Ever since former PM Silvio Berlusconi was forced to make way for Mario Monti’s politics of rigor and sacrifice, Italy has been confronted with major cuts, radical changes in legislation, and a complete reversal of mind-set with regards to life-styles and consumption habits. Whether “Rigor Montis” (from the Latin expression “rigor mortis,” i.e. stiffening caused by death) – as Monti is mockingly called on occasions – will manage to turn Italy into a real European country is still a big question. What I fear will not change easily is the disgraceful condition of women in Italian society. My anxiety was confirmed on a daily basis throughout the summer of 2012, as I followed a contest to elect two new showgirls for a popular show on Channel 5, one of Berlusconi’s TV channels. But what is the big deal with women, boobs and bums in Italy anyway?
Since classical antiquity, female beauty occupies a central place in Italian culture. Not by chance, the nation has often been represented through allegorical female figures. The connection of the “fatherland” with female mother figures or erotic ideals was to encourage men to a “passionate attachment to the nation,” as Stephen Gundle puts it in his Bellissima: Feminine Beauty and the Idea of Italy. In other words, beauty was used as a form of (political) persuasion. This is also because Italians have never really had a commonly held, national sense of identity. Therefore, special importance was given to factors relating to the informal culture that Italians did share, i.e. the sexual fixation of men on women, the physical element apparently being more important for Latin males.
Berlusconi’s application of the stereotypical image of women as erotic objects of desire for men is part of both his success at home and his negative image abroad. His sexist and degrading jokes – most notably his vulgar remark about Angela Merkel’s bottom – are sadly famous across the world. Homosexuals weren’t spared either, like when he publicly justified his erotic escapades with a young belly dancer by stating that it was better to like girls than to be gay. But if it was only Berlusconi going through a second hormonal phase, it wouldn’t even matter that much. The thing is that many Italians accept and nurture the gender discrimination that has erupted during the Berlusconi governments, and the former PM’s popularity and public support very much relies on his self-proclaimed virility. As if you are not a “real man,” if you do not chase after young, beautiful women. On the contrary, this is presented as natural and normal behavior, as opposed to those that prefer their own sex. Clearly, the impact of the Catholic Church plays a crucial role here, and the documentary Suddenly Last Winter (2007), offers a good picture of the sad situation homosexuals in Italy often find themselves in. On the other hand, Berlusconi’s adultery and preference for under aged girls is not looked upon with a good eye by the Church. Yet, many Italian men do not judge Berlusconi for his immoral (and illegal) dealings with the women around him, but actually admire and probably envy him for his sexual adventures.
A second problem is the way women position themselves in this highly sexist society. Sadly, the majority tries to live up to the image Berlusconi and the media have created of women: young, slim and stupid. But it’s a tough battle as there are strong expectations of women, not only with regards to their physical appearance but also to their place in society (i.e. subdued to men), and it is hard to step out of this rigid scheme and develop an identity of one’s own without being criticized by both sexes.
Of course, there are successful career women, nowadays, but they often end up “imitating” men in order to gain that respect from their male colleagues, which they would otherwise not gain. I’m thinking of Emma Marcegaglia, the former President of the Italian Industrial Association Confindustria, with her male vocabulary and iron lady-like expressivity.
Alternatively, they just play the role of the beautiful but dumb woman who gets what she wants through sexual favors, as in the case of Nicole Minetti, the showgirl-turned-politician who got herself a job as regional councilor in the Lombardy region for Berlusconi’s Freedom Party. During Berlusconi’s most recent sex-scandal, Minetti – an alleged accomplice in the scandal – tried to turn attention away from her trial by appearing in public with a T-shirt that read: “I’m even better without a T-shirt.” More recently, she has made the news by refusing to step down from her position unless she was offered a movie career in Hollywood.
Women often play into the stereotypical and sexist gender division. This was confirmed for me over the summer as I watched the program Veline. The term “veline” was originally a journalese reference to the paper handouts from which journalists read news reports on TV, before it become the common denomination for female television showgirls. This happened after the satirical program Striscia la notizia – a parody of the daily news – started using glamorous showgirls to hand the “veline” over to the TV presenter. A few years ago, an additional program was created where the two Striscia la notizia showgirls – one blond, one dark-haired – would be selected from a wide range of candidates, during the summer break. Every episode contains six candidates who have a few minutes to talk about themselves and show off any talents (mostly singing or dancing), before they do a final, brief dance. The winner is selected by a group of five jury members, mostly fashion journalists or magazine editors, and then goes on to the semi-finals, and so on.
The girls that participate in these shows very strongly fulfill the image of the Berlusconian woman: tall, thin and not too bright, or so it seems. In fact, many of these girls are students, either at school or at university, play classical instruments, and occasionally even have a good working position. Of course, not everyone with a degree is a cultured person. But maybe some of them are also just playing the role of the dumb showgirl? More shockingly, the girl’s parents are often in the audience, and seemingly proud. One father even signed up his daughter for the contest! Becoming (or trying to become) a showgirl is apparently seen as something normal and worthy of praise, and it is a common dream for many young girls to become a velina, and marry a football player. This takes us back to the issue of expectations and social conventions. The girls – called not by their names but by the numbers pinned onto their chest– simply do not realize that they are being treated as livestock. Or do they? For many it is probably their once-in-a-lifetime go at instant fame. Who knows, maybe some TV producer is watching and might just make them a star overnight…
A novelty this year is the many Eastern European girls who are participating in the competition. Some of them are adamant to demonstrate their “Italianness,” their rootedness in their new homeland and their desire to respond to the social and sexual conventions in Italy. Optimistically speaking, they are integrating into society, but I doubt they will be better off here than in at home.
Whether Silvio Berlusconi will make his comeback on the political scene or not therefore doesn’t matter much, for the problem isn’t Berlusconi alone. It’s the mentality of the people that – with the help of the Church – upholds the old-fashioned idea about virile (or just rich) men chasing after slim and stupid women. Women’s emancipation in Italy has yet a long way to go.