Italy has a history that encapsulates many elements of the Roman Catholic Church; Rome is at the centre of its origins and development and is the point where the religion began to establish and disperse itself through Europe. So it is only natural to assume Italy is a staunchly Catholic country. Right?
Like many other elements of life in Italy, Italians have their unique way of interpreting religion and culture, which means this country is always in a constant state of flux, change and inconsistency. Italy likes to give a good impression while hiding deep hypocrisy under a delicate veil of respect; there is often fraud, fraudulence.
It’s an unattractive element of the culture reinforced through its fragmented history. The corrupted political system has always had a strong relationship with big business and vested interests, often putting the general population at the bottom. Alas, this is a trend happening all over the world. Gone are the days when a person chooses to go into politics to make the world a better place; it was rare to find an idealist in politics; nowadays, it is impossible.
Italy is the last bastion of anti Feminist behaviour. The right to vote was given to women as late as 1945 (1925 for local elections), and divorce was legalised only in 1970.
In recent years the country has been running fast trying to catch up with the rest of Europe, quickly inserting women into a ‘pink’ quota in parliament and trying to liberate women while still maintaining dancing-girls on their t.v programs. Serious female role models in politics, journalism, and generally are few and far between. Things have improved over the past decade, but I can’t see Italy electing its first female premier or president of the republic anytime soon.
In 2003 English journalist Tobias Jones published his book The Dark Heart of Italy, in which he described the complex character of Italy contradicting nature. His book focuses on the post-world war two period, up to the Berlusconi years. After the book’s publication, Jones was hounded by the Italian press for being a preachy Englishman who didn’t know what he was talking about. I have read the book, and apart from a little Berlusconi bashing, Jones’ experiences and observations about Italy are insightful, even though a bit superficial. But his experience reporting on Italian politics for four years in the 1990s does give him insight, and he has written a truthful book that expresses the frustration many foreigners feel while adjusting to living life in Italy.
I agree when he says things like: ‘What pisses me off is the fact that talented people in Italy very rarely rise to the top.’ And knowingly nod my head at seemingly shocking statements like: ‘Every week I’m assailed by a new example of nepotism. My favourite is the fact that, at the RAI (Italian T.V stations), employment can literally be inherited.’
Tobias Jones comes to the same conclusion most long-term ex-pats and locals do, which is despite the ugliness, you fall in love with the beauty and simplicity of day-to-day life in Italy, which helps you live through all the sordidness. Ending his book with the same note of acceptance most lovers of Italy come to: ‘And for all the complications, Italian life can sometimes seem incredibly simple. Sometimes I don’t even hear the noise of my gnashing molars.’
As an ex-pat living in Italy for two decades I often find myself saying if only such and such a thing was fixed or an attitude changed, then Italy would be the perfect place to live. The reality is that any attempts at modernising an ancient culture will always be a problem, yet observing Italy’s metamorphosis. I’m fascinated to see shining examples of public figures that seem to be at odds with the traditions dictated by a once stringently moralistic and closed society.
One aspect I find disturbing in the social life here is that Italians believe friendship between a man and a woman can never truly exist. There is no word to describe a male or female friend that doesn’t have connotations of a sexual nature. Other than workmate (collaga) or classmate (compagna), a female friend (amica) is another name for girlfriend. There is no way I can justify having male friends. My husband once said, ‘all men want to have sex, not friendship.’ There are work colleagues, acquaintances, relatives, and school friends, yet male friends are considered boyfriends or lovers outside of these contexts.
Italians’ attitudes to male and female relationships are still dictated by old models dictated by traditional roles of women as mothers and homemakers. Even today, women struggle to define themselves outside of this limited perspective. This whole attitude that men and women can’t be friends leads to the over-sexualisation of women. Italian men, in general, are more aggressive when approaching women. On my first visit to Italy as a single woman in my 20’s, I recall constantly telling men to leave me alone after being continually pursued and approached.
Particularly in Sicily, I find women tend to socialise with other women and men with men unless it is a school or work situation. For example, if there is a party, women will often stick to their friends, unless they have a boyfriend or are engaged and even then, after people get married, they go back to their old habits, husbands with their male friends and women with their female friends.
The lack of platonic male-female friendships in Italian culture is a real problem, particularly regarding issues such as equal rights between the sexes and feminism. How can a woman be considered similar to a man when she is still seen as a sexual object and not simply a friend or equal?
Italy has many problems with violence against women, women’s rights in the workplace and the professional world because of the predominance of this latent machismo in society. It’s pretty sad and frustrating, yet there is hope as many women are fighting to assert their rights.
I still feel awkward when I see how easily Italy turns women into sexual objects. I’ve found it a little uncomfortable with Italian’s permissive nature regarding soft porn. For example, many popular movies from the 1970’s/80’s have some form of mild female nudity. There are many comic movies where gags include the accidental removal of clothing to reveal voluptuous boobs or a backside and many more near-mute female roles where the women giggles and poses in front of a camera.
So perhaps it was this permissive sexual expression saw the inevitable rise of popularity of the infamous Cicciolina, a well-known porn star and playboy model, into the world of Italian politics.
The anomaly of a porno star in politics perhaps isn’t so strange in the context of Italy’s rampantly politically dynamic landscape in the 1980’s/90’s, which gave birth to Senator Cicciolina. In this period, hundreds of political parties divided up the Italian’s votes.
A famous song from Italian poet and performer Georgio Gaber joked that they immediately form a political party if one Italian agrees with another. You only need one vote to be in the majority.
Hungarian Italian Ilona Staller, formally known as Cicciolina in her previous life as a porn star, was elected into Italian parliament in 1987 as a senator for the Radical Party with only 20,000 votes.
Cicciolina M.P’s career highlights included being a dedicated environmentalist, offering to have sex with Saddam Hussein and later Bin Laden in return for peace. She confusingly and frustratingly (for most members of Italian parliament) delivered speeches while exposing her breasts.
Controversially, Cicciolina was eligible to accept an annual parliamentary pension of €39,000 a month at the age of 60 after a total of 4 years in parliament.
For a brief time, Staller was famous, but this episode caused significant embarrassment and nothing similar has occurred since.
Even to this day, Cicciolina is a sensational moment in Italian politics, as if the parliament had become a living, breathing porno movie. It was embarrassing.
Yet when you ask many Italians about her, they recall her with fondness. At least she made things a little more interesting, they say with wistfulness.
Ilona Staller is still a welcomed talk show host guest, and she is often seen on Italian television, and her personal life is covered in the press like a mini soap opera.
Cicciolina married the American artist Jeff Koons, and they have a son named Ludwig Maximillian. Although Koons won custody of the boy after their divorce, Ludwig remained in Italy with his mother.
A couple of years ago, Staller founded a new political party to spearhead a fightback against the governing populist’s five-star movement after slashing her pension. She campaigned briefly and unsuccessfully for the new Democracy, Nature and Love party (DNA).
Last year Staller turned 70 and is still going strong. She has announced her participation in Isola dei Famosi; a trashy Italian reality show that dumps celebrities on an abandoned island. She will participate with her son Ludwig, now 20 years old.
Everyone loves Cicciolina; she is always controversial, confronting and for that reason alone, she is a strange symbol of revolution against the patriarchy and the stuffy conservative nature of Italy.
Even if she was never a productive politician, Cicciolina was always unapologetically herself, even in front of terrible criticism.
Ilona Staller, a bizarre flamboyant Italian from recent history.