One of the joys of living in an immigrant household is the access to diasporic television. It connects you to your family’s pop culture — which in my case consists mostly of soap operas, cooking shows and abnormally thin, doll-like beauty queens vying for the Miss Hong Kong crown.
So I understand the preoccupation with the idea of femininity, something that seems to afflict Lorella Zanardo as well. Her documentary-manifesto, Il Corpo Delle Donne (Women’s Bodies), was borne out of the frustration of watching Italian television turn women into veline — bikini-clad talk show sidekicks.
In clips from the doc, the models are mocked for their ditziness, paraded before male talk show hosts in thongs, doused within glass-walled showers, or (in a painfully literal analogy) hung from hooks like meat. Despite the treatment, veline are celebrities, courted by famous soccer players, so it’s no surprise some young Italian women report they strive to become one.
“Real women’s bodies have been hidden away; instead we are presented with an obsessively vulgar image made of silicone lips, thighs, breasts: The truth is removed and replaced with a mask,” Zanardo narrates, one she says robs women of their identities, opinions, and natural beauty. “Who are we? What do we want? Why aren’t all Italian women in the streets protesting against the way they are represented?”
I asked my friend, Nina, whose family watches Italian shows the way mine watches Hong Kong ones, whether it really was as bad as the doc suggested. It is, she nodded.
The root of the problem?
“It’s Berlusconi,” she said, referring to Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi. Before he ruled Italy’s politics, he conquered its culture with his Mediaset empire of television stations. Veline are rampant on his channels, and a former model, Mara Carfagna, went on to become his minister of equal opportunity.
It’s shocking there’s been little backlash until now, but Berlusconi’s popularity among women, his primary supporters, is waning. His dalliance with an 18-year-old girl highlighted the absurdity of this 73-year-old man’s attitude towards women. I was heartened to read this from Italian Prof. Chiara Volpato in a New York Times op-ed: “Today there are two Italys: One Italy has soaked up Mr. Berlusconi’s ideology either out of self-interest or an inability to resist his enormous powers of persuasion; the other is fighting back” — which means sooner or later, they’re going to rise up and pull the plug on Silvio’s TV set.