JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Homepage of the show’s web site. Visitors can view trailers of the Italian, Turkish, and Middle-Eastern versions.The site lists the program's interesting features: mother-son conflicts, fights between brides and mothers-in-law; competition between girls; family interference.

The Italian site of “La Sposa Perfetta”presents biographical sketches of all the contestants, photos of the villa where they reside during the competition, and a daily journal of behind-the-scenes events.

Mothers and sons are featured together – as a couple – in the online bios.

The online forum allows viewers to take an active part in the decision-making process of choosing the perfect bride.

Viewers are invited to vote out one of the mothers-in-law.

The opening credits of the program feature the title ‘La sposa perfetta’ with a black-and-white image reminiscent of the 1950s classical bride.

In the studio, mothers-in-law (on the right) and brides (on the left) face each other. The two sets of women are visually separated by the gigantic screen that allows the grooms-to-be to peep in the conversations.

Mothers-in-law enter the studio at the beginning of the program.

One of the brides makes a longer, more sensual entrance through a spiral staircase.

Mother and son arrive on stage holding hands, thus visually reinforcing their strong relationship.

Mother and son discuss relationships while sitting on a red, heart-shaped sofa.

Before breaking for commercials, audiences are reminded of the three main character types in this format: a cheerful, naïve-looking son; a stern, conservative mother; and a cunning young bride.

Brides-to-be look on as the judges discuss their behaviors.

One of the sons is featured as the Latin lover, who is allowed to engage in more than one relationship at the same time.

During their free time at the villa, the sons take walks in the garden while wearing only their underwear.

The program’s host (at the center) reads a list of daily chores that the brides must complete: ironing, cooking, washing, cleaning, and other household tasks.

 

 

Global formats, gender and identity:
the search for The Perfect Bride
on Italian television

by Michela Ardizzoni

"Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one."Albert Einstein

Since the popularity of MTV’s The Real World in the early 1990s, reality television has been the focus of scholarly attention. This genre had been in existence for a few decades but revamped and reinvented at the turn of the 21st century. Academic research has provided working definitions for the newly popular genre and related it to the televisual flows and audiences' appeal for voyeuristic simulacra of reality (Murray and Ouellette, 2004; Andrejevic, 2002; Lewis, 2004). Several critical studies published in the early 2000s reflect a sense of urgency in examining this as a transient phenomenon that might fade away any time soon in the chaotic and overly populated television market. Yet, sixteen years have passed since the first season of The Real World, and reality formats are still prospering on U.S. television and small screens worldwide. What began as one of the many ephemeral trends in the television industry has now become a staple genre of many public and private networks, which rely on its adaptability, low costs, and an international industry circulating globalized media formats that feeds a constant demand for novelty.

In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, television industries in various countries were facing a changing economic landscape, characterized by a growing number of networks, more fragmented audience, emergence of recording devices (first the VCR, then TiVo), and increased competition for advertising revenues (Raphael, 1997). In this period, television distributors vied for smaller advertising shares and had larger debts. At the same time, producers witnessed a tremendous increase in production costs, due principally to the prominence of the star system for the above-the-line labor (Raphael, 1997). In this context, reality TV emerged mainly as a financial survival mechanism for the deregulated television industry (Murray and Ouellette, 2004). The new format had low production costs and could survive independently of unionized writing and acting talent. In addition the format was popular, and reality TV was initially celebrated as a new public forum, where common folks could take center stage and audiences could experience a new, mediated kind of reality. Also, the semi-scripted nature of most reality-based programs allowed for their adaptability to be edited around commercial breaks and to insert advertising in the body of the program. This economic strategy was further enhanced by the possibility of expanding a program's reach beyond the television box to a variety of other media, such as Internet sites, text messaging, YouTube, social networks, etc.. These extensions of content offered viewers' more active participation and allowed reality television to maintain audience interest long after the end of each televised program. Furthermore, “[t]he fusion of popular entertainment with a self-conscious claim to the discourse of the real,” as Murray and Ouellette argue, is what has made reality television an important and, in some ways, innovative forum to discuss cultural and representational issues (1997: 2).

The claim to reality, promoted as the main appeal of this new format, has urged critics to compare it to the much older format of the television documentary. Both genres use similar shooting techniques and video technology, yet they fundamentally differ in their objectives. While reality television is imbued with clear entertainment and commercial values, documentaries aim to fulfill informative (and, perhaps, educational) purposes. In this respect,

“mobilizing a 'discourse of sobriety,' documentaries reference established traditions of ethical and political mandates for their own form. Although observational documentaries tend to concentrate on the mundane, everyday, and personal – and as a result, can appear just as obsessed with the intimate as reality TV – they are seen by many viewers and critics as doing this for the greater good of the subject, viewer, and society at large.” (Murray, 2004: 43).

In this way critics often juxtapose the "social weight" of documentaries against the frivolous and commercial nature of reality television. However, other critics encourage us also to pay attention to the various ways in which reality TV challenges mainstream stereotypes on gender, race, and sexuality and offers alternative avenues for the re-negotiation of social variables (Kraszewski, 2004).

I am particularly interested in looking at reality programming within the context of Italian television, which seems to exemplify the transnational fervor for this genre. Indeed, between 2001 and 2007, thirty-two reality formats were featured on television in Italy, with several formats running for more than one season (Il Grande Fratello – 8 seasons; L’Isola dei Famosi – 5 seasons; etc.). Two main elements stand out in this context:

  • first, there are surprising number of reality formats in a fairly small and highly concentrated television industry (with three public service channels and four private channels);
  • second, there is an almost even distribution of reality formats between the public network RAI (carrying fourteen programs) and its commercial counterpart Mediaset (with seventeen programs).[1] [open endnotes in new window]

The latter aspect is worth paying attention to as it bespeaks a complex convergence of public and private media content and a kind of competition that can only be played by the rules of commercial television.

Since its debut in the Italian market in the 1980s, the private network Mediaset, owned by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, has functioned as a counterpoise to the public broadcaster RAI. With the same number of channels (three for each) and the same target audience during primetime, for the past twenty-five years Mediaset and RAI have developed side by side (Ardizzoni, 2007). As the data about reality formats show, this parallel progression has often resulted in the commercialization of public television and the increasing weakening of a public service sector, heavily penalized by commercial dictates and globalization forces.[2] In this respect, institutional (and commercial) support for reality formats in the three RAI channels has often been perceived as signaling RAI's fall from grace and disdain toward carrying more dignified programming, and ultimately as indicating that public television is no longer interested in serving the public sphere.

For a brief moment in April 2007, the Italian television industry seemed to be taking a new, contentious direction when RAI’s President Claudio Petruccioli expressed his opposition to reality television and promised that the format would no longer be a staple in RAI’s programming. In his words,

“Reality TV shows put people into environments that are both unrealistic and coercive. And what inevitably results is unjustified and degrading behaviour. I don't believe they are the type of shows the majority of our viewers expect or want from a public service broadcaster.” (Quoted in Fraser, 2007).

However, Petruccioli’s motion for banning reality programming from RAI was rejected by the RAI administrative board, when reality producers threatened to go to Mediaset instead. Clearly the financial and economic stakes were too high for RAI and the possibility of losing large revenues seemed too daunting, even if the network’s public service goals would be strongly undermined. Thus in spring 2007, despite RAI’s resolution to choose reality programs that sustained a certain level of educational and civic value, the second public channel aired the first (and only) season of a format that challenged boundaries of decency in order to re-inscribe traditional social patterns. This was the program La sposa perfetta (literally, "The Perfect Bride"). The program introduced to Italy a new format from Turkey, in which

“a cabal of mothers set about the task of choosing the perfect bride for their spoiled and complaisant sons.” (Popham, 2007)

The structure of this program and more general ideological discourse in which the program prospered reveal important issues about global television formats.  Here I will use the example of La sposa perfetta to examine how the global nature of reality formats is ultimately redefined by the overwhelmingly local nature of national and regional cultures. In particular, with the analysis of this program I wish to analyze the extent to which global formats can become trendy, appealing mechanisms for maintaining normative gender behaviors and patriarchal narratives of identity. As Waisbord claims,

“Contemporary television is a Janus-faced industry that in the name of profitability needs to commodify real and imagined nations while being open to global flows of ideas and money. The global circulation of formats responds to programming strategies to bridge transnational economic interests and national sentiments of belonging.” (2004: 10-11)

Origins of the format

The Turkish format for The Perfect Bride was created by Lutfi Murat Uckardesler and promoted by the British Global Agency Ltd. Very little information about the creator or the agency is currently available in English, with the exception of the promo web site www.perfectbride.tv. Upon entering that site, the visitor is welcomed by an introductory flash animation that sets the tone for the content of the page. Here, a white, red-haired, young bride, wearing a traditional white wedding dress and a tiara, is framed by a fuchsia Arabesque design. The title Perfect Bride appears at the bottom of the screen, and two wedding rings are used as visual connectors between the two words. The bride-to-be appears innocent, malleable, and acquiescent, with her head tilted to the side, a pale smile on her lips, and her hands gently resting on her hips. The bride idealized in this image is romantically feminine and purposefully aligned with traditional heteronormativity. This overall impression is confirmed once the visitor is allowed into the content area of the site. Here, the reader finds the narrative description of the program:

“Every little girl dreams of getting married, finding the man of her dreams, moving in together, meeting the parents, the unforgettable proposal …What if the order gets mixed up? A first in television, here comes a new show where the mother-in-law is the one proposing … to the bride … the Perfect Bride.”

This text is framed on the left by the opening image of the bride and on the right by static visuals about the program's popularity (the words, “rating record, ” appear in one frame and below that “71.7% rating share”). The site's home page incorporates the binary of commerce and sentimentality that Waisbord mentions. On the one hand, a sense of cultural belonging is reinforced by the use of the word "every," which attempts to standardize views of heterosexual love and connect them indissolubly to marriage. On the other hand, economic profits are guaranteed by the graphic on the right, which uses "hard numbers" to convey a sense of scientific reliability and potential profitability to advertisers.

Throughout the site, awkward linguistic choices[3] reveal a non-native use of English, a frequently found within global television formats. As Moran and Keane examine the cultural power of the international formats industry, in the past three decades English has become a global "medialect"[4] used at festivals, fairs, and in transnational transactions. The choice of English as (what Collins calls) "the language of advantage" reveals the extent to which global television formats are nowadays reflective of more complex capitalist and Anglo-centered forces:

"[A]lthough formats appear to be culturally and linguistically neutral and highly malleable, such that this kind of template can be adapted to another market with consequent adjustments in relation to matters of culture, customs, history, religion and language, such formats are not, however, culturally and linguistically innocent, single, isolated, standalone entities. Rather, they are complexly structured entities already embedded and shaped by particular contexts…" (Moran and Keane, 2006: 82)

In The Perfect Bride Internet site, the use of English indicates that the producers have a marketing strategy in line with the industry's Anglo-centric tendencies. Yet, other issues around cultural capital are also embedded in this linguistic choice. As Giddens (1984) and Bourdieu (1977) remind us, all social practices involve both a passive and an active component. In this case study of a Turkish program being adapted for Italian television we see both indications of the institutionalized use of English within the global television industry and the symbolically proactive entrance of Turkey into the international media market. Geographically and culturally located between East and West, Turkey is undergoing serious internal and external scrutiny in relation to its request to enter the European Union.[5] So in the case of this program, the use of English as a global medialect and Turkey's embracing reality television as a (predominantly) Western format invest The Perfect Bride with the necessary cultural capital to penetrate the porous borders of the European Union via Italy.

Before reaching Italian shores, The Perfect Bride found success in the Arab world. The Lebanese adaptation was broadcast on the popular private channel LBC and featured contestants from the entire Arab region. In this case, the transnational nature of the contest easily elicited from viewers nostalgic reflections on local identities and nationalistic reactions. As in the case of other reality-based shows broadcast on LBC, the decision to keep the original English title appealed to both local and international Arab audiences, who seem very comfortable with the Anglo-centric focus of these shows. Yet, unlike other programs that target primarily young audiences with some knowledge of English, The Perfect Bride’s focus on family relations provides entertainment for older generations as well. Hence, the need to combine the hip English title with the Arabic subtitle Qesma wa nasib (literally, "Sharing and what you deserve"). Here, the Arabic titling is deliberately vague and open to interpretation: depending on the subject, the "object" to be shared can be the bride or the son.

The export of this format to both Italy and the Middle East confirms that cultural proximity helps guarantee the transnational success of television formats. As argued by Straubhaar (1991), global formats find better acceptance in social contexts that are culturally similar, though not necessarily part of the same geographic region. Multiple studies have thus illustrated cases of television series and reality formats that have traveled to culturally proximate countries:

  • LaPastina and Straubhaar’s research on telenovelas (2005);
  • Trepte’s (2003) comparative overview of European countries;
  • Burch’s (2002) study of Indian soaps in Nepal.

The crossover of The Perfect Bride can be understood in similar terms. Although Turkey, Lebanon, and Italy have quite distinct political and religious realities, these countries have social patterns that conform to similar moral and familial values. These societies share a view of "family" as the essential unit of social life, and "marriage" becomes the focal point of convergence between the individual and the group, the "I" and the "We," the bridegroom and his family.

The Perfect Bride in Italy

Family life — in all its complex variety — is provides the element of novelty in this reality show. As the description of La sposa perfetta points out,

“The set for the program is family life. In this context, there is no greater and funnier clash than the one between future mothers-in-law and brides.”

Unlike previous programs in which participants performed in individual competitions, La sposa perfetta exploits societal fascination with the classical Italian family, a trope that has proven extremely successful in other genres – from cinema to television dramas to game shows. In considering family structure, at this point I need to discuss briefly a special bond that characterizes mother-son relations in Italian culture. Often defined as a culture of "mamma’s boys," Italy is rated as one of the countries with the highest percentage of adult males living with their parents: 85% of men between the ages of 18-33 live in their parents' household (Manacorda and Moretti, 2005). Several studies have investigated the possible reasons behind this trend and they generally concur that a combination of economic and cultural factors is at play here. Increasing unemployment rates and lack of entitlement to unemployment benefits convince many young adults that living with their parents is the only viable solution until a more stable job opportunity presents itself. Yet, this economic explanation has recently been challenged by Manacorda and Moretti, who claim,

“An important and neglected factor explaining these remarkably high rates of co-residence is that Italian parents like having their children around and are willing to 'bribe' them into cohabitation in exchange for some monetary transfers. Italian parents benefit from the companionship and other services their children provide, and most importantly, from the opportunity they have to get their children to 'conform' to their precepts when they live together” (2005).

The emotional attachment that derives from this long period of co-residence is particularly evident in relations between mother and son and the indissoluble ties that bind this pair. In this context, the choice of a bride often interacts with stereotypical expectations towards the newlywed. Similarly, comparisons between the caring skills of mother and bride frame the often-conflictual relations between the two women, who vie for son/husband’s attention and affection. Within this unique socio-cultural context, a show like The Perfect Bride prospers by focusing on the intricate, bickering bonds that shape the Italian family.

Mothers await the arrival of their sons on heart-shaped sofas with heart-shaped pictures of their offspring. The heart-themed studio includes the judges’ sofas.

In the program, studio design reinforces this emphasis on blood ties, with red, heart-shaped sofas for each mother/son pair to sit on, and in bedroom decore, where a framed photograph of each mother above her son’s bed provides an ominous reminder of what matters in life. In an act of apparent "double surveillance," the future bridegrooms are subjected to both the scrutinizing eye of the television camera and the watchful, top-down look from their mothers. Yet, a further analysis of the program's visual and verbal discourse soon reveals that this narrative of matronly subjugation is only apparently explanatory. The mothers' seeming dominance is, in fact, is superficial and masks more complex patriarchal patterns that are in clear synchronicity with mainstream television flows in Italy. Before I delve into this analysis, let me first describe the main characteristics of La sposa perfetta.

The only season of the show ran in the Spring 2007 on the second public channel, RAI 2. The two-hour long, weekly program aired on primetime, while half-hour daily updates were regularly shown in the afternoons. As with most reality shows in Italy, the choice of adding quotidian recaps functions as a marketing and advertising strategy to sustain the audience’s attention through a focus on more informal intrigues in the participants' homes. Hence, these afternoon peepholes offer another (seemingly more direct) opportunity for viewers to partake in the life/love stories evolving within domestic space. Since Internet usage in Italy is still divided along generational lines, these short afternoon television programs are considered necessary tools to guarantee a continued interest in the show.

While brides-to-be compete for one man and one prize, potential grooms enjoy themselves with several Brazilian dancers. A guys’ fight over girls is stopped by an assertive mother-in-law.

The show's stated purpose is for future mothers-in-law to choose an appropriate bride for their sons. The two generations of female contestants are required to share a villa, aptly called "Villa La Suocerina" (literally, "Villa of the little mother-in-law") and to interact on a daily basis. As in other reality programs, these daily encounters present numerous occasions for sharing secrets, forming alliances, and expressing ideological, cultural and generational differences. These differences become particularly evident when the women converse about what the important characteristics of a "perfect bride" are. While the sons' desires are always put as the main priority, the mothers-in-law never cease to emphasize the importance of cooking, cleaning, and general house management skills. These are indeed the elements that shape the mothers' choices about who should be eliminated each week. In the weekly edited recaps, the mothers constantly emphasize the young women’s lack of domestic skills. In the third episode, for example, Mamma Teresa comments with frustration: “When it comes to household chores, none of these girls is really worthy.” This statement comes at the apex of a series of clips that featured the young women in distress upon trying various domestic activities (cooking, cleaning, washing clothes, etc.) and failing miserably in the mothers' eyes. Another time, when Airin, a 34-year-old contestant from Latvia, is at the stove, Mamma Rosa from Naples looks on suspiciously and interrogates her on every ingredient used for the dish. In addition, as in many other instances throughout the episodes, this interaction reveals not so-hidden views on national identity and culture. "

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