The Southern Stereotype: Where Does It Come From and How Can We Solve It?

Introduction

While from the outside many view the culture of Italy as monolithic, the North and South of Italy are actually very different places in terms of geography, culture, economy, tradition, food, and more. These differences often put the two regions at odds with each other, causing many untrue stereotypes to rise out of cultural differences. The South often suffers the worst of these stereotypes and prejudice. Stereotypes can be harmful because they “serve to justify actions, committed or planned, against out-groups in order to maintain disparities and increase positive differentiation on the in-group from selected out-groups.” ((Villano & Passini, 2018)) Stereotypes are more than just words and thoughts, but are used to serve prejudiced action. It is important to identify these stereotypes to begin eradicating them. 

Negative stereotyping about the South arises from many factors, the root of which is the relatively recent unification of Italy. The country was only unified about 150 years ago, which means that Italy’s national identity is not cohesive yet. Regional identity tends to play a stronger role than national identity, allowing Northern and Southern Italians to feel separate from each other. This separation is characterized by their differences in economy, cultural traditions, food, and even weather. I will explore how differences in tradition and economy lead to negative stereotyping later in this post. 

Stereotypes against the South are quite common because they are ingrained in the culture of Italy. Even political parties, such as the Lega, weaponize these stereotypes to gain the support of a dissatisfied middle and upper class. In this post, I will explore stereotypes about the South and compare them with some stereotypes about the North, the conflict between the cultural perspectives of Northerners and Southerners, the Lega’s weaponization of the Southern stereotype, and ways to mend these differences. 

Stereotypes about the South

There are many stereotypes about both Southern and Northern Italians – the two regions are often seen as polar opposites of each other. While the North has a reputation for wealth and a busy lifestyle, the South is often saddled with more harmful stereotypes of laziness and even criminality. It is important to investigate stereotypes about both the North and South to understand how these ideas can impact the opportunities of Southerners.  

Table from University of Bologna study Competent in the North, passionate in the South: Stereotypes and prejudices between Northern and Southern Italy

In a 2018 study by the University of Bologna, researchers investigated the qualities that Northerners and Southerners think themselves and each other have. In the table above, we can see that Northerners believe they are industrious, ambitious, materialistic, methodical, and progressive (in that order). Southerners agreed that Northerners possess most of these qualities, but were more likely to say that Northerners are materialistic and swapped out “progressive” for “conformist.” Southerners then described themselves as tradition-loving, loyal to family, passionate, creative, and funny. Northerners agreed that Southerners are tradition-loving, loyal to family, and passionate, but also thought they were superstitious and very religious.

The survey also noted that Northerners tend to hold more subtle prejudice towards Southerners. While blatant prejudice is no longer accepted, many Northerners still hold more subtly negative ideas about the South. If a Northerner associates the South with traditional stereotypes, they were found to often associate them with more negative stereotypes as well. This finding shows that even neutral stereotypes can lead to more harmful ones.

Outside of this study’s official setting where participants may have moderated or hidden their prejudice, many other sources have observed deeper stereotyping about the South in casual settings. In one blog post, a writer claims many Northerners think Southerners are lazy and sometimes criminal, blame them for all of Italy’s economic problems, are amazed at a “smart” Southerner, think Southerners are superstitious, sexist, religious fanatics, talk too much, and are overly attached to their families. Northerners may devalue the intelligence, beliefs, and work ethics of Southerners if they truly buy into these stereotypes. 

Where Do These Stereotypes Arise From?

Traditions 

In this video, which discusses the differences in tradition between the North and South, we learn some of the cultural differences that may produce the seeds of stereotypes. We learn from this video that the South’s culture can be much more family-oriented than the North – celebrations like weddings and Christmas in the South often last several days and include wide circles of family and friends. Southern Italians tend to spend vacations visiting other members of their family, and tend to devote each of their Sundays to family time by getting together for long lunches.

Northern Italians enjoy family events as well, but holidays and weddings tend to last a 1-2 days and involve a smaller circle of friends and family. Northern Italians also tend to take more expensive and planned out vacations to escape the stress of their fast-paced day-to-day lives, and may journey abroad with their spouse and children. The Northern vacation’s primary purpose is to recharge from busy lives and to explore, rather than connecting with branches of the family. Even Sundays are traditionally spent differently in the North and South – in the North, it is a day to recharge and prepare for a busy work week.

Outside of family practices, this video mentions a few other differences between the North and South. In the North, neighbors are polite and friendly, but may not go out of their way to get to know each other. In the South, neighbors become like members of the family, and may also get a bit nosy about each other. In the North, you can also expect that meetings and appointments will be on time, as people tend to have packed schedules. In the South, appointment time tends to be more flexible and both parties are often late for a suggested time. 

Socioeconomic State 

Education graphic from study The North-South Divide: Regional Economic Inequality in Contemporary Italy

Beyond cultural differences, socioeconomic differences between the North and South can also lead to stereotyping. The South struggles much more with poverty than the North: while the North has a poverty rate of 4.4%, the South has a poverty rate of 20.6%. The North’s median income per capita is about 8,000 euros a month while the South is 5,000 euros a month. (Usseglio, 2016)

These differences may come from the divergence in Italy’s economic infrastructure following World War II. While factories and other industries emerged in the North, the South stayed mostly agricultural and missed out on the economic growth the country was experiencing. Most of Italy’s job opportunities were situated in the North, sending the South into poverty. This also aided the rise of the mafia, which gave the South a reputation for criminality.

While the South has developed economically since this time period, it is still several decades behind the North, leaving its residents without generational wealth to grow from. There continues to be less job opportunities in the South, as well as lower levels of education. According to the charts above, the South is less often involved in education and training programs and is less enrolled in university education than the North. This disparity in education levels makes it less likely that new opportunities, including workplaces and universities, will be established in the South when there is a higher level of existing human capital in the North. Because of the lack of scholastic and workplace infrastructure in the South, many of its brightest students leave to get an education elsewhere, and end up staying. This creates a brain drain out of the South that hinders economic improvement. 

How These Factors Lead to Stereotypes

While the cultural practices of the North and South are not inherently better or worse than each other, stereotypes can be born from these differences. For example, the Southern focus on family leads to stereotypes mentioned above about Southern men being “mama’s boys.” Conversely, Southerners may view Northerners as cold and distant because their fast-paced culture leaves less time for family. While stereotypes like these are relatively harmless, many stereotypes about the South can negatively impact its people’s opportunities.

The culture of the slow-paced Southern lifestyle, their cultural focus on socialization, and their high poverty rate may contribute to the Northern idea that Southerners are lazy. This idea can be harmful because the North may blame the poverty rate of the South on their work ethic, rather than the real lack of opportunity and generational wealth that exists there. Many stereotypes about the South arise from similar misunderstandings between the very different cultures and economies of the North and South. None of these stereotypes are true, but arise from harmless differences of lifestyle and culture that may clash when they are brought together. 

For example, a Northern Italian may interpret a Southern colleague’s tradition of long holiday celebrations as evidence that he cares less about work and is lazy. In reality, the Southern Italian is following longtime cultural traditions and may makes up for extra days off by extra hours in the office. The Northern Italian’s misunderstanding of the Southern Italian turns into a harmful stereotype that can hinder his job opportunities. 

The Harm of Stereotypes on a National Scale: Lega Nord

One example of the deep harm that stereotyping can cause Southern Italians is the political party Lega Nord per L’Inpendenzia della Padania, recently rebranded as the “Lega.” The Lega is a far-right Italian political party that is growing in popularity, and a large part of its original platform depended on stereotyping the South.

In the 1990s, the Lega began using the South as a scapegoat for Italy’s economic decline. They referred to the “parasitic South” and “Roma Ladrona” or “thieving Rome” to create ire in the more populous North. They put these slogans and other discriminatory material on posters (pictured left and right) to play on Northerners prejudices against Southerners.

The Lega then uses this platform to advocate for federalism of the states of Italy (further autonomy for each region) and even at times the secession of the North, which they refer to as “Padania.” Their reasoning is that the North will be better off without having to share the fruits of its economic success with the South, and without the say of the Rome-based government.

On a platform of prejudice against the South and today primarily against immigrants, the Lega has become the third most popular party in Italy. This shows the dangerous power that negative stereotypes can hold. By harnessing the power of prejudice, the Lega is able to convince many Northern Italians to vote to cut off their Southern neighbors from aid and to see them as enemies instead of countrymen. By normalizing this kind of prejudice, it may also become more accepted to deny job opportunities or services to Southern Italians. If a major political party is endorsing prejudice against the South, the average citizen may feel empowered to act on his stereotyped beliefs. 

Bridging the Gap Between the North and South 

Trailer for Benvenuti al Sud

Some of the most successful attempts to bridge the gap between the North and South include books, movies, and other forms of media that address both the Northern and Southern perspectives. One study has shown that “narrative fiction offers a rich context in which exposure to out-group culture and (a process of emotional) merging can occur. Supporting this notion, there is growing evidence that reading a story engages many of the same neural networks involved in empathy.” Because stereotyping is based on misconceptions about out-groups, narrative fiction can help build empathy for out-groups that can slowly melt prejudice away. 

One example of a movie that improved North-South relations is the Italian film Benvenuti Al Sud (Welcome to the South), which follows a Northern postal worker who is sent to work in Southern Italy as a punishment. This movie grossed about 30 million euros at the box office, making it the 11th most successful movie ever to be shown in Italy. The movie presents the postman’s prejudices in a comedic light, as it quickly becomes apparent that while the South is different from the North, it actually has quite a beautiful culture. One Southerner in the film says, ““Si piange due volte quando vai al Sud. Quando arrivi, e quando te ne vai.” This means, “You cry two times when you go to the South. When you arrive and when you leave.”

This quote poignantly summarizes how important exposure is to ending prejudice. A Northerner may originally hold prejudice against the South, but once he or she is exposed to the culture and its people the prejudice will begin to melt away. By the time the postman was supposed to move back to the North, he had fallen in love with the South. The movie’s broad exposure to the Italian public allowed many Italians to reconsider their ideas about Northerners and Southerners, and was followed with the similar sequel Benvenuti al Nord (Welcome to the North). 

If the Italian government was to include movies and books like Benvenuti al Sud in every public school curriculum, they would begin to make a dent in prejudices against the North and South alike. Encouraging Northern schools to study Southern culture through field trips and to hire Southern teachers could also expose students to the South in a positive way. The government should also consider helping to fund the creation of movies and books meant to end stereotyping and provide incentives for bookstores and movie theaters to advertise these pieces. 

Conclusion

Stereotyping about the North and South is a fact of life in Italy, born out of misunderstandings between the two regions’ different cultures, lifestyles, and economies. While both regions experience stereotyping from the other, the South is attributed more negative stereotypes. Southerners are stereotyped to be lazy, criminal, unintelligent, and superstitious – these ideas come from the South’s familial and religious traditions, as well as their struggling economy. The North attributes the South’s struggling economy to misguided stereotypes, when it is really a result of Italy’s snowballing economic development in the North and the resulting lack of generational wealth in the South. These stereotypes are harmful because they can impact Southern people’s opportunities and provide a platform for discriminatory political parties like the Lega Nord.  

It is important to identify stereotypes about the South and their origins so we can begin to dismantle prejudice. If Northern Italians begin to understand the structural differences between the North and South as the cause of their struggling economy, they may be more likely to vote for politicians who want to help the South instead of cutting them out. Southerners may also be more willing to work with the North if they are informed about the differences between their cultures beyond stereotypes. Once Northerners and Southerners understand each other, they will be more likely to appreciate their differences and recognize a more unified identity. If the Italian government makes creating understanding through art between the North and South a priority, they may find that parties like the Lega lose their appeal and voters are more willing to work on the country as a whole. 

Sources

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Giuseppedf. (2016, July 12). Benvenuti al Sud, 2010 trailer Eng sub. Retrieved April 28, 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O-OmwGJQPq8

Grieco, L. (2019, March 14). JPIA: The REBRANDED populism of the Italian Lega NORD PARTY. Retrieved April 28, 2021, from https://www.jpianyu.org/archive/2018/5/24/the-rebranded-populism-of-the-italian-lega-nord-party

Jacobs, T. (2014, March 10). Study: Reading literary fiction can make you less racist. Retrieved April 28, 2021, from https://psmag.com/social-justice/reading-literary-fiction-can-make-less-racist-76155

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List of highest-grossing films in Italy. (2020, December 31). Retrieved April 28, 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_highest-grossing_films_in_Italy

Taylor, E. (2019, July 30). The Amalfi coast is now easier to reach-here’s Where, exactly, to go. Retrieved April 28, 2021, from https://www.vogue.com/article/amalfi-coast-italy-travel-guide

Usseglio, A. N. (2016). The North-South Divide: Regional Economic Inequality in Contemporary Italy. Retrieved from https://scholarworks.uvm.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1137&context=hcoltheses

Villano, P., & Passini, S. (2018, May). Competent in the NORTH, passionate in the south: Stereotypes and prejudices between Northern and Southern Italy. Retrieved April 28, 2021, from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/327830835_Competent_in_the_North_passionate_in_the_South_Stereotypes_and_prejudices_between_Northern_and_Southern_Italy

Wolfling, R. (2011, May). Lega Nord: Progression of the Populist Movement. Retrieved from https://digitalcommons.brockport.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1034&context=honors

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