Europe

Italian TV boss criticises sexy showgirls

Dancing girls on Mediaset TV show - file pic
Image caption Italian TV has relied heavily on pretty, scantily-clad women to boost ratings

Scantily-clad showgirls have long been a feature of Italian television, but the new head of Italy's public service broadcaster RAI wants to project a more sophisticated image of women.

Anna Maria Tarantola is critical of what she sees as an over-emphasis on beauty and "vulgarity" on Italian television.

"I want women to be represented more accurately, more in keeping with what Italian women are - people with skills, talent, abilities," she said.

Back in 2009 a powerful feminist documentary, Il Corpo delle Donne (The Body of Women), compiled a string of clips from both RAI and its privately-owned competitor channels that depicted women in what many would regard as demeaning situations.

They often seemed little more than decorations on the set - "lovely assistants" to older, male hosts of quiz shows and the like. Women were the target of lewd jokes and innuendo.

And showgirls flung themselves with apparent delight into raunchy game show scenarios - taking a shower on stage in a skimpy dress, for example.

However, viewing of all the output on RAI's channels over two evenings chosen at random recently revealed nothing like this.

In fact, overwhelmingly, the content was anything but racy.

Image caption Anna Maria Tarantola says there is too much "vulgarity" on Italian TV

The male host of RAI One's popular early evening quiz show L'Eredita (Inheritance) did have four smiling dancing girls to assist him. But the format was not strikingly different from the sort thing you might see on other European television channels.

Admittedly the BBC "survey" was brief, and not remotely scientific.

And Mrs Tarantola clearly feels there is considerable room for improvement in the way RAI presents women.

"I'm the mother of two daughters and two granddaughters," she said in a BBC interview.

"When they turn on their TV, I would like them to get the message that this country gives everyone opportunities based on their talents, not their beauty."

Superficiality

She seems particularly unimpressed by programmes on RAI that have dwelt heavily on the benefits - or otherwise - of plastic surgery.

"I don't appreciate these type of shows," she said. "They send out a message that only if you have a certain kind of beauty - acquired with the help of a surgeon - can you be somebody.

Image caption Model Belen Rodriguez likes the way Italian TV portrays women

"Instead I would like the message to be that you can be anyone - rise in terms of social esteem - if you're good at something, if you study, if you show your talent."

But for some, talk of reforming Italian television, and suggestions that showgirls might almost need to be rescued from themselves, are just patronising.

Among them is Belen Rodriguez, a model and TV star.

Earlier this year she made a sensational appearance during RAI's broadcast of the San Remo Music Festival - a sort of Italian version of the Eurovision song contest, and very much family viewing.

She walked on in a dress cut in such a dramatically daring way that most of the audience believed she had no underwear on.

Rodriguez described her outfit as a "homage to beauty".

She said she did not believe that women were being mistreated in television.

She argued that if anything there should be less in the way of controls. "It would be best for everyone if we were more free," she said.

Rodriguez believes in a simple formula for a certain type of success on TV.

"Television works like this - if there's a beautiful woman, people watch," she said.

Changing attitudes

And Maddalena Corvaglia, a former showgirl on ex-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's network, Mediaset, was dismissive about Mrs Tarantola's ambitions for women on RAI.

"I can't wait to see these 'radical changes', without there being a serious problem to solve," she said.

But the director of that 2009 feminist campaigning video, Lorella Zanardo, takes a very different view.

Italian society remains deeply chauvinistic, according to her, and television is the strongest tool for change.

But she said it was failing to reflect the way Italian women live their lives today.

She said she agreed with all that she had heard Mrs Tarantola say, but added that she had seen no sign of change yet.

Responding to the criticism, Mrs Tarantola said it would take time to alter the tone at RAI.

But she insisted that she had made a start.

"We're working on a programme that will tackle the portrayal of women. We've promoted women to significant positions," she said. "Slowly things are moving."

She is from outside any party structure, having been given the top job by Italy's current, unelected government of technocrats.

She plans to make use of data provided by a media research organisation on the way women are presented on her network.

And in one small example of change, regular viewers of L'Eredita might have noticed that those four dancing girls are now a good bit more modestly dressed than they used to be.

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