By Elena Colonna.
While the shaping of one’s own identity is something that happens partly unconsciously, through early socialization we experience as children, growing older I have started to question what factors played a role in determining my behavior and thoughts. In particular, I came to realize the big role media had in shaping the way I perceive myself as a woman.
I grew up always knowing I was a straight woman, and I never had issues with it. I would easily identify myself with other straight women I would find around me, in my family or outside of it, and naturally, also on TV. To understand how Italian television portrays women, it’s important to realize that, from long before I was born, the Italian TV industry was owned by a guy, Silvio Berlusconi, who you might know not only for his questionable skills as a politician, but more likely for the sexist comments he would make on a daily basis, or for the scandals which saw him involved with underage girls. Just as a reminder, he was the guy who defined Angela Merkel as “an unfuckable lardass”, while his country’s economy was failing in comparison to Germany’s. You can then easily guess the way women have been, and still are, portrayed on his channels: silent and pretty showgirls who aren’t allowed to speak but are just there as mute companions, mere decoration. Young, attractive and half naked women simply there for the men presenters to make sexual jokes about them. Women as an ornament whose only objective is to be pretty and attractive to the men’s eye, to attract more audience. Women whose identity is reduced to their body, and their worth to how sexually appealing they are to men. Women who are almost always mute, limited to roles that require no competence whatsoever, and portrayed as stupid when they speak. Women shrinking into skinnier bodies, making space for the entrance of men on the stage, not able to raise their voices to these men’s comments.
This representation of women has come to characterize not only Berlusconi’s channels, but most of Italian TV shows. For example, this year’s “Festival of Sanremo”, the biggest Italian music festival and one of the main nationwide events, was co-hosted by a beautiful young model, of no competence and clearly portrayed in a position of inferiority in comparison to the main man host; the main presenter even praised her capacity of “staying one step behind” in the scene. Moreover, a young rapper whose lyrics prompt to rape and femicide was allowed to participate to this huge national event. This confirms how, in our hyper commercialized and sexist society, women’s bodies are just goods to consume, and men’s gaze have the power to fully determine a woman’s value. Thus, a sexy but superficial girl is considered to be living her life more successfully than Angela Merkel, all Berlusconis out there agreeing.
As the Italian journalist Lorella Zanardo argues,
“women – real women – are an endangered species on Italian television, one that is being replaced by a grotesque, vulgar and humiliating representation, leading to the erasure of women’s identity“
The manipulative exploitation of women’s bodies emerges as women portrayed on TV seem to go along with men’s every desire, being reduced and reducing themselves to sexual objects, and giving up any possibility of being an equal other; in Italian, we even have a word for them “Velina” (literally translating to “thin tissue”).
The pictures of this article are taken from public broadcasting channels, quiz and news shows streamed during the day or the early evening: women are hanged like meat, forced to walk around in lingerie or take showers in their white dresses while the presenter claims “I’m not doing it for me, I’m doing it for all the Italian men”. (The programmes in the pictures are “Scherzi a Parte”, “Striscia la Notizia”, “Il Mercante in Fiera”).
If this is how the system works, and these are our role models, how does a child grow up seeing her identity as a female being constantly denigrated? My dreams at 13 were to get a nose job and to become a Velina; the pressure that society was putting on the importance of being pretty and attractive was slowly destroying my different passions and interests, my friends slowly fell into eating disorders. I hated my body, my body that had became a good to consume, an object to look at. I wanted my body to disappear together with the comments that my classmates would make, but at the same time I couldn’t help but seek for these comments and that external validation. But my case was definitely not an exception, as Italy is 3rd in world rankings for per-capita plastic surgery procedures, and almost half of these surgeries are done on women who are less than 30 years old. Interviews reveal how almost 65% of Italian women take into consideration plastic surgery, either to correct physical flaws, to be more liked by men, or to erase signs of the passage of time. Why are we so ashamed of showing our real faces? Surely our society of mass consumption, where the industries of plastic surgery, cosmetics, or diets create huge profits, benefits from women’s insecurities, and TV and social media play a primary role in enforcing these insecurities.
Being oneself constitutes a fundamental human right, however most women are incapable of looking at themselves in the mirror and accept who they are, with their own faces. Women are so used to seeing themselves through the eyes of men that even advertising chooses images that reflect men’s sexual taste to sell products to women, creating an unreal and unhealthy model of beauty that every woman feels pressured to adhere to. Taking away someone’s facial features, through plastic surgery, is like taking away someone’s identity. It’s the ultimate humiliation by a society that wants women to homogenize, that wants each woman to look like the next. But if as women we are all becoming the same, we are turned into nobody. All our identities are blended into one, based on the importance of looking attractive. From an early age, through the images we would see on TV, we were taught that appearing was more important than being. Even adult emancipated women who have something to say- scientists, journalists or politicians- are portrayed on TV as desirable objects, and none of them seems to show an original and genuine identity. This representation and the standards held for women in television do not apply to men at all. Men presenters and TV personalities are often unattractive and of a clearly older age than their female counterparts, however, their charisma, their personality or their professional achievements are considered to be enough.
If we believe that images are means of communication, specific TV images are a faithful mirror of a certain behavior. In a country where every 72 hours a woman is murdered, where women suffer from discrimination, violence and harassment, where men take all the highest places of power, where as a woman you are still considered incompetent and inferior, having TV and media conveying these messages is unacceptable. If only retouched faces with heavy make-up are shown to the public, and women never appear on TV with their real faces, we will never be able to accept ourselves as we are. If women are accepted only when they stick to the frame they are put into, without taking part in the conversation, and keep accepting humiliating comments men make about them, we will keep struggling to shape our own identity and become empowered and independent women. However, not only television is to blame: with the emergence of social media, each and everyone of us has the power of enforcing, or of fighting, the way women are portrayed and perceived, and it’s on all of us to move away from this appearance-based society.