WE ARE TREATED LIKE PROSCIUTTO
Newsweek - April 18, 2011
Berlusconiâs piggish behavior is the last straw for Italian women, who vow to end a culture of moldy machismo.
âDid you hear the one about an Italian trying to teach a German how to seduce a beautiful woman?â Silvio Berlusconi asks the university students at their formal graduation ceremony. He pauses, lifts an eyebrow, cocks his head, winks at the male emcee, and then reveals a punch line involving oral sex and champagne flutes. The joke bombs; the room is silent. âThat was the watered-down version,â he says, trying to recover. âThe original version is much funnierâas you can imagine.â A few minutes later, heâs at it again, smirking at two blondes, there to collect awards for academic excellence. âCongratulations,â he tells them. âYou two are fabulous. Iâm thinking of inviting you to a bunga-bungaâ (referring to his infamous sex parties). It takes embarrassed laughter to break the uncomfortable silence.
Berlusconi has always been a joker. But Italian women are no longer laughing. The prime ministerâs apparent imperviousness to charges of corruption and seemingly unending revelations about sex parties have fueled anger and dismay. In February, nearly a million people demonstrated against his boorish behavior. And the fury has only escalated since. Editorials, livid op-ed letters, and sex strikes proliferate. There are demands for equality in the workplace and legislative movement to put women in positions of power. âFinally,â says Maria Latella, editor of the magazineÂ A, âthe indignation and outrage is starting to spread.â
The rage can be read in the polls. Berlusconiâs approval rating among women has dropped from 48 percent a year ago to 27 percentâan all-time low. True to form, Berlusconi has his own statistics. âDid you hear about the latest poll?â he recently joked. âThey asked women between 20 and 30 years old if they want to make love to Berlusconi. Thirty-three percent said yes, and 67 percent said, âAgain?ââ
Arcidonna, a womanâs group, filed a lawsuit against Berlusconi last month for 25 years of abuse against Italian women. âThe conduct of the prime ministerânow charged with child prostitutionâis the final straw,â says Valeria Ajovalasit, the groupâs president.
The 74-year-old recently admitted to paying about $65,000 to a Moroccan belly dancer known as âRuby the Heart Stealerâ when she was 17. But the money didnât pay for sexual favors on 13 different occasions, as the prosecution contends. Rather, it was intended for a hair-removal machine so the belly dancer could start a beauty salon, he told reporters. âI paid her so she wouldnât have to be a prostitute.â
âOnce again Berlusconi has managed to transform something grave and serious into a ridiculous comedy,â says Anna Finocchiaro, a senator with the opposition Democratic Party. âThe dignity of women is not a commodity that should be bought and sold.â
Like their American counterparts, Italian women burned their bras and demanded equal rights during the 1970s. But any gains slipped away during the following decades. âWomen actually started moving backwards,â says Emma Bonino, a vice president in Italyâs Senate. âThey went to sleep.â Berlusconiâs behavior, however, has awakened a desire for change. âThey are determined to change the status quo,â says Bonino.
During demonstrations earlier this year, protesters in Rome carried signs with slogans saying, âOur Country Is Not a Whorehouseâ and âGive Women Back Our Dignity.â A huge inflatable penis, flaccid and caught in a pair of giant scissors, floated above the heads of the more than 100,000 protesters at the historic Piazza del Popolo. There were more than 200 similar protests that day elsewhere in the country.
Mussolini âused to say that genius is just a menâs quality,â says the actress Monica Bellucci. âWe are coming from that as the base, and it takes so much time to come up from that mentality.â Bellucci, who quit law school to model, could have ended up a velinaâone of the sequined and lacquered showgirls ubiquitous on Italian networksâbut instead chose to move to Paris and built a successful career as a serious actress. âIn Italy, women have to learn so many things,â she says. âBut most importantly, they have to learn confidence. Women in Italy are beautiful and sexy, but they have to learn thatâs not all they have.â
Mara Carfagna, a former showgirl whom Berlusconi appointed minister of equal opportunity, has proposed an âindependent gender authority.â Once listed byÂ Maxim as one of the âworldâs hottest politicians,â Carfagna has also signed an agreement with 20 major advertisers to end hypersexualized depictions of women, and has promised to back it up with a bill. Berlusconi has said heâll back the law, and Carfagna has refrained from commenting on the allegations against him. âWhatâs important is stopping the imagery that is plainly wrong and offensive to womenâs dignity,â she recently said.
As it is, Italian media are saturated by female nudity. Giant advertising billboards show women in seductive, open-legged poses. Radio shows are peppered with orgasmic moans. And the television anchors have a skin-to-clothing ratio that would make Caligula blush. In his dual roles as media mogul and Italyâs head of state, Berlusconi has done more than anyone to shape the media landscape. During the 1970s, he offered revolutionary programming, including a racy quiz show with housewives who stripped off an item of clothingâapron, kitchen glove, housedress, down to the garter beltâevery time a male contestant answered a question correctly. The format for successful television shows hasnât changed much since then: men are still at the forefront, participants and winners, while women are relegated to the background, silently taking off their clothes. âWomen on television are treated like pieces of prosciutto,â says author Lorella Zanardo, whose popular documentaryÂ Il Corpo delle Donne, orWomenâs Bodies, criticizes sexism on Italian TV. âA woman is either a passive nothing or a blatant whore,â says Zanardo. âWhile the rest of the world is advancing towards gender equality, we women in Italy are stuck in time, living permanently in a subordinate role.â Certainly, the statistics are staggering. According to the 2010 Global Gender Gap report by the World Economic Forum, Italy ranks 74th in terms of womenâs rights, behind Colombia, Peru, and Romania. Indicators include wage parity, labor-force participation, and domestic violence. Other statistics reveal 95 percent of Italian men have never used a washing machine, and that Italian women spend 21 hours a week on housework while Italian men spend only four. âItâs the Latin tradition that a man is too macho for housework,â says Bellucci. âThe idea wasâand often still isâthat women have to just be at home, to make babies, and that the father has to be a real man who is always in charge of the situation.â
Many have begun the countdown to the end of the bunga-bunga era when Berlusconiâs term finishes in 2013. âItâs time to take back the country and change the direction of history,â says Finocchiaro. âWomen are the new protagonists and we must help them. We represent a great modern power.â
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