Almost two weeks ago many Americans gathered around their televisions to watch the Grammys as they do every year. This year in particular was a topic of scandal as Cardi B’s performance of WAP caused outrage on all sides of the spectrum in the days following the performance. The hot topic brought me back to February 2020 when the world watched J.LO and Shakira during their Super Bowl Halftime performance. Some people thought these performances weren’t family-friendly enough to be on television while others thought of them as a way for women to be proud of their sexuality. With opinions ranging from female empowerment to vulgarity, it got me thinking about the similarities and differences in how the USA and Italy view sexuality and sexism.
The intent of this post is NOT to say that one country is better than the other. These are simply my observations, and my observations alone. There are problems regarding this topic in both places. Truth be told, this topic could quickly turn into a lengthy essay. So for the sake of you lovely readers, I’m going to highlight four key topics in which I either see similarities or differences between Italy and the USA regarding women and their sexuality, and the sexism we face on a daily basis.
- Smiles on the street
I’ve noticed a double standard in how cordialities are perceived in both countries, though I’ve noticed it a bit more in Italy in regards to smiling, of all things. Growing up in America, it was always custom to smile at people that you make eye contact with while going about your business. A quick smile isn’t a big deal in Ohio, though typically if you don’t smile, you come across as rude. The situation usually ends there. After receiving many strange stares when I moved to Italy, I can tell you that smiling at random people on the street is extremely taboo. It’s true that Milan is a big city, and smiling at random people in a big city is a bit different than smiling at someone in Canton, Ohio. However, I quickly realized that smiling at someone in Italy doesn’t just make you seem strange, it’s a sign that you’re “easy”. It’s common that when a man sees a woman smiling at him, he may take that as an invitation to approach. If you’re nice, you’re perceived as “easy”. But if you’re not nice, you’re often perceived to be a b****. I know this double standard exists in both places, but living in Milan really changed how I interact with people when I am out and about. I have definitely become more guarded and keep to myself instead of going out of my way to “be nice”.
2. Women should be sexy, but not too sexy.
Coming back to my references of J.Lo and Cardi B, America as a whole, I’ve found, is much more closed minded when it comes to women’s sexuality as opposed to the culture here in Italy. Both performances were criticized for not being family-friendly. That really opened my eyes to how both countries view what family-friendly is. The video below shows two showgirls, or “veline” that are part of a wildly popular news satire show that airs every night at 8:00 pm. This show is on one of the most popular channels here in Italy, and most families are just sitting down for dinner when this show comes on. Dances like this air before the start of each episode, and these showgirls have been tradition for the last 30+ years. No one has said anything bad about their dances, or have even bat an eye about whether or not their children should watch them. This is a major difference from the feedback given by American parents for performances that were aired later in the evenings.
In both countries, however, I found that women should be sexy, but not too sexy. An insult that I’ve heard quite a lot is here in Italy is, “You can tell she likes to have sex”, like it’s a bad thing. My response is always, “AND?!”. Everyone loves to look at a beautiful woman until she owns her beauty.
Whenever you watch a movie that tries to portray any sort of Italian man, it usually involves them catcalling a woman. The typical “Ciao bella!” has become a staple in the Italian culture. Catcalling has become much more vulgar and physical since the traditional “Ciao bella”. While it’s true that the majority of men do not spend their time catcalling women, it unfortunately happens frequently. Opposition to catcalling here in Italy is often met with an, “Oh, don’t be so uptight, it’s a compliment”. So now we see that women, regardless of how they initially felt towards the comment, are made to feel like they’re wrong because it was “just a compliment”. This seems to be an unending cycle because the sexism of catcalling is rarely called sexism here in Italy. Piggybacking off of my last point, it seems that women can only own their sexuality when a man decides to vocalize that it exists. Does this happen in America too? Of course. Unfortunately, this is a point of similarity between the two countries.
4. Mothers/La Madonna
Moms are worshipped here in Italy. When Italian men in particular think of the perfect woman, most think of their mothers. So it’s no surprise that the Catholic capital of the world worships La Madonna, Mother Mary, so much too. The Virgin Mary is typically used as the example of what all mothers “should” be: modest, loving, and serving of family. When women, who happen to be mothers, post a picture on Instagram that’s considered to be too revealing, the comments come flooding in. “Ma non ti vergogni? Sei una mamma.”- “You’re a mother, aren’t you embarrassed?”. It seems that in Italy, when you become a mother, whatever sexuality you had has to be tossed out the door. At least to me, it seems that American mothers who are confident and sexy in their own skin are celebrated. Am I wrong? Let me know!
One thing I’ve loved about living in Italy is that I’ve grown so much as a person in regards to this topic. While I never had to give much thought to sexism and sexuality when I was in America, adjusting to a new environment “on my own” and experiencing new dynamics has been eye-opening. It’s shifted my perspective on the discussions I have with my students, both male and female, and it’s ignited a passion in me, a new kind of feminism in these last few years. It’s my goal to help raise good humans each day as I teach so that girls who will soon turn into women will be able to accept all parts of themselves without worrying what others think.
Lots of Love,