Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Beyond the bimbos

There are two dramas being played in Italy today. The first is Silvio Berlusconi’s personal and political story. It combines political power and sex, high finance and the media, organized crime and corruption; a heady mix by any standards and one which makes the characters from “Dallas” look tame. With the Roman settings and operatic staging, there have been times when it looked like Benny Hill was playing Scarpia but the reality has not been as comic. His indictment today is only the latest episode in the ongoing saga.
The other spectacle is not centered on one person but it affects the whole country. “Berlusconi-ism” is not just a way of conducting politics; he has profoundly changed Italian society and the change began long before he “came onto the field” as a politician in 1994 and will continue long after he leaves it. On Sunday more than a million people came out on the streets, not only of Italy but across the world from Aukland to Honolulou, via Geneva, London and New York and even including Maputo, Jakarta and Kathmandu. Their slogan was “If not now, when?” and was a call for Italian women to take back their dignity.
The first drama is drawing inexorably to a close but like grand opera, the finale will be a long time coming. In the meantime, we can be sure that there will be plenty of revelations about the prime minister’s lifestyle. The most immedate issue is whether the accusation that he paid for sex with a 17 year old and used his position to get her released when she was accused of theft. After today’s decision by the Milanese investigating magistrate, the case will have its first hearing on 6 April.
It is ironic that while Italians discuss whether their head of government is a victim of “moralistic puritans” a married American representative resigned after being caught trying to find a date on line. Berlusconi makes no secret of giving parties for up to 30 young women, some under 18, and a few, usually elderly male friends. Indeed one of his own family owned papers, Il Giornale, has just published photographs of one of the girls who calls him “Papi”, Noemi Letizia . She spent New Year’s Eve 2008-09 in his Sardinian villa when she was 17. Her friend who took the photographs was asked “Did the prime minister ever give you money?” “Money for sex? Never. Money for little presents, €2,000 or sometimes presents like necklaces or bracelets, the usual sorts of presents that an uncle gives a niece”. Nor does he deny knowing Karima el Mahroug (aka Ruby) or having phoned the Milan police station where she was being held to get her released. In contrast, representative Christopher Lee, stepped down after sending a possible date a picture of himself stripped to the waist. But Italy is different as we know.
Not only does a large proportion of the country accept their prime minister’s behavior, verbal as when he said that President Obama was “suntanned” (and called an American journalist an idiot when he suggested that the remark was offensive. Then repeated the remark) and in substance when he maintains control of much of the country’s media.
It is this control that has been used since the Ruby indictment loomed. Over the last few days, his media have started what looks like an organized campaign to defend the boss and attack his enemies. The Noemi photos are part of this campaign. Last week, Giuliano Ferrara, the editor of another Berlusconi family paper, the low circulation, opinion daily, Il Foglio, published a long interview with Berlusconi in which he accused the Milan prosecutors of carrying out “a moral coup” against him, acting illegally. He compared them to the Stasi and today’s Italy to East Germany. Ferrara was also allowed a six minute monologue on RAI’s Channel 1 prime time news program in which he attacked the main anti-Berlusconi media. RAI is Italy’s public broadcaster and Channel 1 is their flagship channel; the news editor, Augusto Minzolini has become famous for his opinion piecesd to camera in which he either praises Berlusconi or attacks the opposition. Last week, there was an interview with the prime minister without a single question about his trials.
It is hardly news that a political leader has meetings with his staff to plan his media strategies but what makes Berlusconi different is that the “staff” are editors of family owned newspapers or television channels covering more than half the population. Even some of the public broadcasters, like Minzolini, are part of the Berlusconi phalanx and it is a testimony to Italian independent thought that despite this overwhelming firepower, Berlusconi has been defeated twice in national elections. Still, it is not surprising that Freedom House has downgraded Italian media to “partly free” for the last two years.
It was Berlusconi brilliance at seeing media opportunities and taking them with the help of his political friends that put him where he is today and gave him much of his wealth. But it is also the mainly Berlusconi media which transformed Italy before he even “came onto the playing field”.
This transformation is most visible in the role that women have in Italy today. Sunday’s massive demonstrations are perhaps a sign that after 30 years something is changing.
In the late ‘60s and for most of the ‘70s, Italian society changed dramatically under both demographic and political pressure. As in the rest of Europe and the US before, 1968 brought millions of young people out on the streets demanding change.
For women, this meant divorce in 1970 (confirmed in a 1974 referendum), family law reform and the legalization of family planning both in 1975 and legal abortion in 1978 all of which gave women greater legal, financial and health security. The student protests and changing social climate gave women a dregree of real freedom an increasing voice in the work place and in the wider society.
But instead of moving to the near equality that women enjoy in the rest of western Europe and north America, in Italy the process stopped, or rather, was pushed off course. There are certainly underlying sociological reasons for this not least the influence of the Roman Catholic church but Berlusconi’s televisions certainly weighed heavily.
The liberalization of broadcasting in the late ’70 was the opportunity for Silvio Berlusconi to create an alternative to the very staid public broadcaster. His commercial stations pandered to consumers and created a world where fame was appearing on television. For women, that meant with few clothes on. The recent Swedish documentary “Videocracy” describes a world in which as a high school student put it in yesterday’s demonstration “the superficial became reality and everything was for sale”. Pretty scantily dressed girls became essential decoration for most television shows, to be seen but not heard.
Success through sex or being sexy is not unique to Italy but here it became the only way for most Italian women and the model for most girls.
Berlusconi and his channels were the prime propagators of the model and Berlusconi himself became the symbol as well as the main engine of the social change. And the glass ceiling is much thicker and tougher than elsewhere.
The story of Ruby is the quintessence of what the journalist Paolo Guzzanti, a disillusioned Berlusconi supporter, dubbed mignottocrazia or “tartocracy” but it is also paradoxically now the story of Italian women deciding that they have had enough and must start again where they or their mothers left off 30 years ago.

This is a different version of the piece which appeared in Foreign Policy this morning under the title Berlusconi's real woman problem

2 comments:

mistergripgolf said...

From the Foreign Policy article

"...the women he has spent so much of his career exploiting and degrading"...

The women that appear on TV voluntarily choose or accept to play the role they play, or to pose naked in magazines. They are not forced to. They want to make money the easy and fast way. So they choose to be "exploited" or "degraded" (in the 70s, the feminist movement fought for sexual revolution and would have used quite different words).

"In Italy ..only 46.4 percent of women work -- compared with 80 percent of Norwegian women"...

I'm Italian and live in Italy. Wherever I go, I see women working. Whenever I look for jobs (admin, communication, even sports) they are hiring women. If the percentage is so low, it's probably because Italian women don't enjoy, or need, or care for getting/keeping a job like the women from northern Europe do

Francesca Maggi said...

Women work in Italy, but they do not always get ahead (e.g., the selection of 42 super-managers for the Milan Expo) - Italy is realizing that by marginalizing working women and their youth, the country is headed in the - very - wrong direction.

The second problem are the working women themselves. They dress provocatively and act toward their bosses & colleagues like they are on a date, or are jilted lovers...

Women in Italy as well as the men need to grow up.