Remembering ‘American Girl in Italy’


The girl in the famous photograph became an old woman, and died this week at the age of 90.

I just thought I’d post the picture and see if y’all wanted to discuss it. I hope this will be seen within the bounds of Fair Use, because I can’t afford to buy rights to photos.

It should stir all sorts of reactions based in all sorts of worldviews. At one end of the spectrum is the attitude of the woman herself, who “said the image represented nothing more than admiration and curiosity and was ‘a symbol of a woman having an absolutely wonderful time.'” She elaborated:

“Women look at that picture and feel indignant, angry,” she told the Times. “They say, ‘That poor woman. We should be able to walk wherever we want to and not be threatened.’ As gently as I can, I explain I was not feeling fear. There was no danger because it was a far different time.”

On the other end of the spectrum is the whole #metoo movement, and the notion that what the photo depicts is barely distinguishable from sexual assault.

As for me, I’m somewhere in between. I personally would never behave like the men in the picture, and yes, some of that is a matter of character — a gentleman does not act that way. But maybe I’m just less honest than those guys. Also, I’m not Italian and I wasn’t alive in 1951.

My wife backpacked around Europe with another girl the summer before we met, and in Italy she experienced worse than what is depicted here. Which, needless to say, displeases me and makes me feel protective. But it happened before I knew her, and she came through it OK, and, generally, seems to have done OK taking care of herself without me.

My reaction to that picture lies somewhere between a wry smile at human nature and a contemptuous “look at those a__holes….”

Sex, and the way people are about sex, are complicated things. I don’t know if I’ll ever fully understand it with regard to myself, much less other people. This picture remains iconic because it depicts the power of sex both as a creative and destructive force.

What does it say to you?

7 thoughts on “Remembering ‘American Girl in Italy’

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    An interesting tidbit I learned from that story: Not only was the girl stunningly beautiful, but she was six feet tall. I’ll bet she was very accustomed to being looked at, which may explain why she was so philosophical about it. Everywhere she went, she was as conspicuous as a Valkyrie…

  2. Doug Ross

    It can’t be Italy. Nobody is talking with their hands.

    Except for the guy making the face, are any of the other guys really doing anything wrong? Is looking at an attractive woman wrong – -especially after she has passed by?

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Actually, the guy immediately to her right is “talking” with his hand — his left hand. That point is discussed in the story.

      You point to one of the many interesting things about this photo…. I think most people initially react to this picture by thinking, “Wow! Look at what a lot of commotion just because a pretty girl is innocently walking down the street!”

      But when you look again, there’s not all THAT much going on. The guy who’s grabbing himself and the guy in front on the motorbike look like they might be harassing her, and a couple of other guys are smiling, but other than that the gestures and expressions aren’t all that overt.

      I think it’s just that we as humans are SO attuned to interactions between the sexes that it makes a strong impression anyway…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        Actually, it now occurs to me that what makes the picture so strong is not that all the men are reacting in extreme ways, but the fact that ALL of them are looking at her. We realize that immediately when we see it, even if it’s only subconsciously. And staged or not, the situation is entirely credible.

        And THAT’s what makes it such a powerful depiction of relations between the sexes.

        I’ve always wondered what in the world it must be like to go through life as a beautiful woman such as this one. You’re a human being, just like the rest of us, but you have this power, or curse, or whatever you want to call it, that everywhere you go, about half the people you encounter are powerfully attracted to you. Maybe they’re cool about it; maybe they do their best not to show it, but you still exert a pull on their eyes, one that they either give in to or consciously avoid.

        Unless you were entirely unconscious of it — and how could you be? — that fact would color every moment of your life that is spent in public.

        I imagine that would be very… wearing…

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          It’s a phenomenon from which Tina Fey used to extract a lot of laughs on “30 Rock,” in terms of the way guys would react to Cerie — or the way Jenna WANTED them to react to her.

          In one episode, the joke was that a man — Jon Hamm — was that attractive, and it affected all his interactions with other people, not just women…

  3. Norm Ivey

    I love when something like this happens. I first saw this image many, many years ago, and my reaction at that time was something akin to feeling compassion for her, but certainly not sympathy because it didn’t look “wrong”.

    Then just now, when I saw the image again, the initial feeling was a bit of outrage, but that dissipated pretty quickly, especially after reading about her reaction to it. It’s one of those moments that I can examine and see that my view of some things have changed over the years.

    And then I read the article you linked, and it turns out the image was virtually staged–the photographer asked her to walk it twice. It sounds like the men knew they were being photographed (Ms. Allen certainly did), so I assume they were mugging it up a bit. All of which really changes the way I see the picture. It’s no longer a spontaneous moment captured by a fortunate photographer, but something more mundane.

    Still, a great image. It’s art if it moves people, and this one obviously still does.

    1. Bart

      When I looked at it the first time, my initial reaction is that it was staged and thanks to you Norm, you confirmed my first impression was right. It was just too obvious to be an honest reaction by a random group of men on an Italian sidewalk and no other women in sight. If it had been a construction site, maybe, but not at a sidewalk café on a corner.

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