Italian Forms of Masculinity between Familism and Social Change

By Ruspini, Elisabetta | Culture, Society and Masculinities, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Italian Forms of Masculinity between Familism and Social Change


Ruspini, Elisabetta, Culture, Society and Masculinities


ABSTRACT

This article summarizes historical and emergent factors in the contemporary pluralization of Italian gender identities, specifically the current penetration of alternative models of masculinity more adaptive to contemporary social change. Highlighted is the tension between progressive social forces and familism. Familism encompasses a cultural value system involving strong attachment and loyalty to one's family. This includes a strong reliance on family for material and emotional support. The article concludes with a discussion of good practices concerning men, as well as a brief reflection on the future of Italian gender studies.

KEYWORDS ITALY, MASCULINITY, FAMILISM, SOCIAL CHANGE, EDUCATION

Aim of this article is to examine some aspects of the still largely unexplored tension between socio-economic change, familism, and masculinity in Italy. In the first two sections I will look at the current situation in Italy regarding the social construction of masculinity in relation to notions of the family, state, fluid modernity. In a subsequent section I offer a digest of selected research and educational programs seeking to enhance richer, more flexible forms of masculinity adaptive to the sketched processes of social change.

GENDER AND FAMILISMI TRADITION AND CHANGE

The Italian context for gender studies is marked by certain distinctive features. Family values play an enduringly crucial role in social life; as Livi Bacci (2001) argues, Italy is characterized by "too much family." First of all, demographic behaviors are still somewhat "traditional" as compared to other European contexts, evidenced by an emphasis on the quality of intra-family care. Moreover, a welfare model is constructed, more than elsewhere, on the rigidity of the gender system; on the moral duty of familial sponsorship (according to which the family, encompassing an extended network of relatives, is always obliged to protect its weaker members); on the indefinite prolonging of financial ties between generations; and on the role of women's intergenerational networks as mainly associated with care work. Italy is also characterized by a considerable presence of small-, medium-, and even large-sized family businesses. Italian family firms comprise 80% of all business enterprises across all economic sectors. Their main distinctive feature is the founder's will to transfer ownership and management positions to heirs so that family traditions are transmitted together with corporate values. Finally, we should mention Italy's strong territorial dualism coinciding with a polycentric character: the Italian territorial backbone is formed by a system of medium-sized cities well established in the northern and central regions but less so in the weak-performing southern regions (the so-called Mezzogiorno).

The survival of this cultural and economic infrastructure heavily depends on "traditional" gender relations. Familism requires and encourages a specific two-gender model, where the gender categories "man" and "woman" carry with them specific expectations about how to act, what to do, who to love, and so on. A specific interdependency also emerges: the idea of "feminine" behavior says as much about how men are not supposed to act as it does about how women are supposed to act. This transcultural antithesis is well described by Michael Kimmel (1995, 1996): hegemonic masculinity exists in contrast with that which is feminine. Masculinity is not just based on contrast with femininity, it is a complete renunciation of everything feminine.

Demands for change and challenges to traditional ways have multiplied even in familistic contexts like Italy and today constitute an eventful horizon for the "traditional" division of life courses, roles, desires between genderspolarized between the concentration on male adults for financial responsibilities and on women for family duties and reproduction- and thus for the hegemonic, patriarchal, unidirectional male model. …

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