Thursday, August 27, 2009

A secretary is not a toy

Today's NYT has an op-ed by Chiara Volpato (professor of social psychology at the University of Milan) complaining about the outrageously sexist behavior of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. I know what you're thinking: if Italian women didn't like being sexually harrassed, why were they born in Italy? For real, though, this woman has a point. She has also won the award for the most wonderful sentence in today's Times -- part of a list of Berlusconi's recent exploits:
He designated a former model with whom he had publicly flirted to be Minister of Equal Opportunities.
Isn't that just too perfect? It's almost hard to be mad at the guy. It reminds me of how the upper management on Are You Being Served? always surrounded themselves with comically busty young ladies who serviced them as "secretaries" and "nurses." Minister of Equal Opportunities. I love it. (If you want an even more obscure British comedy reference, it's like in Yellowbeard when they're introducing the officers on the ship, and one of them is a shapely young woman with a very unconvincing false mustache whom they call "Mr. Prostitute". This is both hilarious and historically accurate.)

The other thing that makes it hard for Volpato to get her point across is the stiff English -- it's perfectly fluent, but it has that unmistakable nonnative feel. I'm actually rather fascinated by it, because when I try to pick out a particularly awkward sentence, I have trouble explaining just exactly why it doesn't work. It's all grammatical, but it just doesn't sound right.
At the same time, the sexism portrayed on TV reinforces chauvinistic ideas among the culturally weakest parts of the population. Researchers who study female body objectification need only look to Italy to witness the sad consequences of this phenomenon.
See? It's just... not right. Also not-quite right: the graphic that accompanies this piece. The clawlike lady's hand reaching up out of -- a plate of spaghetti? Aren't we trying to defeat Italian-culture stereotypes here? And why does that hand look like something from a horror movie? When I was a kid I read an illustrated version of the R.D. Blackamore novel Lorna Doone just because it had an illustration much like that one near the end. It looked really gruesome and cool. (Someone dies in a marshy fen, I think, suffocated by mud.) It makes me curious about this opinion piece, too, but in a different way. I think it may be an op-ed-art misfire.

P.S. Jason Linkins at Eat the Press had a similar reaction.

1 comment:

Sam Kaufman said...

Berlusconi doesn't seem to understand the concept of being 'P.C.' which is strange since he's a politician