Marina Franchi, a PhD Candidate at LSE’s Gender Institute, discusses the gendered politics of translating popular culture and national identity across time and space.

Whilst growing up in Italy, I was subjected to the overwhelming presence of US TV programs. Dubbed in Italian, they sometimes became entirely different programs adapted for an Italian audience: characters and story lines changed to adjust to a different spectatorship. The case of The Nanny is a classic example:the main character of the Jewish nanny Fran was translated into the South Italian migrant Francesca (as analysed by Chiara Ferrari in Since When is Fran Drescher Jewish?: Dubbing Stereotypes in the Nanny, the Simpsons, and the Sopranos. In the Italian version of The Sopranos those changes also aim to erase the stereotypes about Italy used within the American context on the assumption that to an Italian audience such a representation would have little appeal and might also be offensive.

Growing up, sitcoms and fictions became part of my interests as a scholar. Indeed, now I can comfortably sit on the sofa sipping my tea and telling myself that, indeed, I am doing research. Oh yes, I drink tea now… I moved to London and embarked on the academic adventure of a Philosophy Degree. Thursday nights are my guilty-pleasure nights. I immerse myself in Anglo American Comedy. The difference now is that I have a solid background in Media and Gender Studies that allows me to say that I am not watching the telly; I am critically engaging with it.

But most importantly, I watch sitcoms in their original language and their original stereotypes about Italy are all there for me to consume. What a surprise, watching a rerun of Friends’ first season (I have Freeview, not much to choose from!) and finding out that Rachel’s cheating Latino lover (ep.12) is the Italian Paolo and not the Spanish Pablo as in the Italian version. So over the pond it is Paolo that is disturbingly patronising, it is to Paolo that stereotypes of the cheating and manipulating man have been attached; indeed, it is Paolo that is the Other of the loving and caring American Man (Ross). (One might say that the same should have applied to Pablo’s version – but at the time, with the translation, the process of Othering that I became part of was perceived very differently).

One of the new acquisitions in my already busy viewing schedule is the TV show Happy Endings a wanna-be Friends (a little bit grown up) with interesting representations of two single female characters, a gay man whose character seems to be based on what one might call, the omelette principle (you take all the stereotypes previously used to portray a gay man and you just flip them around- it rarely works…the omelette is likely to break) and interesting representations of gendered dynamics all around. As a PhD Candidate in Gender Studies interested in Media what more I can wish for? Maybe an episode featuring an Italian man who seduces one of the female protagonists… And maybe she would make a joke about Silvio Berlusconi …? Why not!

In the episode aired on Channel 4 on October 13thLike father, like guns’, Penny and Alex (the two single female characters) are approached in a bar by two Italian men; surprisingly, Penny discovers her ability to communicate in Italian and chats comfortably with the guys soon discovering that she can speak fluently only when drunk. An obvious question might be what two Italian men are doing living in the US (the morning after the night before, Penny wakes up in the guy’s apartment to find him blissfully smelling the aroma of caffe’) and not even trying to speak a little English? The two actors are evidently (to the ear) not Italian – uncomfortable with double consonants and spending far too much time on the middle vowels of words (‘mam(m)a miiiia’)- but the body language and the camera pointing constantly towards obvious signifiers of Italianness (like the coffee cited above coming out from a giant Italian moka in a quantity likely to keep him awake for a decade!) do not allow us to forget where the bel(l)issimo is coming from. Penny is not only comfortable with the language but she is also very well read about Contemporary Italy. The drinks and the conversation flowing, we hear her recalling a disastrous first date in which the man in question suggested bluntly that she should get in the jacuzzi with him. To such an inappropriate invite she replies ‘Who do you think you are? Silvio Berlusconi?’ No need for explanations. American viewers – stereotypically portrayed as mostly unaware and uninterested in what happens across the pond – are here implicitly assumed, as Penny, well versed in Italian Politics.

The use of the stereotypical portrait of Italian men (always heterosexual) and the curious link with contemporary news of Italian Politics so often involving the sexual scandals of the Italian Prime Minister, made me wonder. Indeed I rarely encountered mentions of Italian women in my viewing of fictions as well as in my reading of English news about Italy. Though women involved in Berlusconi’s sexual scandals have been, in some instances, named in international news, nonetheless the feeling is that there is Berlusconi and his bevy of girls (quoting Fashion Guru Anna Wintour). Instead, the world of fiction does not seem to buy into the Italian woman – as someone said to me, ‘Italy is man!’. It is possible that the stereotype of the Italian woman (is there one? Maybe the anxiously cooking Italian mum?) is not as appealing within story lines, and it is something to be thankful for. At least outside Italy, the contemporary media do not seem to be interested in reproducing a stereotypical heterosexual woman to match the stereotypical heterosexual man. Nonetheless it is interesting to witness what might be perceived as a silencing of women, a non-representation both within and outside fiction.

International media seems to be very much interested in the Berlusconi Saga, from the bunga bunga parties onwards not a day has passed without an article posted on line by one of my Facebook contacts that involves some of mention of Mr. B’s behavior. Sometimes representations of his gestures really remind of the stereotypical Paolo; others, unfortunately, are far more disturbing. On October 5th I was hit by the news that the Italian Prime Minister suggested a bit of rebranding for his coalition and advocated to replace the current party name, Forza Italia, with a more captivating Forza Gnocca. (I leave it to the blogsphere to provide you with a translation). Such jokes are met with growing disgust, although reactions to his sexism are more and more mixed with a sense of tiredness, as is expected of an action or an idea that has been repeated far too many times and is constantly met by a granitic wall, unshaken by criticism. He surely is not the alpha and the omega of misogyny in Italy (I am sure, however, he will love to claim such a status). This ongoing situation is well rooted in Italian Culture, but surely, Berlusconism hit harder making humiliation of women and their bodies a constant feature of the public discourse; constantly undervaluing women’s effort in the workplace, their diversity and different experiences.

Whether a consequence of this constant mockery or not, resistance against misogyny and its twin brother patriarchy has became louder and louder. Again, it has always been there: between the great battles of the 70s (divorce, right to abortion, equal pay) and in the present day a lot of fights have been fought and an incredible amount of work and knowledge has been produced in Italy within the women’s rights and feminist movements. Today resistance and its product are nonetheless louder; and more and more Italian media are representing both Berlusconism and reactions to it. As the media pick up on Berlusconi’s shameful statements a larger public space seems to be occupied by those (women’s) voices that constitute a critique to that.

A growing questioning of the objectification of women in contemporary Italian Culture is reflected by some recent films and books. Loredana Zanardo’s Il Corpo delle Donne is a thought provoking documentary on the use of women’s body in Italian Mainstream Media. Zanardo’s work triggered ongoing debates and elicited the creation of seminars and discussion groups. It appeared to provide an outlet for those women who desire to speak up their frustration. Michela Marzano is Professeur de Philosophie morale at the University of Paris Descartes: her book Sii bella e stai zitta (Shut up and look pretty!) is a compelling work that convincingly argues that, as the subtitle says, Italy is not a country for women. Such critical thinking comes, as it is tradition in Italy, from a lot of different perspectives. Ave Mary: How the Church created the Woman is written by theologian and practicing Catholic Michela Murgia. In her book she analyses how the characteristics of the Catholic iconography (the silent woman, the sinner, the grieving mother) permeated Italian Culture and shaped the role of Italian women. Whilst very much conforming to the mainstream doctrine of the Church, she provides an interesting alternative reading both of the Religious Scriptures and the connections between the most practiced religion in Italy and Italian Popular Culture. Along with these works is the continuous effort of feminist zines and blogs that always keep us awake and aware; campaigns and discussion that inform as well as newspapers sections and grassroots organisations. On February 13th 2011 the group se non ora quanto organised a national demonstration of women furious with the sexual scandals. The upheaval of Italian women indeed attracted the international media.

Shall we wait for the American fiction industry to pick up on all this and create the character of the fierce Italian feminist woman? Hope so -if interested, call my agent!

Marina Franchi received a Laurea cum mentione at the University of Eastern Piedmont (Italy). She worked within various EU founded projects as a junior researcher in the Department of Social Research in the Faculty of Political Sciences of Alessandria. In 2004 she joined the LSE to undertake a Msc in Gender and Media. Between 2006 and 2008 she worked at the EU-Daphne II project Family Matters- Supporting families to prevent violence against homosexual youth. In her PhD project she conducts a research on Media Discourse on the legal recognition of de facto couples in Italy.