Che la tosa la tasa: Turning the corner on sexism in Italy?
Silvio Berlusconi (linked via telephone on live television): Ah, is that the voice of Signora Rosy Bindi I hear?
Bruno Vespa: Yes, and she’s saying that your comments present a really serious problem….
Berlusconi: As usual, she’s prettier than she is intelligent.
Bindy: Mr. President, evidently I’m not one of those women who’s at your disposal.
October 7, 2009 exchange between Premier Berlusconi and Rosy Bindi, MP and Vice-President of the Italian Chamber of Deputies, on the Italian political talk-show, Porta a Porta.
But you have to take a minute to get the full impact here. This is the leader of the entire country, the Italian Premiere, insulting the Vice President of the lower house of Parliament for (a) not being pretty and (b) not being smart. On national television. In front of literally millions of people. Roberto Castelli, Vice Minister for Infrastructure and Transportation, also present on the program, followed Berlusconi’s shrewish and dismissive comment with a jibe of his own–Bindi was a nagging old maid, he opined.
Berlusconi’s zingers and idiotic one-liners would fill a book (and I don’t know why they haven’t)–such as his comments about how he and Obama were so much alike because they were both “handsome and had a tan” or, in 2003, before the European Parliament in Strasbourg, when he “joked” to the socialist parliamentarian Martin Schulz, who had just finished (as they say) tearing Berlusconi a new one for Italy’s racist immigration policies and failure to pursue cross-border extraditions: “Mr. Schulz, I know a production company in Italy that’s in the process of filming a movie about the concentration camps. I’d like to recommend you for the role of kapo.”
You get the picture.
So here’s Saraceno’s OpEd in translation. I hope her article–which is reproducing on the internet faster than mold on cheese–marks the start of something.
Affront to Rosy Bindi Exposes the “Philosophy of the Exploiter.”
Silvio Berlusconi has always claimed to “adore women.” But he loses all sense of decency the minute one of them dares to contradict him.
by Chiara Saraceno
English translation by ProvenWrite
The Premier who “adores women,” as he so graciously told a Spanish journalist who asked him about his social life, loses not only his mind but all evidence of civility and decency the moment a woman, one of his colleagues in Parliament and the Vice President of the Chamber of Deputies, dares to criticize him. In the eternal locker room in which he seems to feel so at ease when it comes to talking about women or to women, it’s not enough to insult them in a general way—as baby-eating Communists, for example, the way he generally does with opponents of the same sex.
Instead [when he and Bindi locked horns on Porta a Porta], he couldn’t stop himself from basing his expression of scorn in an aesthetic judgment. In so doing, Berlusconi—who, by the way, is himself unattractive, dyed, and heavily lifted, in addition to being rather on the elderly side—confirmed that, as far as he’s concerned, women fall into two categories: the ones he finds pleasant to look at, who are potentially exploitable (if they haven’t already been exploited), and in whom intelligence is an optional accessory. (Or, if it’ isn’t optional, at least it doesn’t stand in the way of their duty to hold him in fawning high regard).
And then there are all the rest. Women who are older or not conventionally beautiful are acceptable only if they are adoring. If they are not, the axe of judgment falls and they’re cast into the land of nonexistence.
Senator Roberto Castelli, floor leader of the Lega Nord [the Northern League], contributed his variant on this same locker room mentality, choosing to characterize Bindi via the classic topos of the old maid. As if a woman without a man were automatically unloved and unwanted rather than simply being an individual who had chosen not to have a partner (wisely so, one might be tempted to say, if men like Castelli are examples of what is available on the market).
For members of the Lega Nord, evidently, women must be prohibited from covering their faces or their heads for religious reasons, but the old saw from the depths of the Veneto Region remains true: “Che la tosa la tasa, che la piasa, che la staga a casa” [roughly, “woman: keep your mouth shut, your man happy, and your self at home”].
That attitude isn’t very distant from the one held by the traditionalist Muslim men from whom the proud members of the Northern League consider themselves so different.
Rosy Bindi was quick-witted enough to respond to the insult by observing that she was obviously not one of the women who belonged to Berlusconi’s “available and exploitable” category. But she is the only one who has reacted to Berlusconi’s and Castelli’s boorishness. Though there were a few embarrassed faces, not one of the men who were present, including the host of the show, Bruno Vespa, felt it was his duty to distance himself from the sort of gravely sexist language and behavior that makes it difficult for the few women who are, rarely, given the opportunity to participate in public discourse (Bindi was the only woman present on Porta a Porta that evening, on a stage full of men).
Not one of the many more-or-less elderly, flabby, unattractive, nipped-and-tucked men who populate Italian politics need ever fear being insulted or robbed of his dignity on the basis of those physical factors by anyone he deals with, no matter how heated the interaction becomes.
The silence (the embarrassed, cowardly silence of collaborators) of the men who are Berlusconi’s allies (just as of those who are his political opponents), of men in political life (just as of those in the media) is a crucial political issue that must be faced because it indicates how deeply the roots of sexism have been planted in our country’s culture. We can hardly forget that, in Spain, President Zapatero was attacked in the press simply because he stood silently by during one of Berlusconi’s road shows (on that occasion, Berlusconi explained just how he would extend the concept of hospitality if he found himself in the company of a beautiful and potentially available woman).
But there is another disturbing silence: the silence of the women in Berlusconi’s own governing party, starting with his cabinet ministers. Their voices are raised solely when their boss calls them to order so they can defend him against one or another of the scandals in the ongoing parade: his promises to put showgirls in political office, eighteen-year-old Noemi’s birthday party, all those carefree goings-on at his Villa Certosa mansion in Sardinia. But not one of them has distanced herself from the image of women—and of themselves as politicians and as ministers—that emerges from their passionate defense of their boss.
The Minister of Equal Opportunities, Mara Carfagna, is the most notably silent, although it would presumably be her institutional duty to put in a word. Whatever the reasons that led her to be offered a position as Minister, she ought to make an effort to remember that equal opportunity is not a beauty pageant. And that we can’t permit a bunch of old letches, no matter how rich and powerful they may be, to pronounce judgment on what women are and what they’re capable of, age and beauty standards aside.
Allowing a colleague to be insulted, even if she’s a member of the opposition, for reasons that having nothing whatever to do with politics and everything to do with sexism is a serious mistake, and women are all paying the price for it.