When watching grown-up TV with your kids goes wrong, #3: the Miss Italia pageant
It’s September 10: the last day of summer vacation. Kindergarten is starting the following day. So let’s take it easy. Playground in the crisp morning, a late nap for T; C is working on his latest Lego Star Wars set: “The Battle of Naboo.” I’m pottering around. I gasp –
September! That can only mean one thing! When is Miss Italia starting? Oh no! Have I missed it? I drop all the awesome tasteful crafts I make in my spare time according to the laws of Martha Stewart magazine, and run to the TV. Translation: I drop the Martha Stewart magazine I read with feelings of inadequacy (Why did I insist on all those garish colors at the boys’ birthday party? Children love parties with an all-white theme!) and make a very short leap to the TV. Channel 1772 – the Italian-language station, RAI International. I subscribe to the channel just for stuff like this: so I can practice my Italian by watching people speak the language in its most natural form, which is arguing and carrying on.
Sure enough, it’s on when I turn to the station. And it’s live, in the middle of the afternoon here, and not even listed in the channel guide, which instead lists a program called Techetechete’ (I looked it up, and I still have no idea). But, look, there is Fabrizio Frizzi. Our hapless host. He hasn’t quit yet, like that other host did once. Phew. There are still 20 contestants in the running, down from 101 (and there are only 20 regions in Italy!), so that gives us a few solid hours left. And sure enough, I enter in on an argument. More, as I mentioned in my previous post about the pageant, polemiche. Polemics.
I sit down to watch while C sits at the dining room table with his Legos. Miss Italia runs for two nights, for at least three hours per night (it used to run for four nights, before it was half-cancelled last year). Who knows what I missed on the first night? Well, let’s imagine:
The judges, aided by voters from home, aka, “il televoto,” whittled down the contestants from 101 into smaller and smaller groups. When elimination time comes, the cameras panned to each woman individually, when she’s told if she is in or out. If she was out, close-up on the face: looks of annoyance and/or despair, and/or pretending not to care. That gets replayed immediately, giving the audience chances to lip-read for any cursing or bestemmie, blasphemies. The rejected Miss are kept bordocampo, on the sidelines – all the better to catch any tears, or storming off, or colluding with the other rejects to storm the stage. They are definitely allowed to step up to the mike to protest their eliminations. Last year’s winner no doubt then sang a song. More eliminations. Pause to watch le Miss dance around to a Madonna song, or with scarves maybe (this actually happened on night 2, something similar no doubt happened on the night 1). Then the proceedings are hashed out by the judges. Then more arguing with a crew of assembled journalists kept on hand to mix it up. And so on. Pause to plug tourism in the new host town, Montecatini Terme, in Tuscany. It’s a nice place; no arguments there.
Back to the argument at hand. The judges are defending their choices for the Top 20, as well as the inclusion of the televoto, up against an audience full of angry mamme e babbi whose daughters weren’t chosen, or fans whose region wasn’t represented. From the next room, I hear C spouting fake Italian: “Fresha pizza! Bacalabaraciabara! Mutandi Wow!” All those dreams of raising my children with the Italian language, come to naught. Where’s my copy of Marcovaldo by Italo Calvino? We’re dumping Captain Underpants at bedtime, I don’t care who understands what.
He comes in the living room. “Why aren’t those people on your show speaking regular?”
“They are speaking regular. We speak English here. But in Italy, they speak another language. Did you know that this is what Nanny spoke when she was little like you? She lived in Italy and spoke Italian. So did your great-grandparents, my grandparents. Nanny still speaks Italian sometimes.”
“Oh yeah! Malavita! Chist’ o cazzu! Fresha pizza again!“ Well, at least I’ve gotten two Italian terms, common in my house growing up, into his vocabulary. They’re not that nice, but still.
I think it would do him good to hear the language for the remainder of our afternoon at home, so I keep watching as he plays. I don’t think he’s watching the screen from the next room, so I don’t feel the need to elaborate at this moment on the extremely sexist nature of the program. At this age, all I can do is keep stressing to him that boys and girls, men and women, are capable of the same things. That they can both be doctors, or nurses, or Jedi knights. That the queen of his Playmobil castle can be just as strong as the king.
Of course Miss Italia objectifies women. At least, unlike the American equivalent, the Miss America pageant, it does not pretend to be a scholarship competition. Le miss just stand around in bathing suits most of the time (though this year, bikinis were banned), and when they are dressed, they are beautifully so, instead of looking like a bunch of Blanches from Golden Girls at age 22. Most of the contestants are there to try to get a job presenting one of the three million talk shows on Italian TV, and winning this is a good way to do it.
Look, I know it’s bad. It’s terribly antiquated, even for an antiquated country. But I like it for pretty much the same reason I like the Tour de France, or the Olympics, or Champions League soccer. It’s long, and mainly monotonous, giving me the chance to sink myself into this European dream, where I can pretend I’m not on some street in Massachusetts with a boring name, but in a villa, or a garret, or a even a hovel in the heart of Europe. Which is mainly where I ask Calgon to take me.
I watch shows like this on RAI to listen to the language, as its spoken now; I like to hear poetry in the names of the Italian regions, read 101 times and splashed across le fasce, the sashes: Miss Friuli-Venezia-Giulia, Miss Valle d’Aosta (that’s practically France; she never wins), my family’s home regions: Miss Campania, Miss Calabria. These women, in their own superficial way, represent deep ties to these little towns in corners of Italy where their families have probably been living for a thousand years, places where they claw their ways out of the regional pageants near churches where their ancestors were married, the camposanti where they’re buried. It’s dumb, but it’s true; it’s a slice of a life of a place I dream of. I only wish I could see the commercials too, for the banal little items that fill these lives: boxed pasta, furniture sets, cheese like Nonna made, spreadable ham (really!). But we don’t often get those – they don’t apply to us and our market, so they are usually cut out and replaced with a Miss Italia best-of reel, of winner after winner crying, their hair and eyebrow thickness changing through the years.
C keeps fervently working on his model of the Battle of far-off Naboo while I watch eliminations, indignations, altercations, explanations, and further complications. Then he saunters into the living room with his Lego accomplishment, a smirk on his face announcing a big joke prepared:
“The Battle of Naboobs. Like those,” he said, sing-song, pointing slyly at the TV.
Like every good Italian daughter, I should have listened to my mamma.
“He hears everything,” she told me just the other day. “Even from the other room. So watch it!” Every discussion of breastfeeding, ill-fitting undergarments, everything boob-related has apparently gone straight into his ears, bounced off the TV set, and come right back at me. So much for his big language lesson. Instead, a pun on the female anatomy. And is anyone else’s five-year-old going through a private-parts obsession lately? Because that remark is one of many made concerning any part of the body usually covered by underwear, male or female. Aren’t they supposed to be in some sort of Freudian latency period or something?
As the lone female in this household, I have my work cut out for me, I see, as spokesmodel, er person, for womankind. And the moment for these lessons has come more quickly than I would have thought. As in so many aspects of parenting, I feel like I am constantly playing catch-up to my kid; like I am parenting the child of a few weeks or months ago, though he has already made leaps since then, and continues to change so much, all the time. So, step one, a new reality: even more careful about what I say. And step two: watch Miss Italia after bedtime. Stick to better quality Italian-language shows during the day, like…Techetechete’? I don’t know. I’ll get back to you on that one.
For more of my parenting foibles, see also: