By Jessica Carter
t first I made excuses. "Well, you can't consider the exact translation," I told myself trying desperately to downplay the word that kept coming out of my male boss's mouth. "It's no big deal," I rationalized, "that's just Italy."
Soon enough, though, I actually started believing my excuses when I noticed that the women were saying it too.
The last straw came when, shockingly, I even let the word slip out of my mouth, la ragazza, or the girl; the word used to describe any woman under 40 in my office.
As an American working in Italy, I'd gotten caught up in a free fall of sex and age discrimination. It was monkey-see-monkey-do confusion that women who marry foreign men often slip into when they find themselves in a new workplace on another side of the planet.
My emancipated brain had been transplanted into the Old World. My love affair with Italy had been transformed into Italianization.
Embarrassingly, this went on for about a year. Until one day the self-made woman who had once been a TV news anchor in politically-correct-post-Anita Hill America jumped out and scared me.
It happened during a staff meeting when my boss nervously rushed in and began counting us like chickens. "Where is, you know, what's her name, la ragazza?"
It was that word again. The label.
The girl sounded like teeth breaking on concrete. It hit me that that ragazza was a 30-year-old wife and mother with a PhD.
I snapped. "HER NAME IS ESTER!"
Naturally, he didn't even notice my outburst and neither did my female colleagues.
My honeymoon with Italy was over. So I decided to pick on this ragazza situation.
Italy is the mother of matriarchal societies. It's wired into the language, "Mamma Mia!" It's in the way my mother-in-law obsesses over and often pries into every detail of my Italian husband's life. It's in the image of the Madonna that seems to lord over the nation.
Italy is one of 28 countries with an official "women's" holiday, March 8. It honors women, unofficially obliging the men in their lives to come home after work bearing flowering mimosa branches.
Lawmakers so prize the role of women in the family that they sanction a mandatory five-month maternity leave that can be extended (sometimes extensively).
But this seemingly overt love for women is ultimately unconvincing. After my unsuccessful office shakeup, I began noticing some commonplaces that my fascination for Italy had covered up: the primetime near-nudity on public television, the former showgirl who is also equal opportunities minister, the colorful ads plastered all over the city selling everything from socks to satellite TV subscriptions via the female body.
"Call Oprah Winfrey! Call the FCC!," I wanted to scream. How can a rich European nation, vintage 2008, continually bombard its women with images of nudity and perfection?
The reporter in me had one question: Why do women accept this?
My neighbor's daughter, Ariel Mafai Giorgi, a 41-year-old PR consultant in Milan, had a theory, certainly not new, that beauty was the key to success. Never mind that feminism ruled Italy for much of the 1970s, ushering in divorce and abortion rights. That was gone. "Women already had little solidarity in my opinion," she told me. "The excessive use of the body has certainly accented the typical female cattiness, such as, 'Look at that woman over there and the cellulite she has.'"
I talked to Angela Ibbadu, a 32-year-old bank employee in Rome. She blamed envy for the lack of sisterhood among Italian women. "To build a career you often have to diminish many aspects of femininity in favor of an aggressive and cynical behavior which until not long ago was attributed only to men," she said.
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Zeroing in on "dying" towns is a guilty pleasure for Italian story-hunters, but life in one is another story.
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