As a Sant’Anna intern, I was fortunate enough to attend and report on the Women of the Mediterranean: Representations and Self-Representations Second International Conference held at Sant’Anna Institute on June 10th-11th 2016. (note hashtags #womc16 and #stannawomen) Here in Sorrento, nicknamed “the land of the sirens,” I was humbled and inspired to be surrounded and in the presence of such smart and beautiful women all actively challenging and analyzing women’s representations and equality.
Being that I’m not originally from this region, it was fascinating to compare and contrast feminist views and women’s opportunities between the Mediterranean and the United States. The majority, if not all of these diverse opinions were similar and went hand in hand with my own. Whether the speeches were in Italian, Spanish, or English, all the panelists shared similar anecdotes and ultimately had one collective goal: to give voice to women and to accurately discuss (without sugar coating) the history of women’s equality.
Representations of women were explored and analyzed through many different lenses, including: consumerism, religion, sexism, immigration, racism, identity, language, ancestry, classism, classical mythology, modern art, and contemporary reinterpretations. Intern Jordyn Johnson noted, “Postcolonial Contaminations and the Abject Female Body in “Roda” by Igiaba Scego presented by Jessica Sciubba (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign) spoke about how women are often labeled as ‘prostitutes, sinners, or lesbians.’ These labels can many times have physical and psychological effects on women.” Speaker Dominick Daddetto (Ramapo College) interpreted poet Maria Mazziotti Gilan’s Ancestors’ Song in his speech Visions of the Mediterranean in Italian American Women Poets from the South of Italy which inspired him to get in touch with his Italian roots and ancestry that had previously been Americanized. Rosa Javier (Ramapo College) voiced in Contemporary Diaspora of the African Women Writers in Italy that majority of African women are represented as prostitutes and that the Italian government is doing little to nothing to act against mortality and human trafficking in Somalia. “We need to analyze what happened, why these things happened, and talk about it,” Javier expressed.
The discussion continued by questioning representations in media and film and examining women’s subjectivity, gestures, and the cultural constructions of gender. Phillip Balma (University of Connecticut) presented Women of the Mediterranean on Screen: Gender, Power and Agency in Potecorvo’s Filmography; in which he heavily discussed the Bechdel Test. The Bechdel test asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. (The requirement that the two women must be named is sometimes added.)
Balma told how homophobia and homophobic characters were displayed in these films and particularly spoke of a scene of men seeing two women dancing together. There was only the idea that women were only put in movies to help men and look pretty. “Despite the prominent role played by women in Pontecorvo’s film, and the director’s deliberate efforts to challenge easy stereotypes, none of the movie critics who hailed the film’s debut made any mentions of gender. On is tempted to explain this oversight as a product of the times. Perhaps 1966 was too early to expect reviewers to see movies through a feminist lens,” Balma stated in the presentation. (52)
Several of the speakers mentioned Homer’s The Odyssey in their presentations. The ancient Greek epic has mentions of the island of the sirens, in particular the scene with Circe from Hymen (1921). The mythical siren “Mediterranean Femme Fatale” is a representation of the feminine spirit and body. Sirens are often defined as beautiful creatures with cruel intentions to lure in sailors with their irresistible singing voices to trick and ultimately kill them. This interpretation of “feminine” was only given through the viewpoint of a man and sirens were left voiceless and defenseless.
Mediterranean Femme Fatales: Calypso, Circe, and the Sirens in Contemporary Poetry presented by Mary Green of Ryerson University discussed how the second wave of feminism in the 1970s brought new interpretations to feminine creatures. Contemporary women poets began to re-write stories written by men who do not give voices to women characters or feminine creatures and appropriated these mythical figures, by giving them a voice and perspective. Green ended her presentation by beautifully quoting contemporary poet Hélène Cixous’s “The Laugh of Medusa” (1971)
“You only have to look at the Medusa straight on to see her.
And she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful and she’s laughing.”
I strongly agree.
The largest difference that I observed is that American women are more outspoken with their feminist values, where it is still difficult for women in the southern Mediterranean region to speak out about their opinions, which is why the Women of Mediterranean Conference is so important. The conference helped spread the feminist word and openly discuss what we can do in these countries to fight and make change.
Personally, the harshest thing to hear about was from Giovanna Bellesia (Smith College) in her speech, Writing with an Accent: Language, Identity and First Generation Immigrants. Bellesia discussed racism and profiling in Italy and how people look through other people, not listening to their voice or what they’re saying. The discussion of how ignorant and racist people challenge another’s ancestry and culture based off of how someone looks (whether they look “Italian” or not or if they’re fluent in the language) and then silencing their voice and identity.
As a woman, I’ve been subjected and discriminated many times before. I’ve been stereotyped because of my gender and made out as “un-capable” because I am a female. Every woman knows how challenging it is to handle at times and many of us get told to ignore it. Being immersed in this conference’s conversation only amplified my belief that no woman should ever ignore it. Always speak out. Use your voice for yourself and your rights, but more importantly for the all the women across the world who are unable speak up because they are being compartmentalized and hushed.
“If you want to make a change and be recognize, you have to have and use your voice.”
- Writing with an Accent: Language, Identity and First Generation Immigrants
“Change does not happen if you’re not attempting, change is only through action.”
- The Mediterranean Abyss of Narration. A Sea of Times and Words in Lina Prosa’s “Lampedusa Beach”