Workshop 4: LGBTQIA Identities and Italian Media

In September 2017, the fourth QuIR workshop took place in New York. We were hosted by CUNY and NYU. Prof Giancarlo Lombardi of CUNY Graduate Center welcomed us and also acted as a respondent to the first session.

The Italian media often gets portrayed in a negative way in the international press, with criticism focusing on the objectification of women, and the lack of positive (or any) portrayals of LGBTQ+ lives and experiences, or those of black Italians. Speakers at this workshop reiterated these problems, but also explored the ways that queer approaches might open up new forms of representation or of engagement with mainstream media.

In the first session, Chris Atwood explored how popular (although extremely problematic) political figures in Italy, such as Alessandra Mussolini, exploit the space that they are given on Italian TV to attempt to set up and reinforce a racist and homophobic binary between ‘us’ (straight, Italian, white, married people), and ‘them’ (queer, foreign, black/people of colour). In a more positive vein, Luca Malici explored social media debates around the introduction of gay male contestants on the dating show Uomini e Donne, and found that the majority were in favour of this development. Lorenzo Bernini analysed the impact of the investigation by the show Le Iene into gay male saunas and sex clubs managed by the National Association against Discrimination based on Sexual Orientation (Anddos), and funded by the National Secretariat against Racial Discrimination (UNAR). He argued for a critical stance against a normalising trend in what we might call the gradual ‘mainstreaming’ of gay culture and issues, which requires that sex is silenced in favour of more ‘acceptable’ activities for gay men, like dancing or playing cards.

These papers explored the changing face of Italian mainstream TV, where queerness is now debated quite openly, often in a negative way, where homonormative, gym-bodied gay men are embraced by the nation on shows like Uomini e donne, but the whisper of the realities of queer sex still sends shockwaves.

On the second day, we met at La Casa Italiana (NYU). The sessions focussed on cinema, fan fiction and print media. In the first session, Ryan Calabretta-Sajder discussed the queer gaze in the cinema of Ferzan Özpetek. Sergio Rigoletto explored the increase in coming out narratives in Italian film over the past few decades, and sought to complicate the western teleological narrative which asserts that coming out is unquestionably a positive step. He analysed films such as La bocca del lupo (Marcello 2009), in which, while characters are ‘out’, queerness is not always fully visible and legible, but remains beyond our grasp and beyond simplistic statements of sexual identity. Alessia Palanti’s paper focussed on the representation of female queer sexuality, including in Emma Dante’s Via Castellana Bandiera (2013), and suggested that discourses of queerness are often trasmitted through the deployment of space, as much as through narrative. She explored where and how bodies, sexuality and spaces converge, and shape each other, and argued that queer engagements with space can allow film to move beyond clichéd narratives of lesbian oppression.

The session was followed by a productive debate on coming out narratives and the way in which the closet has functioned, and continues to function in Italian culture and media in particular.

After lunch in the beautiful courtyard, Clarissa Clò shared her work on fanfiction, and argued that Italian fan’s re-elaborations of the Brittana (relation)ship constituted by the female cheerleaders Brittany S. Pierce and Santana Lopez from the TV series Glee can be seen as a form of political activism. Alessio Ponzio analysed the construction of ‘queer ogres’ as well as the beginnings of a progressive discourse on homosexuality, in magazines from the 1960s, and suggested that the activism of the 1970s was enabled by both negative and positive developments, which revealed the importance of speaking out to combat homophobia, and the increased openness to a more mature approach to dissident sexualities. Brian DeGrazia’s paper took us forward to the 1980s, and AIDS narratives in relation to the writer Pier Vittorio Tondelli and the journalist Giovanni Forti. He is investigating whether giving the media access to the ill body and confessing intimate details led to more sympathetic portrayals, indicating  some kind of judgement of those who chose, as Tondelli did, to live their final moments in private.

The papers covered a huge range of issues and once again were a clear confirmation of the excellent work being done on these complex and crucial topics. Many questions recurred in our discussions, including the closet, silences and silencing, the ‘mainstreaming’ of LGBTQ+ cultures, politics and lives, the location and accessibility of queer archives, and our relationship with the recent queer past, often accessed through media representations. We are grateful to Giancarlo Lombardi and Ellen Nerenberg who acted as respondents, and whose incisive comments certainly enriched our conversations. The workshop was extremely focused and felt very coherent, which led to discussions on how to gather and disseminate the work that had been shared. Colleagues are currently working on an edited collection that will include a range of essays developed from the work in progress papers presented at the conference, which will constitute an important contribution to scholarly debates.

After the final session, an open event was held in the auditorium at the Casa Italiana, entitled ‘Queer Media all’Italiana’. This was a screening of a series of short queer films by Italian film makers Associazione BADhOLE and Bowtieboy, among others. The auditorium was packed, and the screening was a great success. We would like to thank the Casa Italiana for all the hospitality, and we hope to return in the future to share further developments in the QuIR project.