I usually avoid writing editorials about Silvio Berlusconi. I also avoid reading them. I get tired of the usual arsenal of witty turns of phrase about “Italy’s gaffe-prone prime minister,” “the flamboyant media tycoon,” “the scandal-hit Casanova”…he’s just too easy a target.
And yet, the latest, spectacular verbal slip of the septuagenarian, who heads the country I was born and grew up in made me want to type away. He allegedly called Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel a culona inchiavabile, which roughly translates to—pardon my French—“unf–kable big-ass.”
The comment brought back memories of growing up in Italy. I remember a well-circulated story about a high-school professor of mine who was caught staring intently at a heart-shaped gold pendant dangling above the low-cut shirt of an attractive female student. He was “gazing at her heart,” he quipped—and everyone, allegedly, laughed.
Another one, years later: A male editor wondering out loud (loud enough for me to hear at least) how many average-looking female reporters on his team he’d have to give up to have that one really cute journalist added to his desk.
That Berlusconi sized up Frau Merkel, the world’s most powerful woman, using the dimensions of her behind epitomizes a common attitude in Italy. I do not mean to say that all Italian men are misogynist, and certainly few are as brazen as the prime minister. But Berlusconi’s latest uttering evoked the feeling I had in Italy of fearing the next sexual gag, regardless of whether it was about me or someone else, or whether it was meant to flatter or flout.
These remarks, you see, are always meant to be jokes. When Berlusconi comments on rape cases in Rome by saying that they’re inevitable given Italy’s abundance of beautiful women, a platoon of party men later lashes out at opposition critics and indignant reporters for having no sense of humour. The premier’s line of defense is that he was only kidding around–and so is everyone else’s.
What do you do when faced with one of these jokes, though? There are only two roads you can go down: one is putting up with it, pretending you didn’t hear or laughing along. The second one is turning it into an issue. You can act outraged, and turn into an advocate for things like stricter office policies against sexual harassment. I always felt awfully uncomfortable pursuing that second road, though.
I always thought that women today are better off not ranting against machismo, and calling for equality out loud. I like the way in which Barack Obama would methodically avoid taking up “the African-American issue” while campaigning for president. He behaved like there was no issue. By contrast, Hilary Clinton, who kept pounding on the issue of the glass ceiling, only made it thicker for herself.
The problem is that I never figured out quite how to pull off a Barack Obama in an Italian high-school classroom, or at the office. Eventually, I just packed up and left.
Of course there were many other reasons why I abandoned Italy at age 22 with no intention of ever going back. The most important of them was leaving behind an economy that’s been stagnating for thirty years, and where I saw no opportunity of doing anything worthwhile. But no longer having to deal with recurrent, demented sexual jokes is a big perk of living elsewhere.
I suspect I’m not the only one who feels this way. Claudia Cucchiarato, an Italian journalist who authored a book about Italian émigrés, once told me in an interview that, in a sample of 25,000 25- to 37-year-old Italians living abroad, starting a family in a country that does a better job of addressing women’s needs was “fairly frequently” an important reason for women to leave.
The way I felt about sexual antics—and gender discrimination in general—was the way I felt about most other things I disliked about Italy: there was utterly nothing I could about it. I could either spend my life turning into a miserable, bitter advocate of lost causes, or have a much happier, productive existence somewhere where I could actually make a difference. As a woman and an employee, I would be far more useful to the world outside Italy, I told myself.
People who drop out of a group they used to belong to—whether it is a firm, an organization or their own country—often feel like this, it seems. Economist Albert Hirschman has theorized it brilliantly. Confronted with a perceived general decline around them, people who think they have no hope of positively changing their surroundings tend to pack their suitcases if they can.
This pervading feeling of hopelessness is apparently a big driver of Italy’s brain drain. Berlusconi, you see, is not even really the problem. The problem is the country that, inexplicably, still keeps him in office.