Feature

Italy: The backlash against Barilla

The head of the world’s largest-selling pasta company sparked calls for a boycott when he it would never feature gay families in ads.

The whole world is suddenly talking about the sexual politics of Italian pasta, said La Repubblica. Guido Barilla, head of the world’s largest-selling pasta company, sparked calls for a boycott last week when he told an interviewer that his company would never feature gay families in ads, “because we prefer the traditional family.” If gays don’t like it, he added, “they can always eat another brand.” The backlash was immediate: Gay rights groups said they would picket supermarkets, Italian politicians gleefully joined the fray, and the Internet exploded with jokes. A Photoshopped box of Barilla pasta labeled “bigotoni” made the rounds on social media, and competitors quickly realized they could exploit Barilla’s misfortune. A fake ad ran under several different brand names, including Bertolli and Garofalo, showing couples of noodles dancing -together—some coded as straight, such as a farfalle with a penne, but also some unambiguously same-noodle couplings.

Is this really worth our outrage? asked Massimo Gramellini inLa Stampa. Let’s remember that Barilla was being interviewed by La Zanzara, a radio program “that specializes in digging traps for VIPs, who mysteriously queue up to fall in.” The question was about Parliament Speaker Laura Boldrini’s complaint that Italian commercials always feature a woman in the kitchen serving food, and Barilla naturally responded by saying that his company’s marketing targets the “traditional family.” That’s “a commercial choice, not political or moral.” Don’t forget that Ikea, which made the opposite choice in explicitly marketing to gays, was also motivated by crass commercialism as it tried to give its brand “an avant-garde feel.” Let’s reserve our passion for politics, and the fight to give gays the legal right to “inherit, marry, adopt, and live freely.”

It’s not quite that simple, said Claudio Rossi Marcelli in Internazionale. “In a world where homophobia is legally entrenched, the statements of a public figure carry great weight, and they are not harmless.” Italy is in the midst of a national debate over gay rights. Just days before Barilla made his unfortunate remarks, the Parliament passed several amendments to the law on hate crimes. One of them added homophobia and transphobia to the list of motives that trigger added penalties for assault or vandalism, an apparent victory for the nation’s LGBT community. But another amendment gutted the legislation altogether, by exempting all groups related to politics, religion, health care, art, or education. In this context, Barilla’s statement is a useful demonstration that “homophobia is not a profitable strategy.”

At least Barilla has apologized thoroughly for his “epic fail,” said Roberta Maggio in Europa Quotidiano. He didn’t try to weasel out by saying he was misunderstood. He said he had “the utmost respect for all types of unions and loving families” and that he realized he had “a lot to learn about the evolution of the family.” He might do well to reread his own slogan: “Where there’s Barilla, there’s home.” Does it really matter who lives there?

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