Italy politics: Sex, thighs and 'Videocracy'

AP News
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Posted: Dec 14, 2009 7:23 AM

Take a sex scandal dogging Silvio Berlusconi, add plenty of scantily clad young women on Italian TV and throw in some of the first serious scrutiny of a national culture where television lies at the nexus of power and politics.

The result is sex, thighs and "Videocracy" _ a documentary that takes a harsh look at a system perfected through Berlusconi's TV empire, in which sexy women become a symbol and instrument of power.

The undress-for-success formula is rarely challenged in Italy, where flaunting sex appeal is a way of life. But a rebellion of sorts has begun to challenge this Berlusconi-championed mix of sex, political influence and TV.

Cleavage and barely clad behinds are the signature feature of the lowbrow entertainment that is the mainstay of the Mediaset TV empire that made Berlusconi one of the world's wealthiest men and launched him into politics in the early 1990s.

For some women seeking to catch Berlusconi's eye, critics say, a lot of exposed skin has even been a way to break into politics; his minister for equal opportunity is a former beauty queen and host on Mediaset and state TV, and women whose most obvious attribute is sexiness have been recruited as candidates under the Berlusconi party banner.

Now comes an Italian businessman claiming to investigators that he procured some 30 women, many of them TV starlets or wannabes, as well as a high-end prostitute, to spice up the evenings dinners and parties at Berlusconi's Sardinian villa and Rome palazzo.

The businessman has since been arrested in a cocaine probe. Berlusconi, who denies ever paying for sex, isn't being investigated.

In the midst of the scandal, a man wielding a statuette attacked Berlusconi on Sunday at a rally in Milan, leaving the premier with a broken nose and two broken teeth.

One politician who is decidedly not aiming for a spot on Berlusconi's TV shows is Rosy Bindi, an opposition centrist who, as vice president of the Chamber of Deputies is one of Italy's highest ranking female political figures.

She was on a state TV network in October, rebuking Berlusconi for the sex scandal when the 73-year-old premier phoned in and zinged her on the air, saying: "You are always more beautiful than intelligent."

The graying, primly dressed 58-year-old shot back with: "I'm not one of the women at your disposal," and a backlash was born.

La Repubblica, the left-leaning Rome newspaper that Berlusconi detests, invited women to express their anger, and some 100,000 responded in less than a month.

Besides posting irate comments on the paper's Web site, many sent in photos of themselves, fully clothed and in such poses as stirring pots on the stove, working in office cubicles or holding babies. Many scrawled across their photos: "Mr. Premier, I'm not at your disposal."

Then there is also "Il Corpo delle Donne" (The Body of Women), a pass-the-word cult YouTube video seen by nearly 1 million people.

A Milan businesswoman, Lorella Zanardo, spliced together snippets of some of the saucier scenes of sexy women known as "veline" (veh-LEE-neh) lifted from Berlusconi-owned and state TV networks. The name comes from the term for the thin strips of paper on which propaganda dispatches were written under Benito Mussolini, and the show's name, "Striscia le notizie" refers to news flashes.

When Zanardo takes the 25-minute video around to schools, she asks girls what they want to be someday. "The most popular calling for girls 16 or 17 years old is to be a 'velina,'" said Zanardo.

In "Videocracy," cameras roll at a shopping mall where crowds of eager parents and grandparents egg on skittish young women at annual "veline" tryouts.

Bindi blames the premier in large part. "Berlusconi has become the interpreter, the facilitator, the shaper of this culture," she says.

Berlusconi has been unapologetic about his fondness for attractive women and the marital troubles they have caused him. His wife, Veronica Lario, herself a former starlet, is divorcing him, and her publicly expressed indignation that he tapped starlets to run for European Parliament seats forced all but one of them to drop out.

"Shameless trash in the name of power," said Lario.

She also berated him for attending the 18th birthday party of a model from Naples last spring.

Italy's unusual blend of sex and politics didn't begin with Berlusconi. Twenty years ago it catapulted Ilona Staller, the former porn-star known as Cicciolina, into Parliament. But Berlusconi and his media empire have taken this mix to a more systematic, mass-cultural level.

Still, Berlusconi remains highly popular, and so do the onscreen veline.

They are fixtures of the most popular prime time slot, a parody of a newscast in which two young women, one blonde, one brunette and both in hot pants and shirts open almost to the navel, plop themselves on the desk of the show's anchors _ two men in suits. They are mostly silent, except when it comes time to hawk products.

Bindi notes that Italy's relatively low rate of women in jobs, and its generous early retirement system, give people ample time to watch TV.

Says Zanardo: "I don't think Berlusconi had a strategy to sedate" women, but "TV does drug women who watch it five, six hours a day."

"All the people who watch a lot of TV vote for him, especially women in the 50-to-70 age range," Zanardo told The Associated Press in an interview.

As for Noemi Letizia, whose birthday party Berlusconi attended, she is said to harbor hopes of getting into politics.

'"Daddy' Silvio will take care of that," she was quoted as telling a newspaper.