During my undergraduate career, I had been actively interested in American visual culture and its affects on American women’s identities. The issue of visual culture’s influence on identity was always a contentious one for me, as I think it is for many young women. How can it not be when you’re constantly bombarded with images of unattainable beauty standards? As my research on visual culture accumulated, I began to wonder about visual culture in other locations. Because of my Italian heritage, and the opportunity to study abroad in Rome in 2006 for five months, I knew immediately that I wanted to talk to Italian women about visual culture and how it may or may not have influenced the shaping of their identities. I interviewed women from various backgrounds and ages.
“[Italian women] feel how American women felt in the 50s,” said Angela, a 34-year-old architect and Ph.D. candidate in 2006 living in Rome. This response was startling to me. Angela continued, “When my friends and I go see American movies, we see how brave and independent the American women are. Even though it is better for Italian women today, we still haven’t reached where American women are.” Antonella, a 35-year-old manager in Milan echoed this sentiment, when I interviewed her recently. She said, “To represent the current woman, who lives in 2010, I suggest discussing the working woman, who has a lot of dreams, ambitions, and hobbies. When I say dreams, I don’t mean wedding dreams, but dreams for themselves, like career, travel, and why not a new sports car?” Both Angela and Antonella felt pressure from their society’s expectations, usually expressed through visual culture.
When I questioned how Angela felt about Italian advertisements, she commented, “Of course I’m affected by it to some extent. I think everyone is, but you can’t follow it—you’ll go crazy.” Likewise, Antonella said that she didn’t feel like Italian visual culture represented her. She stated, “Unfortunately, women don’t speak or say anything special in most of Italian advertising. They often appear bare-ass, from food advertising to car advertising.” This is, of course, similar to representations of women in American advertisements, however, in Italy many ads involve nudity. The billboards I saw in Italy typically presented half-dressed women, occasionally nude, in poses that seemed all too explicit for the general public. This had the effect of overshadowing the commodities being sold, to the point that many of these billboards seemed to be simply selling women. The production of this visual culture is entirely for men by men. Nudity is generally more accepted in Italy than the U.S., which is, in some ways progressive, but can border on exploitative.Italian media was new to me, though I was used to seeing the unattainable aesthetics that went into most commercial media. The television shows I watched in Italy exuded a fetishized, commodified female sexuality constructed for the male gaze; stronger than what I had seen in the States. Women in scantily clad garments passed on the screen with gyrating hips. The women were generally there to act as decorations, or ornaments. One young woman I interviewed found this to be problematic. Elisa, a 22-year-old student in Milan said, “Of course, I’d like that this purely ornamental function had an end; women are not only objects or bodies that can be shown, but they are also people endowed with intelligence, with their own thoughts and opinions. This effort should be taken upon media, but also upon women themselves, and public opinion.”
The women represented in visual culture, at the time of my visit, were often blonde, blue-eyed, and waif-like. Even Miss Italy (in 2006) exhibited these traits. For the Italian women that I spoke with, this felt confusing since these models were not representative of them. In Italy, most blondes are seen as non-Italian. They are considered “exotic.” There is a definite hair-color hierarchy in Italy. Blondes are seen as sexy, easy, and exotic, while brunettes are common and prudish. When I would walk around with my blonde-haired, blue-eyed friend, she would receive more attention than I would. We would be at a café or in a clothing store and my friend would be helped first, whereas I wouldn’t even be spoken to on most occasions. However, sometimes this hair-color hierarchy had its downside. For instance, since many blondes are stereotyped as “dumb” some Italians wouldn’t talk to my friend, because they assumed she wouldn’t understand them, whereas because I’m Italian American and look as such, they would often ask me for directions and/or help. This inconsistent behavior was confusing and annoying. I would often wonder, “How will I be treated today?” I began to feel ugly and unimportant in Italy, as I was constantly reminded that I was “average” and looked like everyone else.
One woman, who definitely stood out to me during my stay was Marilena. At the time, she was a 64-year-old single woman who had never been married and never had children. She dressed like she was in her twenties, had a tanning bed in her apartment, dyed her hair blonde, and kept numerous framed photos of her younger self throughout her apartment. When asked if she was affected by visual culture, she stated, “No, I am not fixed on it.” For me, it was difficult to let Marilena get away with this comment when it was all too clear that she was extremely affected by the imagery imposed on her. This was evident by the things in her apartment. As I spoke with Marilena further, she began to state her insecurities: “I don’t think I was beautiful. I’m not sure of my beauty.” She continued, “My mother, father, or grandmother never told me I was pretty.”
The last four interviews I did were with young women in their twenties. I spoke with Erica, a 23-year-old student in Milan, and when asked what she thought of American women, she replied, “I think they are like Italian girls, but maybe more opened mentally. Although, I see that the problems they have in America are similar to the problems we have.” I questioned Erica on what she meant by this and she said that she believes American women to be more susceptible to letting visual culture bleed into their psyche. When asked how she felt about representations of women in popular culture, Martina, who was 21-years-old, said, “The women are introduced like empty containers.” Women in visual culture are completely devoid of voice, strength, and retaining any sense of authenticity.
Alice, a 24-year-old, discussed the dominance that American culture seemed to have in Italy. She said, “[In Italy] it says that in America the girls are all wonderful, like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Hillary Duff, and Paris Hilton…One thing that seems taken very seriously is their physical appearance.” The women I spoke with all discussed their dislike of the current visual culture that was being presented to them. When asked how she would change this, Paola, a 24-year-old office clerk, said she “would change the image of the [woman as] object that is presented exclusively on television programs and commercials. To begin, the woman would no longer be insufficiently dressed and she would speak.” Women are repeatedly silenced through visual culture. When will it be our time to speak?
None of the women I spoke with were able to identify with the commercialized representations of them. I’ve spoken with other women from various backgrounds informally about this as well. The response is generally the same. We don’t feel that our physical and/or intellectual selves are represented accurately in today’s media. Each woman I spoke with was aware that visual culture shaped her identity to some extent, and still does. The women I interviewed all stated that these types of advertisements were detrimental to their physical and emotional health.
I often question, “Will things ever change?” And if yes, when? Visual culture has only increased its ability to alienate and silence women. Those who continue to produce these advertisements seemingly don’t care.
Women must be heard. They must be allowed to speak their own culture and identity.