Traditions reinforced: Italian media’s problem with the role of women

Protest against repression and oppression frizzetta_Flickr

Sofia Lotto Persio analyses how the Italian media has fortified gender inequality through decades-old stereotypes, and assesses the nature of the challenge facing female journalists today.

One woman dies every three days in Italy at the hand of either her partner or her former partner. This shocking statistic reveals a deep problem regarding gender inequalities in Italy.

Italy is still a patriarchal country in many respects. It is below the European average for gender equality. Women occupy only 30.8 per cent of the parliament’s seats and the number of working women is significantly inferior to that of men, despite women representing more than 50 per cent of the graduated population for the past 20 years.

There are significant cultural reasons for the underdevelopment of women in Italian society. The representation of women in media is perhaps one of the most powerful, yet disconcerting, examples of why Italian women are not as emancipated as those in other European countries, and why they so often die at the hands of their men.

Italian media – through advertisements, entertainment, information programmes and print material – portrays two stereotypical images of women: the good family woman, and the sexy mistress. Though different in many respects, both female stereotypes have in common a submissive character.

Women are expected to fit in either category. “Many studies show that woman are still discriminated in their family and at work,” says Olga, the pen-name of a journalist who started writing about her own experiences of mobbing in her blog The Pig at Work. “Women are victims of different kinds of violence, and yet there is a lack of adequate legislative and welfare measures.”

While this is not a phenomenon exclusively pertaining to Italy, it is a particularly severe problem in Italy. What else can you expect from a country governed for almost 20 years by Berlusconi, a man who is defending himself against accusations of consorting with underage prostitutes and organising sex parties in his mansion. This same man once replied to a young woman’s concern of never being able to find a job: “Marry a millionaire – with a smile like yours, I’m sure it won’t be too difficult.”

While the Catholic Church’s millennial representation of women as temptresses made the soil fertile for gender inequality, a further damage was done by more than 25 years of Berlusconi’s media empire. Berlusconi’s three television channels were pioneers in the exploitation and sexualisation of female bodies, from the 1980s to the present day.

There is a consolidated belief that in order to write about ‘women issues’ being a woman is enough!”

– Stefania Prandi, freelance journalist

Most Italian families dine while watching television. The channels at that time will feature either news programmes or entertainment quizzes. On the news programmes, the family will hear about violence against women. On the entertainment programme, the family can witness for themselves the objectification and sexualisation of the female bodies.

Dressed in often no more than a bra and underwear, girls participate in the programme by doing short, ever-sexier dances to please the audience and the presenter, invariably a man who is past his forties, and is fully-dressed.

But how does the step from objectification to violence happen? The author Jean Kilbourne stated that objectification is a way to dehumanise the other. If, in a relation, one party is dehumanised, there is a shift in power and the “dehumaniser” will count violence as one of the means to exercise its power and dominance over the other.

Sexual assault and rape is, in fact, an issue of power. The Italian media’s perception of it, however, is different. There is a widespread understanding and representation of sexual assault, rape, and female’s murder as “crimes of passion”. This is a standard phrasing used in almost every account of such crimes, used in both television and print, by female and male journalists alike.

Remembering victims of gender violee- Names, age, who killed her, date and place of death_ FlaVia_FlickrThis phrasing achieves two misconceptions: first, that the male perpetrator is the victim of forces beyond his will: he is never in control of his action. He is “depressed”, “jealous”, moved by a “rapture of insanity”; secondly, that the woman is somehow responsible in “inflaming” the passion, by either being too beautiful, or too mischievous, or simply too annoying.

“The media are mostly run by men,” says Stefania Prandi, a freelance journalist who is studying for a Masters in Gender Studies in Sweden. “They are an organic part of the sexist, patriarchal, misogynist, discriminatory, backward system.”

The images accompanying the articles reiterate this message. There are often stock images representing young girls wearing short skirts, passive victims needing protection. To illustrate the story of a 14-year-old girl who was brutally raped by 10 men, the initially used this picture, which was later changed after readers expressed outrage in the comment section. Another, minor, online newspaper ran the story of the rape along with this stock image, the caption crudely reading: “raped girl”.

“Very few female journalists – and no male journalists – have the sensitivity and understanding necessary to describe the seriousness and complexity of gender violence,” says Stefania, adding: “It seems only a few really study the issue. There is a consolidated belief that in order to write about ‘women issues’ being a woman is enough!”

Both Stefania and Olga agree that it is difficult for women to be working journalists in Italy. Olga has described these situations in detail in her blog: “It is extremely difficult for a woman, without any powerful connections to sustain herself with journalism, let alone have a career.” Stefania concurs: “There is widespread sexism and discrimination.” She continues: “This can be easily seen from the kinds of contracts stipulated and their compensations. We get penalised because we suffer sexual harassment, because we get pregnant and get fired, and because, ultimately, we are considered less worthy than men.”

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Photo credit (top): frizzetta [Flickr]

Photo credit (inset): flaVia [Flickr]

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