Bunga-Bunga Nation

By Nadeau, Barbie | Newsweek, November 22, 2010 | Go to article overview

Bunga-Bunga Nation


Nadeau, Barbie, Newsweek


Byline: Barbie Nadeau

As a media magnate and prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi has spent decades reshaping the country in his own image. The result is not a pretty sight.

It's 8:30 p.m., and all eyes turn to Italy's most popular satirical news program, Striscia la Notizia (Strip the News). Two middle-aged men stand under a strobe light, one of them holding a belt from which dangles a vaguely phallic string of garlic. A woman slides across the floor on her stomach, wearing a sequined costume with a thong bottom and a deep-V neckline that ends below her navel. As she stands up, one of the men dangles the garlic in front of her open mouth. She takes it in her hands and rubs it on the side of her face. "Go, turn around, let's give you a little look," the other man says, and touches the model's derriere. "Thank you, doll."

That's how prime time is in Italy. The parade of skin and jiggle is inescapable, an expression of the rot at the top of the Italian government and a reflection of the society's deeper problem with the evolving role of women. While headlines tell endlessly lurid tales of teenage models, paid escorts, and underage Moroccan belly dancers playing "bunga-bunga" with 74-year-old Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the media's constant message is that men are men, and women are window dressing. Boycotts, protests, and even complaints are rare, and few listen. So while Berlusconi may be acting like a dirty old man these days, it has to be said that a goodly number of Italian women have been willing to play his demeaning games for a long time.

It's as if he planned it this way. Long before Berlusconi won his first stint as prime minister in the 1990s, the scandal-ridden media mogul owned 45 percent of Italy's television market. He gained control of state television--another 50 percent of the market--as head of government. With 95 percent of the TV market now under Berlusconi's umbrella, his cumulative influence on the way Italian women are seen and see themselves is hard to overstate. So are the negative results for Italy: while other European lands actively promote gender equality as a builder of national prosperity, Berlusconi has led the charge in the opposite direction, effectively stifling women by creating a world in which they are seen first and foremost as sex objects instead of professional equals.

An appalling portrait of Berlusconi's Italy emerges from the World Economic Forum's October 2010 Global Gender Gap rankings. The report argues that closing the gender gap Europe-wide could boost the euro zone's GDP as much as 13 percent. But as things stand now, Italy would be left leering on the sidelines. In every category but education, Italy lags badly: in labor participation, it's 87th worldwide; wage parity, 121st; opportunity for women to take leadership positions, 97th. In the report's overall ranking, Italy now places 74th in the world for its treatment of women--behind Colombia, Peru, and Vietnam, and seven places lower than it did when Berlusconi took office in 2008. "Italy continues to be one of the lowest-ranking countries in the EU and deteriorate[d] further over the last year," the report says.

An entire generation has grown up in a society where soft-core porn is a regular feature of the nightly news. It's been 23 years since Berlusconi's Canale 5 introduced Striscia la Notizia, with its voluptuous women known as veline--literally "scraps of paper"--parading through the segments. Today, showgirls not only appear on every channel, some are even in government, thanks to Berlusconi. Polls show that more young Italian women want to be well-paid TV veline than doctors, lawyers, or business owners.

Others just lose hope. "Our only form of protest is changing the channel," says Concetta di Somma, a 30-year-old aerobics instructor. "But when even the weather girl is showing her cleavage, if you protest with the clicker, you miss the news." Underrepresented in government and corporate life, women have little hope of changing the system from within. …

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