Ready for post-bimbo era in Italy


As a studious girl in a small Italian town, Giulia Giupponi drew no inspiration from the women on the glowing box in her living room. The ones who giggled and jiggled while wearing next to nothing. Who simpered and cooed over male TV hosts more than twice their age. Who strutted, bent over, kneeled, pouted, blew kisses.

“If I think about women I could see when I was 15 or 16 on television, I can think only of showgirls,” says Giupponi, who’s 23 and about to earn a master’s degree in economics. “You can see it everywhere. It’s too much sometimes.”

Like all Italian women her age, Giupponi grew up in the era of Silvio Berlusconi, the flamboyant media-tycoon-turned-premier who dominated this country’s political scene for two decades. As Italy’s longest-serving postwar prime minister, he became more famous for his personal scandals, including allegations that he paid for sex with a 17-year-old girl, than for his policies.

Critics blame him for a steady coarsening of Italian society, especially its attitude toward women. Here was a leader who awarded government jobs to pretty starlets (some of them suspected of being his lovers), threw parties that allegedly featured strippers and hookers, and, through his vast media empire, bombarded Italy with images of women as playthings whose most important attributes for getting ahead were physical.

Berlusconi, 75, fell from power in November, a victim of Europe’s debt crisis. Now many Italian women feel stirrings of hope that some of the damage to their standing in society might at last be undone, a process they say will take years, not the least because much of the media remains under Berlusconi’s influence.

“It will be painful. It will not be easy,” warns Lorella Zanardo, an outspoken critic of the way women are portrayed on television here.

Even his detractors acknowledge that sexism in Italy didn’t originate with Berlusconi; this society was steeped in machismo long before his rise to power. But many women — and men as well — accuse him of exacerbating the situation through his many sex imbroglios and his grip on broadcast media, which seemed to promote his personal penchant for curvaceous veline, or showgirls.

That he went on to bestow political jobs to veline with few qualifications, jobs with big salaries and perks like chauffeured cars, sent the wrong message to an entire generation of Italians, they say.

“You’d go to schools, and some girls would say, ‘Yes, when I grow up, I will be either a velina or a [government] minister,’” says Zanardo, a former marketing consultant who now spends her time in classrooms encouraging students, both girls and boys, to look at the media with critical eyes.

Berlusconi has been replaced by Mario Monti, a brainy, bespectacled technocrat whose serious demeanor already has many Italians cheering because of the respect accorded him by other world leaders, including President Obama.

Women especially took heart when, in one of his first speeches as prime minister, Monti emphasized the importance of increasing their participation in the labor force. Italy has the lowest rate of female workers in the European Union, except for Malta.

To back up his words, Monti chose highly respected women for three of his most senior Cabinet posts: ministers of the interior, justice and labor. So women are now leading the fight to tame the Mafia, overhaul Italy’s sluggish court system and wrest open its job market.

The symbolism of the appointments didn’t go unnoticed.

“There’s a new sensitivity,” Giupponi says. “We have very sober role models. I think this is very striking.”

But expanding the shift for women at the top into changes on the ground is an enormous task.

It takes only a short stroll down an Italian street, or 15 minutes in front of a TV, to see how pervasive the idea of women as sex objects is here.

Kittenish models pose seductively on billboards to hype not just perfume and lingerie but also groceries. Serious newsmagazines find flimsy excuses to put scantily clad babes on their covers to increase street sales. The same yogurt maker that depicts happy families in its television commercials in France shows a slinky sexpot eating its product provocatively in Italian ads.

Visitors to this country are often shocked by the abundance of buxom bombshells on television, at all times of day, in images approaching soft porn.

“You switch on the TV at 8 o'clock in the morning, and there’s a nearly naked girl making pasta,” Zanardo says. “And I thought, why are you making pasta naked?”

Zanardo caused a sensation in 2009 with her video “Il Corpo delle Donne” (“Women’s Bodies”), which weaves together numerous scenes from popular TV programs in an illustration of what some call the bimbo-ization of Italy. A version with English subtitles is on YouTube.

Lithe young women with perfect, possibly artificially enhanced features gyrate before the cameras in skintight suits and bikinis. Others climb into cages or take showers onstage. Male TV presenters, to whom the same standards of beauty clearly don’t apply, jeer at less-well-endowed female audience members, asking: “Where are your boobs? Did you leave them at home?”

In one jaw-dropping outtake, a barely dressed, giggling young woman is suspended from a meat hook alongside other joints of meat — which are actually fake parts of women’s bodies — and has her buttocks stamped as though they were steaks.

Throughout the half-hour video, which has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times on YouTube, a voice-over by Zanardo asks why such images go unchallenged.

“I wanted to say all the pain I felt,” says Zanardo, who avoids mentioning Berlusconi in the video, to keep politics out of it. “My question was, why [do] women accept this?…Why don’t we react? Why do we accept this humiliation?”

The images are constant on both Italy’s public broadcaster, RAI, and on channels belonging to Mediaset, controlled by Berlusconi. Mediaset acknowledges that comely veline “dance on a table” on its satirical evening news program, “Striscia la Notizia,” Italy’s most popular show, but they say the women “are essential to the structure of the show, in that they serve as a reminder that this is entertainment.”

“There are many other women who work at Mediaset and promote a high professional model,” a spokesperson for the company said. “Most of [the] anchors in our news [programs] are women; most of [the] hosts in talk shows and entertainment shows are women.”

But Zanardo’s video notes that many of the older women on Italian television also conform to particular standards of beauty, some of them rather obviously through plastic surgery.

Funding for her media-education project is hard to come by; Zanardo and others complain that politicians have given women’s issues short shrift. Even the new government’s primary focus is to get the ailing economy back on its feet. Monti’s caretaker administration has only a yearlong mandate before elections are held.

But many Italians are encouraged by the high-mindedness of Monti and his Cabinet, which they say has set a tone for women to be taken more seriously.

“There’s been a waking up to reality,” says attorney Alessandra Perrazzelli, chief of regulatory affairs for Intesa Sanpaolo, one of Italy’s biggest banks. “The atmosphere, the level of awareness, has changed.”

Perrazzelli heads an organization, Valore D, which is working to provide role models and to get more women into the highest ranks of government and business. In February, the group hosted a national conference in Rome that attracted hundreds of people, including the labor minister, which Perrazzelli doubts would have happened a year ago.

“We’re lucky now to have a government that allows us this space,” she says.

Not far from her office here in Milan, a courtroom is weighing charges against Berlusconi of paying to sleep with a minor, the scandal that for many Italians was the last straw. Perrazzelli is hopeful that the former prime minister’s era of “easy money, easy sex [and] power” is over.

She knows that cleaning up what he left behind and improving the status of Italian women is a long-term task. But a long-awaited opportunity has finally arisen.

“It’s going to be tough. It’s a big job,” Perrazzelli says. “We need to be courageous. We have a chance now.”