Tuesday, 28 June 2022

Italian Heroes: the role of gender specific images in the public discourse around the COVID-19 pandemic

Today's post is by Veronica Valle, philosopher of perception and of the cognitive sciences, who recently completed a doctoral project at the University of Macau. Here she discusses some of her work on the Moral Roots of Quarantine project.


Veronica Valle


The war metaphor has been largely dominating the public discourse around the COVID-19 pandemics worldwide, with many voices having highlighted the potential and factual negative effects of such a rhetoric. Our paper focuses on one aspect that has been overlooked: the interplay between deeply rooted gender stereotypes and the use of the war metaphor.

We carried out an investigation of the embedded use of gender-specific images in the war narrative that characterized the anti-pandemic public discourse in Italy during the first wave. By employing textual semiotics and theories in pragmatics, we analyze a relevant selection of texts (e.g., social advertising ads, newspaper articles, statements made by politicians, etc.). The results of the analysis suggest that the war metaphor and gender-specific images have been jointly employed to reflect the gender biases still permeating the Italian society and culture.

The rhetoric of war is found to be closely linked to a representation of leadership characterized by the stereotypical traits of hegemonic masculinity (e.g., strength, firmness, and bravery). In effect, leading roles in the Italian management of the health crisis were associated with male actors, and the rational and unemotional communication of governmental decisions was entrusted to male politicians, scientists, and doctors. In contrast to the predominantly stereotypically masculine narrative of the leadership, the representation of the ‘heroes’ has been largely symbolic and has widely relied on the employment of feminine images. 

During the first wave, the two pictures symbolizing the health-workers’ heroism depict two women: Elena Pagliarini, a nurse fallen asleep on her desk still wearing PPE, and a fictional female health-worker (drawn by Franco Rivolli) with angel wings, affectionately looking down at the Italian country, which she holds in her arms as a baby. An analysis of these two iconic female images reveals their place – hinged on stereotypical femininity – within the rhetorical narrative of the pandemic as a war. Although female nurses and, less often, doctors have been associated with the word “hero”, they were depicted as fragile and vulnerable, yet resilient, motherly, and always young and beautiful.

Expanding our analysis to a larger set of images, we argue that not only masculine and feminine images are structurally different, but they are also associated to different communicative tones and intentions. Feminine images are associated to strongly emotionally charged textual contents, having the perlocutionary function of triggering emotions (in particular empathy, protectiveness, and gratitude). On the other hand, masculine images are associated to appeals to strength and calm, with the (intended) perlocutionary effect of triggering action.

In the Italian context, the war narrative is embedded in a patriarchal framework where roles are assigned based on gender, complying with the masculine vs feminine patriarchal stereotype. In this context the use of the war metaphor and the employment of stereotypical female images jointly deliver and reiterate a specific hierarchical model and the patriarchal value system that still characterizes the Italian society, leading to – and working as a ready-at-hand justification of – the exclusion of women from the corridors of power.