The Superficial Truth: A controversial video-turned-book looks at the one-dimensional presentation of women in Italian television


Please don’t retouch my wrinkles” – said the great Italian actress Anna Magnani, a muse for Neorealist maestro Roberto Rossellini (Rome, Open City, 1945), while instructing her make-up artist not to conceal the lines on her face – “Leave them all there, it took me so long to earn them.” Many years have passed since then, and women’s concerns and ambitions seem to have changed a lot. Back from the feminist struggles of the 70s, women still have to face a number of unsolved issues in the present-day Italy – from employment discrimination to political participation, not mentioning the “ordinary” cases of violence against women, which daily fill the pages of all newspapers. Just to put it in figures, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2010, Italy continues to be one of the lowest-ranking countries in the EU and has deteriorated further over the last years (from rank 67 in 2008 to rank 74 out of 134 countries in 2010): women’s average salary is 50% lower than men’s (20,152 vs. 40,000 US$), and the presence of women in Parliament is significantly smaller (21% vs. 79%), especially in comparison to other countries (in Sweden women in Parliament are 46%). Beside this alarming economic and political inequality, Italian women have recently been facing another unexpected challenge: their image.

Zanardo- Il Corpo Delle Donne
Zanardo- Il Corpo Delle Donne

Since the rise of commercial TV channels in the 80s, and the consequent establishment of Berlusconi’s anomaly at the core of the Italian political system in the 90s, women – as represented by media and in the narratives of the Italian Prime Minister – have witnessed the progressive disappearance of their true essence, and real body, from the public arena, in favour of a distorted portrait of their own selves. It is enough to turn any Italian TV channel on, at any time of the day or night, to see women reduced to a multitude of inflated breasts, surgically enhanced lips, exhibited buttocks, blank looks and dulled smiles. While sex scandals become a recurrent feature of the political scene, with former TV soubrettes earning a seat at the national and European Parliament, Italian media perform a dangerous “normalization” of such anomalies, conveying a humiliating image of Italian women, who are surreptitiously encouraged to use their body, instead of their brain, to affirm their role in society. Far from the liberating sexual freedom advocated by the early feminists, this constant exhibition of the female body, associated with the absence of really qualifying roles for women in the media, as well as in other fields of society, seems to obey to a logic of annihilation, objectification and disempowerment of women, with negative repercussions on the younger, and more sensitive to the media messages, generations.

Among the few to denounce the degrading use of the female body on the Italian TV, in May 2009 businesswoman Lorella Zanardo, along with Cesare Cantù and Marco Malfi Chindemi, realised a documentary entitled Il corpo delle donne (“The Body of Women”) distributed on the Internet ( in several languages, with the aim of raising awareness on this issue. The film stems from the observation that women, real women, have been evicted from TV screens, only to be replaced by a grotesque, vulgar, humiliating representation of them. Although this happens regularly, there seems to be no reaction against this phenomenon, not even by women themselves (“Why don’t we do something about it? Why are we accepting this constant humiliation? What are we afraid of?” – the author asks at the end of the documentary). This misrepresentation was the reason that induced Lorella Zanardo to select a number of images from popular TV programmes having in common a twisted use of women’s body, in order to communicate what is happening “not only to those who never watch TV , but also, and especially, to those who watch it, but do not “see” it.” The documentary also focuses on the disappearance of adult women’s faces from TV, as well as on the increasing use of plastic surgery to remove any sign of aging, and the social consequences of such collective removal.

The research at the basis of the film has recently become a book (Il corpo delle donne, Feltrinelli 2010), and is extending further on: the debate ignited by the documentary, and the positive reactions of women, as well as men, eager for a change in the representation of their selves in the media, has prompted Lorella Zanardo to also launch a training course entitled Nuovi occhi per la TV (“New Eyes for TV ”), which is mainly addressed to students and anyone interested in enhancing their critical attitude in the consumption of mass media, in the belief that – as philosopher Karl Popper pointed out – “citizens of a civilised society, meaning people who behave civilly, are not the result of chance, but the outcome of an educational process.”