On a plane to London, an extended Roman family travels for the long weekend. I happen to be seated next to the younger members of the group; at first glance, they seem like young high school sweethearts but soon it is evident they are a married couple. It seems they are traveling with his parents and other family members. As we prepare for the take off, the voice over the loudspeaker (in Italian) repeats over and over the necessity to turn off all electronic devices before take-off. They are specific, knowing how attached to their modern devices Italian people are and how stubborn, too, when it comes to following direction, and they list all imaginable devices by name. At that point, a tiny voice near the window suggests her bolder partner heed the advice and turn off his i-phone. Every time the loudspeaker repeats the order, she timidly reminds her husband. At one very uncomfortable point (for me and for her, that is), he turns sharply towards her, “insisti?”, he grits. He says it over and over again, a typical Roman goading mechanism, drawing his face closer and closer to hers each time. She’s near the window, there’s no further back she can go. Each time she tries to reply with her feeble tones, “they say it interferes…” or “but they said…”, he won’t let her finish and, in his extreme braggadocio just raises his hand and sticks his face in hers, repeating, “o! allora? insisti!?”I wanted to turn to him and say, “look, you little bully, she’s right. Turn your fucking phone off and get out of her face.” But I know as well as any woman who has ever been in that belittled and intimidating position that it would be of no use. And so the little schmuck’s phone stayed on. (As an aside, we took off and landed without incident which proves to me that this turning off of phones on planes really is a debatable topic, but that’s another story.)
As I listened to them during the flight between my intermittent, deep sleeps, my heart-strings pulled. This beautiful, young woman continually put herself in positions of powerlessness. She’d feign fear at every bump along the way. She’d look at her husband as if to say, “what was that?” She knew what she was doing, she was giving him opportunities to show her up, to feel strong and all-knowing, to protect her. It’s not uncommon, it’s not new, it is a tradition handed down through the generations. Mothers to daughters to granddaughters: make them feel important, never show your ability, your intelligence, your independence. In fact, never reveal any of that even to yourself. Bury it, hide it, let it fester or wilt away. What do they want to eat? How would they like that cooked? Sunday plans must include the game (whatever the game may be), and so on and so forth. It’s a web of deceit and design; difficult, demeaning and disheartening. And, contrary to a conversation I recently had with colleagues of mine, this is not a step backwards for young women for whom we (and those who came just before me) paved the way; for many of the women I see subscribing to the long tradition of standing in the wings, are direct descendants of the same patterns. There may be a certain tendency to revert to the old objectification of women in the media and in our Anglo-American cultures but the women who fought for a fairer Italy in the 60s and 70s raised women who still fight. They are not reverting. It is those who were oblivious to the change due to their working class and often starving status, who continue to take a back seat. They hold down the hearth and manipulate the husbands, fathers and sons in their life in a co-dependent frenzy which will assure them a constant flow of neediness to feed their own until the day they die.
There exists, as a result of this commonplace game, among a certain social set of the masses particularly in Central and Southern Italy, a suspicion of strong-willed and independent women. The opposite of needy becomes humiliating to men who are used to supplying the answers and quelling all angst: A woman who rises above them humiliates them. I listen to women like this one next to me or mothers who complain their sons “just don’t want to sit in their car seats” when they’re babies and “just didn’t like to study” when they drop out of school and sleep until lunchtime, their every need catered to, as long as they continue to need their mother, and I cannot help but think they are actively assisting in the repression of fellow women; that the insults and liberties suffered by women, as men lash out against them, are, in large part aided by the mothers and wives who allow and, indeed, abed the repression. There are girls who grow up coached and encouraged by their fathers and mothers to stand alone, excel, speed and speak up. I cringe at the thought of the fears we witnessed and felt as children in honor of the frail, male ego.
Before landing, the young woman’s feigned fear reaches a point where she actually asks how a plane lands. How is it that it doesn’t just crash face first? She gives him the perfect opportunity to chuckle at her lack of knowledge. Perfectly crafted, almost scripted, they imitate the scenes of inequality between husband and wife to which they’ve always been exposed. Patronizingly, he responds, “No, amore (as if to say, you silly nitwit), it doesn’t go straight down like this” (he used one of the airline magazines rolled up to simulate an airplane in landing phase and her tray table which was down, despite the order to put it back in place, to simulate the runway). His own lack of knowledge and vocabulary was so painfully evident as he purported aeronautical prowess, it was almost comical if not for the power dynamic which had long been established between the two. He held her hand as we landed, her eyes and expressions continuing to convey little, lost girl syndrome; she gave a yelp and a smile at touch-down and immediately reached into her purse where the i-phone lay. The plane still braking, she dialed her in-laws, back in Rome.
“Si’, si’, we just landed. We’re still on the runway. It was so funny….how’s the baby? it’s cold and cloudy here, what’s it like there?” and, then to her husband, “your father says it’s 30 degrees and sunny there but it’s so cold here, how can that be?”
And she was not being facetious. I was quietly thankful that I didn’t have to witness yet another lesson, this time in meteorology. All of this was taking place as the other members of their family and a handful of other Italians applauded the landing, a tradition which is becoming a rarity. Occasionally, especially on the Italian national carrier, one can still bear witness to the raucous applause upon landing which baffles and amuses the other, non-Italian passengers. Others were standing, many others still, mostly businessmen en route to important meetings, on their phones: “mamma” rang out through the cabin, “si‘, sono arrivato“. All of this as the purser was telling everyone to remain seated and keep all electronic devices off until the “fasten seat belts” sign was switched off. Repeated attempts were necessary to gain control again of the unruly passengers at which time the “fasten seat belt” sign was switched off and all those called to order, in unison, raised their hands in a gesture loosely translated as, “so, what was the big deal anyway?”
The young woman next to me calls back a few rows to a family member, “ma ti funziona Facebook?” “is your Facebook working?”. Her husband shoots her a glare “sei in roaming, non e’ attivato”. He’s pleased as punch not only that he knows what roaming is but that he can use it correctly in a sentence and tell her that hers is not activated. The excitement, however, has gotten the upper hand and egged on by her cousin/sister/sister-in-law in the back, they fool with their phones until, Eureka!, it works! “You’ll end up paying un leasing”, he states, using yet another English term to indicate the massive amounts of money international roaming will cost her in order to use her Facebook. This time, I have to agree with him but I secretly rejoice in the idea of his having to pay onerous amounts of Euro upon his return to Italy just for the sheer pleasure of his wife.