ROME—Progress comes in all shapes and sizes. But it seems that can’t be said for the ideal Italian wife-to-be. At least, not according to a television show on Italy’s public broadcaster RAI precipitously canceled Monday after it opined throughout an excruciating broadcast that the Italian ideal is a woman from “the East,” apparently defined (or more likely imagined) as a cross between geisha and a housekeeper.
This episode of the weekend program Let’s Talk Saturday was titled “The Threat Comes From The East: Husband Stealers or Perfect Wives?” The female presenter, Paola Perego, who was fired along with her team on Monday for her lack of journalistic judgment, invited a panel to discuss just why so many Italian men were marrying foreign women. Surely, she concluded, it had to be because they were better wives.
Then she listed six points that made Eastern women (from Poland to Japan, it would seem) more suited to matrimony. In essence they were much like the infamous German KKK—Kinder, Küche, Kirche—relegating women to the care of children, the kitchen, and the church. But in this case, without the religious element.
Perego started with the observation that these Eastern women are “all mothers,” but after giving birth they return more quickly to their statuesque figures.
The second line item was that Eastern women are “always sexy” and don’t wear sweats “or boxy pajamas,” and the third was apparently very important in the Italian context: “They forgive betrayal.”
One might be tempted to stop right there, after all, enough is enough, but the list goes on.
The final three bullet points include the willingness of these “Eastern” women “to be controlled by their man,” and the stellar housekeeping skills that “they learned as a child.” Last but not least, they “don’t whimper, they aren’t clingy and they do not hold a grudge.”
Not surprisingly, this checklist did not go over well in most Italian households where Italian women are present. Nor, for that matter, was it popular where any Eastern or, in fact, where any women at all were present.
Laura Boldrini, the president of the Lower Chamber of Italy’s parliament, took to Facebook to write, “It’s unacceptable that during a TV show women are represented as pets from which to appreciate gentleness, appeasement, submission. This shameful list is definitely offensive against all women.”
Taken at face value, the fact that Italian women have evolved to be none of these things that Italian men still apparently value in a life partner should be seen as a step in the right direction.
Ten years ago, Italians were outraged when a similar RAI program ran a talk show segment which asked, “Would you like to see your daughter pose nude for a calendar?” The possible answers were: yes, no, and she’s already done it.
At the time, that program seemed to underscore how far behind Italians were when it came to equality. That show, back then, sparked outrage and introspection.
Suddenly, the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap statistics, which ranked Italy 84 out of 128 countries in 2007 for overall gender equality, meant something and Italian women were angry.
Lorella Zanardo, one of Italy’s most well-known voices on equality started a campaign in public schools to try to turn the tide with the younger generation. She was convinced that the exploitation and objectification of women was far more harmful than anyone thought, but that it could be changed. She described how men who were constantly exposed to sexism were, in turn, sexist.
“It is generally a man who has to decide how many women will be in decision-making positions in his company,” she says. “How does he separate these subliminal messages from reality when he makes these decisions?”
Her campaign and a general insistence that women be taken more seriously has made a difference. Last year, Italy ranked 50 on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap list, which shows an incredible leap in a relatively short period of time.
But there’s still a long way to go.
On Tuesday, Zanardo tweeted accomplishments made by Italian women across the world—and expressed her disappointment with the RAI program, noting that it wasn’t “a mistake” since the government funded network often showed programming that underscored stereotypes rather than trying to correct them.
After the wife-hunting segment ran, Italian women and men took to Twitter to express their outrage, not only about the sexism but also about the racism surrounding the insinuation that Eastern women were more submissive and better cleaners.
The president of RAI, Monica Maggioni, issued an apology for bad taste but, despite calls for her head, has so far kept her job.
“I didn’t see the show. I’m finding out about it from websites,” Maggioni told ANSA. “What I see is a surreal representation of Italy in 2017. Then, if this representation is given by the public service broadcaster, it is a crazy mistake, unacceptable. I personally feel involved as a woman. I apologize.”
Less than 48 hours after it aired, faced with mounting public pressure—even calls for nationwide strikes—Maggioni pulled the program off the air and fired the team that produced it.
But, what were the most publicized forms of protest threatened against the program? A sex strike à la Lysistrata, and a refusal to do the dishes.
What better proof that Italians may change the channel, but they have yet to change the way they think?