When I first saw the graphic of a six-point list explaining 'why men prefer to date Eastern European women', I thought it was a hoax.
The picture was shared and re-shared by many of my friends, then reported in national and international media. I finally realized it was all real: Italy's national broadcaster had actually shown an entire programme and a graphic for which the term 'medieval' seems an understatement.
An entire TV team, writers, producers, guests, presenters and so on, had allowed it to go on air and had discussed the topic - whether Eastern European women were sexier, or more subservient - as if it were a perfectly normal debate. It was incredible.
The offensive graphic, which suggested Eastern European women were "always sexy" and "perfect housewives". Screengrab/Rai1
Then I noticed something strange. The more I looked through the comments, the more amazed I was. I don't know how what the reaction was abroad, but in Italy the overwhelming majority of comments were from women... against women. Specifically, spreading negativity about Eastern European women.
Sure, some were were exalting feminism and were angry at the attack on female independence, but at the same time, without seeming to notice the absurd dichotomy, they were condemning Eastern European women. They said it wasn't true that they were always beautiful, or that they were only ever interested in money. There was a continuous stream of vulgar, offensive, misogynistic terms.
I started to think: Even now, do we not see what's happening here? We're going to take it out on other women, whose only difference from us is that they were born slightly more to the east?
I've been researching the differences between the sexes, and gender discrimination for years, studying sociological, psychological and biological studies and exploring the themes through my work. For example, the way we associate loss of femininity with gaining independence, and whether this comes from social constructs, upbringing, or hormones. I don't have the answer, but I know a lot more than before. And one thing I've learned studying and analyzing international research, is that it's not just the fault of men.
Again, I don't have the answer but I can ask the question: are women also at fault?
So I created a video in response to Rai's programme, which shows women (actresses) talking about how women treat other women, and sharing sexist comments - to show how often these come from women themselves: 'I prefer men'. 'It wasn't a dress, it was a top!' 'She probably wants to go to bed with him' 'You should see her - go and look at the photos on Facebook!' 'Is she prettier than me?'
We tend not to want to talk about it because it seems to be a disservice to women who are beaten, who suffer from the patriarchy, and I understand that. But we can't ignore it, and it has to be women who start discussing it.
Is it possible that we start hating ourselves or feeling inferior, and then end up trying to destroy others? It's been shown that aggression in relationships and bullying is linked to problems such as loneliness, anxiety, and low self-esteem. People tend to use tactics to sabotage the reputation of other women 'to bring them down to our level'.
One of the most beautiful Italian songs ever written: "Bocca di Rosa" by Fabrizio de Andrè, comes to my mind. It tells the story of a prostitute in a small town, who is insulted, ganged up upon and reported to the police by her customers' wives. Of course this is an extreme example, but it shows how women take offence at another woman for how she's dressed or how made up she is or how many sexual partners she's had.
As well as in culture, we see this in scientific studies.
One Cornell University study asked students about their sexual behaviour. Every single one of the girls said they would make friends more easily with a girl who had only had two sexual partners than a girl who had had twenty - demonstrating a 'social stigma' which leaves a track in society.
Another study in Canada brought an attractive girl of average height and fairly slim, heavily made-up, with loose hair and dressed provocatively, into the room to ask if this was the right place for the study, and then to leave. The same girl, about half an hour later, was brought back into the room to do the same thing - but this time she was wearing a high-necked top and jeans, with no make-up and hair tied up.
There were two concerning factors: firstly, a very strong reaction from study participants, who turned to look at the first girl and then at each other, with stern facial expressions, while they barely noticed the arrival of the second woman. And in a questionnaire, almost all of the sample claimed that the first woman (and remember there was actually only one woman!) had probably had many sexual partners and was 'uninhibited', all rating her on a scale of 1-10 as between 8 and 10, where 10 stood for 'completely uninhibited and sexually promiscuous'.
Sexism among women is still sexism. It's prejudice and bullying. Judging another woman for her appearance, or because you're intimidated by her presence or beauty, and discrediting her with other women and with men. These things seem to belong to another century, when women were burned for being witches. I spend a lot of time on social media - I'm a digital and marketing strategist - and I often have the sense that the media is like a pillory.
The most absurd and painful case is that of Tiziana Cantone, a 29-year-old Italian whose boyfriend shared sex tapes filmed while she was drunk. The videos shared her full name and her face was shown clearly. Everyone, and I mean everyone, made fun of that video for two years. Even friends of mine. There were photo montages, Facebook pages, comics, parodies, songs, even people who profitted from selling t-shirts and mugs with her face or name. The 'meme' even appeared in the video of a song by Lorenzo Fragola, a young artist who won X Factor Italia two years ago. It had 20 million views, and the references to Tiziana was totally unnecessary. These memes and videos were everywhere - 'ironic' in theory but in reality, they were abhorrent.
Tiziana moved house, because she could no longer leave the house, she changed her name, she attempted suicide, and her family made her come back home. Then she took legal action, but somehow lost it because of technical errors by the lawyers and an absurd justice system which denied the 'right to be forgotten' because the 'news' was judged to be 'of public interest'. Then she was ordered to pay compensation. Days after the ruling, Tiziana took her own life.
One disturbing thing I remember is that even then, after two years of insults from other women as well as men, there was a sense of 'she had it coming' even after her death. Again, this came from both men and women.
My video has two main messages: women can be sexist too, and; this sexism isn't necessary - because it really isn't. It doesn't take much to be kinder and more understanding to other women.
Maria Beatrice Alonzi is a growth hacker and digital artist. She works on stage as actress, behind the camera as director and in front of it as presenter. She has also founded an acting school in Rome (La SITI) and explores issues that are important to her through technology. Follow her on Facebook or Instagram.
Translated and edited by Catherine Edwards.
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