No more showgirls?

Silvio Berlusconi is losing popularity in Italy, and so are his television networks' outdated gameshows, skimpily dressed hostesses and all.

Published July 23, 2004 1:52PM (EDT)

By all accounts, Silvio Berlusconi has had his finest hour. He is still in government, but pundits believe that in recent weeks he has lost a good deal of credibility. His party, Forza Italia, performed poorly in June's European elections, winning only 21% of the vote, down from 29% in the 2001 general election and 25% in the last European election. His political allies in cabinet have been deserting him, or threatening to. This week his minister for reform, Umberto Bossi, resigned to take up a seat in the European parliament. Most damaging of all, the Italians no longer believe his election-winning promise that he can make them rich.

Berlusconi owns or controls 95% of Italian terrestrial television, but even this hasn't guaranteed him control over the Italian electorate -- despite the fact that Italians watch more television than any other country in Europe (four hours a day, on average). Many Italians, it seems, are "Berlusconied out", suffering from a surfiet of Silvio-friendly news, images of the billionaire prime minister's smiling face and, most of all, the mindless gameshows on his three Mediaset television channels.

For as long as Berlusconi has dominated the political stage in Italy, the long-legged television "hostesses" have never been off the small screen. Under Mediaset, the cult of the scantily clad, pouting "showgirl" -- an institution for decades on Italian television -- has been taken to new heights of ridiculousness. But there are signs that she, like her patron Berlusconi, may also have had her day. Television audiences have been showing signs of boredom, and the latest ratings figures show that more and more Italians are forsaking the Benny Hill formula of the older, fully dressed man surrounded by pretty girls in underwear. Instead, they are tuning in to serious current affairs programmes, documentaries and costume dramas.

Mediaset's satirical news review, Striscia la Notizia (Strip the News), the showcase for the country's most high-profile television hostesses, drew 12 million viewers in 2002. This year, viewing figures have at times sunk to an all-time low of five million. Research has shown that it is the point at which the women start dancing on the newsdesk that the viewers switch off.

Last month, the summer-long beauty contest to find new hostesses for next season's Striscia ran into protests in the ancient Umbrian town of Gubbio. Marlina Scavizzi, a teacher at Perugia's Academy of Fine Art and spokesperson for the Libera Mente (Free Mind) women's group in Umbria, which organised the protest, says, "We felt we had to say something. Under Berlusconi, junk television has taken over, and the hostess is the most annoying thing about it. We don't need to repeat these humiliating images of women as bodies with no brains. In the past few years, the representation of women on television has become more and more stupid."

Italian women are looking for new, stronger role models. In recent months, many women have been inspired by the example of reporter and television anchorwoman Lilli Gruber. Gruber, who provided incisive, balanced reporting for state television from Iraq until earlier this year, has recently gone into politics. Representing the opposition left, she won more than a million votes in the recent European elections. In Rome, she ran against Berlusconi (among others) and won 237,000 votes to his 116,000.

Even so, the television showgirl will be a tough stereotype to shift from the national psyche. Books have been written about them, films have celebrated them, and Mattel Italy has a line in television-showgirl Barbies. An EU-funded "fame school", where men and women train to appear on Striscia la Notizia-style shows, recently opened outside Naples.

Indeed, she is such an institution that she has even entered the dictionary. A velina (plural veline ) is defined in this year's Zingarelli dictionary as "a young television assistant who exhibits herself in succinct clothes during a transmission". Those women who don't qualify as veline can content themselves with less glamorous roles, such as letterine (women who hold the letters up), numerine (women who hold the numbers up) or microfonine (women who hold the microphones).

The most successful veline are at the heart of Italian celebrity culture, and can earn a fortune. And while au diences appear to be turning off, there are still plenty of young women who want to be on television. "I'm the one who is using this show, to get myself noticed," says Virginia Battista, a 23-year-old economics student at Rome University, as she waits for her two minute "sexiness test" (a short dance routine). "I don't think there's anything degrading about showing your body on TV. If you've got a good one, why not use it? Anyone else would."

The creator of the Berlusconi-era velina, producer Antonio Ricci, claims it is all harmless fun. The summer roadshow is about personality as much as looks, he says  a hard position to maintain when contestants are sorted by hair colour (blondes one night, brunettes the next) and asked to perform a variety of "challenges" such as simulating sex or pretending to be an animal. Ricci argues that Striscia la Notizia's two veline, one dark, one blonde, are a part of the satire and not meant to be taken seriously. So is the theme tune, Bimba Bomba (Bomb Girl), which Ricci has dedicated to Palestinian martyrs. "It reminds you that in other countries the body is used in a different way," he told Candida Morvillo, author of a book called Velina Republic.

Ricci does not deny that his veline are superficial. But he insists that "women model themselves on these girls. They are what so many women want to be." The audience for veline, he argues, is more female than male. In the past, 55% of Striscia la Notizia's audience has been women, and it is often mothers who want their daughters to appear on television and fathers who are less keen.

Scavizzi would disagree. Since the protest in Umbria, she says, Libera Mente has received messages of support from individuals and organisations all over Italy. "It's as if we've broken the ice. There are a lot of Italians who want something better." That "something better" has so far been best represented by Gruber, currently one of the most intelligent and popular personalities in Italian television and politics. Gruber speaks four languages and wears a snug-looking neckscarf (no cleavage). But this did not stop Italians from crowning her the sexiest woman on television last year.

"I'm short. I don't think I'm that sexy," she laughs. "But women admire me for being serious without giving up on my femininity.

"Wherever you look on Italian television, you have a bimbo. Women I speak to all round the country are sick and tired of that image. It's a representation of woman that doesn't exist any more in Italy. In the last three years, it has got worse. We are living in a culture of the right that does not have much of an opinion of women. It is not a culture that promotes respect."

News reports indicate that increasing numbers of young women, inspired by Gruber, are signing up to study journalism. In the newsroom of the state broadcaster Rai, the local media have already identified a handful of budding "Gruberine."

So are Italians redefining their concept of sexy? Is the velina a dying breed? "There will always be a residual demand for showgirls on Italian television," says Michele Sorice, professor of the history of television and radio at Rome's Sapienza University. Italy remains a conservative culture. "But the gameshow producers will soon be forced to realise that there is a growing demand for something else."

In campaigning for equal opportunities at work and in education, Italian women have tended to lag behind other Europeans. In Italy, only 40% of women work, compared to 55% and above in other European countries. Women not in full-time employment have been among the most committed television viewers and, three years ago, were among the most committed Berlusconi voters.

But for growing numbers of women, looking good is no longer enough. You have to be able to speak, too. You have to have politics. And what you say has to make sense.

By Sophie Arie

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