The Crisis-Woman. Body Politics and the Modern Woman in Fascist Italy.
In Natasha Chang's 2015 book, readers encounter the figure of the donna-crisi, or crisis-woman. The donna-crisi is by no means a stranger to Italian scholarship. Nearly 25 years ago, historian Victoria de Grazia offered a preliminary definition of the donna-crisi, which Chang cites in her introduction: "Fascist propaganda manufactured two female images. One was the donna-crisi: she was cosmopolitan, urbane, skinny, hysterical, decadent, and sterile. The other was the donna-madre: she was national, rural, floridly robust, tranquil, and prolific" (p. 6). Indeed, as underlined throughout the literature, the idea of the donna-crisi, constructed by the Italian fascist regime in the early 1930s, stands opposite the donna-madre: the self-sacrificing housewife and fecund mother par excellence, responsible for perpetuating the Italian race. The donna-crisi, meanwhile, uninterested in motherhood, emerged by way of the Great War, increased industrialization, and the rise of mass consumerism. Coded by the master signifiers of masculinity and fascist virility, this new woman--emancipated, cutting-edge, and strikingly thin--posed a threat to pre-existing gender structures, placing fear in the Fascist: a cause for crisis. Here is where Chang's book departs from previous scholarship. Through a well-curated variety of primary sources, Chang questions how the abject body of the donna-crisi performs with respect to the myths of fear projected by Benito Mussolini's regime. The strength of Chang's work lies in her recuperation and extremely detailed analysis of women's magazines, socio-scientific journal articles, and cartoons--all of which were authored by or targeted toward women, speaking on the state of women amid fascist hegemony. Tackling her presence in the worlds of fashion, science, and satire, Chang beautifully deconstructs the donna-crisi, whose thin body hosted the ugly tensions between Man of Power and Modern Woman.
I will actually begin this review with Chang's second chapter, "Scientific Discourse and the Donna-Crisi,'" believing that we need to dissect the physicality of the donna-crisi before discussing any material extensions of her body: the subject of Chang's first chapter. A most fundamental question that arises in this second chapter is how to define a woman. Doctors of the ventennio argued that the essence of a woman lies in her ability to reproduce--which the donna-crisi countered, through both her leisure choices and her physique. The defining characteristic of the donnacrisi is her thinness, which doctors publicly criticized in scientific journals, instead praising the features of the donna-madre over the non-maternal, yet increasingly independent, crisis woman: in perfect line with the demographic fears projected by the fascists. In one journal article, Dr. Nicola Pende, after distinguishing between such bodies, prescribed educational initiatives to train girls at a young age on their physiognomy and biological duties to the State: '"a sexual educative direction that continually instills in the naAaAaAeA and inexpert mind of the young girl the concept of the true significance of the somatic and psychic attributes of her sex, attributes all destined by nature for the maternal function'" (p. 51). Chang remembers Michel Foucault as she responds to Pende's use of scientific knowledge to exercise social control: the woman loses all agency to such medical warnings, deemed completely legitimate by the fascists--who employed such condemnations as ammunition against the new woman. Chang proceeds to underline this notion through more mainstream publications.
The first chapter of Chang's book speaks of fashion: the aesthetic extensions of the body that threatened the fascist expectations of fecundity and motherhood. Chang opens with a rich description by journalist Irene Brin of the new woman: '"A fat string of Japanese pearls, a mad flower on the shoulder, a chiffon handkerchief tied to the wrist... these were the only ornaments admitted by women who swore to emancipate themselves from the hat, who substituted silk stockings for socks, and replaced sandals for shoes'" (pp. 22-23). According to Chang, this description conjures a vision that was thought to put the health of the nation at risk. She deepens her argument by unpacking an article from a May 1925 issue of the fashion magazine Lidel. Chang argues that the article--divided into three vignettes, each describing ways women played on their hair and clothing--showcases the performative confidence of the donna-crisi, as well as her transgression into predominantly male social spaces. These vignettes embody the fascists' anxiety by an increasingly prevalent, yet challenging and disruptive, figure: a spectacle infringing upon socially acceptable limits, yet subject to control and regulation. The third vignette, centered around a peasant girl attempting to profit from the fad of short hair by selling her long, blonde hair, is especially striking. Remembering Guy Debord, Chang notes that as the female body becomes further objectified and cornmodified, Woman becomes an object for consumption, purchased by Man's money. This objectification is a key premise of Chang's chapter on satirical cartoons.
While Chang roots her third chapter in cartoons, she focuses more on the repeated likeness of the donna-crisi to skinny objects. These cartoons thrived on puns on thinness, of which Chang provides numerous examples. One that was particularly insulting connected the donna-crisi to April 21, or Fascist Labor Day, where a man simply used his wife as the flagpole from which he hung his flag to honor the regime. Chang reads this solution, "Although she can't make babies like the donna-madre, and she can't be an icon of fascist style like the athletic fascist 'new woman'... at least she can be a flagpole on this special day" (p. 85). What is problematic is the quick inclination to transform women into things, and even more troublesome is the response of laughter, thereby advancing fascist notions of femininity.
But we must ask, as Chang too concludes her book, to what extent did the donnacrisi actually resonate with Italians? Chang emphasizes that the regime's campaign against the donna-crisi only lasted three years, from 1931 to 1934, yet her legacy is longer-lasting. The idea of the donna-crisi is directly connected to moments of crisis in 1930s Italy: the Great Depression, the erasure of traditional class markers, and foreign influences. But these macrocosmic issues surpassed womanhood of all kinds. Complete unification and the bolstering of the Italian race were just impossible goals. Yes, "... the crisis-woman is a figure that points to the untenability of these fantasies" (p. 105), though new models of modernity were, regardless, coming to the fore. While the strikingly thin, emancipated "crisis woman" antagonized those fears, they were by no means her fault; she is simply a subject of the greater fascist machine, continuously riddled with anxiety.
Reviewed by: Niki Kiviat, Columbia University, USA
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|Date:||Nov 1, 2017|
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