International Gramsci Society Newsletter
Number 9 (March, 1999): 63-65 < prev | tofc | next >  

Producing Culture . . .

Laura E. Ruberto

This dissertation considers the ways in which literary and cinematic representations of female agricultural and domestic workers radically call into question dominant narratives about the history of Italy and of Italians in the US. I investigate the points of intersection between class, gender, ethnicity, and race and the alliances formed by subaltern groups in their effort to resist dominant narratives. I look at a variety of textual representations of women workers in Italy and the US--in novels, films, songs, recipes, and testimonials. My readings rely on a critical understanding of both Antonio Gramsci's reconfiguration of Marxist categories and of migration as a category of analysis.

Introduction - Towards a Working Theory: Representations of Working Women

In this chapter, I formulate my theoretical framework for the rest of the dissertation. I first review the field of labor history, examining how it traditionally excluded women, migrants, and people of color. Second, I examine Gramsci's writing, viewed through the lens of feminist theory. While incomplete, Gramsci's work is important to a discussion of women and labor, especially as it relates to migration. His understanding of a class-based nationalism founded on alliances between different groups, his privileging of everyday practices, and the positive value he placed on culture produced by the people are all relevant to an understanding of the position women hold, both as historical beings and as representations, within the formation of cultural and national identities (Gramsci's ambivalence towards feminism notwithstanding). I conclude the introduction with a consideration of how migration may be used as an umbrella-like category, under which other categories of identification--gender, race, ethnicity, class--gather.

Chapter One - Grains of Truth: Rice, Labor, and Cultural Identity

Here I study texts by and about women rice workers (mondine). Although revisionist histories have made visible the mondine's past, creative representations of the workers have for the most [END PAGE 63] part gone unnoticed by critics. I consider how representations of the mondine, a group that since the 1600s has been a vital part of the culture and livelihood of the northern regions of what is now Italy, can reconfigure notions of national and cultural identity. I critique three types of representation: the workers' own labor songs, writings by Renata Viganò, and the 1949 blockbuster Riso amaro, directed by Giuseppe De Santis. My main focus is on the film, as it is arguably the best-known text about the rice workers, and thus stands in many ways as the most complete historical record of the workers. My reading of Riso amaro centers around its contested position within the Italian film canon: the film has been criticized for its unorthodox approach to neorealism, because it relies on a melodramatic plot and accentuates the sexuality of the female characters. I demonstrate that Riso amaro, unlike many neorealist films that depend on a "male buddy" relationship, features independent female characters who are central to the plot. Finally, I show how we can read all of the representation of the rice workers in such a way as to suggest the possibility of a national popular culture based on women's labor.

Chapter Two - Dishing Out Culture: Domestic Workers in Italy Since WW II

Moving on, I examine various representations of female domestic workers. I consider the changing relationship between the construction of cultural and national identities and domestic workers' status within the middle-class culture of their employers. The chapter shows, in part, how the Italian middle class secures its identity through the labor of domestic workers. I argue that the figure of the domestic servant can be deployed to critique the constitution of a privileged, middle- class Italian identity, an identity that is formed at the expense of minority cultures. I begin with a study of the way domestic service is constructed in a post-WWII cookbook written for housewives. I then move on to examine three narratives from the 1950s and '60s: Renata Viganò's novel Una storia di ragazze, Natalia Ginzburg's play Ti ho sposato per allegria, and Vittorio De Sica's film Umberto D. In these narratives, the domestics' relationship to middle-class culture makes clear the complexity of Italian identity, particularly with respect to class and gender. The chapter traces a shift in domestic labor in the last twenty years that has made domestic service one of the forms of employment open to recent female immigrants to Italy, mostly from non-Western countries. Thus I read two collections of testimonials by recent Italian immigrants and examine their discussion of domestic labor (Amelia Crisantino's 1992 Ho trovato l'occidente and Giuliano Carlini's 1991 Terra in faccia). These narratives demonstrate how immigrant women domestic workers are part of the development of Italian culture, in that their daily labors belong to the intimate structure of middle-class homes, yet, like domestic workers before them, they remain excluded from that culture. An examination of late-twentieth-century immigration to Europe (in particular with respect to issues of race and gender) becomes important here for recognizing how [END PAGE 64] these women affect the formation of Italian national and cultural identity differently from the Italian-born domestic workers before them.

Chapter Three - Where did the Goodfellas learn how to cook? Gender, Labor, and the Italian American Experience

Turning to North America, I look at the representation of Italian American women who, whether they work outside of the home or not, also work, unpaid, within the home. I consider various films, including Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather, Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, Nancy Savoca's Household Saints, and Helen de Michiel's Tarantella. I reflect on the creation of what has been called a "rhetoric of nostalgia," where a false history of affluence and high social status is connected to pre-WWII Italian American families. My focus is on what I argue are cinematic revisions of this nostalgic past, which acknowledge the labor of women (inside and outside of the home) and emphasize a socio-historical reading of different ways in which Italian Americans assimilated to dominant US culture (often by migrating to the suburbs) and situated their immigrant pasts within that culture.


In this final section, I discuss the implications of reading these cultural productions for our understanding of history and historiography and for the formation of national and cultural identities in the expanding global marketplace. I place this dissertation in dialogue with critical considerations of gender, class, race and ethnicity within and beyond Italian and Italian American contexts. Further, I suggest ways in which my feminist-Gramscian understanding of migration can be useful in other geographical, linguistic, and cultural locations.   ^ return to top ^ < prev | tofc | next >