Feminism’s critique of popular culture for the way they degrade, objectify, distort and stereotype women are legion. In relation to their engagement with crime and violence for example women have usually been ignored, and when not ignored, they have been masculinized, sexualized or represented as mad. In other words, when a woman engages in crime and violence, she must be either man-like, mad (or madly in love), or sexually and gender deviant. It is with the rise of the third wave of feminism and a generation of women and men having grown up with feminism that we have started to witness an unprecedented diversification of female characters in popular culture, often thanks to women writers and directors.
Despite being a criminologist, I admit that my interest in crime drama has been relatively scarce, and I can say with confidence that the banal representation of women in most of them has been a major reason for my general lack of interest. Surprisingly two crime series have recently created drastic addiction in me: Gomorrah and Narcos, two series that could nevertheless not be more different. Seen from a feminist perspective, Narcos is a total failure, since – with only two exceptions in Narcos: Mexico, namely Isabella “The Queen” Bautista and Enedina Arellano Felix – it displays the usual banal arsenal of women’s representations: whores, wives, lovers, mothers. Gomorrah, on the opposite, was a revelation, a feminist feast for the eyes. Not being an ‘organised crime and mafia’ specialist I knew little about the different roles of women in the old Sicilian Mafia and the ‘new’ Neapolitan Camorra, so before starting to watch the series, I had my popular imaginary about mafia and its women. Mostly accustomed to seeing women being portrayed utterly within traditionally gender-rigid and stereotypical roles, I had seen their main function as being the preservation and continuation of family lines and business through marriage, childbearing, and display of absolute loyalty. Nothing had prepared me therefore for the women of Gomorrah, who cast their spell on me. Each of them a different one.
[Spoiler alert: the piece reveals details about the plot]
Starting with the diva: Donna Imma. Wife of Pietro Savastano, an extremely powerful drug trafficking boss and mother of Genny, a clumsy and spoilt young boy, Donna Imma appears immediately as a loving wife and mother and heavily interested in house interiors. Initially, one is mistaken for almost casting on Imma a stereotyping gaze, until Imma proves you wrong. Not determined by her roles, in fact, Imma has a fully-fledged character of her own. She has a mature beauty and an almost frightening strength of character, conveying power and demanding respect from everyone surrounding her.
Once free of her husband, who gets arrested, Imma becomes a true criminal diva. She assumes absolute power – without even telling him – in order to fill both the power vacuum he leaves behind and her own power hunger. While reigning in the name and interests of the Savastanos, she makes her own decisions and judgements, which often contradict both in content and style those of her husband, to the point that Imma’s leading style, intuitions and intelligence make her husband’s intimidating legacy almost faint away. Compassionate yet merciless, in a meeting with men of different mafia clans, she will make clear that her compassionate leading style is not to be confused with leniency, a point about which we get sufficient proof during the series.
I know what you are thinking. You divide the world between those who do not kill and those who do. And since I am a woman, you believe that I belong to the first category. You are wrong.
– Donna Imma
Imma kills and dies. Death is a central mechanism that helps to reconstitute Gomorrah's fragile equilibriums all the time, almost automatically and instinctually. Death is always part of the game, and most of the time it is the worst thing that happens (In fact during the whole series, there are only two-three cruel deaths of young people that make an impact on the viewer, the rest is death as business-as-usual).
Another woman to grab our full attention is mafia clan boss Scianèl. What is attractive about her is her absolute freedom. Despite having many men surrounding (mostly obeying) her, Scianèl is in fact alone and almost self-sufficient. That way of being in the world is what gives her power: she is both highly diffident and defiant. She is right from the start a mafia boss equal to all others, but with the right intuition to surpass and survive most of them. Just as Donna Imma, she reminds the men around her that she will not hesitate to kill only because she is a woman. She will rarely kill directly though (as did Donna Imma before her). That has nothing to do with her gender, but with her status.
What is striking in Gomorrah is that the characters seem so real, to almost make the film look like a documentary. That has certainly to do with the directing style, but also with the fact that Gomorrah's characters seem to have a performative gene by default. They seem to be on a theater stage throughout their life. Power that is accumulated behind the stage is in fact almost not interesting for them, whereas the power that is displayed and acted out is everything. Scianèl dresses, moves, and gazes all the time as if on stage (including when she is alone in her bathroom). She lives her Camorra life as if it is the same with her poker game and cherishes it slowly and attentively as if it is her continuous cigarette.
Scianèl hates everything about men and deep down has absolutely no respect for them. In fact, she will only trust and then be killed by another woman: Patrizia. Scianèl trusts Patrizia, sees her intelligence and potential, respects her, and perhaps even loves her, a love that will make her vulnerable like nothing else had before. Warning Patrizia to never fall victim to the love of a man, Scianèl will fall victim herself to the love of a woman.
Patrizia was my weakness too. Starting her involvement with the mafia initially with the intention of giving her brothers a better life, Patrizia will soon, thanks to her intelligence and character, continue to rise up and play the power game, as if enchanted with its rules and unpredictability. Starting as the eyes and ears of Pietro Savastano, she becomes his lover, the only woman to take in his heart the place of Donna Imma. Yet, nothing about her feels like the stereotype of the calculating woman who becomes the lover of a powerful man to move up the social ladder. It is almost as if love happens to her. Whatever she does, Patrizia is bathed in a different kind of dignity. She will eventually become Donna Patrizia, and yet remain deep down Patrizia. She will retain that experience and memory of justice and injustice in her throughout, to the point that at times she appears to be a revolutionary, the embodiment of justice and ethics itself inside the crime world.
Not a Camorra child by heritage, she recognizes the invisible thread that keeps this world together, but also that creates tragedies and vulnerabilities: blood (“nobody goes against his blood”). Despite her lack of ‘royal’ Camorra blood, Patrizia will become the absolute queen of navigation of the invisible yet firm web of rules in the merciless ocean of the crime syndicate. It is almost as if her outsider’s position gives her that special skill (an epistemic privilege) that others do not have, a feel for the game. Until she makes ‘the mistake’ of making herself vulnerable by marrying and keeping the child she is pregnant with.
The daughter of a mafia entrepreneur, Azzurra is the fourth woman to attract and sustain our attention. She will betray her father and after marrying Genny Savastano, she will become a dedicated mother and wife, and do everything she can to safeguard the wellbeing of her family. So thoroughly bourgeois Azzurra has nothing of the revolutionary power of Patrizia’s character. Nevertheless, it is this bourgeois woman that will rise to become the all powerful invisible woman operating behind the scenes. It is in her character to take revenge on everyone who underestimates her and to do so with a ruthless grace. In fact, Azzurra is a true Donna Azzurra, belonging to the Camorra world more than anyone else, and perhaps the Donna Imma's real heir.
There are other women in the series, most of whom end up badly for having failed to navigate the rules, for attempting to break them, or simply due to their marginal female status. Deborah, (the wife of rising gangster Ciro), Maria Rita (Ciro’s young daughter), Marinella (Scianèl's beautiful daughter in law). In contrast to the badass women mentioned above, these women appear to be the ‘usual’ depiction of women, the wives, daughters, the lovers, at the mercy of the men, the real victims of the Camorra system. This might be in fact the significant difference with the other women characters mentioned above. Although they die too, we do not perceive Donna Imma, Scianèl, or Patrizia as victims, but as active agents of their destiny.
It is refreshing to see fully-fledged women characters depicted with the same kind of dignity as the male characters, even when done in a criminal context. The intention of this piece, therefore, is not a celebration of violence, but a celebration of those complex and rich women characters, wherever they might be. Arguably, the habitus of violence in the series is so overdetermining that ironically the norms of gender as a social structure are faint by comparison and play perhaps a minor role. Wherever the truth lies, the richness and complexity of the narrative possibilities through which we tell about women is welcoming.
Cover photo by Emanuela Scarpa (rai.tv)