Locker-room talks: Italian politics and normalised sexism

In the wake of the global #metoo movement, sexism in Italian politics is still alive and well.

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    A woman walks past electoral posters of the Five Star Movement's candidate Luigi Di Maio and the Forza Italia party near Naples, Italy, February 21, 2018  [Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters]
    A woman walks past electoral posters of the Five Star Movement's candidate Luigi Di Maio and the Forza Italia party near Naples, Italy, February 21, 2018 [Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters]

    A few years ago, I took a summer job as a hostess in my hometown Verona, in Italy. One night, my agency offered me work at a music award show, one that every year features the most famous Italian singers and is hosted by the most popular comedians. "You will walk out on stage and hand out an award," the agency told me. Four hours, 100 euros, it sounded like a good deal. But once I got there, I realised that I was, in fact, going to be part of a role-playing game.

    Another girl and I were to play the role of two politicians, giving out a silly-sounding prize to the presenters on stage. After getting my hair done, I walked onto the stage covered in heavy make-up, my legs shaking in high heels. I soon realised that I was part of a sketch, whose sole purpose was to make sexist jokes about the female politician I was asked to impersonate. I found myself on national television, in front of 5,333,000 spectators, blushing and laughing awkwardly, while the presenter was making comments about my looks. And I was lucky, the other girl, my fellow "politician" was kissed on her lips by the other presenter.

    This episode made me feel incredibly uncomfortable, to the point that I am blushing now in front of my laptop while recalling it. What is even more discomforting, is that my role as a fake politician lasted for three (eternal) minutes, but if I were a real woman in politics in Italy, the harassment would last my entire life.

    My friend Beatrice Verze, only one year into her political career, already has a taste of what it is like to be a female politician in Italy. Every day, she is reminded by her male colleagues that she got elected because she is pretty, "There is no dignity when my colleagues only stare at me, but then listen to men," she told me.

    The fact that, in Italy, gendered comments are treated as "normal", or are not even recognised as such, is the result of a deeply macho culture, immune to the historic movements that are exposing sexism all over the world.

     

    Despite being commonly considered a "liberal place" and one of Europe's pillars, Italy is still very permissive when it comes to gendered public insults. The campaigns for the recent parliamentary election took place in the wake of the #metoo movement, but for Italian politicians, time is not up - they can keep referring to their female opponents as "s**ts" or "ugly" and get away with it.

    The party that came in first in the election was the Five Star Movement (M5S). The movement was created by the comedian Beppe Grillo, who in the past has called Senate member and Nobel laureate in Medicine, Rita Levi Montalcini, an "old s**t", and anti-mafia commission leader, Rosy Bindy, "sex-phobic" and a "poor woman who never experienced the pleasure of sex". M5S mayor Francesco Marrone referred to his left-wing colleagues as "prostitutes", specifying that they were "intellectual prostitutes", because "real ones at least have to be beautiful". 

    As for female candidates running in this election, they were not spared from sexist insults. Matteo Salvini, the leader of Lega Nord, brought a blow-up doll onto the stage during a rally, claiming it was a reproduction of Laura Boldrini, president of the Chamber of Deputies, who ran with her party Liberi e Uguali. M5S's Beppe Grillo posted a video of a man driving with a paper doll on the passenger seat asking in the caption, "What would you do to Boldrini if you found her in your car?" - and let the internet unleash its good taste. 

    Giorgia Meloni, leader of the right-wing Fratelli d'Italia movement, also called "little girl" by Berlusconi as a reference to her size, was accused by an M5S deputy of having "instrumentalised her pregnancy" to attract voters. Paradoxically, Asia Argento - one of Harvey Weinstein's victims - ran into Ms Meloni at a restaurant in Rome, took a snapshot of her and posted it on Instagram - the caption read "Back fat of the rich and shameless". Even more paradoxically, Meloni's response was to justify her physical condition with the fact that she just gave birth. 

    The fact that, in Italy, gendered comments are treated as "normal", or are not even recognised as such, is the result of a deeply macho culture, immune to the historic movements that are exposing sexism all over the world. Critiques to Italian backwardness come mostly from abroad. When I type "Italia #metoo" into Google, the first two search results are articles in Italian praising the diffusion of the movement, and the third one is Jason Morowitz's New York Times piece, In Italy "#metoo" is more like "meh". Even the Femen activist, who, on election day, jumped on the ballot box while Berlusconi was voting in an act of protest, turned out to be French. 

    As a product of this mentality myself, I am aware that Italians grow up completely lacking self-criticism when it comes to the country's public sexism. That night, on stage, I felt bad, but having been raised in a country where "gendered" is not a word, I could not give a name to my humiliation. It is only by moving abroad that I realised that it is not normal that my seven-year-old brother, while playing with swords, tells me, "For a girl, you are a good fighter." If we grow up with such internalised sexism, how can we recognise discrimination when we are older? And if sexism is normalised in the public sphere, how can it be challenged in society? Italy needs to break this vicious circle, if it still wants have its place among Europe's democracies.

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance.


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