Women’s Bodies and Images in Italian Media

7 Apr

Mara Carfagna, Italy’s Minister for Equal Opportunity. Not a joke.

It’s no secret that women are portrayed in Italian print and television media as sexual objects.

I tried to make light of it in a recent post of mine. When I can, I try to look at the lighter side of things here in Italy, while also pointing out some of the cultural differences that puzzle, perplex or even at times irritate me.

Just a couple days ago, I read the article Ready for post-bimbo era in Italy from the L.A. Times about the possibility of change for the way women are portrayed in the Italian mass media. This forecast comes as a result of the more “somber” government tone ushered in by Mario Monti, who stands in stark opposition to his predecessor, the infamous Silvio Berlusconi.

While reading this article I was directed to a link for the documentary Il Corpo delle Donne (“Women’s Bodies”) produced by Lorella Zanardo. I hadn’t ever heard of this documentary that was released in 2009 amid a lot of controversy. I’m surprised I’m only becoming aware of it now. I found it provocative and sobering, as well as a lone voice in a sea of ridiculousness and superficiality. I especially appreciate the fact that it’s an Italian woman voicing her outrage at the way females are portrayed in her culture and society.

I was already hooked on Lorella once I read one of her quotes in the L.A. Times article:

“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?”

This is a good question, my dear Lorella, one that I think many of us, women AND men alike here in Italy, often ask ourselves. Who is this programming targeted at? What is the benefit? Etc. etc. I don’t think the answers are as simple as one might first think.

I don’t watch Italian TV, not out of snobbery but simply as a time issue, but I do think that if the quality of programming were higher (ie, less game shows, boobies and general fluff in prime time and more meaty journalistic or documentary programming) and if the image of women were more palatable to an intelligent female audience looking for less male chauvenistic fare, I might be encouraged to watch more. A couple examples of women I like on Italian television are Milena Gabanelli of Report, and also Daria Bignardi who used to host Le Invasioni Barbariche. Both of these women offer another face for the image of females in Italy, an image that is thoughtful, intelligent, and powerful.

As far as the bimbo culture goes though, I encourage you to watch the Women’s Bodies (English subtitled version) video below by Zanardo in its entirety. It is nearly 25 minutes but I found it compelling, thought-provoking, and even heartbreaking all at the same time.

Many of you are probably already aware of this video but for those of you who, like me, weren’t, I invite you to watch and come to your own conclusions. I don’t think it’s propaganda. The average TV viewer in Italy could easily be accosted by any number of images that are presented in this documentary, without much difficulty.


19 Responses to “Women’s Bodies and Images in Italian Media”

  1. bzzaragoza April 7, 2012 at 7:02 pm #

    I LOVE this post! When my eleven year old returned to the States after three years in Italy, her first question was: “Mom, why do all the advertisements have people with clothes on?”

    Everyday, we drove by a billboard that had a naked woman on her hands and knees, almost licking the floor. When my children asked what it was, I had to tell them the truth: a floor and tile advertisement.

    What to do? And do Italian women like or dislike this? It’s a big question and you’ve definitely brought up a VERY significant issue in Italy.

  2. Danielle April 7, 2012 at 9:33 pm #

    Thank you so much for sharing. This was very upsetting to watch. I recently graduated with my Masters in Women’s Studies and this of course, is one of the most leading topics in the field. I have never before studied Women in Italian Media so I am grateful to have this perspective on the culture and it has inspired me to create a college course to teach one day !

  3. Un'americana a Roma April 8, 2012 at 6:10 am #

    Wow, that is amazing and very telling. Yep, I was just saying to my friend the other day, THIS is what I’ll have to explain to Vincenzo (billboard with a woman grabbing her boobs, I don’t even remember what it was for).
    There’s a part of me that loves Italy for not going into “wardrobe malfunction” ridiculousness. Then there’s the other part though that really gets perplexed at how overt it is. It’s probably the psychological opposite of repression, it’s like teenage rebellion or something. I love in the video how she talks about how by showing things we’re actually trying to hide something. I think for some kind of psychological thesis this is a gold mine!

  4. Un'americana a Roma April 8, 2012 at 6:11 am #

    Wow, that’s amazing! I would LOVE to take your course. I honestly find this whole subject fascinating from an academic and psychological point of view. I don’t condemn Italians or Italian culture for this, any more than I’d condemn US culture for not showing things like this. It’s culture, there’s an explanation for it lying in all the many layers of lifetimes lived in this country and a course would be fascinating, to explore the “whys” of this phenomenon.

  5. Cathy Powell (@CathylPowell) April 10, 2012 at 6:37 am #

    I love this post too. I came across your blog last night. This is so well written and I think it would be very interesting to delve deeper to understand how this phenomenon came about.

  6. Tiffany Parks April 10, 2012 at 12:37 pm #

    I saw this when it came out and was appalled. I don’t watch Italian (or any) tv so I had no idea how bad it was. What I got from the documentary is that it goes beyond just showing women as sexual objects and degrades and humiliates them to the point at which they are seen as ridiculous, stupid and worthless, good only for sex. It upsets me as a (hopefully) future mother living in Italy. But from what I understand it is also a problem in the US, obviously not to the same extent (at least there isn’t complete nudity on tv or in ads) but women are still disgracefully sexualized in the media. There is another great documentary called Missrepresentation that looks at this and the problems it creates for girls today. Have you seen it?

  7. Francesca Maggi April 12, 2012 at 11:12 am #

    I have blogged about this issue and Lorella’s video time and again…
    Having just ret’d from Fun City, Barcelona – you are struck by one thing: There are no advertisements – none – in the metro, on school buses, on huge billboards – anywhere – depicting women in various layers of undress. Arrive at Rome’s airport, and you’re greeted by T&A before you even reach the baggage conveyors.

    Those that think we are putting our American puritanical values on “Latino” society are plain wrong. And while I don’t think it makes the Spaniards any less “Spanish”, this constant pairing of near-naked women with any product sold on earth, does make this trait – as Lorella asserts – a very Italian one.

    Francesca Maggi, Author
    Burnt by the Tuscan Sun

  8. Un'americana a Roma April 12, 2012 at 3:26 pm #

    Thanks Cathy! If I had more time I would love to do a study on this. If only I could be an eternal student…

  9. Un'americana a Roma April 12, 2012 at 3:28 pm #

    In fact I think about this a lot, raising my three half-Roman half-American preschool-age children here. There was a topless woman grabbing her boobs on a billboard the other day and I was in the car and turned to my friend was like, “How am I supposed to explain THAT to Vincenzo?” But then again there’s also prostitutes on Via Salaria at 11 am, so, it doesn’t stop only in the media. All big cities have issues, I suppose. I think it comes back to putting in the hours as a parent. Too many parents throw their hands up and blame the media and say “there’s nothing we can do, kids today, blah blah blah” I don’t buy into it. Screw that idea. I am raising twin girls in Italy and I’ll be damned if they’re going to dress like the hoochie children I’ve seen both in Italy and the US. I might be naive but I’d like to think that as parents we still have some say in how we instill values in our children. And who is paying for those 10 to 12 year olds’ clothes, anyways??

  10. Un'americana a Roma April 12, 2012 at 3:31 pm #

    I agree, I don’t think it has anything to do with puritanical values either. People my age have told me I’m crazy to think I can instill positive values in my girls, so they won’t be viewed as little sex objects, and I continue to tell them that I don’t think it’s impossible to raise strong, independent women in this context, it just takes more responsibility and time to teach children how you think they should be viewed and respected. I don’t know, it’s not any easy issue by any stretch.

  11. moscerina April 19, 2012 at 8:31 am #

    I’ll never forget the 1992 ski ad (print) featuring a buxom blonde in snow pants and skis covering her very ample breasts- I wasn’t sure if it was for suntanning, skiing or just breast implants. Thanks for sharing this– i wasn’t aware of the film at all, and with girls in school here, its important to see– especially since i’ve heard 5th graders talking about wanting to be veline!!!

  12. Sarah May April 22, 2012 at 3:07 pm #

    We need this video to be on a loop, all the time. Thanks!!

  13. Jenny June 11, 2012 at 12:21 pm #

    I disagree completely with this post. Women should be showing off how beautiful they are. God bless Italy, and let us hope and pray it never becomes the misandrist reality that is the shameful United States of America.

  14. Un'americana a Roma June 12, 2012 at 2:23 pm #

    Wow. That’s really something. Well, everyone is entitled to their opinion. My opinion of “women showing off how beautiful they are” doesn’t involve being artificially modified in breasts and lips to look like monstrosities of nature and then being held up like pieces of meat for the public to devour while being berated as brainless twits. But hey, maybe that’s just me.

  15. florentineshamrock January 31, 2013 at 8:58 pm #

    Jenny, have you ever lived in Italy? Have you seen Lorenza Zanardo’s Documentary? you will find a link to it here. I’m sure that after you are fully educated on the subject you will change your opinion.

  16. brambro June 11, 2015 at 11:17 pm #

    I completely agree with the documentary but not with your post, I’m italian, male, and I don’t want to be the anti-american…but you should remember that this isn’t italian culture at all…this is Berlusconi’s culture, the man who brought american-style programs in television. Before 1992 women in Italian TV were far away to be dressed like that, behave like that or in need to have that mentality…women who had this mentality were called whores and disrespectful of their own bodies. Since the traditional (narrow minded) “order” some men gave to their bribes when they left home: “copriti!” “cover up!”. I’m not stating THAT culture was so progressive with women, or that there’s a need for society to go back in times, I do appreciate women like Gabanelli and I think that is an obvious right for women to stand out for their right to be considered primarly for what they have to say, rather than if their mouth is sexiest enough for saying things. But, as maybe you have noticed staying in Italy for a long time, our culture isn’t expressed on advertisings or TV like in America…it’s expressed in families, and I have never met an Italian family who encourages their daughters to be like that! I only saw it on television…so, this isn’t our culture at all…


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