The Crisis-Woman: Body Politics and the Modern Woman in Fascist Italy by Natasha V. Chang (review)
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Reviewed by
Natasha V. Chang. The Crisis-Woman: Body Politics and the Modern Woman in Fascist Italy. University of Toronto Press. x, 166. $50.00

The modern woman who emerged in 1920s Italy, and disappeared in the early 1930s, is the focus of this book. That woman was ''fashionable, worldly, emancipated, and a challenge to traditional gender norms.'' As Fascism gained power, the regime saw this female figure as a threat to its aims and ideals, and the woman was increasingly represented in negative terms. By the early 1930s the word ''crisis'' was wildly popular in Italy, and the modern woman became a ''crisis'' woman who threatened Italy's well-being with her unhealthy behaviours and ever slimming body.

Many scholars have written about the crisis woman or donna-crisi, but the author of this book, Natasha Chang, argues that most of those studies are brief or usually within the context of a larger argument. Chang presents not only a much-expanded view of the donna-crisi, but she also complicates the models of power and subjectivity that are traditionally used in discussions about the Fascist regime and the complexity of gender dynamics. One of the central concerns of this study is to reach a better understanding of the operations of Fascist ideology as a whole. Mussolini in 1927 launched the well-known ''demographic campaign,'' and in 1931 journalist Gaetano Polverelli took over Mussolini's Press Office and began a project reminding journalists and publishers that they had a responsibility to ''condemn the crisis woman regularly in their publications.'' In that context Chang finds the materials for her book.

The book begins with a brief introduction that answers the question, ''Who Is the Crisis Woman?'' and then moves through three chapters that present an historical and symptomatic reading of the crisis woman. Each chapter rests in a different venue, and either the product, the activity, [End Page 292] or the knowledge that speaks to the character and potential danger of the donna-crisi. Chapter one focuses on women's fashions and warns against bodily excess in modern fashion trends and potential anxieties about changing fashions and gender roles; chapter two moves to science and shows the importance and influence of scientists such as Cesare Lombroso, Nicole Pende, and Camilla Nervi, all of whom focus on the donna-crisi as an abject figure and warn of the dangers of the women who fall within that body of crisis women. Chapter three examines a complex array of satirical cartoons and the depicted women, asking the question of whether the cartoons might really present a subversion of Fascist ideals.

The final chapter shifts from the earlier interpretations and arguments regarding the role and popular significance of the donna-crisi which Chang describes as historical and symptomatic readings. In the final pages she provides a ''discursive and ideological reading'' that generates more productive ''meanings about the crisis-woman within the larger framework of fascist ideology.'' A new view of the crisis-woman now ''supports several fantasies that were crucial to fascist ideology,'' and serves as ''an oppositional'' figure who simultaneously ''points to not only the dream but the failure of fascist ideals.'' The remainder of the chapter focuses on how ''Fascism's Economy of Crisis'' operates within the larger scope of Fascist ideology. Her subject matter here is Mussolini's writings and speeches, and eventually she concludes that while Mussolini does not mention the crisis-woman by name, ''once the figure is actually introduced into the Italian social, political and cultural scene in 1931, she has a structural and performative role in the fascist economy of crisis.'' At the closing of this book I would certainly commend the author for careful reading, interesting information, and challenging methods. But as an historian I felt something was missing from this story, and that is reactions and personal experiences of the ''women as lived historical subjects.'' Chang rejects that kind of questioning or research as it ''focuses on the nature of 'consent and resistance' which leads to 'speculation.''' I would suggest to other readers that they might want to add some of the recent works on women in twentieth-century Italy that rest on a...


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