After the “summer of sleaze” in Italian politics there is, at last, something taking place in Italy to feel optimistic about. The lurid details of Berlusconi’s playboy antics may have given Italian men a reassuring pat on the back, confirming that “boys will be boys” ad infinitum, but a backlash from the feminist quarters is in the offing, and what’s more, feminism in its good old-fashioned and orthodox form—a reliable gauge of just how bad things are in Italy for women at the moment.
Il Corpo delle Donne (The Body of Women), a short, but savage documentary—which has become something of an online sensation over the summer—asks why more Italian women aren’t on the streets protesting about the way they are represented on Italian television. Let’s not forget most of the television stations in question are owned by Il Cavaliere himself.
The film, a collection of by no means exceptional clips from Italian game shows and chat shows, with a voiceover from the film’s director, Lorella Zanardo, offers a very straight, very earnest critique of just how destructive the “freak show” of modern Italian television has become for women.
But Zanardo’s preoccupation is not simply with women’s bodies. “What is happening to women’s faces today?” she asks, arguing that television—along with the quite literally paralysing effect of Botox, lip “pumping,” and the veneer of trowel-thick make-up—has destroyed the “true poetry” of women’s faces: their ability to express themselves authentically. Women in the media, the film concludes, have become mere emblems of humiliation; homogenised, mute and glossy adjuncts to male presenters.
What is striking is the lack of glibness or irony in Zarnardo’s discussion. Unfashionable it may be, but Zanardo’s gripe with the postmodern representation of gender, as a performance only, flags up some of the current barriers within the gender debate in Britain.
While we like to totter about on our postmodern high-heels, playing at being domestic goddesses, playing at being pole dancers as a “good way to keep fit,” Zanardo warns that all this play and all these masks, after years of repetition, have become the real thing for women—that is, the real fake.
The obvious question: how different is British television from the Italian freak show? Last week the BBC announced its desire to find an “older” female presenter, but what does that mean when someone’s visible years can be ironed out of their face all too easily. Do we really want to see, and will we get, a woman in her 60s who actually looks in her 60s—wrinkles, grey hairs, warts and all? Or is it that what we really want is someone who is 60 on paper, but looks like an enhanced 40-year-old in the flesh?