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Film scorns Italian TV sex symbols

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Do Italian TV programmes like these ones degrade women?

By Kate Forbes
BBC News

Some 50 Italian teenagers sit in their school hall, watching a documentary called Il corpo delle donne - The Body of Women.

They whisper and shift in their seats, but they have seen it all before.

The documentary shows a series of young women dressed in heels and not much else. Their main occupation seems to be dancing, stripping, being called stupid by male hosts, giggling and pretending not to know the answers to questions.

The TV girls are the Veline - the showgirls that are a staple of family entertainment on Italian television.

The documentary has had more than a million responses on its website alone, and more on the video-sharing website YouTube.

It has been translated into English, Spanish, Greek, French and Portuguese.  And it was made not by a journalist but by an everyday woman - businesswoman Lorella Zanardo.

Lorella Zanardo
Ms Zanardo believes the image of women on Italian TV undermines them

"It got to the point where every time I switched on the television I despaired," she says.

"There is only one type of woman on Italian TV, and that is with a beautiful body - no brain. It is a terrible message for girls growing up, to see that the way to success is with their body, never their brain."

Fast track for 'babes'

She has shown it in schools and often asks to find out how many girls in the audience want to be a showgirl. She is surprised at the forest of hands that shoots up.

Lydia, 16, explains why: "It's the way you have to go, if you want to be a TV presenter. Or read the news, or even get into politics," she says. "I would consider it - although I would be embarrassed about not wearing any clothes!"

Cue more giggles. But the class knows that for the girls on screen less is always more. Past showgirls have moved on to desirable careers in journalism, TV presenting and even politics.

The Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, controversially chose ex-Veline to run for positions in the European Parliament.

The so-called "Berlusconi babes" included a Big Brother contestant, a former Miss Italy contestant and a soap opera star. None had any training or background in politics or economics. In the end just one - Barbara Matera - made it into the European Parliament.

Ageism allegations

Mr Berlusconi's critics in Italy say the culture is not only under his ownership - public TV is now as brassy as his private TV empire.

The massive internet response to the documentary includes comments on the absence of older women on Italian TV.

Sequences in the documentary show a series of female presenters with an eerily similar look - from extensive plastic surgery.

But Italy is not alone in this. The UK saw heated debate over whether older women like BBC newsreader Moira Stuart and Strictly Come Dancing judge Arlene Phillips were being dropped from TV because of their age.

With a background in business, softly-spoken Ms Zanardo is not exactly an Italian version of campaigning American director Michael Moore. But she is attracting growing controversy in Italy.

Traditionalist newspaper Libero attacked her "crusade", calling her a "self-styled professor of what is right and wrong" and "dangerous".  "Do we need lessons on how to watch television?" another article asks.

Back in the school hall, no one can keep their opinion to themselves. "No one is forcing them to do it," argues one girl, palms upturned. "Show me a job in TV with your clothes on!" retorts another.

It is young women and men like these who are fuelling the debate, which so far has largely existed online. Now it is bubbling over into mainstream media in Italy, and beyond its borders, too.



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