2009, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 51, spring 2009
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:
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. 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 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" 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. 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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
“To be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men” (1973: 46).
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,
"One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of women in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight."(1973: 47)
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.
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:
“What muck this is! If we are talking about a game to amuse the easy-going masses, it bears saying that state television really needs to put a limit to the rubbish, the vulgarity, the lies, the rudeness, and the denial of social changes that happened 50 years ago.” (2007)
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,
"In a country where it is normal for unmarried men to live with their parents into their 30s and 'mamma mia!' is a common exclamation, the Italian mother figure is revered by society but often feared by girlfriends and wives."
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,
“In Italy, it’s harder than it looks to trash reality tv.”
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,
“[The show] brings to the light of day relationships that are eternal. You can joke about it, but we are talking about problems of behavior that many people live with.” (Quoted in Povoledo, 2007)
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,
“These programs are fueled by social tensions that originate 'outside' the shows, but are imported 'inside' where they become the conditions of the talk and the site of ideological labor. This sets in motion the programs' internal contradiction: they address social conflicts that can never be fully resolved on television, while holding out the possibility that talking will lead to, or is itself a form of, resolution.” (1995: 59)
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 media circulate 'definitions of reality' that are 'favorable to the dominant class fractions' which come to constitute the 'lived reality' of the subordinate classes as well.” (Hall quoted in Peck, 1995: 58)
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.
3. For instance, the purpose of the program is summarized as follows: “To show 'Bride vs. Mother-in-Law' competition to the millions, which theme has not been mentioned in any competition program until today, and to witness a great competition by disclosing the war full of intrigues lasting for centuries in every detail.”
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