The divide between the sexes is still very deep in Italy. Men and women are different, and neither seems very disappointed in their role. Men are expected to be aggressive in courting women, and women are expected to parry with coquettish nonchalance, inventing themselves as objects of impossible desire and undertaking all the burdens and privileges pertaining thereto. Take the Miss Italia pageant, for example. Every September, it draws tens of millions of television viewers”the majority of them women, apparently, judging from the shampoo and skin-cream commercials. It attracts more viewers than almost any other televised event. A few years ago, a contestant rose up against the establishment. She said that women were not objects to be judged, and that the inane questions asked of them were well beneath their intelligence. Silence. No one knew quite what to make of this irreverence, though the next day, a few observers applauded her for her pageant-ending performance. The next day, the judging resumed as usual, not a word more was spoken about it, and Miss Italia continues to be a teenage dream.
Italian women all over the peninsula are pushed to look stunning on a daily basis. The subways are filled with ads for diet programs that promise pounds lost by the week, skin creams that allegedly eliminate decades of aging, etc. Still, you will find very few women who would trade in their makeup for a flannel shirt and a pair of baggy pants. Sex appeal is an integral part of Italian culture on both sides of the gender divide. You won’t find too many men with flannel shirts and baggy trousers either. If you’re single, be prepared for old-school courtship. You’ll find flower vendors at every corner. Men use them frequently. They always hold doors open for women, call them on the phone regularly ”though not too regularly, as the tightrope between interest and desperation is just as carefully walked in Italy as anywhere else in the world”and, on the whole, consider themselves to be pretty romantic guys. Apparently, they invented the term.
Italian women are not so easily convinced. They’ve been dealing with Italian men for a long time now, and they know every trick in the book. They are as savvy as they come. In turn, men have become even craftier. Which means women have to be even quicker. Which came first, the wayward rooster or the pecking hen? Who knows? All that’s certain is that the woman’s hesitance and the man’s devious strategies to overcome it create a vicious circle leading to a deep but intriguing distrust between the sexes. It goes a long way toward explaining why Italian men have such an affinity for foreigners.