Subscription 790/year or 190/quarter

The cursed woman's language

Shut up and nine other sentences we don't want to hear again
Forfatter: Michela Murgia
Forlag: Einaudi (Italia)
SEXISM / When she died of cancer last year, aged 51, Michela Murgia had become a feminist icon in Italy. As a writer and playwright, she won high-profile awards in the 00s before she began to see writing as an instrument for activism. As a journalist and feminist, she truly understood the power of the symbiosis of sound and writing. Words matter, they can divide, and they can infect.


Once upon a time, when I started writing seriously, a friend and I visited the studio of a visual artist. I told him that I had written some short stories that I wanted to submit to a publisher. He looked at me and said, "So you do finger exercises?" The words stuck with me, and today they have become an inside joke between my friend and me.

There are ways of speaking that this Michela Murgia puts the spotlight on in the book Shut up ('Shut up and nine other phrases we no longer want to hear'). It may sound trite, but that is before you dive into Murgia's committed, resentful and precise linguistic analysis of sexism.

But aren't women equal today, so aren't multiple genders and identity on the agenda? For Murgia it is, too, to the highest degree, but now it applies to women. The battle that was waged in the 1970s takes place today on a psychological, linguistic level. Before, women were relegated to the kitchen counter and had little economic freedom; today women are exposed to slut shaming and death threats. And in Italy the peculiar form of condescension, as when a minister on television calls the interviewer by his first name med diminutive, so Concita becomes Concitina.

Shut up! opens with a radio broadcast Murgia and his partner have on Radio Capitol in 2020. They have a visit from a psychiatrist, he is invited because his statements are publicly perceived as sexist, and pressured by Murgia he exclaims: "Shut up and listen!" The episode was filmed, and the recording went viral.

When a woman speaks, it is still considered subversive.

The point, according to Murgia, is the disbelieving reactions. As if this was something unusual. When a woman speaks, it is still considered subversive. Irritating. Silly. Provocative. If you are a woman in Italy, you can also die from the language, she says, you can suffer "a bourgeois death". The term originates from a law from before 1854, when people were deprived of their legal capacity, i.e. to participate in social life.

Exaggerated? Slogan-wise? Yes, then. But only for the privileged. Or, as the Italian thesis reads: "If the sexist culture wants to gain the upper hand over women, it needs to persuade two thirds of women that they have privileges that others do not have. When feminism has succeeded, it has organized itself in a way that has broken this schism.”

Linguistic meeting places

Inversely proportional to social media, there will be fewer public meeting places for word exchanges, claims Murgia, and combined with the increasing use of "crazy words", it contributes to social
life dies. Prejudices that pervade language stifle the opportunity to be oneself fully and completely, they establish their own verbal justification.

From racism, one of the phrases or sentences you don't want to hear is, "where are you really from?". In sexism, it happens when you ask a woman's profession, but first want to know if she is a mother. When you start explaining things she already knows, when she is asked to calm down, smile, get fucked – and not least to stop scaring men with her attitude, laugh a little instead and shut up.

"Too many people use the language without taking responsibility for it. Underestimating the ability to name things is the biggest mistake of our time.”

The masculine language of power that Murgia uses in the book with flair, irony and wit is of course not reserved for men. It is "so deeply rooted in us that it creeps into women's language too". So why is this important? She answers that well in the last interview she gave, with Vanity Fair: "I don't have a count of all the times someone has told me that the linguistic struggle is marginal, and that, with everything we still have to fight for, it is irrelevant and even harmful to mince words. By implication, the word does not count, and perhaps that is why far too many people use the language without taking responsibility for it. Underestimating the act of naming things is the biggest mistake of our time. A time of many tragedies, but the semantic one is the greatest, it is an ethical tragedy.”

The many cases of violence and partner murder in Italy make Murgia right that things are not pointing in the right direction for the women, and urges the media not to mention the partner's murder of the woman as a reaction to her plan to leave him. That makes him the agent and her the cause. The words mean something, they can divide, and they can infect. Murgia explains, succinctly and cleverly, how the nine sentences the title refers to on the book cover are sexist statements that are not only annihilating for the woman, but also make "women the worst of women" (as one of these sentences reads) when she takes them to himself. Another sentence reads: "Men are also discriminated against."» And with it, the road is short to another masculine language of power: fascism.

Michela Murgira Morta

Mot in new fascism: Antonio Scurati

It is 70 years since Italy lived under a fascist dictatorship, and now it is felt that the country is once again ruled by a government with light brown attitudes. Antonio Scurati, who recently published the bestseller about Mussolini to glowing reviews across Europe, was originally supposed to speak on the RAI TV channel on April 25, but Italy's response to NRK broke the contract for "editorial reasons".

The speech was then reproduced on Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's Facebook wall, where one could read that Scurati defines fascism as a phenomenon of "systematic political violence, murder and carnage". He pointed to Meloni and claimed that she has never distanced herself from the fascist experience. Nor was the word 'anti-fascism' mentioned in the speech on the occasion of Liberation Day on 25 April last year: "As long as this word – anti-fascism – is not spoken by those in power, the specter of fascism will continue to haunt Italian democracy."

Ilaria Salis

Far worse is the inflamed case of the Italian teacher Ilaria Salis, who, after a counter-demonstration at a neo-Nazi memorial service, has been in prison in Hungary since February 2023 [see also comment, editor's note]. She is accused of attempted assault and of belonging to an organization on the far left. With handcuffs and ankle chains, she was brought in for a hearing on the conditions of her sentence in March, where she asked for house arrest because there are rats and bed bugs in the cells. Several days pass between each time she washes, and medical attention is absent.

The many cases of violence and partner murder in Italy prove Murgia right that things are not pointing in the right direction for the women.

The case has shaken people in Italy and created an embarrassing situation for Prime Minister Meloni. In a meeting with a colleague Orbán about the case, she was assured that the primary school teacher, who risks up to 24 years in prison, "will receive fair treatment and all rights guaranteed". Then Meloni also fell victim to "the wrong words" and a masculine language of power. At the time of writing, it appears that the EU will intervene and grant Sali immunity.

Meloni has some powers to play with at home too, there extreme right groupings have begun to do the Roman salute at their meetings. After she became the country's first female prime minister, she has spent a lot of time toning down her right-wing populist opinions and avoiding the fascist label. But phrases such as that she "will give all women the right not to have an abortion" confirm precisely how sexism is embodied in women's language.

Murgia og Meloni

Murgia lies Melons feminism had to thank for her becoming prime minister. Meloni was nevertheless among the many who condoled when Murgia died, and the irony of that – to the woman who wrote the pamphlet How to become a fascist, an attempt to explain the rise of right-wing populism – has not gone unnoticed. Murgia was married to someone in his self-proclaimed 'queer family' and thus did not belong to Italy's brothers' 'family dream'. But if Murgia's ideas were "notoriously different" from Melonis, the prime minister also posted a get-well message on X (Twitter) before Murgia's death: "I hope Murgia gets to experience the day I am no longer prime minister. I both hope and wish so, because I intend to stay for a long time."

So perhaps one of the nine sentences Murgia refers to i Shut up, "women are women the worst", is replaced by "women are women the best?" Maybe.

Astrid Nordang
Astrid Nordang
Nortdang is a regular literature reviewer in MODERN TIMES. Is a translator and author.

You may also like