Guarini Institute for Public Affairs Screening: Il Corpo delle Donne

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On February 10, the Guarini Institute for Public Affairs screened, Il Corpo delle Donne, a short documentary on the portrayal of women on Italian network television.

After the screening, members of the large audience participated in an extensive question and answer session with the director of the film, Lorella Zanardo, and a panel of five professors and journalists:

Isabella Clough-Marinaro (Professor, JCU)
Concita De Gregorio (Editor-in-chief, l’Unità)
Pamela Harris (Professor, JCU)
Megan Williams (Rome Correspondent for CBC-Radio and television)
Peter Sarram (moderator, Professor, JCU)

Zanardo was inspired to produce Il Corpo delle Donne after she and her co-director, Marco Malfi, watched television while on a trip abroad. Both were embarrassed by Italian television, even by the programs broadcast by the public networks. When watching the talk shows and variety hours that make up prime time Italian television, viewers “are presented with an obsessively vulgar image with silicone lips, thighs, breasts.” The prevalence of plastic surgery makes the faces of many of the women on television unrecognizable and actually damages the muscles in the face that express emotions. Additionally, the young women who appear on the programs, veline, often take a silent role, acting as a complement to the male characters, devoid of a real identity.

Director Lorella Zanardo

Director Lorella Zanardo

The 25-minute documentary is made up of clips from over 400 hours of Italian broadcast television that the directors taped over the course of two years. Using only a simple voiceover, Zanardo makes the case that the identities of women have been hidden behind plasticine masks and have been hyper sexualized, making Italian broadcast television resemble soft core pornography. Despite her condemnation of how women are portrayed, Zanardo is careful to emphasize that she is not criticizing the veline themselves. The women on television are as much victims of the system as any other woman in Italy.

Zanardo says there are reasons for optimism. As a follow-up to the documentary, Zanardo and her team have started hosting training sessions for educators across Italy. She focuses on teaching students on how to watch television critically, a skill that many young people might lack. In these sessions, she emphasizes the importance of girls maintaining their identity and not allowing the portrayal of the veline to influence their self-identity.

The other panel speakers tried to answer the questions of why Italian television differs so much from that of other high-income countries and what can be done to fix it. Concita De Gregorio, the editor in chief of the national newspaper L’Unità, and Megan Williams, correspondent for the CBC, both talked about how she had to grapple with the portrayal of the veline and their own children. Since it is not practical to expect young people not to watch television at all, parents should take the time to watch television with their children and to talk about how women are portrayed. This point was echoed in the questions and answers session where speakers criticized the Italian left for disengaging from popular culture and not providing a compelling alternative vision of women and television.

Professor Harris echoed this sentiment in her comments. As a high school student, she took a women’s studies course where she was required to write to a corporation and explain why she objected to the portrayal of women in its ads. The assignment helped her develop media literacy, enabling her to critically read the text and subtext of women’s portrayal on television. Professor Sarram, who teaches communications at John Cabot, pointed out that media studies does not exist as a separate program at Italian universities. If present at all, it is lumped into a broader communications department.

In his remarks, Lucio Martino stressed the point that far from being in line with process of women emancipation, to say that the “true” women are disappearing from the Italian television just to be replaced by a humiliating, gross, and grotesque portrait of woman is old news, that is very conservative. Who is in the position to say what is right and what is wrong for a woman in her career, especially in show business? And television, do not forget, is show business.

Martino noted that make-up has always been important both for men and for women involved in any kind of social activity. Plastic surgery answers the same needs, but it is not cosmetic. After a nose job any face is real as it was before. Plastic surgery is not a mask. Plastic surgery is everywhere, to great advantage of all of us. Importantly, plastic surgery it is not just for women. Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt are almost fifty, but do not look more than thirty. Even the very Italian Pippo Baudo recently had hair implants. The ‘true’ is that our television faces are ‘real’ as much as any other face. Nose and breast augmentation are now common features of the people all around us.

Finally, said Martino, there is no reason to complain about the probably low intellectual capabilities of too many of the young, and less young but still beautiful, women we see in TV. There is no reason and in addition is unfair because too many of the as well young, and not so young but still gorgeous, male colleagues show no signs of any better intellectual capability. Actually, there are no big differences between men and women in television simple because no brain is needed, shows being boring and repetitive. The only thing worth watching are these beautiful bodies. If you take them from the shows, you simply kill the shows.

Professor Isabella Clough argued that the situation on Italian TV has to be analysed within broader problems of trivialization and lack of visibility of women in many other spheres, such as politics and business. She also pointed out that women are not given the same space and prestige as their male peers on TV even when they appear as professionals(not as eye candy).

During the questions session following the panel discussion, Professor Federigo Argentieri called the images in the documentary “utterly disgusting.” He posed three questions to Zanardo and the panel in general: Was Italian television always so degrading towards women? Did the women’s movement affect how they are portrayed on television? What do the veline think about how they are treated onscreen?

Argentieri also noted the failure of the Catholic Church to condemn the veline system and call for reforms. The Church’s silence on the “Christian duty to respect women” is “deafening”, said Argentieri.

Next to speak was John Cabot President Franco Pavoncello who attributed the quality of Italian television to a lack of public etiquette. This lack of etiquette is directly linked to Italy’s continued backwardness. Italians lack an understanding over what is publicly acceptable. Professor Colatrella agreed with President Pavoncello’s characterization of Italy as being backwards and called for the effects of Italian television on Italian men to be closer examined.

Vanda Wilcox asked whether having more female producers would improve how women are portrayed on television. In her response, Zanardo pointed out that a woman actually runs the main casting office for veline at Mediaset, the largest private television network in Italy. Women, though underrepresented in comparison to other Western European countries, play a role in all stages of production. In fact, women in senior positions at networks actually actively degrade women both as producers and as hosts.

One John Cabot student who grew up in Italy and in France, Marta Traxler, noted that there are few alternatives to television in the lives of many young Italians. In France, the Ministry of Culture actively promotes museums and other institutions to young people. Even in the private sector, French cinemas often play vintage or art films and are popular places for young people to spend their free time. Professor Argentieri, in response to Marta’s comments by noting that student discounts exist at many cultural institutions but they were not promoted actively by the government. He also pointed out that cinemas in Rome once played more eclectic movies, such as Cinema Farnese in Campo de’ Fiori, but they more and more resemble American multiplexes, playing more and more commercial movies.

A full length version of Il Corpo delle Donne is available on Zanardo’s website.