Women in Post-Democratic Italy: A documentary perspective
Michela Ardizzoni / University of Colorado at Boulder

Silvio Berlusconi

Silvio Berlusconi combined entertainment and politics

2009 seems to mark a turning point in the history of Italian documentary filmmaking. In the past year alone, two young documentarians have embraced their cameras and their dissatisfaction with Italian media to produce two visually strongly and discursively sharp films. While their respective foci are somewhat different, both directors aim at exposing the superficial commodification of celebrity status and women’s bodies that has characterized Italian television in the past 30 years and has been nurtured by the growth of Prime Minister Berlusconi’s media empire.

Erik Gandini’s “Videocracy” suggests that present-day Italy is no longer a political democracy, but rather a tv-based democracy: what matters in the Italian socio-political milieu is what airs on television; therefore, if people and issues are not popularized through the small screen, they consequently do not warrant any serious attention. In this sense, television in Italy has come to dictate the agenda for the public sphere. The problem in this line of thinking arises when such agenda includes, almost exclusively, fame, beauty, physical prowess, amorality, and disrespect for gender equality as pivotal features to succeed in 21st-century Italian society. Through an extensive review of many hours of current and old footage, Gandini, an Italian-born, Sweden-based filmmaker, succeeds in eliciting the intricate connections between the ‘culture of appearances’ (cultura dell’apparire) and the oligopolistic nature of Berlusconi’s regime that have bestowed upon the ‘image’ the power of democracy. As Gandini puts it, “In a videocracy the key of power is the image. In Italy only one man has dominated the images for three decades. He was a TV magnate, then President: Silvio Berlusconi has created a perfect combination, characterized by political and entertainment television, as anyone else influencing the content of commercial television in the country. His TV channels, known for the excessive display of seminude girls, are considered by many a mirror of his tastes and his personality.” The seemingly illogical link between futile television stardom and real political power has proven strong and durable not just for Berlusconi himself. Indeed, his present cabinet features a 36-year-old former showgirl, Mara Carfagna, as (the ironic) Minister for Equal Opportunities , the evident corroboration of the extent to which mediatic power yields a place in the national public space of politics. (( After a decade-long career as a nude cover girl on several men’s magazines and as a showgirl on Berlusconi’s network, Carfagna was in charge of the women’s section of Berlusconi’s rightist party Forza Italia. Not surprisingly, Carfagna was at the center of one of Berlusconi’s controversies, when, commenting on her beauty, he stated “If I were not married already, I would certainly marry her [Carfagna].”))

Mara Carfagna

36 year old former call girl

One of the sustaining arguments of “Videocracy” is the confining notion of ‘reality’ that is engaged on Italian television. Here, reality is visibly gendered, sexed, classed, and politicized, and leaves no room for alternative or apparently unorthodox views. The democratic political system in Italy is thus bound to collide with the highly oligopolized nature of the media and the conformist social perceptions they foster. It comes thus as no surprise that the “Videocracy” trailer, used to promote its screening at the 2009 Venice Film Festival, was banned from public television in Italy on the grounds that it represented a personal attack against Prime Minister Berlusconi. In their rejection letter, RAI claimed that the spot is offensive to Berlusconi and indirectly addresses the recent sex scandals in which the Prime Minister was involved by underscoring the link between Berlusconi’s network and the proliferation of images of scantily clad young women on television. This recent incident clearly elicits the role of public television as subservient to the political establishment and ultimately incapable of fulfilling its public service goal.

Silvio Berlusconi

“Videocracy” was banned from public television

The inevitable intricacies between media and politics in Italy tend to focus often on the centrality of the body as the new cultural capital in this late-modern society. Whether it’s the heteronormative, overly virile male body or its exoticized and objectified female counterpart, public discourse, regularly informed by the media, lingers on the idea of the body as the preeminent form of identification and individual expression. This obsession with physicality is at the center of Lorella Zanardo’s short documentary “Il corpo delle donne” (‘Women’s Bodies’), released in the Spring 2009. Zanardo, a management consultant on diversity and equal opportunities, wrote and directed this documentary as an attempt to expose the ubiquitous and almost pornographic display of women’s bodies on public and private television channels alike. The 25-minute-long video successfully merges the most popular images of female bodies and the pervasive insistence on lips, breasts, bottoms, and hips shared by day-time and nightly programs. As an almost desperate cry for help, “Il corpo delle donne” provides visual evidence of the way in which Italian women have been trained to use their bodies as marketing tools to penetrate the flimsy world of television stardom and social power. Women, Zanardo argues, have thus acquiesced to seeing themselves exclusively through the patriarchal, masculine lens that frames them day after day. In this context, it is their vulnerability, their frailty, and their ultimate submission to male desires that constitute the most appealing traits of televised women.

Yet, as Gandini’s work on Italian videocracy reminds us, these traits are hardly confined to the small screen. Rather, the circus-like hyperreality of television has become the normalized standard for large sections of Italian society, culture, and politics. In the 2008 Global Gender Gap report, which looks at economic participation, educational attainment, political empowerment and health, Italy ranked 67th out of a total of 130 countries – lagging behind almost all other EU members and several developing countries, such as Mozambique, Tanzania, and Ukraine. If this report is indeed indicative of the status of women in Italy, one can easily draw a direct connection between the humiliating representation of women on television and their second-class status in what _i_ek calls a ‘post-democratic’ state.

In conclusion, 2009 might prove to be a decisive moment in the history of Italian documentaries, a history abounding with short documentary films (11-13 minutes on average) but lacking in longer, more developed works. This paucity has characterized especially the past four decades, when the production of medium and long documentaries has been erratic and inconsistent. As noted by Aprà in his survey of the Italian documentary, post-world-war-two productions have focused mostly on travel, eroticism, and montage, while investigative works are scarce and often unknown. ((Adriano Aprà “Primi approcci al documentario italiano”, adapted from “A proposito del film documentario,” Annali dell’Archivio audiovisivo del movimento operaio e democratico, 1, Roma, 1998, pp. 40-67. This survey does not include documentaries made for television.))
The crisis of democracy at the heart of Italian media and Italian society alike might actually stimulate the resurgence of a dormant documentary tradition, which, aided by globalization and new technologies, could reclaim the publicness of a space and a culture that have for too long been privatized and stifled.

Image Credits:
1. Silvio Berlusconi
2. Mara Carfagna
3. Silvio Berlusconi

Democracy without Dissent: Satirical News in Italy
Michela Ardizzoni / University of Colorado – Boulder

\"Striscia la Notizia\"

The satirical news program Striscia la Noticia


On June 26, 2009, during a press conference on the economy, Italian prime minister and media magnate Silvio Berlusconi vitriolically attacked the media criticism of the government’s approach to the palpable economic crisis and invited citizens and entrepreneurs to silence all the international organizations that report on the budget deficit in Italy and the dire economic repercussions it has on the country. The economic crisis, according to Berlusconi, is “of a preeminently psychological nature” and, as such, should not be given negative coverage in daily news. This attack followed a similar remark Berlusconi made earlier in June at the national meeting of the Italian manufacturing and services companies (Confindustria). Here, the prime minister suggested businesses should not advertise in media that provide a bleak take on the economy or criticize the government’s economic policy. According to this logic, it is only through a careful selection of positive news stories, often aired in Berlusconi’s own network, and inspiring anecdotes that the crisis can be ignored and hence dodged.

Berlusconi’s weak and warped understanding of democracy and his arrogant intolerance for public dissent are not new traits of his third mandate as prime minister of Italy. Several scholars have aptly discussed the post-democratic discourse that infuses some Western countries, ((See, for instance, Crouch, C. Post-Democracy, London: Polity, 2004.)) where the rise of global capitalism along with the success of an elite, self-referential political class have neglected the needs of ordinary citizens and have promoted the interests of wealthy businesspeople. ((-i-ek’s recent comment on the Iranian elections points cunningly to the post-democratic state of countries like Italy. See: http//supportiran.blogspot.com/2009/06/slavoj-zizecks-new-text-on-iran.html for the full text.)) What is new and problematic, instead, in Berlusconi’s pronouncements is the extent to which such calls to censorship have affected the Italian media culture in the 21st century and have brought to a stifled redefinition of some media genres. Here I will look specifically at one example of satirical news.

Silvio Berlusconiwidth=350

Italian prime minister and media magnate Silvio Berlosconi

The satirical news program “Striscia la notizia” debuted in 1988 on Canale 5, the most popular channel of Berlusconi’s Mediaset television network. As a daily, prime-time program, “Striscia la notizia” was conceived as a news parody aimed at exposing government corruption, social ills, and journalistic failures. Following a format similar to “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” this satirical news program – the first in the history of Italian television – relies on comedians-turned-journalists for local stories, while two hosts anchor from the studio. In the first decade of programming, “Striscia la notizia” worked effectively to uncover widespread problems with healthcare, instances of corruption in the workforce, and dubious relations between politicians and the business world. The comedic and irreverent tone of most episodes was the catalyzing element for most viewers, who had tired of years of monotonous and univocal newscasts on public and private networks. Yet, a look at the most recent seasons of the program reveals a stronger emphasis on celebrity culture, gossip, and trash tv. The civic engagement that characterized the earlier editions of “Striscia la notizia” seems to have waned to favor a populist curiosity for celebrities’ bodies and relationships. While a few investigative reports are still occasionally part of the program, for the most part “Striscia la notizia” has mellowed into a much less subversive and muckraking show. This paradigmatic shift must be understood within the socio-political context that has characterized Italy in the past 15 years. The rise to power of Silvio Berlusconi and his right-wing coalition since 1994 along with an increasingly concentrated media system have resulted in severe limitations to freedom of expression that have culminated in the infamous acts of censorship towards comedians and journalists who forthrightly criticized the Berlusconi government in the early 2000s . ((In 2001, during the second Berlusconi government, three RAI journalists (Enzo Biagi, Michele Santoro, and Daniele Lutazzi) were criticized and, eventually, fired for having used public television to express their left-wing ideas. For more details on this, see: http://www.globaljournalist.org/magazine/2006-1/evil.html in 2003, another well-known political satirist, Sabina Guzzanti, was censored and her program “Raiot” was canceled after only one episode for her lampoon of Berlusconi. Interestingly, Berlusconi’s lawyer sued Guzzanti arguing that true satire should minimize social tensions and endear politicians to the public. In this view, Guzzanti’s critical satire was instead perceived as a direct political attack. )) Journalists, intellectuals, and ordinary citizens have repeatedly expressed their concern at the suffocating walls being erected around public discourse today. Yet, major changes seem impossible to achieve due to the intricate connections between media and politics in Italy. It is in this context that the most popular satirical news program has subtly shifted its goal to become a less controversial entertainment show that would not anger politicians or embarrass the establishment.

Greggio and Iacchettiheight=350

Female participants are asked to wear skimpy bikini outfits.

Since its debut in 1988, “Striscia la notizia” featured two young women, referred to as ‘veline,’ who would physically bring news items to the two (often male) hosts. ((The literal meaning of ‘velina’ denotes any type of written communication coming from the public relations office of an institution (government, political party, etc.) and directed to the media; the aim of this communication is to suggest the appropriate interpretation for specific news items. Since this role has for decades been taken up by young female secretaries, who were physical carriers of the fleeting sheets of paper, the noun ‘velina’ was later used only to designate the women at the center of this exchange. Te etymology helps to understand the meaning this word has taken in Italian society today.)) Displaying a curvaceous body, an easily malleable personality, and limited dance skills, the ‘veline’ have assumed an increasingly central role in the popularity of the program. Each year, tens of thousands of young women are willing to stand in line for several hours to get a chance to audition for the role of ‘veline’ in an eloquent testimony to the prestige of this role among many young Italian women. The long wait outside Canale 5 studios culminates in a thirty-second performance, where each participant is asked to wear a skimpy bikini outfit and dance on a large desk. The willingness to undergo long hours in line for a glimpse of celebrity and to be evaluated on the basis of a curt and provocative body display is indicative of the prestige this role holds in the eyes of young women and large sections of Italian society. While the role of ‘veline’ is not the only position Italian women hold on television, its popularity and influence upon private and public programs alike exemplify a central concern of television producers: the need for most entertainment programs to revolve around women – mostly young, attractive, and scantily clad – as catalyzing magnets for the overwhelmingly male gaze. As I mentioned above, in the past few years “Striscia la notizia” has dedicated more time and space to the ‘veline’ with longer dance sequences (often proving their inadequate skills) and more aggressive marketing to titillate the audience’s curiosity about the young women. In the face of this voyeuristic desire to enjoy the female body, satire has taken a step back and the program’s goal to counteract mainstream news has lost its lustre.


Young women wait in line for hours for the chance to audition for the role of veline

Contemporary television culture in Italy reflects the post-democratic socio-political environment in which it prospers. The Habermasian, mediated public sphere is no longer a site where citizens can actively engage in meaningful discussions on the public good; instead, the rare avenues television provided to engage in such debates have either been redesigned to fit more acceptable cultural and political expectations or have been annulled altogether. If we agree with Crouch that “[d]emocracy thrives when there are major opportunities for the mass of ordinary people actively to participate, through discussion and autonomous organizations, in shaping the agenda of public life, and when they are actively using these opportunities,” we can definitely conclude that Italian television culture is well on its way to a post-democratic state (2004: pp. 2-3).

Image Credits:

1. The satirical news program Striscia la Notizia

2. Italian prime minister and media magnate Silvio Berlosconi

3. Female participants are asked to wear skimpy bikini outfits

4. Young women wait in line for hours for the chance to audition for the role of veline

Please feel free to comment.

Mediating Urban Cultural Borders
by Michela Ardizzoni/ University of Colorado Boulder

Berlin\'s Alexanderplatz Underground

Berlin’s Alexanderplatz Underground

In the winter 2001-2002 people pacing through Alexanderplatz underground station in Berlin were welcome by an uninterrupted series of short, enigmatic messages that were projected onto a screen normally used as an advertising billboard. Messages like “By the time you read this message everything will have changed. The true life” were part of an urban diary project created by a Berlin group called rude_architects. ((The members of this group are: Friedrich von Borries, Gesa Glück and Tobias Neumann. For more details on this project, see: Blume, T., “Urban Media Activism” available at http://www.urbantyphoon.com/2006/blume/mediactivism.pdf)) The mysterious sentences were originally sent to these architects as text messages and were then on display in Alexanderplatz exactly 24 hours after they were received. Intended as personal messages directed to selected receivers, who were known to walk through the station at a specific time and day, these sentences bridged the space between public and private communication in an attempt to re-appropriate the locus of the public sphere in our often-commercialized urban areas. As worded by Blume, “the project was a public game with a private medium – the mobile phone – which at the same time was intended to restore the public character of a place which in legal terms had always been public without ever really being felt to be such by most of those who used it” (2006: 1). This project, aimed at exploring the transformative use of public space, proved innovative in a couple of different ways: first, a new kind of publicly private communication flowed in a non-controlled way, as the messages freely organized themselves onto the screen and formed an unprecedented snapshot of life in Berlin; second, the unusual and puzzling nature of some messages pushed citizens to strike a conversation in what would otherwise be a very isolating pace.

This urban diary project provides an interesting example to rethink the multiple potentialities of public space and urban areas in a time of accelerated new media proliferation. Today’s urban spaces are characterized by several levels of hybridity: public and private, mobile and static, and lastly, global and local communications. The hybrid nature of 21st-century urbanity encourages us to reassess and explore the ways in which urban media interventions can provide an alternative outlet to give voice to globalized, yet local experiences of the city that transcend both corporate media venues and elitist trajectories. In this sense, urban projects like the one described above have the potential to reinvent the use of the city’s central – but also marginalized – spaces, while at the same time rooting the city’s growing cultural diversity. Both goals demand that we refocus on the centrality of the city as a trope of analysis in media studies, at a time when the power of the nation-state has been heavily undermined by globalization, mobile technologies, and transculturalism. As Derrida argued, “[i]f we look at the city, rather than the state, it is because we have given up hope that the state might create a new image for the city” (Derrida quoted in Georgiou, 2008: 223 ((Georgiou, M. (2008). “Urban Encounters: Juxtapositions of Difference and the Communicative Interface of Global Cities” International Communication Gazette 70 (3-4): 223-235.
)) ). It is precisely this new image of the city – as a locus of convergence, creativity, and citizenship – that urban media projects attempt to design and project. In one of her recent articles on public interventions in global cities, Saskia Sassen ((Sassen, S. “Public Interventions. The Shifting Meaning of the Urban Condition” http://www.skor.nl/article-2888-en.html)) urges us to attend to those initiatives that use global networks to refocus on the local:

When local initiatives and projects can become part of a global network without losing the focus on the specifics of the local, a new type of globality takes shape … [T]hese interventions are deeply imbricated with some of the major dynamics constitutive of corporate globalization yet are not part of the formal apparatus or of the objectives of this apparatus … These counter-geographies thrive on the intensifying transnational and translocal networks, the development of communication technologies which easily escape conventional surveillance practices.

As such, what Sassen calls counter-geographies partially follow the routes of urban citizens in their multiple attempts to find a means of representation that overcomes the stifling boundaries of national categorizations and the limitations imposed by societal ladders of power. These attempts become particularly important when they aim at subverting (or, at least challenging) the existing politics of representation: “[these communication practices] also project [citizens’] efforts to take representation and identification in their own hands, by dismissing, resisting and contesting the restrictions and the rules posed by financial and political centres of power that control symbolic and material sources on the national and transnational level” (Georgiou, 2008: 234).

Trace TV Website Logo

The centrality of transculturalism in the experience of contemporary urban citizens is at the heart of one of the first urban media projects with a transcontinental focus. Trace TV is a Franco-American urban media network that was founded in 2003 by Claude Grunitzky, ((Grunitzky, C. (2004). Transculturalism: How the World Is Coming Together. New York: True Agency.)) Olivier Laouchez, and Richard Wayner with the specific aim to target young urban populations and their lives of in-betweenness across cultures and milieus. With a target audience of 18-35-year-old urban youth, Trace TV was originally intended as the broadcast extension of the homonymous American-British magazine created by Grunitzky in London in 1996. It was thus conceived as “a new expression in culture documenting the impact of the interconnected worlds of music, fashion, film, art, politics on today’s multiethnic youth” (Mission statement, http://www.trace212.com/aboutus.html). Trace TV’s programs rely heavily on urban music genres, such as hip hop, reggae, R&B, groove, soul, and more localized expressions like Maghrebi raï and Caribbean zouk. Laouchez, the current CEO of the channel, emphasizes though that this project aims at moving beyond music as a form of urban creativity and locus of representation by bringing in reportages from different parts of the world (Brazil, US, Germany, UK, Senegal, South Africa, Caribbean islands) on localized experiences of transculturalism. At the heart of Trace’s notion of transculturalism is a contemporary quest for spaces of identity and belonging across cultures and through diverse locales. ((The concept of transculturalism underlying this urban media project is examined in Grunitzky’s book Transculturalism: How the World Is Coming Together, available at http://www.transculturalism.com/index2.cfm))

Urban media projects like Trace TV highlight an increasing tension between the cultural transcendence of the city and the containing homogeneity of the nation. The city can be a site of transgressions, discontinuities, and new beginnings which often disrupts the leveling dynamics of the narrative of the nation-state. Caught between the polarizing forces of the global and the local, these initiatives use old and new media technologies to re-appropriate spaces whose original public function has been undermined by the commercialization of the urban experience. In doing so, they provide a platform for more flexible and, perhaps, uncontrolled expressions of the communicative role of the city.

Image Credits

1. Alexanderplatz
2. Trace TV

Please feel free to leave a comment.

Reality Television Is No Ground Breaking
Michela Ardizzoni / University of Colorado – Boulder

Season 1 Cast of \"Momma\'s Boys\"

The Cast of Momma’s Boys

Relationships have often been the leitmotif of reality-based television program. Whether one thinks about the occasional homosexual partners in MTV’s The Real World, the awkward semi-professional exchanges on NBC’s The Apprentice, or the competition-driven friendships in shows like Survivor, these programs are unscientific explorations of the human psyche as it enters different levels of relationships. Despite the sizable variety of reality programs, and hence the multiple kinds of relationships uncovered, it was only in the Fall 2008 that US television premiered a show – Momma’s Boys – with a specific focus on the primordial ties between mothers and their sons. NBC introduced the program as a new dating show, where possessive mothers must advise their complacent sons and help them choose the perfect partner. Like many other reality-based shows, the purported allure of Momma’s Boys relied on the voyeuristic glimpses into the confused, contradictory, and ultimately conflicting exchanges between genders and across generations. A look at the origins and development of this format in Europe reveals the extent to which reality television’s focus on relationships succeeds in cementing traditional notions of gender roles and socio-individual identities.


The Perfect Bride

The earliest version of this format has Turkish origins and was titled The Perfect Bride. Very little information about the creator Lutfi Murat Uckardesler is currently available in English, with the exception of the promo web site www.perfectbride.tv. Upon entering the site, the visitor is welcomed by an introductory flash animation that sets the tone for the content of the page: a white, red-haired, young bride, wearing a traditional white wedding dress and a tiara, is framed by a fuchsia Arabesque design. The title Perfect Bride is at the bottom of the screen, and two wedding rings are used as visual connectors between the two words. The bride-to-be appears innocent, malleable, and acquiescent, with her head tilted to the side, a pale smile on her lips, and her hands gently resting on her hips. The bride idealized in this image is romantically feminine and purposefully aligned with traditional views of heteronormativity. This overall impression is confirmed once the visitor is allowed into the content area of the site. Here, the eye is caught by the animated description of the program: “Every little girl dreams of getting married, finding the man of her dreams, moving in together, meeting the parents, the unforgettable proposal …What if the order gets mixed up? A first in television, here comes a new show where the mother-in-law is the one proposing … to the bride … the Perfect Bride.” This text is sided by the opening image of the bride, on the left, and static visuals about the popularity of the program on the right (“rating record” in one frame; “71.7% rating share” in the second frame). The home page of this site combines the Janus-faced nature of television remarked by Waisbord ((Waisbord, Silvio (2004). “McTV: Understanding the Global Popularity of Television Formats” Television and New Media 5(4): 359-383.)): on the one hand, the sense of cultural belonging is reiterated by the use of ‘every’ that attempts to standardize views of heterosexual love and connect them indissolubly to marriage; on the other hand, economic profits are guaranteed by the graphic on the right that uses ‘hard numbers’ to convey a sense of pseudo-scientific reliability. ((“[C]ontemporary television is a Janus-faced industry that in the name of profitability needs to commodify real and imagined nations while being open to global flows of ideas and money. The global circulation of formats responds to programming strategies to bridge transnational economic interests and national sentiments of belonging.” (Waisbord, 2004: 10-11).))

In 2007, the format was imported by the Italian public broadcaster RAI that saw the focus on family relationships an essential component of its potential appeal for older and younger audiences. ((A more thorough analysis of gender roles in La Sposa Perfetta is forthcoming in “Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media.”)) Indeed, unlike previous shows in which participants performed in individual competitions, La Sposa Perfetta exploited societal fascinations with the classical Italian family, a trope that has proven extremely successful in other genres – from cinema to television dramas and game shows. ((Often defined as a culture of ‘mamma’s boys,’ Italy is rated as one of the countries with the highest percentage of adult males living with their parents: 85% of men between the ages of 18-33 live in their parents’ household (Manacorda and Moretti, 2005). Several studies have investigated the possible reasons behind this trend and they generally concur that a combination of economic and cultural factors is at play here.)) As outlined in the original format, the show was based on the interactions between mothers, sons, and potential brides. As in other reality formats, the daily encounters presented numerous occasions for sharing secrets, forming alliances, and expressing ideological, cultural and generational differences. These become particularly evident when the women converse on what should be important characteristics of a ‘perfect bride.’ While the sons’ desires are always the main priority in choosing a bride, the mothers-in-law never cease to emphasize the importance of cooking, cleaning, and general house management skills. In the Italian version, these are indeed the elements that shape the mothers’ choices on who should be eliminated each week. The weekly edited recaps provide a constant emphasis on the young women’s lack of domestic skills. In the third episode, for instance, Mamma Teresa commented with frustration: “when it comes to household chores, none of these girls is really worthy.” This statement was the apex of a series of clips that featured the young women in distress upon trying various domestic activities (cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, etc.) and failing miserably in the mothers’ eyes.

A similarly conservative representation of gender roles is furthered in the program’s degrading insistence on the female body as a scientific specimen or consumable object for the voyeuristic male gaze. The male gaze that informs most women’s roles in Italian television affects the perception women have of themselves and necessarily regulates the visual and discursive gender relations. Hence, fictional and real women in television display a de-valorizing attitude towards their female counterparts: their role as interviewees, for instance, is downplayed by a lack of proper introduction and emphasis on women’s credentials, a paternalistic approach that highlights the physical significance of women, rather than their potential intellectual or ideological contribution to the discussion (Cornero, 2001: 82-84). This particular way of framing women in television is evidenced not only by the interactions between hosts, interviewees or fictional characters, but also by the specific camera movements that represent a consistent pattern of showing women. Generally, a series of close-up shots that begin at the feet and move up to the head introduces the woman, thereby underlining her physical accouterments and bodily details. In several instances, the camera often lingers upon specific body parts (breasts, hips, eyes, mouth) and overtly connotes them in a sexualized way by zooming in on extreme detail. This type of camera work frames the female figure from the beginning of her appearance on screen and defines her discursive interventions.

La Sposa Perfetta

La Sposa Perfetta

In La Sposa Perfetta this emphasis on the body defines the role of the brides-to-be. Information about the young women’s height, weight, age, size of clothes, and physical attractiveness is primordial in the online description of each contestant; the juxtaposition of each bride’s identikit allows viewers as well as mothers-in-law to compare and rank the eighteen women based mostly on physical attributes. The centrality of bodily performances finds constant reiterations in the program, when the weekly edited narrative accentuates the time the young women spend on improving their looks: close-up shots of bathroom scenes, where the women put on make up, struggle with their hair, or check their breasts, are regular reminders that physical attributes will eventually determine the winner of the competition.

It is worth noting at this point that this unflattering portrayal of Italian culture and gender relationships did not go unnoticed in the Italian and foreign media. Soon after the first episode aired in April 2007, the Italian Federation of the Press (FNSI) released a statement in which La Sposa Perfetta was defined “uncivil, vile, and squalid.” The same statement also pointed out that, before launching the program, RAI had just signed a five-year contract through which it committed to strengthen its public-service mission by avoiding stereotypical and discriminating views on women. In her column in La Repubblica, feminist journalist Natalia Aspesi ((Aspesi, Natalia (2007) “E l’Italia precipito` nel paese delle suocere” La Repubblica April 6.)) noted that “the country of televisual mothers-in-law seems to originate from sketches … of the Fascist era.” In her article poignantly titled “And Italy plummeted into the country of mothers-in-law,” Aspesi exclaims incredulously: “What muck this is! If we are talking about a game to amuse the easy-going masses, it bears saying that state television really needs to put a limit to the rubbish, the vulgarity, the lies, the rudeness, and the denial of social changes that happened 50 years ago.” (2007)

As the local adaptations of this format show, reality television often exploits people’s fascination with human relationships to promote unchallenged and, perhaps, reassuring gender norms, which can be easily re-inscribed within the flattening framework of most mainstream television. With a few exceptions, the novelty of reality television formats has remained unmatched by an equally innovative and fresh look at the changing social relationships that shape contemporary society.

Image Credits:
1. The Cast of Momma’s Boys
2. The Perfect Bride
3. La Sposa Perfetta

Urban Media Practices As Interventions: An Italian Case Study
Michela Ardizzoni / University of Colorado Boulder



Among the many changes that have characterized Barack Obama’s victory is a renewed focus on community activism and the role of local public service in the future of contemporary global societies. From his grassroots presidential campaign to his background as a community organizer in Chicago, Obama’s election has contributed to a re-definition and re-evaluation of local participation in neighborhood development. The often polarizing forces of globalization, like migration, corporate expansion, consumerism, the rise of urban conglomerates, and the mainstreaming of media voices, to name but a few, have triggered a re-examination of local realities and the urban spaces they occupy. Thus, in recent years in the United States, Europe, and Latin America we have witnessed the rise of ‘urban media,’ progressive and originally alternative productions that aim at reflecting and voicing the experiences of young urban generations, often caught between the insularity of their location and the cosmopolitanism of their communities. Since 2000 urban experiments such as Zalea TV in Paris, the Argentinean TV Piquetera from the local barrios, M2HZ TV in Helsinki, or the transnational Franco-American project of Trace TV, have opened up unprecedented fora of cultural production and social debate.

In the Italian context, the street television movement, which began as a neighborhood voice in some Italian cities, exemplifies the desire to redesign the contours of the Habermasian public sphere in a mediatic context that stifles innovation, creativity, and diversity. With the use of inexpensive and easy-to-use technology, the creators of the Telestreet project envisioned a movement that would bring television physically and semantically closer to its viewers by allowing audiences to participate in and create programs about their local realities.

One of the most successful and long-lived televisions is Insu^tv from Naples, which began in 2002 as an attempt to create means of mediated communication that could be shared and produced by the public. Nicola Agrisano, one of the founders of Insu^tv, defines the goals of this project as follows: “[our goals is] to create media that are produced by the same number of people that watch them. We like to call this ‘proxyvision,’ a space in osmosis with the reality of daily life.” It is particularly the convergence between the public sphere of television and the local space of daily, urban life that is at the heart of Insu^tv’s programming. Like other street projects, this Neapolitan channel arose from dissatisfaction with the lack of representation of local issues in mainstream national media and the stereotypical portrayal of the Italian South as regressive and indolent. The reality of urban living in Naples’ neighborhoods is often neglected by national media, which privilege a spectacle-like lens to filter commercially viable news of the area. Thus, the problems, but also the opportunities, presented by some areas of the city never reach the national stage and are consequently ignored by local populations as well. The creative idea behind Insu^tv aims at filling this lacuna, by catering to local communities that are often voiceless in the national media. Unlike other street channels that focus on some selected topics, Insu^tv does not limit its programming to specific issues, but rather follows the trajectories and the narratives that shape Neapolitan life over time.


In this respect, one of the main contributions of Insu^tv is the space dedicated to migrants’ issues. The trend of globalization that has accelerated the flows of migrations from the South and East of the world towards the West has heavily impacted Naples’ urban life. Compared with other Italian cities, Naples is a relatively newer destination of migration for foreigners, who began moving into the city in the early 1990s. In 2007, the urban population of Naples was about 1,000,000, 6% of which are legal migrants. To address the problems and obstacles faced by immigrants in Naples, Insu^tv created an alternative newscast, Tg Migranti, that features stories shot and narrated from the migrants’ perspective. Thus, instead of trying to capture the difficulties of migrant life through the eyes of a privileged native Italian – a viewpoint often adopted on national television – Tg Migranti hands the camera and the microphone to immigrants, who choose to report in their native language (subtitled in Italian) to narrate the shackles of their path to Europe or their views on the most recent law on immigration.

A program like Tg Migranti is alternative and innovative in two essential ways. First, the underprivileged and the powerless are allowed to speak and they do so by using the linguistic and ideological codes with which they feel most comfortable; this approach collides with the more paternalistic view of national newscasts, where immigrants are featured mostly in cases of criminality or lack of integration and their differences from traditional notions of Italianness are underscored by their limited knowledge of the language. Second, Tg Migranti focuses on the interdependence between the local and the global in today’s world. In this program, the national level is muffled by a more pragmatic look at how the international reality of migration patterns to Naples has impacted the city and, conversely, how the Neapolitan identity is increasingly re-centered by virtue of being exposed to a globalized world. As the case of this program highlights, people of different ethnic, economic, and educational backgrounds participate in the creation of the channel and the promotion of its programs. While no official data exist on the viewership, Agrisano confirms that Insu^tv reaches a footprint of about 500,000 people living in the area where the channel is accessible. This reach is expanded in their web site, which involves audience participation through polls and blogs and allows visitors to view the programs originally broadcast on television. As in most other street tv projects, what we witness here is a convergence of old and new media to target different sections of the audience and maximize the reach of their message: “give voice to the voiceless.”



So, why are these urban media projects more than just local, ephemeral attempts at innovative broadcasting? And why should media scholars pay any serious attention to street tvs that might last only a few months and engage a very narrow spectrum of viewers? My answer to these questions is twofold. On the one hand, local media projects like Telestreet reveal a deeply rooted desire to put a halt to the ever-expanding pressures of market forces that limit access to the national mediascape, which becomes the expression of a minuscule portion of the population. The palpable need for change that imbues many urban contexts nowadays is taking the shape of media projects that re-center the stories of disenfranchised and marginalized groups, while at the same time focusing on the impact of global trends on local communities. On the other hand, urban media practices like the ones discussed here invite us to re-think the transformative use of public space as both object and subject of media interventions. Indeed, in the case of the Italian Telestreet, the neighborhood street becomes the focus of programs on local issues; at the same time, though, the street is the environment in which social and collective processes of television making actively take place. Through a re-appropriation of often-forgotten public areas, these urban media projects engage in a kind of spatial activism that reclaims the boundaries of public space and the public sphere.

Image Credits:
1. insutv.it
2. Telestreet
3. Front Page Image

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Taming the Global on Italian Television

by: Michela Ardizzoni / Indiana University

The famous Dutch television producer, Endemol, will probably go down in the annals of history as a catalyst of standardized television programming across the globe. Since 2000, some of its innovative reality shows like Big Brother, Fear Factor, Star Academy, and Blind Faith pervade prime-time television in 22 countries, from the most liberal channels of Europe to the most conservative of the Persian Gulf.

The globalization of television programming is not a new phenomenon. Yet, the localized forms current programs take in various national contexts offer interesting insights into accepted boundaries of nationality and the pervasive notion of nation-state. The nationalistic fanfare that characterizes most prime-time television programs in Italy is emblematic of this confluence of global and local trends, which ultimately aims at reinforcing (rather than challenging) cemented visions of Italianness.

Out of a total of seven free-to-air channels, five regularly feature Endemol productions ranging from reality-based to game shows: Ready Steady Cook, Big Brother, Star Academy, and several others have become staples on public and private channels alike. While the irksome convergence of public and private interests in Italian television is luckily unique in its genre, the overwhelming popularity of these shows has colored the television scape of other European countries. France, Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom are only some of the many who have succumbed to the bewildering power of Endemol productions. Unlike its fellow EU members, Italian television has further demystified the appeal of these shows by donning them with a domesticated version of Italianness that suits well the socio-political climate of these years.

Fundamentally, the images and discourse that reach the viewer depict Italy as a country designed along regional lines that seem more rooted in people’s identity and more appropriate for the identifying processes enacted by television. Consider, for example, Your Business, a prime-time Endemol program aired daily on the main public channel RAI 1. Each episode of the show features a different contestant who attempts to win the largest sum of money by opening the lucky box. Unlike in other European versions where participants and their boxes are labeled by numbers, those in the Italian Your Business are labeled by numbers and regions like Calabria, Sardinia, Tuscany. Every time a contestant chooses a box, a rather folkloric song characteristic of the corresponding region is played. Often, the show’s moderator, who recently has helped RAI 1 recover control of prime-time after years of lagging behind Berlusconi’s private channel, would switch to the region’s dialect or accent in a highly stereotypical fashion. Even in entertainment, television portrays an unrelenting vision of Italianness as a composite of distinct cultural regions.

This emphasis on regionalism as the essence of national identity expands to other global products like Big Brother or Music Farm. Aside from the formulaic characterization of participants, this process elicits a contradictory conception of unified identity that is paradoxically fragmented and potentially divisive. In Italy, the presumed homogenizing impact of globalization is confronted with the permeating awareness of regional differences that are frequently accentuated rather than de-emphasized. As clearly evidenced by current news channels, media globalization — the multi-faceted monster condemned and revered by innumerable sources — has produced a sense of immediacy and simultaneity by making us part of common worlds. Yet, at the local level it has been met with deeply rooted realities that defy most attempts of standardizing sub-national experiences.

The resilience of regional identification in Italy stems from a concerted political campaign that has reached its momentum in the last few years with the ascent of a federalist party, the Northern League (Lega Nord), under the boisterous leadership of Umberto Bossi. This party, the name of which reminisces an obsolete vision of Italy split along the Po river, originally advocated ideological (if not political) separatism, dividing the Northern Padanian region from the rest of Italy. In recent years, the improbable outcome of the ethnocentric logic forced the party to channel its efforts to further empower local governments. This process has led to the creation of a ministry of devolution that has reinforced the autonomy of local governments in the areas of education, health, and law and order. The media have also been affected by the ubiquity of devolution when the second channel of the RAI public network was moved from Rome to Milan, the largest city in the Padanian region, and more airtime was slated for programming featuring an unprecedented parade of localism.

This vengeful localist turn seems an unsurprising reaction to the forces of globalization and the presumed fear of cultural contamination, but the celebration of the local as it encounters the global does not necessarily lead to a reification of unity along nationalistic lines. In a reciprocal mode, Endemol programs are made to fit the localism of national productions, as these tend to mimic the transient nature of foreign game shows and reality-based television. The way global products like Endemol’s are appropriated on Italian television leads one to question not the obvious impact of globalization on national identity, but the extent to which accepted discourses on the nation-state may conceal the primacy of regionalism as a growing constituent of identity in the media. In the case of Italy, regionalism seems to be the tool used to hunt the specter of national and global standardization.


Endemol homepage

Museum of Broadcast Communications archives: Italy
Museo Nazionale del Cinema (English version)

Reality TV in Italy
Italian media landscape
Silvio Berlusconi and Italian media

www.rai.it (in Italian)
www.ansa.it (in Italian)

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