Marias and Marriage: Ethnicity, Gender and Sexuality among Italo-Australian Youth in Perth(1)

Article excerpt

Abstract

Using an ethnographic account of weddings and network activities among Italo-Australian youth in Perth, and, in particular, a symbolic analysis of garters and bouquets, this paper explores the intersections of ethnicity, gender and sexuality, and reviews social scientific theories of ethnic identity and cultural transmission. By investigating the double standard--where men are free to be sexually active and women are not--it confronts some of the stereotypes about `second generation Australians' and `culture clash', female oppression and the control of sexuality. Of particular concern is the way that some Italo-Australian women perceive sexual freedom in Australian society. The paper argues that the moral community represented by the youth network and, in particular, the challenges posed by it to the traditional model of female honour, allow for significant generational changes in the construction of ethnic identity. By analysing how identities are constructed and articulated across difference, and how `this kind of relativising' is `embodied in the habitus [cf. Bourdieu 1977] of the second generation' (Bottomley 1992a: 132), the paper explodes homogeneous conceptions of what is Italian, and Italo-Australian culture.

Introduction

There are two theoretical issues I wish to highlight in relation to the ethnographic material presented in this paper. The first concerns the construction of ethnic identity in the second generation and how cultural transmission is theorised. The second relates to the feminist concern with how women express themselves socially and sexually within the constraints of patriarchy. These two issues are brought together through an examination of two ethnographic case studies to explore gender and sexuality construction in relation to ethnicity. The paper begins with a brief overview of the literature on these topics, with particular reference to the manner in which second generation Italian-Australian identities have been theorised about. Following this, and a brief section outlining my methodology, I present my fieldwork findings.

Ethnographic research among the Italian communities in Perth revealed that some Italo-Australian youth in Perth form an informal network which is separate, or bounded off from, their parents' networks. Through an analysis of the social activities and perceptions of the participants of this informal network, along with a symbolic analysis of the rituals which comprise their weddings, I examine how the youth deal with restrictions of family honour and in so doing establish their own moral community. I argue that this moral community constitutes part of the emerging culture of these second generation Italian migrants and that they construct their identities in accordance with certain traditional values held by their parents. Not all of their parents' traditional values are embraced, however, and the ambiguities and contestations that occur point to the fact that `ethnicity', `gender' and `sexuality' are generation-specific constructs influenced by the particular socio-economic status of the subjects. Most importantly, however, the Italo-Australian youth define themselves in opposition to the perceived identity, pattern of gender relations and sexuality of their `Australian' peers.(2)

Theoretical considerations

Social science research on so-called `second generation Italian migrants' in Australia has been steadily increasing in both quantity and sophistication. The initial interest in the second generation was in attempting to gauge how `ethnic' they were and, by implication, how viable was the `ethnic community' to which they `belonged'. In most early studies on ethnic groups in Australia, researchers tended to believe that the second and subsequent generations would become increasingly assimilated into `Australian society' (see, for example, Borrie 1954, 1959; Cox 1976; Bowen 1977; Zubrzycki 1960, 1982; Wilton and Bosworth 1984; Storer 1985). …