Saturday, May 04, 2013

The skin they're in: the uneasy paradox of Italian women - Part 2

...continued from the previous post's Part 1

But do Italian women even want to shout basta? Are they truly unhappy with their lot? The Family is still the linchpin of Italian society--a fact which permeates every molecule of existence in the Bel Paese, every aspect of public and private life. It is both a great asset as well as, depending on one's point of view, a great hindrance. Maybe Tobias Jones's feminism wasn't so much forgotten in this land as it was never really of the kind suitable to the majority of Italian women--whose ties to Family run so deep--and perhaps they're waiting for something uniquely Italian to take its place, something that would better allow for the role culture plays in their lives. But isn't culture also the problem? The thorns on the rose, so to speak? The crux is that Italian women are themselves integral to and collusive in the very cultural constructs some of them would seek to change.

Basta! Well maybe, sort of....

La mamma è sempre la mamma

Italy is still a rigidly patriarchal society, and it's no secret that within this society women are essentially enshrined upon the pedestal of motherhood (while paradoxically, in the words of one of my favorite bloggers, often being treated like "second-class citizens"*). Men like to think they're in charge, and in so many ways they are. Men are the jacket-clad TV show hosts to the giggling, half-naked women gyrating on stage, who allow their impossibly perfect derrières to be man-stamped "approved for consumption". Men cavort at the stadio while their wives take little Marco or Francesco to soccer practice and the dentist, do the shopping and laundry, and make sure dinner's on the table at 8. Only in Italy can men live with their mothers, wear underwear ironed by her, and still demand (implicitly or explicitly) that their girlfriends mortify their flesh in all manner of ways in order to be considered f***able.

But unpack these stereotypes a bit and you start to understand the power that Italian women wield, at least within the domestic sphere. In many ways, Italian women move through life confidently. Their position is assured, taken for granted, a given: they are keepers of the flame, the guardians of home and hearth, the center of the (often extended) family. Within this tight circle, they are typically the supreme authority (though they may give lip-service to male domination)--and as such typically enjoy respect from both within their social and familial sphere as well a hearty nod of approbation from society at large. Only in this capacity, perhaps, is it so easy and natural for Italian women to make a difference, to matter vitally, to rule with benevolence (despotic or otherwise), to have their efforts rewarded and contribute to some greater corporate good. Thus the creaky and callithumpian machinery of patriarchal Italy is paradoxically oiled by the love, sweat and tears of Italian women.

source: Il Vescovado

I've observed my female family members**--my various Italian in-laws--and, forgive my congenital skepticism, part of me can't help but wonder if Italian women get off on the domestic power trip because it's so often the only game in town. Certainly my Machiavellian MIL operates like a gremlin-sized Genghis Khan or a shriveled Sun King.

L'état, c'est moi

George Bernard Shaw said "the domestic career is no more natural to all women than the military career is natural to all men." But is domesticity, and the sense of satisfaction it brings--as one Italian female commentator seemed to imply in Part 1--somehow more indigenous to Italian women? Is it what matters most to them? And if so, have they been culturally conditioned to this response or do they just have their priorities straight and aren't afraid to admit it? Or is the answer perhaps sandwiched somewhere in between? I suppose there's always a fine line between making real choices and cultural coercion--a sort of gender-based free will vs. determinism conundrum--but I'd say that Italian women often seem to follow a script not entirely of their own creation.

A Florentine friend of my husband, who is married to an American woman and lives in the States, was recently in town and staying with his elderly mother. During his visit, he insisted on doing his own laundry--as is his habit in the New World--and hanging it out to dry on the balcony of their housing block. His befuddled mother begged him to let her do it, pleaded with him to stop--or at the very least to let her be seen hanging it out to dry as if she'd washed it herself so the neighbors wouldn't think she wasn't taking good care of her son. While undoubtedly this kind of thing can be drawn along generational lines to a large extent, is an exaggerated sense of the importance of duty and the female domestic role within the larger cultural context responsible for such zealotry? We've all seen those Italian homes: gleaming, crumbless, dust-bunny-free floors you can eat ravioli off of; bathroom fixtures as resplendent as the Elgin Marbles and wreathed in fumes of bleach and lavender; neat stacks of pressed jeans in the armadi along with crisp rows of dress shirts like so many soldiers ready for victory or at the very least an honorable death. Such an edifice to uphold.

And yet, and yet... Italian women elude easy stereotypes while at the same time appearing to reinforce them. They truly are remarkable creatures: strong, resilient, hard and soft, and capable of such fierce familial love. I think back through those events of the 20th century that stained this peninsula with blood and suffering, and I hear the voices of my husband's elderly aunts from the Mugello, telling stories of hunger and making do, of large families reduced to terrible poverty, of births and deaths and living off the land, and it seems to me that it is always the women: the women who bear the heaviest portion and keep the family from sinking into the abyss. And how these aunts, these wonderful steely ladies, show their capacity for joy; their laughs are like the delightful twittering of birds, their smiles deep and profound. They've raised their families well and are well-loved in turn, and I sense the sure, square peace they've made with their own brand of dharma. These are women who could rule the world.


It occurs to me that perhaps cultures develop symbioses in gender roles, or even coping mechanisms. If the traditional Italian man is a bamboccione, then the role of the Italian woman has perhaps evolved in such a way as to both complement and compensate for this--a kind of gender Darwinism, if you will. Or yin and yang (or--forgive me--spaghetti and tomato sauce). But the problem with this line of thought is that it doesn't take into account the fact that it is these same women who seed and nurture traditional Italian manhood in the first place--and thus gender Darwinism is replaced by a kind of odd what-comes-first-the-mammone-or-the-mamma? sort of argument.

My three sisters-in-law are examples of this. Each are raising her boys to be essentially helpless things--sweet, kind helpless things, to be sure, but helpless things nevertheless***. I often think of their poor future wives. And my nieces have clearly been groomed to assume the traditional mantle of caretakers to the sweet, helpless things they eventually marry. I can only hope and believe that this sort of thing is on the wane, and that my in-laws are--as they surely are in so very many ways--an aberration.

But, in more general terms, how can things change for Italian women--in the ways that many seem to want--if something doesn't change in the way Italian men are raised? And changing how men are raised implies a radical change in the culture behind such gender roles, doesn't it? (Media representations of women, an issue which is at the forefront of the current women's movement in Italy, are manifestations of a male worldview that is surely equal parts culture-nurture, for instance). The power that Italian women wield on the home front seems to be the coiled serpent lying at the base of Italy's spine, a kind of glorious kundalini goddess who need only awaken herself to her own manifest potential; the choice to use her formidable and loving influence in raising responsible, sensitive and aware men--ever-mindful of their future roles as husbands and fathers--is surely the obvious step toward the kind of feminism that perhaps makes more cultural sense in Italy. Of course, this means relinquishing a certain amount of traditional female control and the kind of co-dependency that it so often fosters; when mamma bear teaches her cub survival skills, it eventually goes off on its own into the wild to fend for itself. It probably won't come back and live with her until it's 40.


As to whether or not Italian women are completely at ease in their skin and content with the status quo, or whether or not they would fight for or seek change--well, that's something that only each individual woman can answer. With all that she has on her brimming plate, amid all the tasks she performs for her family so lovingly and so well, let's hope she remembers to ask herself the question.

*For more on the cultural angle regarding women in Italy and a window onto some of the current activities of the women's movement, I highly recommend this wonderfully interesting post by the excellent blogger/writer Michelle Tarnopolsky

**I've written about my SILs and Italian housewifely duties here.

***More anecdotal evidence regarding the raising of mammoni here.


  1. Anonymous5:02 PM

    I have been living in Italy for 13 years. The state of the Italian woman has been on my mind all this time, and not at all getting clearer. I try, as you are, to understand, appreciate, and intellectualise it. But in the end, I really really dont get it. I simple cant wrap my mind around it at all.
    From a personal viewpoint, if nothing else changes, I would like this to change - many Italian women will judge, cruelly, women who do not do as they do. If they choose to continue their traditional roles and maitain their traditional expectations (perfectly ironed t-shirts!), I would respect them ever so much anyway if they dd not look down at those of us who do not.
    It is very hard, nearly impossible, to create frienships with women who find you lacking and, well, dirty!
    I think your article is very good, I really do, but I feel less kind after all this time, because I am seeing the good that they do for ther families, but also the small mindedness and yer, cruelity they an bring to an outsider who just doesnt do it the same way.
    I was talk to look at people differently, to consider differences acceptale. I have live in different countries and have always tie to respect the people and their ways. As a Canadian, sue, they look at me with a bit of awe, but also, with a lot of judgement. I could do without that.
    (I apologise fr the quality of y typing! I am using a new computer with Romanian keyboard settings, and it is not going so well. I have to figue this out!)
    I really like your blog a lot. It iis so well written! And it also makes me feel like I am not so alone.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment! And don't worry about the typing :-)

      I, too, have observed some judgmental behavior as you describe, but perhaps this can be put down to a certain rigidity of mentality as well as indicate a pervasive pressure for conformity. I myself have experienced both acceptance and been looked at askance for my "different" way of doing things. I've never cared a ripe fig about conforming--though I do admit I never, ever go to the supermarket in sweatpants ;-)

      As I alluded, there is a fine line between trend-consciousness and just plain silliness in terms of fashion; between being house-proud and downright looney; between obsessing over all those outward signs of caring for your loved ones (ironed undies, meals on time, etc.) and just loving them, with your imperfections on full display.

      Italian women (or any women, for that matter) sometimes fall prey to their insecurities about their appearance and thus may judge others about theirs; or they may feel obligated to hold their housekeeping to inordinately high standards while raising their eyebrows at those that don't--and such judgment may stem from that same intense pressure to conform to which they themselves have succumbed.

      I'm glad you feel you are not alone--thank you for stopping by and sharing your experiences as a 13-year veteran :-)

    2. I should add, in the interests of full disclosure...

      I must be honest and admit that, generally speaking, I have not found it easy to make more-than-superficial friendships with Italian women. For whatever reason, I don't seem to have much in common with the majority of the women of my acquaintance. Granted, my circle is small--primarily it revolves around my kids' school and the neighborhood, and I've only been here 12 years (a mere blip on the Italian radar)--so I hesitate to draw conclusions. But it is something I frequently turn over in my mind.

  2. The old lady you mention reminds me so much of my mum and grandmother! My husband is Canadian, and I am Italian but a true slacker when it comes to house chores! LOL So he teases me by complaining at the dinner table about the fact that he has to iron his own shirt with the result that my mum and grandma go crazy on me! LOL I think with more and more people moving out younger to go to the university things will change. Most of my friends are much more collaborative than my father is. And over the years, he has changed a lot too. He can even set the table now...! LOL

    1. Thanks again, Gloria, for dropping by the ol' comments section :-) I love to hear personal anecdotes about family life in Italy--those are where the truth lies.

      I'll share one of my own:

      An American girlfriend of mine is married to an Italian who from the time he was about 20 lived with his grandmother. Nonna not only used to iron his shirts, she would fold them with military precision and individually wrap them in tissue paper. After getting married to his California-bred bride, he quickly realized she wouldn't be ironing his shirts, much less giving them the confectioner's treatment. He grumpily donned the wrinkled shirts (God forbid he iron them himself!) and told her "fine, don't iron my shirts. But aren't you embarrassed to have me seen like this? What will my friends think of you?"

      And if you knew my friend as well as I know her, you can damn well guess what her response to THAT was! ;-)

  3. Thank you for another incredibly thoughtful and balanced post on this delicate subject! I too have said elsewhere that I think Italian women keep a stranglehold on their domestic reign exactly because they have so very little power elsewhere in their culture. So I love your hypothesis for a way they could move forward, your vision for an Italian brand of feminism, that focuses on raising their sons differently from the way their own mums did -- though I would say an important addition to that would be raising their daughters differently too!
    I have also so often bemoaned how difficult it is to develop meaningful relationships with Italian women. I wish it were not so! But I too have been here 11 years, and while I know a lot of really wonderful women, I have "clicked" with a painfully small number, and none to the extent--that kind of connection that prompts you to bare your soul--that I have with some precious non-Italian women friends. I continue to hope it's possible, but it's hard not to make generalizations after so many years of experiencing this challenge. And I hate that. I started out so open to making Italian girlfriends, but after having my efforts rebuffed so many times, I started to develop resentment towards them. And I continue to fight this instinctual distrust. I wish it wasn't there. Goodness gracious: we women need each other! That's why I'm determined to keep up the fight.

    1. Wow, Michelle, you're so, so right--the daughters need to be raised differently as well (though that might entail some uncomfortable--though healthy--self-reflection?).

      Thank you so much for opening up and sharing your own thoughts/experiences in trying to befriend Italian women. I have heard from many expat women that in general it isn't easy (and there are many theories out there), and I keep wondering why this is so--though I am not trying to find fault, as of course neither are you. Hmmm.

      As always, great to hear from you, and I'm looking forward to your further writings on the subject over at Maple Leaf Mamma! :-)


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