ROME — Silvio Berlusconi often declares that he is passionate about the opposite sex, but for many Italian women the feeling is very far from being reciprocated.
A petition against the Italian prime minister’s chauvinistic quips and saloon bar repartee has attracted more than 100,000 signatures and thousands of captioned self-portraits.
The grass-roots rebellion was prompted by an insult thrown by Mr. Berlusconi recently at a female political opponent.
During a national television debate about a pair of corruption trials he is facing the 73-year-old premier found himself in an argument with a matronly, bespectacled opposition member of parliament, Rosy Bindi.
Angry and frustrated with the direction the debate was heading, he lashed out and told her she’s “prettier than she is intelligent” – implying that she was neither.
Ms. Bindi tartly replied that she was not a woman at the prime minister’s “disposal” – a dig at his penchant for elevating into politics a string of beautiful women, including a former model, Mara Carfagna, who is now his Minister for Equal Opportunity.
Berlusconi’s remark provoked indignation and anger among many Italian women, who objected to him muddying a political discussion with personal insults.
The online petition is hosted at the website of the centre-left La Repubblica newspaper, with many posting photographs of themselves bearing indignant messages.
Some of the photos were superimposed with the words: “We are not your concubines,” while others read: “I am not a woman at your disposal.”
A self-portrait of a bare-shouldered young woman in a straw beach hat, with a cigar in her mouth, was simply captioned: “Unavailable.”
Not a woman’s world
Berlusconi is an expression of the fact that when it comes to equal treatment for men and women, Italy lags far behind the rest of its European peers.
This week Italy slipped three places to 72nd in the World Economic Forum’s annual Gender Gap Report, putting it behind countries like Kazakhstan, Moldova, Paraguay, and Jamaica. Germany was 12th, Spain was 17th and France was 18th.
A prominent member of the upper house of parliament, Patrizia Bugnano, said: “Someone tell Berlusconi he’s no George Clooney. It’s offensive that he always refers to women in aesthetic terms.”
Berlusconi claimed recently that he is popular among Italians because he loves what they love: football, having fun, and “above all else” beautiful women.
But he has caused offense with his numerous off-color remarks, often laced with old-fashioned sexism.
In January, he sparked outrage by saying that although he was considering deploying 30,000 troops to Italy’s cities to combat crime, there would never be enough soldiers to protect the country’s many “beautiful girls” from rape.
He once advised investors in New York to relocate to Italy because the secretaries were better looking than their American counterparts. “We have beautiful secretaries… superb girls,” he said.
And he boasted that he would have to “dust off my playboy charms” to convince Finland’s female prime minister to locate the European Union Food Safety Authority in Parma, Italy, rather than in Finland.
A new feminism?
Bindi, the politician who was insulted by the prime minister in the TV debate, says the online protest marks the stirring of a “new feminism” in Italy which could seriously damage his standing.
Perhaps. But Berlusconi still enjoys public approval ratings close to 50 percent and faces no credible challenge, either from within his own People of Freedom bloc or from the divided opposition, which has recently been rocked by a sex scandal of its own.
Donatella Martini, of Milan, a campaigner for greater gender equality in Italy with a group called Donne in Quota, concedes that so far it is only a minority of women who are protesting against Berlusconi’s playboy boasts and sexist banter.
She says the lack of political correctness in Italy is at least partly a result of the country’s television, much of it controlled by Berlusconi and his Mediaset company, which delivers a daily diet of quizzes and chat shows fronted by scantily-clad young women.
“Since he was a teenager, Mr. Berlusconi has had only one thing on his mind: sex. In his view, only sex sells. Over the last 20 or 25 years Italian TV has been invaded by the culture of the show girl,” says Ms. Martini, a former manager in a petrochemical company.
“Young girls see show girls as role models – to become one ensures success because it can lead to a career as an actress or singer or a presenter. My 19-year-old daughter and her friends watch all this and they don’t see it as trashy or cheap. They see it as smart, something to aspire to.”
“It all started on Mr. Berlusconi’s private TV channels, but public television then followed his example. They copied the same formula,” she says.
The three-times premier has been mired in scandal since April, when his wife of 20 years, former actress Veronica Lario, announced she was divorcing him, in part over his unclear relationship with an 18-year-old lingerie model, Noemi Letizia.
His wife also criticized a plan by his party to put forward a bevy of actresses and models as Italy’s candidates for European Union elections earlier this year.
A businessman acquaintance of the prime minister is being investigated for paying prostitutes and other women to attend private parties at Berlusconi’s luxurious palazzo in Rome, including a prostitute who says she slept with Berlusconi last November, on the night that Barack Obama was elected US president.
Berlusconi insists he has never paid for sex but has never explicitly denied sleeping with the escort, Patrizia D’Addario.