Io sono mia/I am mine
HBO’s My Brilliant Friend reminds us that the struggle for reproductive justice is a tale as old as time
Carla Lonzi’s germinal feminist text, Sputiamo su Hegel (Let’s Spit on Hegel) is the secret beating heart of HBO’s latest season of My Brilliant Friend–based on Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet. Published in 1970 by the Italian feminist collective, Rivolta Femminile, Lonzi’s Sputiamo su Hegel is a foundational work of the Italian feminist movement. Elena Greco, our narrator, voraciously devours Lonzi’s polemic. “Every sentence struck me, every word, and above all the bold freedom of thought…How is it possible, I wondered, that a woman knows how to think like that. I worked so hard on books, but I endured them, I never actually used them, I never turned them against themselves. This is thinking. This is thinking against.” Elena, acknowledging her limitations, knows this is the kind of thinking only Lila knows how to do. Using the model of her l’amica geniale, Elena, too, learns to think against, becoming a feminist intellectual in her own right. In My Brilliant Friend season 3, both brilliant friends creatively, decisively think (and act) against profoundly violent patriarchal forces. Their struggles, placed within the context of 1970s Italian feminism, mirror our own struggles to think and act against a coordinated patriarchal agenda hellbent on denying women and gender diverse people our reproductive rights and agency.
Women are worldbuilders, survivors, seers. We must each build our own worlds of life-giving, radically transformative reproductive justice. Why not build Ferrante style?
When HBO announced the date the third season of My Brilliant Friend would air, I immediately reached for my heavily underlined, dog-eared copy of the book, hoping to cram in a re-read before the new season. Instead, I found myself compulsively returning to one passage in particular, gripped by an unsettling, obsessive longing to see it played out on the silver screen. I realized later that this sharp, familiar pang of longing came from a place I know all too well—a place of deprivation. A place, a time, a vibe, we all unfortunately know too well–2022, aka the Great Deprivation. With the striking down of Roe v. Wade, millions of American women and people with uteruses were deprived of their sexual and reproductive rights; their right to privacy; their right to determine for themselves the course of their own destinies; and of their right to full, equal, meaningful participation in public and civic life. Instead, women and GNC folks have quite literally been reduced to the most laughably Aristotelian of designations–merely a bunch of wandering wombs.
No wonder I found comfort in returning to the Ferrante passage. For a fleeting, glorious moment, it gives us a glimpse of the radically compassionate, liberatory reproductive healthcare we all dream of and deserve. Here’s what goes down: After two humiliating medical appointments, in which Lila is ignored and infantilized by male doctors, the third doctor she encounters, a woman, fully acknowledges her humanity, treats her with kindness, and takes her concerns seriously (what a concept!). Lila asks for birth control pills (at this time, illegal in Italy). To her surprise, the doctor is eager to help, full of explanations and advice. Lila, no stranger to deprivation, expects to be treated poorly. Which makes the doctor’s extraordinary kindness more remarkable. She gives a prescription for the Pill, refuses payment, and explains how she believes strongly in providing accessible contraception to women. She then embraces Lila and Lenù, as if they were old friends. Leaving the appointment, Lila remarks, “Finally a good person.” Lenù observes: “She was cheerful then—I hadn’t seen her like that for a long time.” (*Be still my beating heart*)
As I waited for the new season of My Brilliant Friend, I found myself becoming more curious. Who was this doctor? What was her deal? Why would she write a prescription, free of charge, for illegal contraception? What could she possibly gain from this? The historian in me did what I was trained to do–research, find primary sources, read everything. I did exactly that. Eventually, I came across an Instagram account (a historian uses all tools at her disposal!), Iconografie femministe (@iconografiefemministe), a visual project documenting the Italian feminist movement of the 1970s using extant archival photographs. I became transfixed, spellbound by these archival images. As I looked at the women in the photographs, and they looked back at me, I almost seemed to hear their booming laughter, their protest chants, the intense collective hum of their joyful defiant spirits. I sensed this was far more than a curious historian and her archives– it was a deeply personal project, like piecing together fragments of a long-ago forgotten memory. These photographs were not only historical documents, they were living documents. As I peered into the women’s faces, into their dark eyes, I was struck by their raw, vulnerable, radiant humanity. An eerily familiar sensation came over me. For an instant, I saw my own eyes peering back at me, an irreverent wisp of a smile unfolding on my newly sepia-toned face. Perhaps it was a trick of the light, pure fancy, but it felt like gazing into an old mirror, the glass a silvery, milky film, my reflection brimming with the residue of the past.
(Caption: Sono una Strega Perché Decido Io/ I am a Witch Because I Decide)
The latest season of My Brilliant Friend is set amidst the tumultuous backdrop of 1960s-1970s Italy, a powder-keg of revolutionary ideas, massive worker-student protests, and the rise of the Italian feminist movement. The birth control pill began circulating illegally in 1963, but was not legal until 1971. Feminist historian, Dr. Maud Anne Bracke, credits this success to leftist women’s groups keen awareness of the connection between contraception, sexual and reproductive rights, and bodily self-determination. The disparate leftist women’s groups eventually became Italian feminist activists, leading the charge to further expand women’s sexual and reproductive rights. “Quickly turning their attention to abortion, they pointed at the limits of campaigns aimed only at the legalization of contraception. Instead, they articulated a much broader, innovative agenda for political and cultural change, centred on women’s full self-determination,” Bracke writes. The basic tenets of their liberatory agenda were summed up in three powerful words: “Io sono mia” (I am mine). My Brilliant Friend season 3 successfully captures the urgency, revolutionary fervor, and the defining visual vocabulary of Italian feminism. In episode five, “Terror”, we see Elena with her young daughters, Dede and Elsa, in the crush of a crowded feminist march. Women are chanting feminist slogans, holding up signs with the phrases, Il corpo e mio (My body is mine) and D’ora in poi decidiamo noi (From now on we decide). A protester shouts into a megaphone, a deafening cacophony of voices intone, “Io sono mia! Io sono mia!”
Having attended many feminist marches, these scenes felt real, embodied, familiar–in an uncanny valley kind of way. Perhaps because I was watching around the same time we learned of the Supreme Court leak, portending the imminent, wholesale disappearance of legal abortion in the US. A historian goes back to her archives, back to doom scrolling. In the couple days after the story first broke, I couldn’t bring myself to read or engage with any of the articles, longform essays, detailed tweet threads, or endless Instagram explainer slides–it was all too much. Two days after the leak, my usual doom-scrolling was interrupted, when I saw a post that nearly took my breath away. Tears welled up, where there had been nothing but numbness for days. The account @iconografiefemministe posted a photo with the caption, Oggi come ieri, decidiamo noi (Today like yesterday, we decide).
The photo posted was a 1976 pro-choice demonstration. Abortion activists marching, carrying signs, and a huge banner emblazoned in bold lettering, Decidiamo Noi: Aborto Libero, Anticoncezionali Gratuiti (We Decide: Free Abortion, Free Contraceptives). I stared at this post, entranced. I couldn’t stop thinking about what it meant to be seeing this post now of all times–now, in our supposedly modern, progressive world, where we no longer have to fight for basic human rights–or so we thought. Oggi come ieri. That feeling of eerie recognition descending upon me all over again–I lived the despair, rage, defiance of the present through the prism of the past. Separate timelines, always understood as running parallel, suddenly began intersecting, converging, bleeding into each other.
We have more in common with the protagonists and Italian feminists of Ferrante’s world than we realize. Our world today is still predicated upon the belief that white, cis-gender, heterosexual, male bodies are inherently worth more. All other bodies being worth-less, disposable, other–apparently justifying the domination, exploitation, and marginalization of undesirable, unruly bodies. Women’s bodies, especially those already marginalized by class, race, gender-identity, or disability, are considered the most unruly of all and therefore pose(d) the greatest threat to the capitalistic, imperialist, patriarchal death march of the post-war Italy of Ferrante’s novels and IRL, the year of our lord 2022.
Ferrante unflinchingly depicts the brutality and banality of gender-based violence and violence against women and girls. The same violence that perpetuates to this day, when reports of violence against women, sexual violence, and femicides have reached record highs. The same violence, emboldened by the repeal of Roe v. Wade, that seeks to further curtail and deny women’s sexual and reproductive rights. Past and present converging, bleeding into one. At the beginning of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Elena witnesses the gruesome spectacle of the dead body of her childhood friend, Gigliola Spagnulo: “How many who had been girls with us were no longer alive, had disappeared from the face of the earth because of illness, because their nervous systems had been unable to endure the sandpaper of torments, because their blood had been spilled.” Disappeared, unable to endure, sandpaper of torments, blood spilled. Ferrante devastatingly articulates how over the course of a lifetime, exposure to constant violence—whether physical or psychological, profound neglect, or daily humiliation—contributes to the slow death of the spirit, the slow annihilation of the soul. The body, too, loses its form, its shape, its distinct alive-ness.
In book two/season two The Story of a New Name, Elena first notices the bodies of the women of the neighborhood taking on an entirely new, sinister shape: “They appeared to have lost those feminine qualities that were so important to us girls…They had been consumed by the bodies of husbands, fathers, brothers, whom they ultimately came to resemble.” She wonders to herself if their transformation is caused by beatings, by pregnancy, or both (her linking the two showcases how astute she really is). Women’s bodies are no longer theirs. The patriarchy has quite literally consumed them, eaten them alive, leaving no trace of the girl-children, the women-goddesses they once were. To be a woman in My Brilliant Friend is to have your once one wild and precious life greedily consumed, meticulously devoured, and unceremoniously discarded.
We see this most in the cautionary tales of Gigliola and Lila. In Episode 3 “The Treatment,” Gigliola shows off her lavish new home to Elena, then abruptly changes course: “Do you think I exist? Look at me, in your view do I exist?” She pounds her chest with her hands, but it appeared to Elena “that the hand went right through her, that her body, because of Michele, wasn’t there. He had taken everything of her, immediately, when she was almost a child. He had consumed her, crumpled her, and now that she was twenty-five he was used to her, he didn’t even look at her anymore.” Once shiny and new, Gigliola long ago lost her luster, neglected, and condemned to live each day depreciating in value. In the case of Lila, she warns Elena in Episode 8, “Those Who Leave, Those Who Stay,” not to throw away her entire life for the most vile, loathsome fuckboi in all of literature, Nino Sarratore: “You know what will happen to you? He’ll use you, he’ll suck your blood, he’ll take away your will to live and abandon you.” Disappeared, unable to endure, sandpaper of torments, blood spilled.
While this may all seem hopelessly bleak, My Brilliant Friend is “a parable of survival, not victimhood,” writes Ferrante scholar, Tiziana de Rogatis. Elena and Lila survive in the face of unimaginable trauma and pain, using their resourcefulness and creativity to keep them alive. Survival itself becomes a creative act of resistance; a feminist act of reclamation and collaboration. In book two/season two The Story of A New Name, Lila’s survival is contingent on her ability to creatively think and act against. Against both her husband, Stefano Caracci, and Michele Solara, over their desire to display her wedding portrait in the new shoe store. She explains to Elena, “They used me–to them I’m not a person but a thing. Let’s give him Lina, let’s stick her on a wall, since she’s a zero, an absolute zero.” Lila knows deep in her bones that soon, she’ll no longer exist as an autonomous subject. Soon, her husband will settle inside her body: a perverse addition, predicated on her own subtraction. Soon, she’ll be an object permanently on display for the male gaze. But with Elena’s help, she transforms her portrait, reclaims her image, and resists patriarchal dispossession of her body, of her person. Io sono mia.
Lila creates to survive, she sees what others are incapable of seeing. “I felt that she was seeing something that wasn’t there, and that she was struggling to make us see it, too,” Elena observes as she helps Lila with the portrait. “We spent the last days of September shut up in the shop, the two of us…They were magnificent hours of play, of invention, of freedom, such as we hadn’t experienced together perhaps since childhood.” Elena describes an intellectual and creative harmony–the joy of creating, simpatica, inside their own little world. “I still think that much of the pleasure of those days was derived from…the capacity we had to lift ourselves above ourselves, to isolate ourselves in the pure and simple fulfillment…We suspended time, we isolated space, there remained only the play of glue, scissors, paper, paint: the play of shared creation.” What Elena describes is an act of collaborative feminist worldbuilding. The brilliant friends inhabit the joyful, playful world of shared creation, and by doing so, they reclaim themselves–in all their messy, imperfect humanity. Feminist worldbuilding becomes the ultimate act of creative resistance to patriarchal oppression.
Just as with the portrait, our protagonists collaborate to secure their reproductive rights and agency. But we know it’s not so easy. Episode 3, “The Treatment” portrays with searing accuracy the patronizing, dismissive attitude most women, especially BIPOC, queer, trans, fat, chronically-ill and disabled women, expect from male doctors. As Lila and Elena sit in the doctor’s office, bored to tears by his long-winded, pompous speeches, Lila impatiently cuts in, and as if by following a secret thread in her mind, asks the doctor to prescribe her birth control pills. For the first time, since writing her off as an illiterate proletariat, the doctor addresses her, delivering this startingly contemporary gem of a line: “A pregnancy would help you, there’s no better medicine for a woman.” Her eyes narrowing into barely discernable slits, Lila witheringly replies, “I know women destroyed by pregnancy. Better the pills.” Lila the seer, she who knows how to think against.
Ferrante is known for her unsparingly brutal descriptions of everything we’re supposed to want as women–sex, marriage, pregnancy, motherhood. Ferrante speaks through Lila, who masterfully articulates the ugly, secret thoughts of women. Lila outlines for Elena exactly how she’ll be undone, alienated from herself in the wake of her pregnancy: “But, happy or not, you’ll see, the body suffers, it doesn’t like losing its shape, there’s too much pain. This life of another, she said, clings to you in the womb first and then, when it finally comes out, it takes you prisoner, keeps you on a leash, you’re no longer your own master.” (She may as well be chanting Io sono mia at a feminist rally). Lila is the driving force behind wanting the pills. It is she who unashamedly, unabashedly demands them, advocating for herself and for Elena.
While the male doctor refuses to prescribe her the Pill, he writes the number of a woman doctor who could help them obtain illegal contraception. In the most exquisite scene of the whole episode, the brilliant friends walk side by side along the sea, both visibly lighter, carefree. We see them at a payphone arranging an appointment with the next doctor, the sea glittering behind them. For just a moment, they slip back into their childhood selves, enveloped in the protective aura of their singular friendship. Lila and Lenù against the world. Fortified by their solidarity, our protagonists resolve to advocate for their own reproductive agency, united together against the patriarchal propensity to reduce women to a series of holes for men to fill, bodies to be greedily consumed, abused, discarded. Io sono mia.
Still in the same episode, “The Treatment,” Lila and Elena meet the woman doctor. (Let me just say, the scene I longed to see adapted for My Brilliant Friend Season 3, did not disappoint!) The doctor insists, conspiratorially, “We’ll pretend it’s for something else,” explaining that the pill is approved only to regulate the cycle, and is prescribed only to married women. “Now I’ll ask you a few questions about your health and I’ll slip prescriptions into your purses,” she declares with an artful, sly gleam in her eyes. This gorgeous scene rendered all the more meaningful after my research deep-dive into the Italian feminist movement. Of course, the woman doctor is a worldbuilder herself. She represents an alternative world–one in which fact and fiction collide. She likely worked for the Comitato Romano per l’Aborto e la Contraccezione (CRAC) in the 1970s. CRAC’s network of feminist health centers for women, by women, were spaces where they could freely access contraceptives and obtain safe, clandestine abortions before legalization in 1978. These feminist health clinics were sites of community, consciousness-raising, education, and political mobilization–places where women could come together to think and act against the systems of oppression. The CRAC clinic network is feminist worldbuilding par excellence, symbolizing the once and future life-changing reproductive healthcare women can (and must) build together.
Abortion was legalized in 1978, but Italian women face significant, oftentimes insurmountable, barriers to access. The right of medical personnel to conscientious objection being the most harmful. As of 2020, nearly 70% of gynecologists declared themselves conscientious objectors—meaning that in entire swaths of the country, the right to abortion simply does not exist or rests precariously on the over-worked shoulders of a single (non-objecting) doctor. Widespread far-right, conservative, anti-choice sentiment exists throughout the country, newly emboldened by the end of Roe v. Wade in the US, to further erode and restrict reproductive rights. Oggi come ieri.
But Italian feminist worldbuilding, surviving, and seeing persists. Present-day abortion rights activists continue the life-changing work of their feminist foremothers, ensuring Italian women and GNC folks can access safe abortion care, reliable information, and support resources. Vita di Donna (Woman’s Life), for example, opened a hotline for those searching for an abortion and accurate information pertaining to their reproductive health and rights. Obiezione Respinta (Objection Rejected) created a virtual map of hospitals, clinics, and pharmacies staffed by anti-abortion conscientious objectors, alongside those abortion-seekers had good experiences with. The social-media, awareness-raising campaign, IVG, Ho abortito e sto benissimo! (I had an abortion and I’m fine!) collects and publishes thousands of abortion stories to challenge the negative stigma surrounding abortion and to change the narrative of how we tell abortion stories. Pro-choice RICA–Rete Italiana Contraccezione Aborto (Italian Contraception and Abortion Network), is a vast network of abortion rights activists, NGOs, and non-objecting medical personnel. RICA provides reproductive healthcare resources and information, lobbies all levels of government to uphold the right to abortion, and collects information on pro-choice journalists, lawyers, doctors, activists, and academics.
In her essay ‘The Cage of Authorship’ literary critic, Merve Emre, describes what it was like to interview Ferrante (via email of course) and Saverio Costanzo, the director of My Brilliant Friend. Emre asks Ferrante what she hopes her young readers and those just encountering her work, on the page or on screen, can take from her oeuvre. Ferrante’s answer is everything you can imagine it being: “I’d like the youngest readers to take from them the necessity of being properly prepared: not in order to be co-opted into male hierarchies but in order to construct a world different from the one we know, and to govern it.” She ends with, “The only way not to let what we’ve gained be taken away from us is to be smart and capable, to learn to design the world better than men have so far done.”
Each of us are smart and capable, ready and willing to design, create, and govern entire worlds rooted in principles of reproductive justice and dignity. Worlds, according to Lonzi, “where we recognize within ourselves the capacity for effecting a complete transformation of life.”
I’ll end with one more world we can hopefully recognize within ourselves.
One day after that awful day in June, you know the one I mean, I checked Instagram, anxious to see which archival photo @iconografiefemministe would post, if any at all. I wondered again what it all meant, my honoring a long tradition, seeking from the past an answer to the unknowable present. And then I saw it. D’Ora in Poi Decidiamo Noi (From Now on We Decide). Oggi come ieri, decidiamo noi (Today like yesterday, we decide).
Moved by the joyful, frenetic, hopeful, defiant energy of this photo, I catch myself repeating the most powerful of incantations, “Io sono mia”/ “I am mine.”