In a popular, cheerful Italian restaurant on Hackney’s Broadway Market, there hangs a sepia photo that has been made famous the world over. Alongside the ubiquitous, timeless image of Audrey Hepburn in her classic Breakfast at Tiffany’s pose, is another female; Ruth Orkin’s ‘American Girl in Italy’ which celebrated its 60th birthday last year. The photo depicts an elegantly tall woman with pre-Raphaelite, statuesque beauty walking along a street in Florence. So far, so good. Yet she is accompanied by an unwelcome entourage; a sea of gawping men. They stare unashamedly, one almost blocking her route. One man has stopped his Vespa alongside the pavement, his body contorted in an awkward leer presented to the young woman. Another, his mouth shaped as if to whistle, appears to clutch his crotch as she passes.
You might wonder, as you navigate your way through your East London spaghetti alle vongole, quite why it has earned the status it has, and why it has come to feature on the wall above your table. If it’s supposed to evoke nostalgia and longing for la Bella Italia, it doesn’t quite do the trick. In fact, there’s something downright unsettling about these intrusive, lascivious men crowding around a lone female figure, who far from lauding the attention, looks more than a little self-conscious. Had the woman been depicted sauntering past the men like a glamorous Hepburn, complete with cigarette holder and with an air of chic nonchalance about her, the image might not impact in the way that it does. But the American Girl in Italy looks wary and embattled, vulnerably clutching her shawl close to her body.
Surprisingly, Ninalee Craig, the woman in the photo, has been baffled by the idea that the image represents male chauvinism or in any way depicts her being harassed. Craig, a 23 year-old in 1951, was travelling alone and seeking adventure in post-war Europe, something quite unusual for a female at that time. She bumped into Orkin, another lone female traveller and together they created a series of images that they believed encapsulated post-war Florence. ‘Some people want to use it as a symbol of harassment of women, but that’s what we’ve been fighting all these years…It’s not a symbol of harassment. It’s a symbol of a woman having an absolutely wonderful time!’ Craig insists the image represents female liberation and independence; an adventure in an unknown, exciting world. And she’s certainly not alone in her assertions that cat-calling and wolf-whistling are always unwelcome. The Chilean-American writer Isabel Allende wrote in her biography, ‘One of the most therapeutic experiences for any depressed woman is to walk past a construction site and observe how the work stops as assorted workmen hang from the scaffolding to throw her verbal bouquets.’
Had photographer Ruth Orkin been alive today, she might have done well to pop over to the French parliament last week, to snap today’s ‘American Girl in Italy’; the Frenchwoman Cecile Duflot. A week ago, Duflot, the French Housing Minister, stood up to address the National Assembly. Wearing a summery floral-print dress, she was suddenly and rather surprisingly, drowned out by, not verbal bouquets exactly, but a grotesque cacophony of cat-calls, wolf-whistles and loud utterances of ‘phwoaarrr!’ from Nicolas Sarkozy’s UMP party. All for wearing a bright, floral dress. The speaker, Claude Bartolone had to intervene to allow Madame Duflot to speak (although sadly he did not appear to actually condemn the behaviour) and MP Patrick Balkany further exacerbated the uproar by snidely stating afterwards that ‘perhaps she wore that dress so that we wouldn’t listen to what she had to say.’ The incident shows the prevalent sexism that still pervades French society. It’s the same sexism that saw the French media playfully shrug off Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s misdemeanours last year and insists on dictating ‘appropriate’ female dress codes, such as the country’s refusal to allow Muslim women to wear the hijab. Contrary to Ninalee Craig’s assertions about cat-calling, the YouTube video of an embattled Duflot certainly does not scream of female liberation and adventure.
Across the channel, British female politicians’ reactions were nothing short of apoplectic; ‘these miserable old blokes need to get their act together and realise the world is changing,’ said Conservative Claire Perry, the parliamentary private secretary to Defence Secretary Philip Hammond. ‘It’s outrageous. It sounds like the sort of thing that would have happened in the House of Commons thirty years ago.’ Louise Mensch condemned the French male politicians as ‘lads’ with an ‘ongoing problem with sexism’ (although perhaps what Menschy really meant to say is that they have an ongoing problem with feminism, equality and respect for women. Sexism, they seem to have no problem with at all).
It’s reactions like this that increasingly and justly set the tone for this kind of male behaviour. No woman should have her words drowned out in her place of work as men fawn over her appearance. Equally no woman should have to feel trepidation or uncertainty when walking down a street. Ruth Orkin’s famous image once fondly described as ‘an enduring emblem of post-World War II femininity’ and ‘an image of innocence abroad’ is now more likely to be interpreted as an image representing male dominance and aggressive chauvinism by a world that purports to embrace gender equality more than it did in 1950s Florence.
Yet to deny that women receive some modicum of gratification from a casual compliment thrown from a building site or to deny Allende’s comments, a prominent feminist herself, would be counter-intuitive. Overly policing the flirtatious exchanges that occur between the sexes would be to negate basic human instincts. Yet it is when innocent ‘verbal bouquets’ transform into creeper-strewn jungles of verbal and in some cases physical intimidation, that cat-calling and wolf-whistling begin to form the more sinister roots of complacent chauvinism and male dominance.
Some may find charm and whimsy in an archaic print of a woman high on the thrills of life accompanied by some harmless cat-calls. But the image also serves as a reminder of the more sinister and damaging side of unwanted male attention: while some may see in the males faces nothing more than an innocent cry of ‘ciao, bella!’ in a sunny street in Florence many years ago, for all the image’s back story, it is possible to see in the American Girl in Italy’s pained expression the same weary endurance of male intimidation that continues today, even in the French parliament. MP Patrick Balkany’s assertion that he was merely appreciating Duflot’s appearance is a reminder of how a supposedly innocent complimentary signal to a female, can be a mask for underlying threatening and intimidating attitudes that relegate and weaken a woman’s position in society.