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Combating Berlusconi’s Vision of Women: Italian Feminism 2.0

by Eloisa Morra Pucacco

After the great battles of the Italian feminist movement in the 1970s – when fascist codes on “family law” were modified and women obtained the rights of divorce and abortion – it seems that today we are having a backlash. In Italy, as in many countries, women often study faster and with better results than men, yet at work they are paid less than their male colleagues. Violence against women is increasing. The current Italian government is not working to create laws against discrimination.

At the heart of what appears to be a backward trend is Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who owns three private TV channels and many national newspapers. Every day Italian families absorb his vision of the world. Italian TV shows are filled with naked women in imagery similar to pornographic movies.

Despite this, a “new Italian feminism” is emerging. To understand what it means to be a woman in Italy, I find it useful to have an outside point of view. In “Notes on Visconti’s Bellissima,” a brilliant essay written in 2009, English novelist Zadie Smith writes, “In the Piazza della Madonna dei Monti, in the ombra del colosseo, expats gather to complain. Italian women is a subject to stretch from morning coffee to midday ravioli. ‘The land that feminism forgot!’ And on cue it all rolls out like an index: the degrading sexualisation of, the nightly televisual humiliation of, Berlusconi’s condescending opinion of, perilous abortion rights of, low wages of, minimal parliamentary presence of, invisibility within the church of, et cetera. Yet there exist confusing countersigns, in the land that feminism forgot.”

Is Italy really “the land that feminism forgot”?

What happened? I turn to filmmaker Erik Gandini to help clarify the situation. Erik Gandini was born and raised in Italy, near Brescia, but at 18 he decided to move to Sweden to study film-making. In 2009, Gandini shot a documentary that shocked many foreigners. Videocracy, Erik tells me in an interview, “is a feature film about the political use of mass-media [and] the power of images and their persuasive strength.”

To understand Italian television and its impact on Italian culture and politics, let us begin with the facts. In the early 1980s, a tycoon from Milan founded a commercial, private broadcasting company in the Lombard hinterland. In late evening it broadcasts a game show, where the “prize” – is a masked, strip-teasing housewife. Thirty years later this rich tycoon has become the Italian Prime Minister and he has enormous power. He owns a large share of the Italian publishing presses, newspapers, and magazines. Above all, he owns almost all of the television channels in Italy.

Television is the basic means of information for 70 percent of Italians. Through his control of the media, Berlusconi has modified reality. Facts do not exist anymore. It is opinion that matters.

In November 2009, an escort, Patrizia D’Addario, recorded a conversation with Berlusconi and other girls in a party organized at the Palazzo Grazioli, the institutional house of the prime minister. These recordings show not only that Berlusconi had paid sex with a call girl and many young women, but most importantly that Berlusconi used sex in exchange for political favors.

Many call girls and young beautiful showgirls without any political experience were chosen as candidates in regional elections. Patrizia D’Addario, for example, became a candidate for the elections in Puglia, the region of her birth. Mara Carfagna, an ex-showgirl and porn star, is now the Minister of Equal Opportunities in Italy.

What has been the political reaction to this astonishing situation? Almost nothing. In any other civilized country Berlusconi would have been forced to resign. In Italy he perseveres without any real political opposition.

According to Gandini, “we all have the same means to act. When I become an ‘active observer,’ in the moment in which I take a camera in my hand, I assume an enormous strength.”

Other men and women have also become “active observers” – putting their energy into underlining the negative effects of the images on society through books, articles, blogs, and documentaries.

One of these people is Anaïs Ginori, a French-Italian journalist who recently published Thinking the Impossible, a book about “women who do not give up.” In her book Ginori discovered a great difference between the women’s image broadcast by television and the one in real life. Thinking the Impossible attempts to renew a collective memory of feminism for young Italian people with real life images of women. “It’s a book written on impulse. It seemed necessary,” Ginori writes to me from her house in Paris, where she works as a foreign correspondent for the Italian newspaper La Repubblica.

Quoting from the census, Ginori tells me, “In Italian television women are imprisoned in roles of fashion, glamour, and beauty (38% of broadcasting). They are rarely represented in broadcasts dedicated to culture (only 6.6%), politics (only 4.8%), or professional fulfillment (only 2%). Finding a woman in an Italian program who is appreciated for her qualities and abilities is practically impossible. Women are always co-hosts with a dominating male figure. Regarding age, the discrimination is crushing. Only 4.8% of television broadcasts include women over forty.”

In her book, Ginori cites women with abilities and courage who can inspire younger women. According to Ginori there are many female role models in universities, in industries, and also in politics who prove a feminine world exists, even in Italy.

Lorella Zanardo, a successful manager, grew up in Milan and studied English Literature at Oxford. In 2009 she shot a documentary, Il corpo delle donne (The Body of Women), which was an “awakening” for both Italian women and men. It lasts less than half an hour and is composed of frames taken from state and private broadcasting. The images speak for themselves: in Italian broadcasts, both state and private, women are all young, their bodies and faces modified by plastic surgery. They are depicted in television as decoration without importance, as pure erotic objects or “donne-prosciutto” (ham women), and publicly humiliated.

How is it possible to fight against programming that is destroying culture in Italy?

“[By] not covering our eyes, but learning to look critically at TV broadcasts,” Zanardo answers. Zanardo has created an educational tool to support this vision. It is called New Eyes for TV, and it was developed to educate young people to watch TV with a critical spirit, to analyze and deconstruct the televisual mechanism frame by frame.

The world of Italian blogs based on the authentic versus the stereotyped vision of women is also rich and interesting. I am particularly impressed by Donne Pensanti – Resistenza attiva 2.0 a blog created by Francesca Sanzo, her partner Stefano, and the researcher Silvia Cavalieri. Francesca explains to me that the idea behind Donne Pensanti “was born during spring 2009, during the months of ‘showgirl candidates.’” Sanzo had been a blogger for several years, and wrote about how Italy represents women. “I felt empathy with many people who commented [on my blog] and I felt it necessary to not be silent and to do something.”

Sanzo is using the Web “in order to have a positive effect on reality. I thought of my daughter. I asked myself what I would have answered if in the future she asks me: ‘Mom, why did you let them do this?’ and the personal and civil responsibility toward her gave me the final spur.”

The blog has many practical initiatives – from denouncing demeaning advertisements to debates brought to Italian cities. They are also publishing a book Wake up, girls!, a recollection of different ways of being a woman. “We are planning to go into the schools with educational courses and we are collaborating with a web radio broadcast dedicated to young people,” Sanzo added.

The power of images over society in Italy is a case that should be watched closely. Everyone should care about it. It shows how in only a few years a particular use of mass media has led to degeneration of critical thinking and of democracy itself. On the other hand, it also displays how many people are working to challenge the labyrinth. We should never lower our guard.

About the Author:
Eloisa Morra Pucacco
was born in Italy. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in Art History at Pisa University and Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa where she’s currently pursuing a Master of Arts degree in Italian Literature. Eloisa writes about art and culture and gender issues for different magazines and online publications.

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