Maple Leaf Mamma by Michelle Tarnopolsky

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Maple Leaf Mamma posted this article on 29 Apr 2013, and filed it under Feminism, Italy, Language.

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Cagne, zoccole e troie: slut-shaming in Italy

slutwalk rome 2013 300x200 Cagne, zoccole e troie: slut shaming in Italy

At the recent SlutWalk in Rome (click on photo for source).

I realize something must be said for linguistic subtleties, so that certain things may sound harsher to my ears than they’re perceived by native speakers. But it troubles me how easily “slut” and “whore” can roll off the tongues of Italians. They’ll even use them in–dare I say it?–affectionate terms. E’ arrivata un’altra zoccola al mondo! are, I’ve been told, the words a man I know used to announce his daughter’s birth. “Another whore has arrived in the world!”

I suspect (hope?) something’s getting lost in this translation.

According to the site Malafemmina, which provides a long list of Italian variations on the word “whore” (its title meaning “bad girl” – from the original Neapolitan malafemmena, pronounced with a langurous stress on the femme):

The term zoccola is undoubtedly synonimous with “whore.” There’s just one difference: a zoccola is not interested in money alone, like the whore. A zoccola is a female that’s hungry for sex and uninhibited desire. In the eyes of the orthodox, this makes her even worse than a whore, who may be driven solely by need to sell herself for money.

This site too takes a rather sympathetic view of promiscuous women, despite its regrettable sexually-objectifying banner. And herein lies yet another one of those Italian paradoxes.

Italians have a long history of celebrating sluts with an earthy gusto that is uniquely theirs. My own sexual awakening was helped along by the soft-core sexy Italian movies that Toronto cable station City TV played late-night on Saturdays in the 1980s. I still remember being around 10 years old and sneaking a tiny portable TV into my bedroom to watch them, or on the pull-out couch downstairs for a sleep-over in front of the TV, muffling nervous giggles with channel changer at the ready in case I heard my parents coming down the stairs.

But then there’s the despicable Silvio Berlusconi, who recently subjected businesswoman Angela Bruno to adolescent sex banter as she publicly presented him with a contract. He followed this up by deciding her offer was good after evaluating her backside. Bruno has since became known as the “how-many-times-do-you-come girl” (in reference to his double-entendre, hardy har har) and the exchange has gotten over a million hits on YouTube:

Berlusconi has taken the relatively-innocent-if-severely-dated appreciation for loose women alà beloved Italian film star Totò to grotesque levels.

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striscia velina Cagne, zoccole e troie: slut shaming in Italy

And on the other side are moralisti like the equally despicable Catholic priest Don Piero Corsi, who posted a Christmas message on the door of his church in Lerici last December suggesting women provoke violence by dressing too provocatively. Which, yes, is pretty much the pinnacle of slut-shaming.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, here’s a handy explanation from Finally, a Feminism 101 Blog:

Put in the most simple terms, slut-shaming happens when a person “publicly or privately [insults] a woman because she expressed her sexuality in a way that does not conform with patriarchal expectations for women” (Kat, Slut-Shaming vs. Rape Jokes). It is enabled by the idea that a woman who carries the stigma of being a slut — ie. an “out-of-control, trampy female” — is “not worth knowing or caring about” (Tanenbaum, p. 240). … Policing women via what’s considered “normal” and “acceptable” boundaries for female sexuality is not limited to sex and sexual activity. For instance, women who wear “provocative clothing” … are subjected to slut-shaming. As are women who are sexually aggressive and/or unabashedly lay claim to their own sexuality.

I’m quite proud that my hometown of Toronto hosted the first SlutWalk on April 3, 2011, thus spawning an ongoing international movement and bringing the concept of slut-shaming to the dinner table so to speak, at least in some parts of the world. Of course I’m not proud it was a Toronto cop, Michael Sanguinetti, who sparked it all by saying at a university assembly that women could avoid getting raped by not dressing like sluts.

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At the inaugural SlutWalk in Toronto (click on photo for source).

It took a little while for Italy to catch up. I’ve been working on this post for several weeks and in an earlier draft I wrote that there had never been any SlutWalks in Italy. Then one happened in Rome on April 6, 2013! Italians call these protest marches “prostitute walks” or “whore walks.” Perhaps the closest Italian word to “slut” is sgualdrina, which I’ve never heard used. The most common way to refer to a “slut” the way we do in English is by saying zoccola or troia, both interchangeable with “whore.” Cagna, or female dog, is also used, though I think much less, and may come closest in spirit, if not in context, to the Anglo meaning of “slut.”

Hopefully this grassroots shift will start teaching Italians that you can like sex and be a feminist too, seeing as they seem to commonly mistake feminism for prudish moralismo. And believe me, I get how much more attractive it is to side with the sexual freedom fighters if you’re faced with a ridiculous false binary like this. Especially because Italians have this gift for making sex appreciation verge on the holy. There is something intoxicating about it if you aren’t sexually repressed. As I’ve mentioned before, I discovered how to celebrate my feminine side here, and it felt wonderful. The shitty, confusing and ultimate paradox for women in Italy is how we are at once raised on a pedestal and made to feel like second-class citizens.

A recent online exchange I took part in with some other foreign mums in Florence prompted me to write this post. At issue was a provocatively dressed teacher at the primary school of one of the mother’s sons. For some, this crossed the line of acceptability. And I do understand this reaction. After all, we are living in a country where many people grew up regularly watching TV shows like this as part of the family-hour line-up:

And I obviously agree this is unacceptable, not least for how it also fetishizes women of color. But I feel like we have to be extremely careful about where we place our blame. As Caroline Heldman says in this amazing TED Talk “The Sexy Lie,” a woman who receives attention for her body “is part of a system where the rules are stacked against us. She is not a problem. She is a symptom of a problem.” So, when you snicker at or tut-tut over “slutty” women you are part of the cause, not the solution.

sexy italian barmaid 217x300 Cagne, zoccole e troie: slut shaming in Italy

Cafe owner Laura Maggi attracts a lot of male attention.

The aforementioned fellow expat mums were specifically objecting to young boys being exposed to a woman dressed in sexy clothing to spare them the terrible embarrassment of an uncontrollable erection. But, as Jessica Valenti says here, “It’s not the responsibility of [females] to mitigate the male gaze. You find female bodies ‘distracting’? That’s your problem, not women’s. Society teaches that women exist to be looked at, objectified and sexualized—it’s up to others to make sure that they don’t contribute to that injustice.”

We’ve been so conditioned to view other women’s bodies as public property, it’s so ingrained in us, that we instinctually, unwittingly, constantly objectify them–and therefore ourselves–while rarely, if ever, doing it to men. And Heldman points out that, according to extensive studies, self-objectification can have some pretty severe effects, including depression; habitual body monitoring; eating disorders; body shame; depressed cognitive functioning; sexual dysfunction; lower self-esteem; lower GPA; lower political efficacy; and female competition.

The resulting sexual dysfunction is the ultimate irony. Viewing yourself as a sex object = bad sex. You’d think considering how much Italians celebrate sex, they’d want 50% of the population to enjoy it more.

We can’t change this screwed-up, totally ridiculous double standard by dressing modestly, by rejecting and distancing ourselves from women we view as less worthy because they don’t ascribe to our own sense of “decorum.” Instead, maybe we can change it by making noise and bringing people’s attention to this cultural sickness. (For example by planning and/or joining a SlutWalk.)

The Madonna-whore complex epitomizes the typical Italian man’s (likely unconscious) love/hate relationship with women. This psychological term refers to a man’s inability to view women as complex, multilayered beings who can give birth to their kids and be hot in bed. As Amanda Castleman explains in this great article, “Mary, Mary Quite Contrary”:

Mussolini insisted that all women were whores, except mothers, sisters, wives and daughters—and this blinkered mentality continues. Traditionally, Italian men expect purity and obedience from their female relatives. Other women are sluts, not their own. And the Madonna-whore distinction is absolute, not fluid, not a continuum. Mixing the two extremes is unthinkable, as evidenced by the most terrible Sicilian curse, “puttana la Madonna” (whore mother of God). What could possibly be worse?

Men who suffer from this complex barely touch their wives sexually after impregnating them, as fictionalized by Tony and Carmela Soprano, and have little, if any, respect for “slutty” women, irregardless of the great pleasure they may derive from them.

I love this scene near the end of Ferzan Ozpetek’s film Mine Vaganti. In it, a woman subtly insults a title character for having a gay son and the character smugly retorts that everyone in town knows the woman’s future daughter-in-law is a slut. The scene closes with them calling each other sluts.

In English, I think “bitch” would be the word of choice for such an exchange. Andrea confuses “bitch” with “whore” for precisely this reason. “Bitch” is stronza in Italian, which is softer. Also, in dubbed or subtitled American movies, “bitch” is usually translated into variations of “whore” in Italian.

Of course, the trouble with demonizing “easy” women is that it perpetuates rape culture. (And if you still think women should dress or act a certain way to prevent from being raped, I urge you to read Andie Fox’s “To the woman unconvinced.”)

Instead of trying to “protect” our boys from sexually confident women, why don’t we teach them that:

a) they don’t need to fear female sexuality

b) sexual pleasure is nothing to feel ashamed about

c) it’s OK to be vulnerable

d) ALL females deserve respect, regardless of what they wear or how they act.*

I’m going to do my damnedest to raise my Italian boy that way, and I hope others take my lead.

*Airial Clark has great advice here on how to talk about slut-shaming with your primary schooler (thanks blue milk for the link), and the above link of Caroline Heldman’s TED Talk is great for teaching useful techniques for resisting it.

 

 

 

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27 Comments

  1. Georgette Jupe
    April 29, 2013

    Fantastic article!

    • Michelle Tarnopolsky
      April 29, 2013

      Thanks Georgette, I appreciate it!

  2. Naza Paso
    April 29, 2013

    Very well written, well done!

    • Michelle
      April 29, 2013

      Thanks so much, Naza.

  3. Carrie Ivardi
    April 29, 2013

    So well written and well researched, Michelle. Mind-blowing, really, how deep-seated some of the cultural beliefs are that hold us all back in so many areas of "civilized" life.

    • Michelle
      April 29, 2013

      I agree Carrie. I have focused on Italy, but a lot of it can be applied to much of the world I think.

  4. Elizabeth Petrosian
    April 30, 2013

    Interesting you mention raising boys not to fear female sexuality… I think the Madonna-whore complex has this thrown in the mix as well. By tempering a woman’s sexuality with the mantle of motherhood, the man hopes to contain (subjugate?) this explosive substance (female sexuality). A highly sexual wife/mother-to-my-children has the power to cuckold the male, doesn’t she, if he fails to satisfy her? Thus the “threat” of female sexuality always implies the man’s own fears of inadequacy. Just look at Berlusconi: “Fear of My Own Inadequacy!” is written all over his pancaked face ;-).

    You have written an intensely interesting piece, Michelle--thank you! Bravissima!

    • Michelle
      April 30, 2013

      Thanks Elizabeth, VERY interesting comment. I totally agree. And boy oh boy does impregnating an Italian woman ever keep her down! The lack of social and government support makes sure of it. No wonder Italian women don’t want to have babies! Especially since it marks the end of a decent sex life. We are caught between having fun without getting respect or getting respect without having fun. Infuriating and ridiculous! This column by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the The Atlantic does an amazing job of unpacking this fear of women’s sexuality, from a man’s perspective: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/11/raymond-chandlers-private-dick/265589/.

  5. Tiffany
    May 4, 2013

    Wow, great article! I have never read your blog before; Elizabeth at Letters from Florence linked to it, and I’m so glad she did! It is such a difficult subject, even in North America, but in Italy, as you say, it gets even more complicated. I’ve been here almost nine years and am married to an Italian and I’m still trying to puzzle it out.

    One of the things that really gets me is when a woman does something that we English-speakers would consider “bitchy” and an Italian male calls her (not necessarily to her face, but still) a troia or a puttana. I absolutely don’t get this. A woman might be a horrific, terrible person, or she might do something rude or unkind, but what on earth does that have to do with her sex life??? Drives me crazy. It’s as if one thing implies the other.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

    • Michelle
      May 5, 2013

      Thanks so much Tiffany (and Elizabeth!). I feel exactly the same way (and also love your blog).

  6. Molly
    May 6, 2013

    “We’ve been so conditioned to view other women’s bodies as public property..”

    I think this is a really important, poignant part of this article/post of yours!

    • Michelle
      May 6, 2013

      Thanks Molly. I agree it’s a central problem.

    • Michelle
      May 6, 2013

      In fact, the same day my post went up a friend sent me a similar article mentioning the thorough slut shaming Amanda Knox received in Italy. They also referred to her as the devil. I can only imagine how bad it got!

  7. Misty Evans
    September 26, 2013

    Really great post. I love the concept of this website and I'm very happy to have found it.

    • Michelle
      September 26, 2013

      Thanks so much Misty! I’ve been really enjoying your blog too since Lee told me about it recently!

  8. Misty Evans
    September 26, 2013

    I’d actually like to share this on my blog. I’ll cite you and link back to your site, if that’s something you’d be okay with.

    • Michelle
      September 26, 2013

      Absolutely!

      • Misty Evans
        September 26, 2013

        It has a lot of components, can you send me the html from the page so it will look the same?

        • Misty Evans
          September 26, 2013

          No, nevermind. I’ll just do a paragraph and link back. easier.

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  10. Serena Nehru Perfetto
    November 23, 2013

    This is just fantastic =)
    I just want to add that even if the mojority of italians are like this, the young people are more open minded generally, so i really expect something to change in the far run.

    What i may add is this: exactly like in the short film you posted, people really like to tell you what they think in your face trying to put you down. Men will always comment your miniskirt and look at your "assets" without shame, and women will always laugh at you or say something to each other without caring if you notice or not. I find this tremendous because when i comment something on someone [maybe a bad outfit, or some shoes i fucking want, or a nice haircolour] is always trying not to be caught because even if my comment is nice i know it's unpolite to talk about strangers and comment on people.
    That is just to say that "sluts" are not worthy of good manners, and if you do something offensive to a "slut" you can do it freely because you are doing something good by talking shit about her and other people won't judge you as the little piece of shit you are. Depressing, frankly.

    I'll bookmark the blog and hope to read more from you!! ^^

    • Michelle
      November 25, 2013

      Wow, thanks Serena, I really appreciate your comment and support! I wonder if maybe women make the kinds of comments you refer to in order to vocally separate themselves from “sluts”, like saying to the world “see? i recognize that woman has gone too far in how she dresses, I would never do that” with this unspoken message of I am good and chaste, you are bad and slutty…Anyway, I agree, it’s depressing, but also totally encouraged by the open-mindedness of young people--thank goodness!

  11. […] Michelle Tarnopolosky in Maple Leaf Mamma here […]

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  13. […] now, I’ll just say that in addition to more hard-hitting feminist pieces like this and this, I’m also going to bring back the popular Florence Birth Story series. Plus, […]

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