A young American woman strolls down a side street of Florence, Italy. Along the way men jeer at her, shouting crude complements in the hopes of catching her eye for just a moment. She is unfazed outwardly, her scarf a protective shield from their world as she continues on her way. Although this image is from 1951, it could easily have happened today. When I first saw this picture I empathized completely with the woman, and not only because I’ve experienced being catcalled. I’ve also experienced being catcalled while otherwise enjoying a vacation in Italy.
I first went to Rome, Italy as a teenager with a group of other high school students. There’s something about being an American woman in Italy that makes you stand out. I was never able to pick up on it completely, whatever that mysterious indicator was. But Italian women do not seem to get catcalled nearly as much as American women do. I remember not being able to turn a corner without some guy shouting, “Ciao, Bella!” There were men who whizzed by on Vespas and still yelled that at me. Even the police were no exception. I couldn’t believe the nerve of them, and how irritatingly sexist it all was. And how uncomfortable it made me feel. It happened whenever I walked with a group of other American girls, but especially when I walked alone. Even waiters would hit on me. I remember one waiter, after giving me the check for my dinner, offered to drive me around on his Vespa. Oh sure, we just met, you’re creepy, and you’ve served me my food. Of course I want to hop right onto your Vespa and be driven to a dark alleyway! Ugh, no. Anyway, when I first saw the famous 1951 image of a woman completely determined not to let the men bother her, I felt for her. This was what I’d had to do too, have no reaction.
When I look at the photo I love her stance, and how unaffected she seems. But the photo also irritates me because of how the men are treating her. However in a recent interview the woman in the photo, Ninalee Craig says that the image does not signify harassment but rather fearlessness and independence. The 83-year-old Craig explained to the Today Show, “Some people want to use it as a symbol of harassment of women, but that’s what we’ve been fighting all these years… It’s not a symbol of harassment. It’s a symbol of a woman having an absolutely wonderful time!”
What people don’t realize is the deeper story the photo tells. When it was captured in 1951, Ninalee Craig was an adventurous 23-year-old traveler. It was unheard of back then for a woman, but Craig had traveled for over six months on her own, throughout France, Spain, and Italy. Eventually she caught up with another female adventurer, Ruth Orkin, who was a 29-year-old professional photographer. They quickly decided to team up and to create art together. They wanted to document the experience of a single woman traveling in Italy. Although the “American Girl in Italy” photo is the most famous, there are an entire series of images they created on the same day.
On the famous image Craig explains that it is a “celebration of strong, independent women who aren’t afraid to live life.” Of course most peoples’ initial reactions are not to see this when they look at the photo, but to see the harassment the woman is experiencing. According to Craig,
“Men who see the picture always ask me: Was I frightened? Did I need to be protected? Was I upset? …Women, on the other hand, look at that picture, and the ones who have become my friends will laugh and say, ‘Isn’t it wonderful? Aren’t the Italians wonderful? … They make you feel appreciated!’”
Craig also insists that the men were completely harmless, although they appear to be jeering at her. None of the men went further than merely catcalling at her. Craig swears that none of the men intended to harass her either. Not even the man who appears to be grabbing his crotch. She also explains how that part of the image was edited for years, which is pretty interesting. As if that changes the dynamic of the men at all or makes them appear any less menacing.
Now viewers can see what the photograph really tells, which is that Craig was truly a remarkable independent woman of her time. Following her European trip of 1951 she returned to New York and taught school, then had a job writing advertising copy. Now she’s a grandmother, a great-grandmother and fervently supportive of the arts in Toronto. She is proud that Ruth Orkin’s photographs are now on display at the Stephen Bulger Gallery in Toronto. Craig is honored to have been a part of the set of photographs captured 60 years ago which tell her fascinating story.
Photo: 1952, 1980 Ruth Orkin / Stephen Bulger Gallery
P hoto of Ninalee Craig, Keith Beaty/Toronto STar