Yesterday an 18-year-old woman named Alice Sabatini was crowned Miss Italia in the national beauty pageant that’s been running in Italy since 1939, and whose past participants include Sofia Loren (a finalist in 1950, at age 14). During the show, one of the celebrity judges asked contestants: ‘If you could live in another historical period, what would it be and who would you have been?’ In less than 24 hours, Sabatini’s answer to this question has generated a virtual shitstorm of reactions, ranging from lewd remarks and snarky memes via countless social media outlets to serious criticism and debate and among historians, feminists, mainstream Italian press, et al. Here’s what Sabatini said:
“Vorrei essere nata nel 1942, per vivere la Seconda Guerra Mondiale. Sui libri ci sono pagine e pagine, io volevo viverla per davvero, poi essendo donna non avrei nemmeno dovuto fare il militare.” / “I would have liked to be born in 1942, so I could live through the Second World War. Books are full of pages and pages [on the war], and I would have liked to really live through that time, and anyway being a woman, I wouldn’t even have had to fight.” (my translation)
Take a moment to digest this. Take two.
While it’s Sabatini’s closing comment that has got most people up in arms, let’s first look at the opener. Part of today’s viral assault has taken aim at her seeming trouble with numbers. As is painfully obvious, someone born in 1942 would not have lived through the war in the sense Sabatini intended. Baby Alice would not even have been weaned, would probably be taking her first steps, right around the time the war started to get interesting in Italy. She would have napped right through the fall of Mussolini, the Allied invasion of Sicily, and the signing of the Armistice. She’d be just about ready to start nursery school come the 1945 Spring Offensive. So, back to those ‘pages and pages’, Miss Italia. Have you actually read any of them?
This is more or the less the current vein of ridicule regarding the first part of Sabatini’s answer. It’s uncomfortable for Italians, for any people really, to witness such scant understanding of history—arguably the most important moment in 20th-century Italian history—in one of their youth, and during prime time no less. And when faced with such a discomfiting reality, most people tend to go on the attack rather than introspect. A creative media group called The Jackal immediately launched a parody of the inconsistencies in Sabatini’s clearly unrehearsed answer, meant to entertain but delivering as well, at least in my opinion, a backhanded message: please note that not all young Italians are ignorant, as our clever work here demonstrates.
Moving on. There’s a certain artless quality to Sabatini’s response that tempts one to forgive her blunder, if not overlook the gaffe altogether. She’s only 18 years old, after all. What did any of us know about our country’s military history at that age? And could we have articulated what little we did know any better? Lurking within this apologia, however, is yet another aspect to consider: that the perception of the war has become so romanticized (thanks, Hollywood) as to elicit this sort of starry-eyed reply. Of all the periods in Italian history worth revisiting, surely the horrors of the Fascist era and the war should make it the least appealing of time periods? To give Sabatini the benefit of the doubt, she has since stated that she was nervous, and expressed herself badly; she meant to convey a desire to live in that era out of sincere interest. Does this mean we should credit her with a deeper understanding of the war than she was able to convey on stage then? Perhaps, but unfortunately the damage is done. Along with the hashtag #tantosonodonna (something like ‘anyway I’m a woman’), countless memes, some rather funny, have come out today mocking Sabatini:
A lot of memes and jokes are playing on the construction I would have liked to be born (insert place or time) + anyway I’m only or anyway they only and so on:
The final element under scrutiny is Sabatini’s inaccurate statement about women during the war, particularly troubling to those versed in the history of the crucial and unique role Italian women played in the Resistance. The stories of female partisans are many, complex, heroic, terrifying, thrilling, and, in terms of sheer numbers, as Tom Behan notes in The Italian Resistance: Fascists, Guerrillas and the Allies, pretty extraordinary:
“Once the individual stories are assembled together an interesting picture emerges of tens of thousands of women shaking off the stereotype of being passive home-carers. Most accounts estimate that 35,000 women took part in military actions, out of a total resistance force of 300,000; indeed recent research from Emilia-Romagna also indicates that 10 per cent of the partisans who fought in battles were female. A total of 623 women lost their lives in battle or in revenge attacks; 4,600 were arrested, tried and tortured, while 2,750 were deported to concentration camps. Women’s activities were not just military but also involved political leadership—after the war 512 women were recognised as having been political commissars at various levels.”
The impression I’ve come away with after reading about this episode for most of today is that, while a lack of refined historical knowledge is forgivable, the romanticizing of the war years alongside the erroneous suggestion that women did not, or could not, fight in the war is not as easy to excuse.
Once the storm around these various talking points has subsided, we’re still left with one weighty matter to consider: the disturbing hypocrisy of beauty pageants. Organizers may try to distract us with talent portions and questions about how to change the world, yet deep down we all know what pageants are ultimately about. As long as lining women up against one another to be inspected on their physical merits remains an acceptable form of entertainment, should we really be disappointed or shocked when any young woman turns out to possess a less than stellar intellect? I’m not suggesting Sabatini is not smart, merely underlining the absurdity of parading her around in a bathing suit for the world to judge, meanwwhile pretending to care about what’s going on inside her mind.