Italy’s Other Women

Gender and Prostitution in Italian Cinema, 1940–1965

by Danielle Hipkins (Author)
Monographs XVI, 454 Pages
Series: Italian Modernities, Volume 25


In the period 1940 to 1965 the female prostitute featured in at least ten per cent of all Italian-made films, but she cast her shadow over many more. With reference to the changing social and film industrial context, this book explains why the figure of the female prostitute was so prevalent in Italian cinema of this period and offers a new account of her on-screen presence. It shows that the prostitutes that populate Italian cinema are much more than simply 'tarts with hearts' or martyr figures. Via the constant reworking of the prostitute trope across genres, the figure takes us to the heart of many ideological contradictions in postwar Italian cinema and society: these include the entanglement of rhetoric about political truth with the suppression of postwar guilt and shame, fears about racial contamination, and a preoccupation with non-normative forms of masculine behaviour and desire. The book also shows how the female prostitute is important to Italian national cinema as a 'borderline identity', used to establish, but also destabilize, the hegemony of respectable femininities. It is precisely through her borderline condition, this book argues, that the prostitute 'haunts' gender, sometimes policing it, but more often than not problematizing its very construction.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Illustrations
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Part I Making Italians, Undoing Women: Getting Over the War
  • Introduction to Part I
  • 1. Ghosts of Prostitutes Past: Cinema and the Prostitute during World War II
  • 2. Worry About the Girl: Whitewashing Italy After the War
  • 3. The New Nation’s ‘Others’: Women with Money, Race and the South
  • Part II New Readings of Doubled Women in 1950s Cinema
  • Introduction to Part II
  • 4. Multiplication Anxiety: Contests and Falling Women
  • 5. ‘The Brothel Series’: Activating Female Gazes
  • 6. Marriage and Misrecognition: The Prostitute in Comedy of the 1950s
  • Part III From Sultans to Kept Men: Beyond the Merlin Law
  • Introduction to Part III
  • 7. The Fantasy Harem: The Battle of the Sexes in Italian Film Comedy of the Early to Mid-1960s
  • 8. Clients and Lovers: Guilt, Shame and Pleasure
  • 9. From Protectors to Kept Men: Masculinity and Melancholia
  • Afterword
  • Appendix: List of Italian Films Featuring Prostitutes, 1945–1965
  • Filmography
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series Index

← vi | vii →


← xii | xiii →


I would like to begin by thanking the publishers and editors of this book, Robert Gordon in particular, who have patiently supported this project over a long period of time.

The project would not have been possible without support from funding bodies, namely a BA small research grant and AHRC-funded study leave. I was also helped by study leave from the institutions in which I have worked on this project, the Universities of Leeds and Exeter, and I am grateful to Loyola Marymount University, LA, where a Visiting Professorship enabled me to complete the bulk of the writing. Other universities have also helped me to develop this work, particularly by inviting me to speak on the topic: Bangor, Bristol, Leeds, Manchester, Miami (Ohio), Ohio State University, Oregon, Reading, Sunderland and UCLA.

My colleagues at Leeds and Exeter have made it possible to work in a supportive research environment, where amongst many I have had particular help from Emma Cayley, Sonia Cunico, Mark Davie, Alice Farris, Sally Faulkner, Francesco Goglia, Fiona Handyside, Helen Hanson, Jenny Hickman, Will Higbee, Katharine Hodgson, Claire Honess, Song Hwee Lim, Angelo Mangini, Fabrizio Nevola, Peter O’Rourke, Luciano Parisi, Chloe Paver, Brian Richardson, Ricarda Schmidt, Ingrid Sharp, Stuart Taberner, Nela Vlaisavljevic-Kapelan and Michael Wykes. Postgraduate and undergraduate students have encouraged me with good ideas and enthusiasm; they are too many to name individually here, but particular thanks to Sophie Britton for her assistance with research tasks.

In Italy, I have been helped by a range of institutions, in particular by very patient staff at the Cineteca of the Centro sperimentale, Valentina Abbatecola and Viridiana Rotondi, and by Umberta Brazzini at the mediateca in Florence, and by the Cineteca Griffith in Genoa. In Bologna I have always been warmly received and assisted by the staff of the Cineteca there, particularly Valeria Dalle Donne, and at the Archiginnasio, where ← xiii | xiv → Patrizia Mattioli was very kind. I was also assisted by the UCLA film and television archive in Los Angeles.

Primarily the experience of this book project has been lit up by the imagination, scholarship and unfailing support of the colleagues I have had the great fortune to encounter along the way. I would like to thank all the editors and readers of my existing work that has touched upon this theme, including Fiona Handyside, Giovanna Maina, Penny Morris, Alan O’Leary, Catherine O’Rawe, Roger Pitt, Gill Plain, Simona Storchi, Kate Taylor-Jones, and Federico Zecca. In particular I am grateful for the opportunity to include here work that has already appeared in the following publications: ‘Between Renegotiation Tactics and Failed Revolutions: Italian Brothel Films of 1959–1960, the Public/Private Binary and Gendered Address’ in Simona Storchi, ed., Public and Private Spaces in Italian Culture (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2013) and ‘The Fantasy Harem: Prostitution and the Battle of the Sexes in Italian Film Comedy of the Early to Mid-1960s’, Cinergie, 5 March 2014.

Through my work on gender and prostitution I have been lucky to encounter many academics in this field, whose work has influenced this study, including Vicky Ball, Alice Bardan, Russell Campbell, Katie Johnson, Teresa Ludden, and Aparna Sharma. I thank them and all those colleagues who attended workshops and conferences I have co-organized on this theme, particularly my co-organizers Gill Plain and Kate Taylor-Jones.

Colleagues within Italian Studies are due particular thanks for reading, discussing and encouraging my work, and above all for inspiring me with their own writing. These include Louis Bayman, Réka Buckley, Derek Duncan, Natalie Fullwood, Ruth Glynn, Robert Gordon, Tom Harrison, Kate Mitchell, Paolo Noto, Alan O’Leary, Dana Renga, Sergio Rigoletto, Pauline Small, Daniela Treveri-Gennari, and Mary Wood. Two colleagues in particular, however, have been instrumental in my finishing this project. Aine O’Healy supported me with a steady supply of references, encouragement, and the opportunity to spend time in sunny LA. Catherine O’Rawe has provided invaluable ideas, dialogue and unerring support, particularly in her insightful readings of my work. I could not have written this book without them. ← xiv | xv →

I am lucky to be able to consider many of my colleagues as friends, but outside academia generous friends and family in the UK, Italy and the US have also helped me to bring this project to completion. Thank you for being patient with what must seem a strange pursuit. Heartfelt thanks, above all, to John whose practical support and love keep me grounded. Finally, I dedicate this book to my parents, Michael and Pauline, and my brothers, Dominic and Simon, who have all inspired and shared my love of stories and images. ← xv | xvi →

← xvi | 1 →


The Prostitute on the Italian Screen: Between Stereotype and Context

Writing about the prostitute figure, Nadia (Annie Girardot) in Visconti’s Rocco e i suoi fratelli [Rocco and His Brothers] (Visconti, 1960), P. Adams Sitney declares that ‘she is perhaps the most fully articulated instance in Italian cinema of the enduring icon of the good prostitute. With the intensification of the debate which finally led to the closing of the brothels in 1958, this figure flourished in major Italian films: Le notti di Cabiria [The Nights of Cabiria] (1957), Il grido (1959), La dolce vita (1960), Accattone (1961)’.1 Adams Sitney’s reference reflects the standard manner in which the figure has been treated to date, as a passing cliché, barely worth comment, and only within the auteurist canon. My project on the female prostitute in Italian cinema began with a conviction that Nadia was more than merely a stock figure, and my work on her disruptive role within the film led me to believe that the prostitute might have a more interesting function in Italian cinema more broadly.2 In the period 1940 to 1965, as the appendix to this book demonstrates, the prostitute herself appeared on average in at least 8 per cent of all Italian-made films, but her shadow fell over many more.

This book uses the prostitute’s appearance on screen to reveal the crucial entanglement of cinema and gender construction in a period when cinema-going was the most popular leisure activity in Italy. With ← 1 | 2 → reference to the changing social and film industrial context, I explain why the figure of the female prostitute is so prevalent in Italian cinema between 1940 and 1965, and I offer a new account of her presence in that cinema. Contemporary and subsequent accounts of the Italian film-making industry tend to dismiss the figure, implying that the prostitute was regarded as the object of ‘spettacolarizzazione’ par excellence, but this has eclipsed our reading of her as subject to shifts in genre, authorship and address. In Richard Dyer’s words, ‘a stereotype can be complex, varied, intense and contradictory’.3 The prostitutes that populate Italian cinema are much more than simply ‘tarts with hearts’ or martyr figures. Indeed, the female prostitute allows us to produce a more nuanced reading of the relationship between cinema and gender in postwar Italy.

Whilst the prostitute on the Italian screen has largely been neglected, or rather too summarily dismissed as an obvious and facile symbol by some film critics and historians, I am not the first to approach this question. Although critics with a feminist background do not fail to reference her, and she attracts attention in some auteur-based studies,4 Kirsten Mörchen has been the only one to dedicate a book to the study of the prostitute in Italian cinema.5 Her study takes a different timeframe to mine, moving from the 1950s to the present day, and inevitably focuses on a handful of canonical films well-known for their representation of the prostitute. My focus on a narrower timeframe and a wider corpus enables me to use the figure to highlight the neglected relationship between gender and broader questions of genre in the most productive period of Italian film-making. Within this timeframe, there is also useful existing work from which to start. Sandro Bellassai’s excellent book recounts the history of ← 2 | 3 → the debate about the crucial Legge Merlin or Merlin Law, which saw the closure of state-run brothels in 1958. Bellassai states that in the late 1950s, in the lead up to the law: ‘Il cinema svolge talvolta, in questo periodo, un’azione di denuncia di tali aspetti odiosi delle norme e della prassi amministrativa’ [Cinema of this period sometimes denounced hateful aspects of administrative laws and practices].6 He provides a useful starting point for a neglected history of gender-related films of ‘denuncia’ or protest, but he does not take into account the ways in which fantasy, star identity, genre and audience address mediate the representation of gender across very different films, moderating the transmission of a political message. Furthermore, looking for a rather narrow mapping of the brothel crisis onto the screen, leads to the neglect of the prostitute’s role in foregrounding other areas of crisis: around class, gender and national identity. Nonetheless Bellassai’s work provides essential evidence for understanding the specific discursive place of the prostitute in Italian society of the time, showing that ‘il dibattito sul progetto di legge abolizionista costituisce […] il contesto discursivo imprescindibile entro il quale assumono in questi anni significato le varie rappresentazioni della prostituta’ [the debate about the proposal for abolitionist law […] constitutes the discursive context within which the various representations of the prostitute acquire significance].7


XVI, 454
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (August)
Prostitution, Prostitute, Gender, Women, Cinema, Film, Italy, Italian
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2016. XVI, 454 pp., 51 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Danielle Hipkins (Author)

Danielle Hipkins is Associate Professor of Italian Studies and Film at the University of Exeter. She has published widely on gender and postwar Italian culture. With colleagues at Bristol and Oxford Brookes, she is currently working on the Italian Cinema Audiences project, a collaborative study of cinema-going in Italy in the 1950s. She is co-editing the book New Takes on Fallen Women: Prostitution and Sex Work in Global Visual Media (forthcoming), as well as developing a new project about girls, postfeminism and contemporary European cinema.


Title: Italy’s Other Women
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
472 pages