Above each son’s bed is an ominous picture of his mother, casting an always watchful eye on his decisions.
A bride and her father discuss her romantic preferences …
… then the bride’s father reminds a groom-to-be to behave with his daughter.
Two lovers discuss their relationship in front of the audience, the judges, and the mothers-in-law.
Men sunbathe in the garden while debating on women’s sex appeal.
Brides and mothers-in-law face off in a competition of joke telling: the in-studio audience decides which woman is the best at telling jokes. This is one of the many trivial competitions that the women have to take part in.
One of the brides takes care of the laundry at the villa.
A talkative and intrusive mother-in-law decides to lecture the young women on how to manage the finances in a couple …
… then moves on to teach them about sexuality and men’s sexual preferences.
Brides-to-be are being watched as they dance alone at the villa.
As in every reality-television format, contestants share their feelings during the moment of confession.
In ‘The Perfect Bride’ the confession seat is the bottom of a staircase.
Men relax while chatting about the young brides on the other side of the fence.
Male contestants sit in the house as they observe the discussions taking place in the studio.
Eventually, their masculinity is re-assured only by the power of having two women at the same time.
Soft focus is here used to frame the two lovers remembering happy moments together in the villa.
Mother-in-law and bride argue about men’s needs and wants.
One of the grooms must defend his romantic choice in front of a voyeuristic audience.
A male contestant looks on as ‘his’ women engage in verbal fights. The almost detached look on his face suggests a lack of emotional involvement in the issues at stake.
Significantly, the mothers-in-law become more demanding when judging a woman from another cultural background. Of the eighteen young women selected for the program, five were of non-Italian origins. This offered several opportunities for mothers to consider a non-traditional bride for their sons, yet these opportunities were rejected in the face of strong cultural differences. Thus the young woman from Latvia is judged as too old and too cold for the Italian "dolce vita." Similarly, Luana, a 23-year-old dancer from Brazil, is a frequent target of discrimination because of her job: “A dancer can never be a good wife” is the awkward justification given by some mothers when they choose to eliminate the Brazilian woman. Here, dance is clearly aligned with the exoticism of Luana’s physical appearance and is perceived as a threat to the traditional all-Italian family. But, perhaps the most evident expression of what Stuart Hall (1990) calls "inferential racism" came in the opening episode of the program, when the group of brash and impertinent "mamme" agreed on eliminating the dark-skinned Judith. Despite her cooking skills, good looks, education, and respectful, pleasant manners, the older women found her appearance too "colored" for their (and their sons') orthodox views on family and culture. The images of the mothers offered to the viewers are characterized by the older women's condescending and patronizing attitude towards the young women, who seem to deserve a spot in the program (and, vicariously, in the young men’s lives) only thanks to their physical attributes.
However, the program itself relies on surveillance and display. In particular, the display of the female body as a scientific specimen or consumable object is common in Italian television. Most public and private channels adopt a voyeuristic lens to frame women’s bodies, perceived as the essence of their identities. As argued by Berger apropos painting, in television women’s presence and actions are often enclosed by the male look:
In this sense, the woman’s personality is split between two constituents — the "surveyor" and the "surveyed" within herself. As clarified by Berger, the woman understands she must manage her exterior representation because it is fundamental to the ways in which she will be treated socially. Gender interactions are clearly based upon a system of power relations informed by a patriarchal perspective. This is surely so in the case of Italy. In Berger’s words,
The male gaze that informs most women’s roles in Italian television affects the perception women have of themselves and necessarily regulates visual representation and discourse. Hence, fictional and real women in television display a de-valorizing attitude towards their female counterparts. Their role as interviewees, for instance, is downplayed by a lack of proper introduction or emphasis on women’s credentials; rather, a paternalistic approach highlights the physical significance of women rather than their potential intellectual or ideological contribution to a discussion (Cornero, 2001: 82-84). This particular way of framing women in television is evidenced not only by the interactions between hosts, interviewees or fictional characters, but also by specific camera movements that effect a consistent pattern of filming women. In this pattern generally there are a series of close-up shots that begin at the feet and move up to the head; these shots introduce the woman, thereby underlining her physical appearance. Often the camera lingers upon specific body parts (breasts, hips, eyes, mouth) and overtly connotes them in a sexualized way by zooming in to a detail shot. This type of camera work frames the female figure as long as she is on screen and defines her discursive interventions. [open endnotes in new window]
In La sposa perfetta this emphasis on the body defines the role of the brides-to-be. Information about the young women’s height, weight, age, size of clothes, and physical attractiveness is also primordial in the online description of each contestant. A juxtaposition of each bride’s "identikit" allows viewers as well as mothers-in-law to compare and rank the eighteen women based mostly on physical attributes. The centrality of bodily performances finds constant reiteration as the weekly edited narrative accentuates the time the young women spend on improving their looks. Close-up shots in bathroom scenes, where the women put on make up, struggle with their hair, or check their breasts, are regular reminders that physical attributes will eventually determine the winner of the competition. Thus, it comes as no surprise that the "perfect bride" at the end of the series turns out to be Alessia, a 20-year-old brunette from Naples, who embodies the typical Mediterranean looks.
As in several other programs on Italian television, the young women are heavily subjected to scrutinizing shots by the cameras in the studio. For instance, when the wannabe brides enter the studio each week, they do so while descending a glamorous staircase and wearing revealing evening gowns. The individual catwalk of each contestant is awaited by the viewers at home, the audience in the studio, and the couples of mothers and sons, who are seated in their red sofas in the center of the stage. Through the vicarious eye of the camera, we as viewers subject the young women to a voyeuristic survey of their bodies and clothes each week. This kind of patriarchal voyeurism is further emphasized by the decision-making power of the mothers-in-law, who in this moment of the show must express their preferences for each contestant. The voting process in this case is emblematic of the underlying ideological patterns of this show. While the brides walk down towards the audience, the mothers maneuver a hand-stick up or down depending on whether they like or dislike the young women. The phallocratic symbolism embedded in this voting system is quite evident and alluded to by the male host of the program, who jokingly contends: “some things go up and down in life.” The patriarchal nature of Italian television finds perhaps its clearest expression in this program, where women view themselves and other women through the same flattening and objectifying lens.
It is worth remarking at this point that this unflattering portrayal of Italian culture did not go unnoticed in the Italian and foreign media. Soon after the first episode aired in April 2007, statements from left- and right-wing politicians, journalists, and pundits shared a general disdain for what was perceived as a regressive use of public television. The Italian Federation of the Press (FNSI) released a statement in which La sposa perfetta was defined “uncivil, vile, and squalid.” The same statement also pointed out that, before launching the program, RAI had just signed a five-year contract through which it committed to strengthen its public-service mission by avoiding stereotypical and discriminating views on women. In her column in La Republica, feminist journalist Natalia Aspesi noted that “the country of televisual mothers-in-law seems to originate from sketches … of the Fascist era.” In her article poignantly titled “And Italy plummeted into the country of mothers-in-law,” Aspesi exclaims incredulously:
The program's novelty and protests about it were picked up by the international media with reports that emphasized the resilience of the "mama’s boys" stereotype and RAI’s insistence on broadcasting dubious reality shows. Hence, following Pomroy’s article in the Canadian The Globe and Mail,
TV critics said the program exploited the stereotype of the overbearing mama. "It’s the most grandiose, caricatural, corrosive demolition of the image of the Italian mamma," said Italy’s leading daily, Corriere della Sera.” Elisabetta Povoledo in the International Herald Tribune comments on the discrepancy between what is broadcast on RAI and what the network’s president envisioned for public television. As noted at the beginning of this chapter, RAI’s president Petruccioli expressed his concern about the low quality of reality programming and promised, abrupt new changes, yet commercial competition and financial obligations prevented any such change from taking place. As Povoledo concludes,
Besides the economic profitability of reality formats, the popularity of the genre with different audience demographics and cultures still needs to be explained thoroughly. Media scholars and psychologists alike have attempted to account for the success of a genre that was originally perceived as "just a fad." Most research tends to agree with findings that point to the desire for status as the most important attitude that distinguishes reality viewers from other viewers (Reiss and Wiltz, 2001). The allure of achieving celebrity status in ways that are far from celebrity life seems to be the catalyzing force behind people’s decision to participate in or watch reality-based programs. Hence, the small screen becomes the magic wand that turns quotidian life into mass-appealing events. In defending La sposa perfetta from the attacks it received, Antonio Marano, the director of RAI 2, pleads,
From this perspective, then, La sposa perfetta embodies the characteristics of therapeutic discourse that are often identified as key to talk show formats (White, 1992). Indeed, Marano’s support of the program seems to suggest a potential for audience identification but also a possibility of their finding solutions to personal problems. This strategy has been successfully adopted by talk shows with their emphasis on crises, discourse, and relations. As Peck points out in her research on Oprah Winfrey and Sally Jessy Raphael,
In this respect, it is not surprising that a substantial part of La sposa perfetta relies on the conversations and discussions carried on live in the studio. The discursive interaction between mothers-in-law and brides, or between these women and the invited guests, provides the ideological stage upon which all relational problems and familial contentions are laid out. To achieve the therapeutic effect frequent on daytime television, La sposa perfetta straddles a line between the reality format and the talk show genre. In fact, the regular viewer of reality shows might be astonished at the amount of time each episode spends on live discussion among the female participants. The program places a strong emphasis on intergenerational conversations. This interaction, the producers argue, allows for more disagreements and verbal fights and consequently provides more appeal for the audiences in the studio and at home. While these moments certainly function to guarantee sustained interest and higher ratings, I suggest that they also embrace a more complex goal: the creation of a primetime environment where women are the protagonists and their voices are audible. Yet, as my analysis indicates, this seemingly empowering center-stage position of women in La sposa perfetta conceals more nuanced gendered patterns and reinforces the patriarchal framework of Italian society in the 21st century.
As Hall and others have argued, the media are instrumental in creating a semblance of vital needs and pivotal interest, and they do so through a metonymic extension of elites' interests to the whole of society (Hall, 1979). Thus, mainstream media are used as selecting tools to shape the realities central to the maintenance of hegemonic positions in society:
The kind of consensus that is necessary for the continuation of hegemonic relations “must be perpetually re-created and resecured.” (Peck, 1995: 59)
This constant process becomes even more apparent in counter-hegemonic contexts, where subordinate groups have challenged dominant positions. Italy has witnessed mild resistance and opposition by feminist and leftist groups, which has resulted in overt acts of censorship , on the one hand, and more subtle re-definitions of the feminine "sphere of competence," on the other. The case of La sposa perfetta is a clear example of how the media’s ideological work exploits the popularity of reality formats to re-inscribe dominant values and morals.
As mentioned earlier, La sposa perfetta revolves around women. Women are the contestants as well as the judges in this competition, and it is their decision that determines the characteristics of the televisual "perfect bride." Thus, most episodes of the program focus on women’s discussions in the studio and in the house. Here, younger and older women debate their relation to the male contestants, their emphasis on familial values, and their skills in household chores. In the third episode, for instance, the week’s events edited for the audience highlight the inevitable tensions in the house between a group of mothers and a few brides: the diatribe centers on cooking habits, cleaning patterns, and gossiping. The emphasis on these participants is then pursued in the studio, where one young woman is put on the spot and made the focus of the mothers' (and audience's) attention. Fernanda, a 23 year-old from Turin, is asked to sit alone in the center of the stage, where her role is to reply to the criticisms she receives from the mothers-in-law because of her behavior in the house. This section of the program is absolutely dominated by female discourse and feminine interests. The male contestants, for whom all this is happening, sit in complete silence by their mothers' side. This element is particularly striking on mainstream Italian television, usually dominated by men’s discourse on primetime. A further element of ostensible female empowerment comes from the decision-making procedure: as stated above, it is the mothers' role to choose or eliminate the brides-to-be. However, this is only an "apparently" empowering tool. A closer look at the dynamics of the program reveals the superficiality of these strategies and connects "real" power to the men (in the studio and at home).
The second part of the weekly program usually features the three brides who have received the lowest scores from the mothers. Emphasis is placed on the reasons behind these choices and the young women’s reactions at facing elimination and their last pleas to be rescued. A final round of decisions has the mothers select one among the three contestants as the person who should be evicted from the house. Yet, in a surprising turn of events and after much discussion in the studio and in the house, the mothers' decision is not ultimate and can be reversed. The final, non-deferrable power to approve or reject the elimination is bestowed upon the bridegrooms, who, until this moment, have sat silently, smiling or nodding innocently. At this important juncture one man is allowed to speak up and share his verdict of the young woman.
The choice of the male contestant here is the result of a convoluted competition that seems only to serve the purpose of reinstating dominant patterns around gender roles. In episode 3, for example, the male contestants, who are aptly nicknamed “James Bond,” compete against each other to find a golden ticket hidden at the top of a dam. Their transportation — lifted from a helicopter to a raft — and their attire — an elegant tuxedo — are reminiscent of the Ian Fleming hero, ready to face any kind of obstacles to achieve his goals. In this case, the goal is the possibility to rescue a young woman, who might not embody the perfect ideal of spouse.
Hence, the physical strength and dexterity traditionally attached to masculinity in Italian society turn out to be decisive tools in the selection process. After all, the mothers-in-law’s decision might be easily overturned by one man’s position. What is noticeable here is that, despite their lengthy arguments and thorough examinations, all the women’s judgments do not bear the same weight as one young man’s determination. The seemingly empowering position of women throughout most of the episode is negated at the conclusion. Despite their silent demeanor in the studio, the male contestants still have power over the show, over their lives, and over the audience’s attention. The show's seeming emphasis on female proactive behaviors unveils a more deeply seated desire to re-secure clear gender boundaries that do not challenge dominant positions in society.
In La sposa perfetta the media’s ideological work to reinforce consensus is achieved also through the voyeuristic lens that frames women’s interactions. In the studio, the women of both generations are subjected to the pungent comments of the guests, who, in their position as "experts," evaluate the women's performances and help the audience make sense of erratic behaviors. Relations are made clear and visible for us, and our understanding is filtered through the guests' viewpoint. Thus, the viewer becomes aware of a mother's obsessive insistence on choosing a bride who behaves like herself and embodies the same qualities. Similarly, a young woman’s decision to engage in a relation with a male contestant is explained to us (and justified) by the guests, who seem endowed with a deeper knowledge of human relations. While the women are offered ample space to express their views and concerns, their statements are constantly re-interpreted and contextualized for the audience in a move that ultimately second-guesses and devalues the reliability of women’s opinions. The patronizing attitude of most guests' comments conforms to the gendered relations that are typically found on mainstream Italian television: these relations are structured along a patriarchal axis that connotes women’s discourse as less meritorious (Ardizzoni, 2007).
An infantilizing attitude towards women’s positions is reiterated by the program’s constant focus on the rivalries between the women’s groups. In fact, both the live discussions and the edited segments emphasize a lack of harmony among the women, who tend to form small cliques and compete for each other’s attention and favors. As mentioned earlier, the live discussion physically and ideologically places women of different generations at the two extremes. Here, age differences as well as a different relation to the bridegroom provide a pretext to feature women in contentious situations and highlight the fragmentation of these groups. The same approach is adopted also in the weekly montage that foregrounds the most salient moments of co-existence in the house.
Week after week, female interactions are characterized by verbal disputes, even among women belonging to the same generational group. In episode four, for instance, the emphasis is on Mamma Teresa, who tries to console Aida after Aida has been mistreated by her own son. While the mother is in the courtyard hugging a sobbing Aida, the other older women peep from the kitchen window. This infuriates Mamma Teresa, who comments sarcastically on their gossiping and abruptly leaves the courtyard. This apparently insignificant episode is given more importance in the edited segment (which focuses entirely on this interaction) and the live program, where the contestants are asked to comment on what happened. As evidenced here, divisions within the women’s group is perceived as one of the strengths of the program and is consequently highlighted every week. Indeed, the site www.perfectbride.tv lists “fights between brides and mothers-in-law” as one of the program's interesting features, something that could attract women and men alike.
The rivalries among women are particularly striking when juxtaposed to the obvious harmony governing the men’s abode. The clips of the male contestants focus mostly on the playfulness of "boys who refuse to grow up" and emphasize their agreement and collaboration on a variety of issues (from sports to relationships and cooking). Thus, while the women are often featured in somber, preoccupied moods, the men seem cheerful and content, knowing all too well that they will be the "winners" regardless of the final results. It is my argument that the representation of women as ultimately divided and fragmented reinforces the dominant position of men in the show and re-instates a deeply masculine and patriarchal understanding of gender relations and societal norms. These traditional views are never questioned or challenged in the program and work to establish patriarchy as the only perspective within which to frame marriage Italian-style.
In the past decade, reality formats have become one of the most popular genres in the transnational television industry. Their success must be inevitably connected to their easy adaptability and their adaptation to national and local notions of culture and identity. Hence, rather than promoting a more global Weltanschauung, these programs are strategically used to strengthen a cemented vision of identity. In the case of Italian television, La sposa perfetta proved to be a successful tool to re-draw the boundaries of orthodox marriage and heterosexual relations in a country that had recently witnessed heated debates on gay marriage, abortion, and women’s rights. In this sense, the choice to air the program on public television should not be surprising: the public-service role of RAI has been here redefined to exclude inconvenient views and promote more traditional (and Catholic) lifestyles. As a result of this, what could be a Habermasian public sphere is reconceptualized to address only mainstream, patriarchal attitudes. In La sposa perfetta the use of the globally celebrated reality format seems to be an ingenious strategy to conceal more problematic notions of gender, identity, and nationality.