Filmmaker and Lecturer, IT

Published Date: 12th September 2011

Open Windows | In Conversation

Filmmaker and Lecturer, IT

September 12th, 2011

The well-being of society is directly connected to the overall wellness of women, yet society systematically devalues and degrades women in many forms. Humiliation, objectification, and exploitation are packaged and presented as the staple diet of television shows, for the consumption of the larger population. With this reality, how can we expect dignity and respect to permeate into our homes and society at large? If anything, the masses’ appetite to shame, insult, and inflict pain on children and women intensifies.

Lorella Zanardo, a consultant and lecturer, refused to resign herself to toxic television. Instead, she made an informative documentary, Il Corpo Delle Donne [The Body of Women], a film that examines the systemic polluting of the human mind and manipulation of the image of women. She talks to me about her film and the detrimental effect of this cancerous franchise eating at the core of children, women and a growing population of sensitive men. Ms. Zanardo is demanding for the filth to be drained out, to change the model of society.

Ms. Zanardo, thank you for owning your mind and refusing to resign to toxic television. Your documentary, Il Corpo Delle Donne [The Body of Women] is a wake-up call.

Thank you. The situation of how women are represented is a difficult one. If you take the northern part of Italy, especially Milan, where I live, women are entrepreneurs, managers, and engineers, but it’s so awful that media, especially TV, gives an entirely different idea of women—the idea you get from my documentary. I am working very hard to change the situation.


Il Corpo Delle Donne presents the degrading manner in which women are portrayed on Italian television, as sexual objects that can repeatedly be humiliated. You and I had the good fortune of growing up when television and media were far different than they are today. However, those who have grown up bombarded with this oppressive media are adversely affected. How can they know anything different when they have never experienced anything different?

All my work starts with awareness. I want to create awareness for the younger generation. A lot of journalists go outside schools and ask young girls what they would like to do when they are adults, and many girls, not all, answer: “I would like to work in TV as a veline” (a showgirl). And of course, we adults say: “Oh, how horrible.” But I think adults, especially adults in Italy, are very hypocritical. We have raised these girls showing them all these images, and in many cases they do not have other role models. But now I am traveling around Italy with my documentary, radio program and book, Corpo Della Donne (The Body of Women) and meeting thousands of students between the ages of 14 and 18.

I find the situation divided into two parts—some girls have parents who offer other role models, but the majority get the idea of their future only from TV, only from media. This is why it’s so important to change the situation of the representation of women in media. I am sure you are aware that this situation is also in politics now.

One that is widely controlled by the Berlusconi Family?

Exactly. Today showgirls are politicians in Italy. When you hear of very young girls saying they either want to be a showgirl or a minister, they do not have the information that to be a politician they have to have certain criteria and have to work hard. I think we have ruined this generation; it is urgent to work for the next generations. That is why I chose to leave my private job and go into schools in different parts of Italy, to show the documentary, to explain that not all parts of the world are like this.


Certain States within India work along similar lines, where entertainment often is a prelude to a political career. Actors, who are incapable of fostering emotional acumen to bring about social reform, join political parties to serve their greed and their pockets. The blurring of lines, where entertainment merges into media, which then flows into politics is a deception to lure naïve voters. And the majority of people have surrendered to this system.

This is exactly the political situation in Italy now. Everyone says it is like this, and they have surrendered.


What made you say enough is enough? How did you remain connected to your spirit, refusing to become desensitized to the onslaught of degrading images?

I have been living abroad for many years, and I did not get accustomed to these images. On my return visits, when I switched on the TV and saw what was being broadcast, I remember telephoning all my friends, my mother, my relatives and saying: “Listen, these girls are being exploited, we have to do something.” I was not accustomed to these images, but they would say, “But Lorella, this is TV;  it is normal.” I got the impression that people in Italy believed TV was supposed to be like this—that TV is about humiliating women, about showing women as objects. So when I finally came back, I decided I had to do something.

Watching degrading TV is a little bit like poison—if you take a small dose of poison every day, you do not realize it, but, in the end, you will die without realizing that you poisoned yourself.

I think TV is poisoning Italians, but of course, they believe that it is normal. I wanted to give a different future to the younger generation, and this was when I decided to make my documentary. I think it is vital to work in that direction for the younger generation of Italy to have the same opportunities the youngsters of other European countries have.


Did women support you before, during, and after the making of your documentary?

It’s interesting that you should ask that. When I asked for help, the two people who answered immediately were, strangely enough, two younger men—Marco Malfi Chindemi and Cesare Chantu, the co-authors of the film. This is good news because it shows that there are indeed some men who are different, who are sensible and sensitive to these issues.


Fantastic. I feel we don’t give men enough credit; we group them in the same category.

Italy is still a very macho style country, but these two younger friends of mine are different. And this is something I learned from my tours in Italy—younger men in Italy are different, they are more European, less macho in style, and I think that the future will be better. I meet hundreds of young boys who say: “Ms. Zanardo you are right,” and they are not shy to say this to hundreds of their friends. On the contrary, if I want to find a male friend of mine who will be courageous enough to say the same thing in front of other men, I will have to make a huge effort. In Italy, even men who are cultured, who are professors in universities, are afraid if they say something similar, people will say: “Oh, they do not like women enough.” That is why the older generations of men do not care about this issue, but the younger men say it openly. I trust the younger generation of men.


And what about women, were they supportive or did that come later?

I did not want to distribute my finished documentary in the usual way and decided to put it on the Web. I wanted it to reach a larger audience, and it was unbelievable. We got hundreds of emails from young and older women from all parts of Italy and Europe. It was then that I realized my documentary arrived at the proper time because everybody was writing to me: “You are so courageous” or “I wanted to say the same thing, but I did not have the courage” or “I thought it was impossible to say anything.” The impression I got was that people believe it is impossible to change the situation.


Did you face difficulties in releasing the documentary?

No, because we chose the Web. The men who control media and politics are old, and they thought the Web was not so important.


If anything, it is a powerful tool. Today the media is turning to the Internet.

Yes, but they do not realize the importance of the Web. They did not care until recently because we have reached nearly 4 million people. And it is quite enormous, especially since we did not ask any journalist for help. Everything arrived without asking; it is very interesting. And when we reached nearly 4 million people, those in the private TV, realized that we had power, they started to interrupt our work. They have launched a campaign recently, not about our video, but they are trying to minimize the importance of the video by saying: “TV is using women as objects, but so are magazines. Everybody does it, so why care?” They try to make our efforts less important, but I do not care and continue to work in the direction of winning.


Does the Internet bring about democracy to the issue?

Yes, I think the Internet brings about a lot of democracy because my work would not have been possible without it. But on the other hand, we also have to be aware that through the Internet, and especially toward young people, a lot of horrible images and terrible representations of women have arrived.


I could not agree more with you. There is a proliferation of dangerous elements on the Internet—the psychologically sick and self-hating operates in anonymity.

Do women start believing they deserve to be treated like second-class citizens as a result of always viewing women portrayed as sex objects in the media?

Yes, of course. There are university studies about this, and they say when you are treated like an object, especially when you are very young and when you see these images on TV, in the end, you become the object. When I interviewed some of these showgirls, very young girls, they seemed to be very liberated, very emancipated with the body. But the impression I got is that they treat their body as if it were an instrument, something outside themselves, that they don’t speak of their body as part of themselves. As part of my film, I interviewed this girl, and she said she had a university degree and worked as a manager but then understood “she” [her body] was the most precious object and started to sell it.


When political power is harvested and distributed within a family, does it threaten the welfare and democracy of a nation?

Yes, of course. The only information people receive is through the channels that are controlled by the same family.


Would it be accurate to say that when a political party controls media, it enables them to mold the perceptions of people to their advantage—it keeps people illiterate on issues to be re-elected to political power.

Yes, it has happened. Private TV started nearly 30 years ago.

And when you see that the same family owns TV, magazines, and newspapers along with politics, of course, it’s difficult to get the truth.

Sometimes I look at the websites of the newspapers abroad to get the right information. If you are not a cultured person or if you are a person who has no time, of course, you want to watch TV and watch the news. But where is the truth? It is very difficult now to understand if the truth is there or not. Of course, it has been manipulated because all the power is concentrated in one family.

Another horrible thing has happened in Italy: we had a wonderful public TV in Italy, RAI [Radiotelevisione Italiana] and in the 60’s it was one of the most important TV channels in the world. It was compared to the BBC in England. And in the 90’s, when private TV started to be powerful, because of the money from advertising, instead of choosing the path of the BBC, RAI decided to imitate the private one. This is something foreign observers do not know.

Our situation is appalling because we do not have an alternative. Even the Public TV is as bad as the private TV—you see the women treated like objects and humiliated. And there are two groups. One, the Italians with culture, but they are fewer, and they try to choose private or satellite TV or foreign TV; these are a few million people. Second, the majority population with low culture watch TV non-stop. And since we do not have the truth anymore, these people think it is normal, it is acceptable to have a woman treated in that way all day long because these images are not just at night, but all day long. And when their children are in front of the TV, they get the idea that it is good to be treated like that.


Do you face resistance while presenting the situation?

Yes. Because the information people get is either manipulated or when it is not manipulated, they do not get all the information, so they do not feel and understand that we are in danger. I am saddened that many people like me are working hard to raise awareness of the dangers we are approaching, but there is so much resistance.

Some people understand the importance of this battle, but most say: “We are not moralistic, we do not want to be too conservative. These images are an expression of freedom.” They are not an expression of freedom. But if you have no culture, it is very difficult to explain.

This is why I chose to go directly to the students because we received enormous interest from teachers and professors. They were requesting me to visit their schools and discuss this issue. And then we started some education programs because we do not have this topic in the school. Moreover, in a country like Italy, where we are not able to change TV, it is important to give this education immediately so that the new generation is not passive in front of these images.


How does the current economic crisis affect the mindset of the average Italian?

With the economic crisis, as in other parts of the world, people are now losing jobs. One young person out of four is without a job. In the south, it is one out of three. They do not know where to direct their rage, they talk a lot, criticize a lot, but nobody acts on it. Even the opposition party in Italy, they do not act, they do not take strong decisions. So, on one side they do not get the real information and on the other people are very passive, they sit for hours, all day long in front of this sort of TV, with naked girls, dancing, stupid jokes. And with financial support to schools being cut, it makes it easy to manipulate people like this.


As I see it, there is almost no free media anymore. It is paid media, bribed media, manipulated media, pro-men media, or distorted media. Is there hope for change? If yes, how do you see it coming?

I do not see something new arriving soon, but it will be welcome to have Web advocates and news aggregators owned by independent people. Of course, there are newspapers and magazines you can read on the Internet by paying, but I think it is hard to convince people to pay for information. In the future, this could perhaps be the only solution.


Are the politically powerful and monetarily wealthy media incapable of offering television programs that stir the brain and benefit society? Or are they providing base programs to nurture only base thinking, to brainwash and control the majority population?

I think they are not capable of offering any better. And at the same time, they are cunning enough to know they are offering this to keep people in a very passive situation, so they are easier to manipulate.

For instance, when you watch news coverage on TV, they will cover the terrible earthquake in Aquila for a few seconds but will dedicate five minutes to a new aesthetic plastic surgery to have bigger bosoms. So I think they are cunning enough to understand that in giving this insufficient information they keep people more in control. But also, they are not able to offer something better for the people.


What about the representation of intelligent and progressive politicians on the world platform?

They do not care about foreign representation. This I know for sure because we have been interviewed—not only myself but also other people who are working in this direction—by most of the influential newspapers in the world, the BBC and other TV programs. The BBC came to film our education program in schools. Then Australian TV, French TV, Austrian TV, Korean TV, Chinese TV and every time I was telling this story, I was showing the good part of Italy also because other people like myself are dedicating their time to youth. Every time I was expecting our politicians to care about the image of Italy that was given abroad, no, they do not care. I am certain that countries that are very poorly educated are very much manipulated. They do not care about foreign policy, foreign politics. Usually, they are very centered in internal politics. Another sign is that very few pages are dedicated to what happens abroad in Italian newspapers.


So politics and media that offer a narrow view would rather the population live isolated from the world?

It is like that. Italy is not a big country like the USA, for instance, and we are in Europe— Milan is 200 km from France, Austria is 200 km, Switzerland is 50 km, and Germany is 300 km, we are close to each other, but the situation of the media in different countries is so different.

Take England. You cannot use the body of women in advertising unless the product you sell is related to the body of women. I will show a body of women only if I have to sell a bra or a pantyhose, not if I have to sell a table, a chair or a book. Whereas in Italy, in advertising, you can use a naked body of a woman for selling whatever you want. English people are already doing it, why don’t we copy it? It is easy; it exists, but no.


What shapes the culture of England, which then helps maintain a level of integrity in their news?

I was wondering about it because we are so close to England, but we are not doing it. Sometimes when I meet authors of these horrible cheap TV programs in Italy, they say: “Listen Zanardo, we have to sell this product. Our objective is profit, and of course, we have to sell.” Well, the English people want to sell too. We both have liberal economies, in England, they are selling and making a profit while respecting women, without having to sell them.

So in the end, my impression is they have the deep respect for their laws, their constitution, they have pride in it. The Italian law it is an excellent one, very beautifully written. There is an article that says: that everybody is equal in front of the law, independent of race and sex. And then it continues by saying: everybody must be placed in situations where he or she can express their maximum potential. I was working with some women lawyers, and I said: “I am not expressing my potential if I have in my background these images all day long.” I do not think that any young lady in Italy can express her potential by having TV, magazines, everything showing her in a very humiliating way 24 hours a day. So, it is something against our law, and I think English people respect their laws.


The waves of violent attacks on women, to demoralize, deface, and destroy her are increasing. It is happening in the armed forces, police forces, on the streets, in marriages, in corporations, and on a daily basis in the media. What is driving this behaviour?

I think the reasons are more than one, but perhaps the most important one is that we are facing the end of a patriarchal society. I think what we are seeing is men afraid of losing their power. Perhaps the process will last years and years; after all, we come from a period of patriarchy that has lasted for thousands of years. But I think our generation and the generation after ours will bring an end to the patriarchal society. And I say this with all the possible love toward men because I do not hate men—on the contrary, I love men, I like men. But I see they are frightened because they do not know what to do in front of these women who have more power, more independence than before. In the end, it will be better, but it will take time. And I think the only thing we women can do is to explain, to work, to give instruments to younger generations, to maintain healthy relationships with men.


Where does the younger generation stand in this situation?

Right now, I see that they are very confused. With our deteriorating—the political and economic situations—the young people are afraid. They feel powerless. I think my generation has a very important duty; we are called to build a bridge upon those ruins we created. And we must build this bridge, it will take ten years, maybe 15 years, and when it is ready, the people who are now 15 or 16 years old will be prepared to take the situation into their hands and decide how they want to build the future. I think they will be capable, but not now.


If a woman is a cornucopia of talent, she is a threat and quickly labeled as difficult. If she surrenders her strength to play the secondary role, she earns the seal of a “good” woman. Why are submissive women preferred in society?

Yes, it is like that, especially nowadays. I have experienced the same problem everywhere I have lived, even abroad. Society is not ready to accept this new idea of a capable woman, who can take care of herself, who has power. And sometimes I see that women choose the easiest path, which is to appear weaker than they are, but this is not a good idea.

Popularity always arrives easily when one chooses a very easy path, where the solutions are easy and paths are conforming. When you propose a deep change, you usually become an unpopular person, and it is happening with women now. When you read biographies of women and men who have changed the society in a very deep way, they have been unpopular for a long time. But we are the path-makers and the change drivers, and when we want to change society, we must take into consideration that it will be very solitary, very tough to be done alone, and sometimes with very difficult situations to face. Only then you see the results; people will come.

In Italy, if I propose an easy solution, everybody is with me, but if I propose a complex solution, few people are with me. But I do not have an alternative. If I want to achieve something I have to be unpopular sometimes. It is the only way.


The current representation of Italian women in the media is a far cry from real Italian women, women who are intelligent, enterprising, and strong. For someone traveling through Italy or skimming through a magazine, the view is limited. Perhaps, like an Italian would have of India—that India is a country of palaces, opulence, and festivities or one of extreme poverty and rampant violence. The fact is that countless layers and facets make up India, which goes unseen. Can you give a glimpse into the actual world of Italian women?

The problem is that the representation of women in the media in Italy is so different from the women you meet in the country. A tiny percentage of women are like the ones you see on TV—only a small proportion of women are into Armani, Versace, and everything that is based in Milan. So in reality, only a few women are into these glossy environments.

The rest is divided into two parts: Southern Italy which has a lot of economic problems, where it is hard to find a job, many women are unemployed and dependent on men, thus not free. And Northern Italy, where women live a life similar to other European cities like London and Paris—they are entrepreneurs, doctors, engineers and the unemployment rate is much less.

Statistics show that the only difference between Italian women and other European women is that Italian women work two more hours each day because they work both outside and also inside the home. We live the same lifestyle as other European cities but compared to them, men in Italy do not help. I think we are less aware of our rights because more women in other parts of Europe use their time to emancipate themselves, to read and raise their awareness. But Italian women use this time for washing garments and cleaning houses; this is a big problem.

Also, many women do not think TV is important. I am in the process of trying to convince Italian women to take care of their representation in the media because many of them say, “I do not watch TV, and I do not care what they do.” Well, they should care.


Is the mentality of humiliating women, by powerful men in media, a projection of the second-class status of women within their families—wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters who are surrounded by first class material things but don’t command equality within their homes?

Yes, I think so. I think that sometimes their wives or relatives are treated as objects, very wealthy and precious objects. When I meet these ladies, they have no perception of dignity or knowledge of the possibility to earn respect.


So there must be equality in marriage and within a family for it to reflect in the society?

Of course, equality while respecting diversity because what I do not like is when one talks about equality, which means we are equal, and men and women are not the same. So, I like to have equality of rights with diversity.


Does a woman have to stop being feminine to be taken seriously?

As a woman entering a big multinational corporation, I noticed everybody was different from me. They dressed and behaved like men. I felt maybe it was easier to look like a man, but I did not feel like doing that. I do not judge these people; in a way by behaving like them, it is easier to survive in a powerful group.

But now that our numbers are growing in organizations and powerful positions, women want to express their richness. Now is the time to be courageous and show ourselves as we are because I think it is horrible to try to become like a man. In acting like a man, we lose ourselves—we can only be a bad copy of a man.


By portraying men as creatures lusting after sex and lacking emotional and intellectual needs, aren’t we being unfair to them?

It is fascinating. I am meeting a lot of younger men of 16 or 17 who say: “Ms. Zanardo, we agree with your documentary video, and these images insult me.” When I ask why, they tell me these images make people think men want only this, women who are like objects, only to have sex. I remember this honest boy who said: “Of course, I think about sex, but I do not think only about that, and I am fed up being represented as an animal, who only thinks of sex.” And he said it very calmly and assertively in front of everybody. Some men are ashamed of being treated like this, and I think that it is good news for us, and it is important. I do not find men of my generation with this attitude.


Are there countries where women enjoy a better position?

There are a few countries in northern Europe—Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Holland. And Norway particularly, as women have acquired so many positions now that men feel they need a minister of equality who is a man. When I met him, I told him that with 40 percent of women in significant corporate governance, we learn from Norway as a country.


What advice would you give to women who surrender to television?

To women and young girls who watch a lot of TV, I have two suggestions— first, try to watch less TV, and watch it actively, so you are aware when women are being treated as objects. And second, try to have a passion in your life. It is not important to have a sophisticated passion; your passion can be simple, reading, swimming, or any other interest. If you start when you are a child, it is easier to find out what makes you a passionate woman.

I think many people who watch a lot of TV do not have a passion for life because when you are passionate, you do not waste time in front of the TV.


What did the process of putting your film together do for you?

It has been a great adventure. I am also quite tired, but it is perhaps the most interesting experience I have had in my life. I am more content with myself. For instance, something strange happened by growing old. Of course, like every woman I remember looking at myself in the mirror and being a little sad about seeing the signs of time. But since the last two years, having worked 400 to 600 hours with these horrible images, I like myself more, even by growing older.

I look in the mirror, and I recognize that some of the signs are the expressions of the fatigue I experienced to do something useful for the world. And these signs acquire significance. My face belongs to me more; before my face was only an expression of aesthetic.

Now I recognize these signs as the result of lack of sleep as I was preparing for the schools. So everything has significance, and my body belongs to me more—it is something deeper, it is a place where I become truly myself, and I did not expect this, but had the revelation in these last months.



To learn more about Lorella Zanardo visit her website.