I’ve just spent six months in Milan, Italy, and next to the fabulous street-style and the expectedly beautiful architecture, the thing I noticed most were the unusual gender relations in the Italian dating scene.  My Italian sojourn led me to spend time with 20- and 30-something Italians from several different walks of life, from photographers to accountants to university students, and everywhere, the situation was the same: Italian women are a gift, the goal, the raison d’être of Italian men, and the men are – at most – contestants in the women’s game show.  Makes for a pretty strange dynamic if you ask me.

The funny thing is, you don’t notice this lack of equillibrium straight away.  Foreign onlookers are generally led to believe that Italian men are in the position of power when it comes to their relationships.  For centuries, they’ve been known for their love of women, a characteristic which has earned them names such as Casanova, romantic, passionate lover, and let’s not forget my personal favourite, mamma’s boy.  Movies like the eternally-popular Under The Tuscan Sun serve only to support this hypothesis, too.  (Although, I personally find that film too exaggerated to be able take it seriously.  At one stage, when Diane Lane’s character is being particularly teary, one of the Italian men she meets says, “Signora, please stop being so sad.  If you continue like this, I will be forced to make love to you.”  Scoff.)

After a few months of observation of real Italian dating dynamics, though, the truth breaks through.  Juxtaposed to these passionate male descendants of Roman Gods (ahem) are Italian women, who are internationally known for their sass, allure and femininity.  Just think of Sophia Loren or Monica Bellucci.  No matter which sub-culture an Italian woman belongs to – from alternative to corporate to fashionista – her style is impeccable, her make-up is subtle-but-powerful and even if she’s floundering under mountains of work or study, her nails are always perfectly manicured.  Basically, she’s the picture of perfect traditional femininity, and she knows it.

So, put Italian men and women next to each other and you’ve got a pretty impressive portfolio.  But let’s get past the surface and dig a little deeper.

It’s a Saturday night in May and I’m out at a popular lounge bar on Corso di Porta Ticinese, a happening street in Milan’s south.  A few international friends and I are there for aperitivo – a kind of happy hour arrangement where you buy a drink and get all-you-can-eat access to a stylish buffet – and after getting our Mojitos and our first plates of food, we sit down at a table and turn to observe the crowd.   The situation is perfect for mingling.  The place is strategically set out to get people close to each other.  First, there aren’t enough lounges for everyone, so inevitably people are sitting on arm rests and having to ask neighbours to borrow chairs and table space and the like.  Secondly, the walkways between the sitting areas are tiny, so, suffice to say, there’s “scusami” (“excuse me”) and butt-grazing  – that is, opportunities to joke and talk and butt-grind casually – aplenty.

And yet, no.  It’s not quite happening.  It seems like it is – there are loads of people and there’s chatter and music’s playing, so the scene’s right – but look a little closer, and you see that, actually, it’s all one-sided.  The men are desperately trying to make eye contact with the women entering, to make light conversation over the buffet (“I hope they bring out more focaccia soon”), even to get in the way of the women navigating through the tables to catch their attention, all to no avail.  The Italian women (the men’s targets) came, sat, ate, ignored men, and left.  That was their plan and they stuck to it.

How, then, do Italian men and women get together in the end, ever? The answer, as far as my time in Italy indicated, is “persistence”, or, slightly less eloquently said, “Drilling away at them until they give up”.  Let me explain.  My best friend in Milan, a young auditor from Paris, lived on the next street over from me with an Italian law graduate from Puglia, in the south of Italy.  This Pugliese was gorgeous and had three or four guys running after her.  As my best friend recounted to me, “It started with four.  They’d take her out, one at a time, and she’d come home and always say, ‘no no, I don’t actually like this guy’, for each of them.  Then a few weeks later, one dropped off.  Then another.  Then two remained for a while, until the last guy dropped off and she was left with one.  I think she’s going out with him now.”

So what we’ve got, basically, is a war of attrition for this woman’s heart.  A war of attrition, for Pete’s sake.  Having grown up in Australia, the idea that four guys would go for one girl’s heart (or pants, depending on your level of cynicism), continuing on in the battle despite her obvious disregard for their feelings, is just ludicrous.  Kind of enviable, but ludicrous nonetheless.

So why do they do it?  My guess is, they don’t have a choice.  The problem is, Italian men need Italian women.  Now, I’m not saying the following is true of all Italians, but the large majority of Italians living in Italy are romantically interested in other Italians rather than in internationals.  They understand each other (lingually, culturally, etc) and Italian women are, as we’ve established, kind of amazing to Italian men.  Attaining one of them is hard, but the process is part of the system, and just as we saw in Lysistratan Greece, the women get what they want or the men don’t get any.

Personally, I have no qualms with the dissymmetry in power between men and women in Italy.  I’m of the persuasion that any situation in which women hold a strong card in traditionally male-dominated areas is a good situation.  My only concern would be that feminism (that is, concentrated effort and focus on the female condition) doesn’t seem to have played much of a part here.  The system seems to have been like this for a long time, and doesn’t seem about to change.

Paradoxically, however, I suspect that a feminist revolution on this front in Italy would actually tip the balance away from women, giving more of it to the men.  That might leave Italian women battling with feminism-confused men like those seen in the West.  (The issue of how feminism has affected men has been explored and debated in books, newspapers and television forums for decades, and is extremely interesting.  See, for example, this article from a 1993 edition of the UK paper, The Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/is-this-man-confused-feminism-and-social-pressures-are-confounding-the-modern-male-true-or-false-simon-midgley-reports-1504236.html.)  Now, I’m guessing that Italian women wouldn’t really want Italian men to undergo any such kind of confusion, so perhaps they themselves have prevented its incidence.  What can I say apart from, ‘astute little things, aren’t they?’  Well, power to ‘em, I say!  And rock on!

– Barry Blanc