Crushing Sexual Humiliation
by Bas Mesters
Italian television has reduced women to sex symbols, says Lorella Zanardo. Many Italians are watching; others have simply turned away. Zanardo is trying to shatter this apathy with a film, a school course and debates. It is about “the survival of our identity” and motivating others, she says: “This country, the birthplace of the Renaissance and humanism, has become fearful.”
It is a cold and foggy night in Pinerolo, an old garrison town thirty kilometres from Turin. Inside the community centre, it is uncomfortably warm. Music is blaring. Packed closely together, some 200 men and women are watching a video screen showing sexy dancing girls surrendering to gynaecological camera positions as they fondle and writhe. The camera zooms in on butt cracks, breasts and thighs. Elderly onscreen commentators wink as they steal glances at the abundant cleavages.
Lorella Zanardo’s video pamphlet, Il corpo delle donne (“the body of women”), confronts the public with a painful mirror image. It is a compilation of sexist images that can be seen on Italian television every day. The audience in Pinerolo is appalled, as viewers online have been for 18 months. More than three million people have watched Zanardo’s j’accuse, and some of them discuss it feverishly on her blog of the same name (www.ilcorpodelledonne.it). Many of them invite her to come to their children’s schools or their towns’ community centres to talk about the degeneration of Italian television, both public and commercial.
In the documentary, a cut of meat hangs on one hook while a girl hangs on the next hook. A butcher marks her butt with a stamp. Another blond girl, practically nude, crawls into perspex ‘cage’ under a tabletop. Laughing, she serves as a table leg. Humiliating? The show’s host demurs: “She can breathe, can’t she? The perspex has holes for air.” Whenever a woman over 40 appears, her face lacks any kind of expression. It has been pulled tight behind huge lips, like the thick rubber band around a glass storage bottle.
“Why?” asks Zanardo’s voice in the film. “What are these faces hiding? Why can’t women appear on TV with their real faces? Why this humiliation?”
Next, a female announcer pushes a young woman wearing a tight T-shirt into a shower cabin. The water starts running and the camera focuses on her ample chest. Through the thin fabric, her nipples find their way to the lens. The TV studio audience applauds wildly.
The community room in Pinerolo, however, remains quiet. The faces of the viewers appear sad and grim in the light of the film’s closing titles. Their hurt is plainly visible. They and their children watch this every day.
Zanardo’s questions linger in their minds: “The survival of our identity is at stake. Why don’t we respond? Why don’t we present ourselves as we are? Why do we accept this constant humiliation? Why don’t we stand up for our rights? What are we afraid of?”
Fresh pair of eyes
During the post-screening discussion, it appears that the visitors, too, wonder how we got here. They feel powerless. “The solution is to turn off the TV,” one woman suggests. “No,” Zarado says. “That won’t change anything. We need to teach our children what they are watching, and why it is being produced this way. Show that there are other ways to look at women.”
Zanardo produced an eight-part course for schools with that goal in mind. Nuovi ochi per la TV (“new eyes for television”) teaches how television is being made, and what the hidden messages are. Zanardo reveals these messages frozen frame by frozen frame, as they are more difficult to detect when the images stream uninterrupted. It is her way to raise awareness among young people, and, she says, “arm” them against quiet indoctrination by “that evil teacher, the TV.”
Zanardo has touched a nerve in modern Italy with Il corpo delle donne and Nuovi per la TV; that much is clear after 18 months of campaigning. This evening, the community centre is packed. Earlier today, the lobby of a local high school was filled to capacity. Yesterday, she spoke in a public square in a Tuscan mountain village. Tomorrow, she will visit a neighbourhood centre near Milan. Invitations to speak flood her blog.
The success of Il corpo delle donne has changed Zanardo’s life. She has given up her international career as the European marketing manager at Unilever, as well as her work in Eastern Europe for the European Union, in the United States as a diversity manager and in Italy as a consultant.
“I no longer think. I just act,” says the attractive 50-year old, who does not hide her wrinkles. “I go where they want me,” she says between the morning meeting at the school and the evening session at the community centre. She has given more than 200 lectures, mostly at schools and for large groups of adults. Her savings have sustained her for a year now. Meanwhile she works harder than ever, answers 300 emails a day and finds herself completely exhausted. “But,” she says, “I have never been happier.
“The idea for the protest video began quite simply. I lived abroad for years, and when I visited Italy I would turn on the TV and see these vulgar images. During the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, we all talked about women’s liberation — but there is none of that on TV. So, for years I would just switch it off after an annoying minute.
“I won't turn off the tv''
“One day, I turned it on and something kept me from turning away. I realised, ‘No, if everyone turns it off, nothing will ever change.’ Maybe I had entered a phase in which I looked at things differently. I had been able to do many different things, but now I felt the urge to do something tangible for society. Do something useful. Build for others. I had never been able to do that. So, two years ago I thought, ‘I am sick of these pictures, but I’m not turning it off. Let me be angry.’
“And I did get angry! I called friends and said, ‘I’m sorry, but I’m watching TV and here is a woman being used as a table leg. Whoever I called, even my parents, they all said, ‘Oh well, that’s television.’ As if TV is an unchangeable painting. I thought, ‘Okay, but it’s not like this in other countries.’”
It turned out that two of Zanardo’s friends, Cesare Cantù and Marco Malfi, were kindred spirits. “Despite the ruling machismo among Italian men,” Zanardo says, “They were sensitive to this theme.” Zanardo convinced both filmmakers to do something. She told them, “We have the Internet; let’s do something quick to reach boys and girls, a civilised protest to raise questions.”
Over Christmas of 2008, they locked themselves in Cantù’s home with three computers and two VCRs, recording television 12 hours a day for three weeks. “It was shocking to watch hours and hours of these images,” says Zanardo. “A deep sadness came over me after a few days, stronger than even my anger. I cried twice, which I rarely do. I realised we had given ourselves a Herculean assignment. I just hadn’t expected such crude humiliation. We considered quitting when we saw the woman on the meat hook. I found it profoundly depressing to realise that the TV is the sole source of information for 80 percent of Italians.”
Something strange happened when she told her friends about the project. “Aren’t you afraid?” they asked. “Lorella, be careful; you have kids,” her mother said. Zanardo was surprised. “Afraid? Why? But when I was asked for the ninth time, I did begin to worry.” She asked her friends and mother what they were talking about. ‘You are criticising television,’ they said. ‘Do you realise who owns television in Italy?’
Afraid to critisize
“So, I had to show some courage. Fine,” Zarado says. “I must say, I hadn’t thought of it, maybe because I used to live abroad. I did worry about hitting a power greater than TV — political powers. Apparently this fear has settled in many of us. You can’t criticise TV, for it is his, Berlusconi’s. That’s what we think.
“But there is no law that forbids criticising television. We have developed an apathetic, passive attitude, which is also being advocated by the state and our politics. But now, many people are following my work. They come out to support me. Clearly, there was a need, and there are many more issues to be tackled in Italy. There’s work to do for decades.”
She looks out the window, watching coloured leaves fall from the branches. We are meeting in a room that a Pinerolo lawyer made available. Zanardo always needs to improvise, as she is now travelling permanently. Her 13-year-old son is home alone. She sighs. Zanardo is sacrificing much.
“I decided not to stop. I just responded to a request,” she says. “All hell broke loose after the film appeared online. People kept asking me to come and talk with them. For the first time, I decided to not think, but act instead. So, I act, and I go.
“Of course we have financial problems. We consciously decided to keep money out of this campaign. The documentary had no budget; the blog costs nothing. I tell school kids, ‘Can you change the world? Yes. And you can do it without money. Here’s the proof.’ Of course you have to be willing to work hard and risk exhaustion. But this little video, which cost nothing, did reach three million viewers.”
Italy fears inovation
Zanardo does realise that the project cannot continue in the long term without funding. So, two months ago she started looking for financing. It is hard on her. “I will not accept money from companies that don’t align with our message,” she says. “I need to find ethical businesses that suit the project. But that’s been tough, even for me with many years of management experience.
“A company or political party could really elevate its profile through this project, which invests in young people, schools and education. But everyone’s afraid. This country, the birthplace of the Renaissance and humanism, has become fearful of innovation. Just thirty years ago, we were great at renewal, and Italy was a leader in world design.”
Nonetheless she is determined to push ahead. “Absolutely,” she says. “I am the kind of person who crushes rocks. I am not among the majority of Italians who are exhausted and depressed. I have convictions, and I lack doubt. Look at this huge cultural devastation. We will need a lot of time for renewal, after 20 years of TV dictatorship. Sometimes I visit neighbourhoods and I can just tell that people have been devastated because all they do is watch TV.”
As religion and ideologies have eroded, the future seems to belong to enterprising individuals such as Zanardo. “I do see that the ground for initiatives like these is becoming more fertile,” she says. “There is a growing amount of energy emanating from people who want change, and who simply get started themselves.
“I believe I am more ambitious than Berlusconi, the anti-ideologue. His power pales in comparison to what made Italy great. When I visit schools, I always talk about Count Visconti of Milan. He called in an architect in 1500, and said, ‘I want to build a dome.’ The architect returned, showed a drawing and said, ‘This is the Dome; it’s going to be beautiful.’ ‘How long will it take to build?’ the Count asked. ‘Five hundred years,’ the architect said. ‘Great,’ Visconti said. He signed, and the architect began building. Visconti died; he only saw the foundations and one pillar of the church.
“Our era lacks the capacity to plan for future generations. A quick profit is all that matters. I believe we need to plan for the long term again. We should not expect to see all of the fruits of our labour. We should be more generous. I’m not sure I will see the results. But I do believe I will see something.”
Image: Peter van Beek (upper)
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