisms that will eventually spend themselves, never having set their own course. I am perplexed by how they so willingly mount the burning pyre, becoming satis to tradition and expectation, over and over again.

Will they never shout BASTA! with the same fiery passion and conviction of their wild-haired, 7 year-old counterparts?

Part 2 to follow in another post...

* Source: World Economic Forum Gender Equality Index
** Also check this out this link for another good take on the subject