The feminine mistake

A new documentary decries the depiction of women on Italian TV.

A new documentary decries the depiction of women on Italian TV

When Milanese businesswomen Lorella Zanardo decided to make a short documentary  critiquing the sexist and humiliating depictions of women on Italian television, her expectations were modest.

"I thought that we'd make this video, put it on DVD and take it around to high schools to get kids thinking about the issue," says Zanardo. "The last thing I expected was this reaction."

Zanardo is referring to the national word-of-mouth sensation that Il Corpo delle donne (Women's Bodies) has become in Italy. The half-hour documentary is a provocative montage of images of the semi-naked, surgically altered women who regularly parade across primetime Italian television. Since Women's Bodies hit the web this summer, it has had almost a million views — a remarkable number in a country with relatively low internet usage.

Zanardo has been flooded with invitations to present her documentary – not only from high schools, but also from university, political and women's groups, as well as mainstream political talk shows.

"It clearly came at the right time," says Zanardo. As someone who never participated in feminist activities in the past, she says she felt an obligation to younger women to speak out against the distorted reflection of women's bodies and lives on Italian TV.

Indeed, what's most surprising about the reaction to Women's Bodies, isn't the indignation it has triggered, but the fact that an outcry hasn't come sooner. Italy has long been renowned for taking disturbing depictions of women to bizarre extremes on TV. Game and talk shows regularly feature fully clothed male hosts, politicians or journalists surrounded by so-called veline – prancing showgirls with oversized breasts and lips who, at best, are silent and, at worst, are prodded by the male hosts to play the role of ditzy ingénue, and then teased and derided for their apparent stupidity.

Lorella Zanardo, Italian director of Il corpo delle donne (Women's Bodies). ((Damien Meyer/AFP/Getty Images) )

Zanardo's documentary edits together examples from a range of shows. One recent popular evening quiz show has a young, scantily dressed woman climb into a plexi-glass cage each episode, where she remains throughout, responding to the jokey put-downs from the host with obsequious smiles. (When some viewers complained, producers replied that there were holes in the plexi-glass so the woman could breathe.) Another show features a woman hanging on a hook while a man stamps her bottom as if she were a prosciutto ham. Even the popular, long-running investigative news program Striscia la notizia features two showgirls shaking their buttocks and breasts at the start and end of each episode.

Critics point out that although Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a media mogul, did not invent television shows with women as titillating decoration, these kinds of depictions have become more pervasive since he consolidated his control of Italian television, as owner of most private channels and head of state TV. In the past year alone, the leader has faced accusations of "cavorting with minors," sleeping with prostitutes and appointing the young showgirls to political positions for which they have few qualifications. Critics say Berlusconi's politics and personal life reflect his soft-porn version of reality that his channels promote.

"The cultural model Italy has at the moment is one of the sultan, the harem," says Concita de Gregorio, editor of the left-wing L'Unità daily newspaper. There was an incident on national television when Mr. Berlusconi phoned into a talk show to tell opposition parliamentarian Rosy Bindi that she was 'smarter than she was beautiful.'

"It's a terrible insult, yes," de Gregorio says, "but it's also locker-room humour that conveys the message that only pretty women have the right to speak and that if you're not pretty, you're worth nothing."

It's an observation particularly germane to older women on television, and the pressure placed upon them to retain a youthful sexual appeal. Il corpo delle donne presents a stream of puffy, mask-like faces of post-40 women who have undergone various forms of plastic surgery to remain "presentable" to a TV public.

A dancer gyrates in front of an uncomfortable-looking Jose Mourinho, coach of the Italian soccer team Inter Milan, during a taping of the Italian television program Chiambretti Night in Milan. ((Paolo Bona/Reuters))

Reflecting the meaning of this, Zanardo poses a series of questions: "All of our 45 face muscles, excluding those needed to eat, breath and smell, are used to express emotion. The more complex your character, the more individual your face will be. So what are these faces hiding? Why can't adult women appear with their real faces on television anymore? Why this humiliation? Why must we be ashamed of showing our real faces? What are we afraid of?"

The answer to the final question, says Zanardo, has become clearer to her in recent months.

"I think what we're afraid of is that men won't like and accept us anymore," she says. "The acceptance of men is very important to women [in Italy]. The fact that one woman can take her own life in her hands and say I don't want to follow this model anymore, makes her feel very alone. This is a terrible fear." Change, she says, means Italian women have to start taking risks again – something they haven't done in significant numbers since the feminist movement of the '70s died out.

"What I am proposing is that women accept for a period of time not to be loved by society, because the path to real independence passes also through non-acceptance."

Ironically, one of the most powerful images in Il corpo delle donne comes from a pre-feminist past: a clip of post-war Italian actress Anna Magnani. As we look at a middle-aged Magnani gazing into the camera – looking tired, defiant and magnificent – Zanardo's voice recounts what she used to tell her makeup artist when he tried to cover her wrinkles with makeup. "Leave them alone. Don't cover even one. It's taken me a lifetime to get them."

Megan Williams is a Canadian writer based in Rome.